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Ken Hoffman's travel nightmares: Bush IAH construction, horrible passengers, and mask confusion

Hoffman's travel nightmares: Bush IAH, horrible passengers, no masks

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A road trip to Galveston is looking better and better. Photo by Getty Images

They say that the journey is the reward.

They say it’s not where you end up, it’s how you got there.

They say that getting there is half the fun.

They are wrong.

Getting there stopped being fun on 9/11 and the COVID pandemic has made travel an even bigger pain.   

The road to anywhere
Last week, a friend and I resumed our annual trip to someplace, anywhere. It’s a tradition we started nearly 20 years ago on a lark — a whim that stuck. Over the years, we’ve traveled to New Zealand, Russia, France, England, the Czech Republic, Germany, Austria, Turkey, Italy, Holland, and several more countries.

This year, after two years grounded by COVID, we’re Willie Nelson on the road again. We picked Paris and Brussels. I’ve heard about those French fries in Belgium.

Derailed at Bush
Here’s where my post-COVID (really still late-COVID) flight plans ran off the rails.   

I had been hearing reports of nightmare traffic around Bush-Intercontinental Airport because of construction. One person posted that it took her 45 minutes to get from a parking lot on Will Clayton to IAH. Wary of gridlock and because I was going to have to check in at the counter for an international flight, a long slow line under normal circumstances, I left my spring/summer house in West U. almost four hours early. I was not going to miss my flight.

I didn’t even catch a red light. No traffic on 610 or the Southwest Freeway or Will Clayton. Got to the parking lot, a shuttle was waiting for me, and I was at the Terminal A counter in under an hour, start to finish.

That was the end of my good fortune. Waiting for hours in Terminal A is kind of ... terminal.


Mask hysteria
I am thrifty in my hunt for airfares. The best deal I could find was on American, including a brief stopover in Dallas. I expected that few people would be wearing a mask on the flight to Dallas, there's no more federal mask mandate in the U.S. I did, however, expect all passengers and crew to be wearing a mask on the 9-hour flight from Dallas to Paris.

I don’t read the fine print on the backs of concert tickets and I certainly don’t want to know the ingredients in 90 percent of what I eat, but my understanding of mask requirements on international flights says it depends on the destination. France requires masks on all flights. That was one of the reasons I picked Paris for this year’s trip. I am fully vaxxed, I never caught COVID, and I don’t want to start now.

American Airlines' statement read: “Face masks will no longer be required for our customers and team members at U.S. airports and on domestic flights. Please note that face masks may still be required based on local ordinances, or when traveling to/from certain international locations based on country requirements.”

I understood “to/from” France to mean that masks would be required on my flight.

I’m not going to get into a medical or political screaming session, but I believe in masks and vaccination. I kind of held my breath on the short flight to Dallas, but breathed easy believing that masks would be required on the long trip to Paris.

The plane to Paris was packed, every seat occupied. I noticed that hardly anybody was wearing a mask. Not passengers, not the flight crew. An announcement said something like “it’s everybody’s personal decision whether or not to wear a mask, and we urge everybody to be respectful of other passengers’ choices.” It was the same message from the flight Houston to Dallas. 

Here’s the thing. My friend took a different flight to Paris on another airline, also a U.S.-based carrier, and everybody on the plane was instructed to wear a mask. We ran into an old friend in Paris, same story, masks were required on that flight, too.  

I wasn’t pleased that practically nobody on my flight was masked. I’m either disappointed in American Airlines for not following the rule, or mad at myself for not understanding the rule. And furious with myself that I didn't check before buying my ticket.

A travel note to readers planning a European vacation: If masks are important to you, either for or against, look before you leap. I caught one passengers pointing at me and shaking his head with a smirk. Screw you, buddy. Then, things really took a turn for the insane. 

Give him the bird
I swear this happened: The guy next to me on the flight was playing a video on his laptop with the sound up loud enough for me to hear through his ear buds. I looked over to see what he was watching.

Cockfighting! He was watching chickens and roosters and the menu at KFC being thrown into a circle on a dirt floor and killing each other while idiot humans cheered them on. I knew this nonsense existed, but I had never seen it. I asked him, “Is that actual cockfighting? He said yes.

That’s when I went animal rights on him. Get that off your screen, I don’t want to see it. It’s disgusting. How can you watch that? Mentally I added, please don’t hit me when we get to baggage claim.  I’m not going to hold my breath like a deep-sea pearl diver for nine hours and be exposed to animal cruelty at the same time.

Next week, my friend and I will get together and decide what international country we’ll visit (and what airline I’ll fly) next year. 

Right now, I’m voting for Galveston.