United – we fall/fail

United we fail
At United we fail

How can this happen? Arrive in Jackson Hole airport at 06.30 for a flight to San Francisco at 08.15. The chronology sort of goes a bit like this:

  • sometime the previous day: online check-in requires you to enter the number of checked bags you are going to fly with – which requires an additional $170 charge for checking-in six bags
  • 06.30: arrive at the end of a humungous queue for economy check-in (oh, did I not mention that it’s all self-service check-in on United, which must be the most inefficient way known to man of performing this function and guaranteed to get everyone annoyed before they start)
  • 06.35: the queue suddenly gets shorter by about 30 people as all those on the 07.15 flight to wherever are told they are too late to check-in and must form a new queue and wait for re-booking (or call 1-800-UNITED1 as “it will be quicker than waiting for us to re-book you here”)
  • 06.40: United staff overheard comforting themselves that it’s not their fault that so many have turned up late enough to miss their flight – meanwhile I’m wondering about the length of the queue and the delays caused by self-service check-in, but hey, what do I know, I’ve only got 25 years experience of airports and checking-in for flights
  • 06.50: reminder from the check-in staff to put your name and address inside your bags so “we can reconnect you with your bag when it goes missing”
  • 07.00: biggest bag of the six narrowly misses a $100 surcharge as it weighs in at 48.73lbs – just below the 50lbs limit – thank heavens the mahjong set was packed in another bag
  • 07.05: one of the baggage tags has already been lost – oh well, I’m sure it will be OK, it’ll probably only be the bag with £1,000 of riding gear in it that we’ll never see again
  • 07.15: all ready to go
  • about 07.20: flight delayed to 09.30 – no details announced
  • about 07.45: flight delayed to 10.15 – due to air traffic control in San Francisco
  • about 08.00: flight delayed to 10.45 – apparently this happens “all the time” especially with the smaller planes because of fog in San Francisco, so they just leave them on the ground where they are until they have a slot – no one has any information about when the flight is likely to take off
  • about 09.00: one of our party manages to obtain $7 ‘coffee’ vouchers for each of us – an elderly female passenger decides to spend hers on a margarita
  • 10.30: we will be going at 11.03
  • 10.45: about 10 passengers in zones 1 and 2 are allowed to board
  • 10.55: passengers in zones 3, 4 and 5 are told they cannot board yet – there has been a mistake and the cabin crew (who gave the authority to board) actually failed to check with the pilot who confirmed that the confirmed take-off time was in fact going to be 11.30
  • 11.00: 10 zones 1 and 2 passengers are returned from the aircraft – we all sit down again
  • 11.15: we all board
  • 11.30-ish: we take off, finally looking forward to a ruined day in San Francisco

Honestly, you couldn’t make it up. Of the 1,800 or more flights I’ve made this is the first time on United. Sorry, but never again. Although I should in fairness mention that the crew were actually quite nice.

If you want to have some fun at their expense, try this link when you have a moment:

twitter.com/UALfail

Grand Canyon – and yes, it’s all for real

Now, this is something that needs to be seen to be believed. Everyone told me to be prepared to be impressed. We had seen the most unbelievable scenery on the drive down from Wyoming. The mountain ranges between Utah and Arizona, the Vermillion Mountains, must be the one place on earth where you can see further than anywhere else on the planet.

The first thing you notice about entering the Grand Canyon National Park as you drive from nationally protected wilderness, is that it’s actually quite manicured. Not nearly as wild as the hours of driving through magnificent scenery you’ve just done to get there. Decent roads, proper verges and occasional tantalizing glimpses of the canyon itself. As ever, the distances are something you are unprepared for. From the west entrance to the park you still have 25 miles to drive to get to the main ‘village’ area where the hotels are located.

There are essentially no words that you can use to describe the course the Colorado river has taken over some 6 to 20 million years as it carved its path into the canyon. Regrettably the central area where you stay is quite commercialized, but I guess this is to be expected as it is one of the premier tourist destinations in the US. We saw the Canyon the only way that I think you can really appreciate it – by helicopter. Jaw-dropping scenery and stunning sunsets. You need to go and take a look for yourself just once!

The hotel experience is not great. There is really only one decent hotel, sort of 50s style, but it does have a good bar and a quite decent restaurant. The adjoining accommodation is more like up-market hostel living – clean rooms, ensuite bathrooms, but nothing to write home about. We made the mistake of leaving unwrapped food in the room which wasn’t a great move. A rat rummaging through your suitcase at two in the morning is not the most welcome of room mates.

If this isn’t on the list of places you need to visit before you die, then it certainly should be.