Nightmare at the Houston Airport: The trials and tribulations of being stuck in a US Airport

Yesterday was the worst travel day I have ever experienced in my thirty plus years of traveling. Ok, I am still alive and the plane didn’t crash. But I had a hell of a day yesterday and through the stress and tears of my nightmarish travel day, I remembered that there is always a light at the end of a tunnel: My hellish day would be a brilliant blog post!


So, here I am trying to think of where a good place to start is with my travel story. The best way to start perhaps is with the picture of me below in front of the infamous Guatemalan Chicken Bus (aka “Camioneta”). No worries….I did not take the Chicken Bus to Guatemala City from Antigua. I had a personal driver who was warm and friendly (and didn’t speak English so I got the bonus of an hour and a half of extra Spanish practice!). Yet, the picture reminds me of where I was and what it was like. In a third-world country with all the craziness and delights it brings with it.

My flight from Guatemala City was scheduled to depart at 2:30 PM. Antigua is generally only an hour drive to the airport in Guatemala City yet we had to leave at 10 am before the huge religious procession (for Lent and gearing up for Holy Week) began and would block off all the roads out.

I was sad to leave so early as there was still so much to see and explore in lovely Antigua. Yet I didn’t want to risk missing my flight. I said my warm goodbyes to my new friend, Lucy (see past post “Lovely Lucy”) and hit the road. Right as we were driving out of Antigua I witnessed Fuego (one of the active volcanoes surrounding Antigua) erupt into a huge, gray plumb of smoke. What luck! I mused. It isn’t every day you see a volcano erupt. It left me with a fortuitous feeling.

Lucy’s good friend Jorge drove me to the airport and we chatted happily the entire way. I had such an amazing week in Guatemala that I was overwhelmed with joy and excitement. I couldn’t wait to get home and see my family. I would be able to sleep in my own bed too!

We arrived at the airport by 11 am with two and a half hours to spare. I checked in with no problem and found a nice restaurant with wifi to have lunch. I was feeling on top of the world, that ecstatic feeling I get after traveling. I ordered a delicious glass of Sauvignon Blanc, called my husband via Skype. Nothing could be better.

When I headed over to the boarding gate I noticed the plane was not at the gate. Normally that is not a good sign. I had heard there was some bad weather in Houston yet I didn’t worry since I had a three hour layover as padding. While I waited at the gate, I met all sorts of interesting people. A group of Americans volunteering with a Patch Adams program dressed as clowns. Apparently 70 Americans had spent the last week clowning around at orphanages and hospitals in Guatemala to help cheer up the children. Next I met a group of 70 doctors and Med students from Michigan returning from a week visiting rural villages helping out the natives. The list went on. I continually met some of the most inspiring people possible and couldn’t help but feel amazingly inspired.

Our plane arrived and we took off only thirty minutes behind schedule. Again, no problem as I had plenty of time. Others weren’t so lucky as there were mix-ups with flight times due to daylight savings (Guatemala does not observe it). Customs ran smoothly, there was no wait for my luggage. Everything was going perfect. I envisioned finding a nice sit-down restaurant and ordering up a green salad and glass of wine. (After not having any fresh vegetables for a week, a salad sounded heavenly). That was when I noticed something wasn’t right. It was a Saturday night which is normally dead at the airport but instead it was packed. People were everywhere and the lines for food were miles long. I was confused.

I wanted something descent to eat (no fast food!) so I walked all over two terminals until I found a sit-down wine bar. I first needed cash yet all the ATMs were out of service. That should have been a sign that something disastrous was going on at the airport yet I was in that travel coma and all I could think about was that green salad and glass or two of wine.

The wine bar was completely packed with not a place to be had. Desperate, I grabbed the one remaining chair and walked over to two guys at the bar and politely asked them to move over. (The Minnesota nice in me got them to oblige). Less than a minute after I sat down, the guy next to me fell completely backwards off his chair. He and his friend had been in rural Texas and had been drinking insane amounts of alcohol (14 shots of Tequila each in less than three hours), and were completely tanked.

The night continued to unravel in this kind of crazy, out of a Hollywood movie, kind of way. After witnessing perhaps the two most drunk people I’ve ever seen at an airport, I was so bemused by it all that I almost missed boarding my flight. I raced out of the bar, got on the tram over to my terminal, and ran as fast I could to my gate into one of the biggest traffic jams of stranded travelers I’d ever seen.

The airport monitor said my 9:20 PM flight had been delayed until 12:55 am. So what did I do? Get the heck out of the massive chaos at the gate and return to the wine bar. I had another glass of wine, befriended more interesting folks and then returned to the gate an hour later to see my flight had been canceled. I had no cell phone, no luggage, nothing. A nice fellow Minnesotan let me use his cell phone to call my husband Paul and beg him to help me out. He reserved me a hotel room at the airport via Expedia and just as I was getting ready to leave the airport, the United lady came by with free hotel vouchers. I had already paid a non-refundable room, last minute, at some dumpy hotel. Out $150.

By 1 am I was at the hotel with only my backpack (no idea where my luggage was or is) and then proceeded to be on hold with United for two and a half hours until I got a live person. My flight to Minneapolis had been rebooked for FOUR days later!!!!!! The Houston airport had been complete chaos since Friday and there was no way home. I completely lost it then. Sobbing like a baby until I finally passed out in my filthy traveling clothes an hour later.

After four hours of fitful sleep, I woke up fully dressed of course in what I was wearing the day before, and was determined to get home. Thankfully Paul was able to find a babysitter last minute for the kids but there was no way in hell I was going to stay in the Houston airport for four days!!!!! I had to find a way home. My kids need me.

Disheveled, looking like a homeless beggar, I arrived at the United ticket counter feeling completely mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted. The airport was a complete madhouse again. I waited in line, impatiently, holding my only possession (my black backpack) and then the ticket agent waved me up. As soon as she said “Can I help you?”, I completely lost it. I started sobbing hysterically and could hardly speak. I was so embarrassed of my lack of control yet I realized that my week in Guatemala as amazing as it was, completely took out all my juice. I had nothing left.

The kind United ticket lady first said there was nothing she could do. Through my sobs I tried to tell her that I had to get home. I am a stay-at-home mom and I have no one to watch my children tomorrow. My husband has to work. At that point, I was willing to do anything to get home. I’d even take a Greyhound Bus if I had to. It would certainly be quicker than what I was facing.

After a few minutes, her face softened and she started checking. Five minutes later I was booked on a different flight through Chicago with a connection at 8 pm to Minneapolis. If all went well and there were no delays or cancellations, I would be home by midnight!!!!

Next was the three hour security line at Houston airport. Apparently the combination of bad weather, time change and spring break lead to complete chaos and people have been missing their flights for the last three days with three to four hour security lines out the door. Complete mayhem!

Since I had nothing else to do, I opted to test out my luck at flying standby on an earlier flight to Chicago. The United gate agent was delightful and hilariously friendly. Since Houston was under a thick blanket of fog most international flights were delayed and lone behold I had a good shot at getting on board the flight. He told all standby passengers to be ready and jump up with joy, shouting there name if it was called. One, two, five, ten names were called then he looked my way, gave me a smile and said “Melancon” pronouncing it the french way. I bounced off my chair and jumped into the air and said if only I could get him a beer, as thanks. I was on the flight.

As I type this post, I am waiting in Chicago O’Hare airport hoping that all will go well and I will get home tonight. There is 40 mph winds here making delays as well but I’m determined. I miss my kids. I miss Paul. I miss my home. I miss having clean clothes.

Who would have ever thought that I’d have more travel problems in the United States than in a third-world country?

This experience has certainly reminded me that travel itself is not always easy. You’ve got to have patience, perseverance, kindness and a little bit of luck. Plus the bell bottom tears of a worn out, emotional mother certainly helps. As embarrassed as I am for my lack of emotional control, without those tears I probably would still be sitting around the Houston airport for another three long days.

Stay tuned….Once I finally get home and rested, it is time to go back to day one in Guatemala and start from the beginning of my trip. I believe I took over 700 photos so please bare with me. It may take me a while to get everything sorted out and written but it will be here! Happy Travels!



  1. Lordy! This is crazy.

    However, I have the same attitude you do about travel mishaps–it will make a great blog post. By far my worst travel experience was being stuck overnight in the Seoul airport, having to push my 40 pound terrier around in his kennel on a luggage cart. He wasn’t allowed in the airport hotel. I had no place to leave him. I will come back with the link to that post!

    Safe travels, Nicole!


  2. How Horrible and Just Plain Crazy to Boot!!! I have had a travel day that turned a one day affair into a two day affair – started off at 4:30 am and did not arrive at home until 1 am – NIGHTMARE – the majority of the problems stemmed from 2 U.S. Airports too!!!

    • Yes, it was very long. I am relieved to say that I made it home after two days of travel. I’ve done that before of course yet this has always been when in far away places like Nepal. How ironic that most of my travel problems have always been inside the US! What a day! On the bright side, I can’t believe how many fascinating people I met and how many wonderful conversations I had over the last two days at the airport!

  3. Betsy

    I hope to see you in my doorway tomorrow morning, you poor weary traveler! Good luck and have a large glass of wine in the comfort of your own home! Traveling is certainly an adventure!

    • Some how every one was looking out for me today! The agents were amazing and miraculously got me on at the last minute. Only had about four hours of sleep last night and two days later made it home! On another note, we must get together so I can tell you all about Guatemala. I LOVED Casa Xelaju. I am amazed by how much I learned in one week!!!!! It is an amazing school and I truly enjoyed my experience. My only regret was that I couldn’t stay longer. So thank you, thank you, thank you!

  4. That sounds like no fun whatsoever. My worst flight ever was from Dubai to Perth – which was delayed for 14 hours (completely cancelling out my stay in Perth and “recovery” time before I headed on to Melbourne the next day) – and then when I got on for a 17 hour flight, I found myself jammed against the window and up against the bulkhead (with zero leg room) – and seated next to two guys who made me look tiny (and I’m a big guy) – so in the end I had to stand in the aisle and read all the way there. I arrived exhausted, was hassled all the way round immigration (ridiculous – I was in a suit, with a business visa and they still kept insisting I wanted to stay in Australia forever – something for which there is not enough money in the world to achieve). I got to the hotel to find the restaurant and bar closed. Got three hours sleep, and then headed to Melbourne where the handicapped person in the seat behind me – kicked my chair every two seconds throughout the flight. I had 1 hour to get to the hotel and then to the office. Where I passed out on the desk 10 minutes after arriving – and then got a ticking off from my boss for doing so…. aaaarrrrghhhh.So I very much sympathise with your plight – journey disasters are awful.

  5. There was one time I was flying from Vancouver to London via Toronto; I was living in England at the time and this was the end of my Christmas holidays. The first flight was delayed for about three hours because of fog, and I barely made my connection in Toronto with minutes to spare. Unfortunately my luggage didn’t, so after flying for 12 hours I spent another two at London Heathrow waiting for a suitcase that never arrived. Frustrated, I reported my lost luggage, wrote down my address and went home.

    The next day it was delivered right to my front door, but my joy evaporated the moment I zipped it open. While in Vancouver my mom had thrown in a bag of wild rice loaded with herbs and spices, and in mid-flight the bag eventually exploded – right over all my clothes! The suitcase had to be aired out for two whole weeks before the smell dissipated, and I spent the entire day washing what was supposed to be a clean batch of clothes. Afterwards I swore never to let that happen again!

  6. Lu

    Glad to hear you are almost home! (you might even be there already, by now!)
    It’s kind of amusing to find that some of the worst travel experiences are within the 1st world, where we have high expectations of everything working smoothly and to schedule… When travelling around the 3rd world – I have zero expectations of being on time, and am then thoroughly delighted when everything works! When there are delays, it’s no biggie – Whatever, we will get to where we are going… eventually 🙂

  7. Wow, what a disaster! I’ve never had luck flying within the States, and once slept in the JFK airport over night, staying a total of 28 hours in the airport! Arg! There was a snowstorm in Buffalo and all flights were cancelled. It was chaos. Btw … I love the photo of you in this post!

  8. I’m really glad you finally reached home safe and sound. After reading this I think I should stop complaining every time my flight is delayed for a few minutes or hours. Thanks for sharing this, Nicole.

  9. Nicole, I did leave a message here yesterday but think my internet connection went before it was saved. Anyway, glad you’re home with your family now! I’m so looking forward to seeing all you Antigua blog posts!

  10. What a nightmare! One of the worst travel experiences of my life was also in the US after I had spent a month in a third world country adopting my son. It was eerily similar to your experience and we were all sick and also new parents to a one year old to boot. I still hyperventilate when I think about it. Glad to see in the post above that you are now home.

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