Hurricane Harvey had a devastating impact on the Houston metropolitan area, and its effect on residents is immeasurable. This is a storm that will take tens of billions of dollars of spending and millions of man hours to recover from. The psychological trauma that this had on residents cannot be stated in words. Though I did not suffer any physical damage, I was out of town and scheduled to return just as the hurricane hit Houston. The annoyances I experienced were truly minor compared to people that lost their homes and vehicles, whose lives were turned upside down overnight. However, I hope that my account can help and inform travelers who are ever in a similar situation, God forbid. This is the story of Hurricane Harvey’s impact on my travel plans and how I became stranded in another city as a result.
On August 26, 2017, I was sitting in Birmingham, England eating a hearty breakfast when I noticed that the same flight I was scheduled to take the next day, Singapore Airlines’s once a day flight from Manchester to Houston, was cancelled. This immediately made me nervous, as this made me think that my flight was most likely would be cancelled too the following day due to the weather conditions in Houston. Beyond this, since it was a once a day flight, I wondered when I would be able to get a seat on a future flight due to the backlog of all the customers from previously missed flights. Also, Singapore does not fly the route on Mondays, so the earliest I would be able to leave would be Tuesday, August 29.
Worrying that I needed to get back to work as soon as possible (I was wrong), I evaluated my options: I could fly on United from Birmingham to Newark, and then Newark to Houston, or take a 3 hour bus to London and take a nonstop United flight from there (this flight was cancelled in the end also). I wasn’t particularly in the mood to take a long bus ride after just taking a 2 hour train the day before, so I decided that I would leave from Birmingham and chose to change my flight; not being able to fly Singapore Airlines for the first time is one of my regrets of this fiasco also. I then read an article that United would be prioritizing hub operations, so this gave me confidence that I would have a decent chance of making it to Houston since Newark is a United hub.
Little did I know how quickly the conditions were deteriorating in Houston, and how bad the conditions actually were. During the night of August 27, all flights to Houston were being cancelled or diverted. Instead of checking on such pertinent information, I was foolishly just enjoying myself and trusting the word of the airline. By the time I woke up on August 27, if I did any reasonable checking of the Houston airport situation, I would have realized it made no sense to even go to the airport. However, I simply trotted to the airport like an ignorant fool and hopped on my flight to Newark.
Upon arrival in Newark, I was told that all flights to Houston were cancelled for the day. I went to the customer service desk and got a boarding pass for a flight the next day. I booked a hotel near the airport, and figured that I would be heading home the next day; I was wrong.
On Monday, the Houston airports announced they were closed indefinitely. At first, this meant until Wednesday, and finally, Thursday, August 31. This meant that I had 3 full days to spend in the New York metro area. I suppose that if there was a place to be stranded, there couldn’t be a better place to be. However, staying in a dreary airport hotel after being surrounded by the love of family was a bit depressing. Also, I’ve visited New York many times, whereas I hadn’t been to England in seven years. The opportunity to spend a few extra days in England would’ve been wonderful. Also, the costs were adding up quickly: hotel, Lyft to go to and from the train station ($7 each way), and the New Jersey Transit train into New York City’s Penn Station ($5.25 each way). I also purchased a 1 week unlimited ride Metrocard for $33. I learned later that this was a foolish decision as PATH sells 1 day unlimited passes for $8.25, which includes PATH and MTA rides; I was essentially double paying by paying for the Metrocard and New Jersey Transit.
On Monday, I was deciding whether it was worth it to use miles to go back to Europe, since there were several flights available to Europe, in particular WOW Air to Edinburgh, Scotland via Iceland, and Singapore Airlines to Frankfurt. I decided it made no sense to use miles to go back to Europe when I just came from there. Oddly, I now began to use the logical part of my brain that was missing in England. I ended up regretting this decision later, as a one week trip to Europe would’ve been worth the miles since it could essentially have been considered a separate vacation of sorts.
Another very important piece of information that I learned after the fact is that had I asked to be sent back to Birmingham, this could have been done free of charge with the three magic words “Trip In Vain.” This would have made sense because I would have been able to enjoy England for 6 more days and would have received a refund of my miles as well since I was unable to reach my final destination. I don’t regret this as much because I was unaware, but I hope this information helps other travelers that are perhaps unable to make their destination.
I also had run out of clean clothes, so I spent the better part of Tuesday morning doing some laundry so I would have something to wear since I would be in New York for a few days. This was one benefit of the hotel: there was a washer and dryer on the second floor. Still, I felt like a refugee of sorts, I can only imagine how it feels to be a real refugee that cannot go home but is stuck in an odd place, a person without a home.
I made the best of the situation, in my three days in New York I saw two Broadway shows, met up with a friend, and ate a variety of foods: Chinese, Pizza, New York style Chicken and Rice, and Greek. What was supposed to be a frugal vacation did become expensive very quickly. However, when speaking to people in Houston, they stated that I was very lucky to not be in the midst of a natural disaster and instead in one of the greatest cities in the world. This was definitely true, it felt surreal to know that the city I was from was being destroyed by record rains while I was gallivanting around Times Square. Also, had I been in Houston, I wouldn’t have been able to work anyway, as the city was essentially shut down, for obvious reasons. Hurrying back to Houston to go to work was nothing to worry about in the end.
There were two silver linings of this trip: the first is that a one week vacation turned into a two week vacation and I didn’t get in trouble for it. This may never happen again in my lifetime, so that is something to be thankful for. Secondly, after returning home, I took the time to research how to get reimbursed for my hotel charges through the trip delay benefit of my Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card. This took a few weeks to gather the relevant information and file and receive my claim, but in the end I was reimbursed for my 4 nights at the airport hotel, approximately $500. This made the major expense in New York free in the end. I only wish I had not spent so much time worrying about this cost while there and took the time to enjoy the moment.
What I learned during all this is before making rash travel decisions, think them through and discuss them with a rational person as well. Also, if you are out of town and there is bad weather in your hometown, talk to someone there to understand how bad the situation truly is before doing anything. Additionally, study the benefits of your credit cards, a benefit I hardly knew about saved me big time. Also, remember the three words “Trip In Vain,” these can be used if you can’t even go to the destination you want to go to from home, or if you are in transit to another destination. Also very important to note is that if you are in an EU country and don’t need to leave, stay! EU rules are very passenger friendly, for example I later learned that Singapore Airlines would have paid for a hotel and all meals until I was able to get a flight. There was no such benefit in the US, I was basically on my own. Finally, and most importantly, always enjoy vacation, these are the moments that we look back on in life and reflect upon.