St. Maarten is such a wonderful, relaxing place, but travel home has always been terribly stressful for us. I’ve talked to so many people our age that tell us they’ve never missed a connection, never even had a delayed flight, and we laugh. I can honestly say that we have almost NEVER flown anywhere (within the USA or outside,) that we haven’t been delayed for one reason or another. This trip was no exception. The airport in St. Maarten was seriously damaged in the hurricane of 2018. It has been two and one-half years since the hurricane, but the airport is still not operating at capacity. I was trying to find a good way to say that, since I don’t want to discourage tourists from going there, but, with that being said, the airport was a mess. Just to check in, (after printing our boarding documents before coming to the airport,) was awful. The average wait time to get to the counter, was between two and three hours. As soon as we got to the counter, the woman working there, tore up the documents I’d waited in line to print at our hotel for an hour. I’m not sure why, but she said they were worthless. We’ve never had any airlines rip up boarding passes, but then again, I have no idea why she did that.
Then we had more forms to fill out (while checking in) and it probably took us ten minutes there, even though we had our seat assignments and had prepaid for our luggage before arriving there that day. And then the line from there to TSA….it wrapped the whole first floor of the airport….Our plane came in over an hour late, and if it hadn’t, a lot of the people who would have been on it, wouldn’t have made it from check-in because of the lines…The people of St Maarten are upset about the airport, and well they should be…It’s what’s standing between them getting tourism to 100%, and that means less jobs for all of them. I wish I could say that we saw a lot of construction going on but we didn’t.
We’d heard people complaining about traffic jams, and only saw it once. Wednesday from 4-6PM, there was a line of cars wrapped from Maho Beach to well past the Atrium in Simpson Bay. Only going in one direction, so I’m not sure if maybe there was an accident that stopped traffic, but it was the only time we saw the traffice worse than any other time we’ve been there. Overall, we thought the traffic was the same…
We flew Spirit Airlines and I know we all complain about lack of leg room and tight seats, but this airline takes cheap to a whole new level..Leg room isn’t great, but the seats don’t recline at all and are smaller than normal, and we were in “the good seats,” the ones they reserve for people with physical limitations..I can’t imagine how much smaller the seats would have been further back in the plane. The pockets in the backs of the seats are bungee cords in an “X” shape, so nothing you try to put inside can possibly stay there, unless you figure out a way to lodge your item behind the security information pamphlet…and they made sure the security information is well and truly secured to the seat back….Of course this is a no-frill airline, but there’s a disconnnect between no frills and complete discomfort, and that’s where this airline comes into play.
Our connection shouldn’t have been tight, as we initially had almost three hours to play with. But, as per usual with us, there’s always a snag. Customs told us we had to walk through a set of double doors (in Ft Lauderdale airport) where we could drop our bags for re-boarding them onto the US based flight. We walked through the doors and there’s a sign that says that area is closed. It wasn’t late at night, maybe 9PM, and there were no further directions. While in customs, one of the employees approached me (because I was bent over the wheelchair trying to stretch my back) and asked me if I was OK. I said I was, and then asked about the flight to Pittsburgh, because I knew we were running close…She said it was leaving on time through gate G2. I asked if that was a long walk, and she said, No, it’s right outside TSA….Great. There were no arrival/departure boards that we could see, and our tickets also said G2, as I checked them after the customs woman gave me the gate number, just to be on the safe side.
We ended up at the ticketing counter, where Rich went to the front of the line and just threw our bags on one of the bag slots and, at this point, I thought his head might explode if someone tried to stop him….As we were hauling two big suitcases, a wheelchair, and a carry-on, my travel Vera bag, and Rich’s backpack. Now we only had to get through TSA. For some reason, others with wheelchairs are offered assistance…that never happens with us. I even asked for it this trip and was told everyone had to be off of the plane before they could help me. That made no sense since I’d seen four or five other people taken off with wheelchairs and assistance before we ever got my chair at the entrance to the plane. So we struggled on…and ran into another man assisting a woman at TSA. Rich asked him where we should go and he said “anywhere.” Which isn’t true..there’s always a line devoted to people with wheelchairs, but we couldn’t find it. We got to the place where you take everything off and put it on the conveyor belt, and someone told me to put my wheelchair “over there,” so I did. I’m now standing there and at one point was told to get in line for the scanner. I normally don’t qualify for it, as I can’t get my arms over my head. I tried, and they told me to get out and go through another machine that immediately beeped like crazy because of my four artificial joints. Back out of it…Now my shoes and my wheelchair are gone and I’m standing there…The woman that had assistance, I thought had already gone through, as I saw her in the machine where you put your arms over your head…Somehow she was now back in her chair behind me again. So I decided to lean on the glass partition that separated me from Rich and the rest of the world. And waited. No one asked what I was doing, and I just stood there….and stood there…for thirty minutes, I stood there…at the end, I was crying because I knew I was missing my flight and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I’d tried asking the people working TSA if they had a female to pat me down, but they basically ignored me…And when a woman finally did come over to do the pat down, out of nowhere the other lady in the wheelchair that I thought was long gone, appeared and wanted to go first. I don’t blame her, but on the other hand, if her flight was later than mine, couldn’t someone have figured out how to acommodate both of us?
The TSA agent that patted her down disappeared after that, never to be seen again….I’m still standing there..Rich is asking everyone if they can help me, and they just ignored him. A woman approached and I asked if there were any female agents that could pat me down, and she took pity on me and did so.
And now Rich is literally running to get us to G2….it’s not right outside TSA, it’s the furthest gate from TSA….which seemed weird, until we got there, and the gate people said our gate had been changed to G8 (right outside TSA)….He’s running again, and when we finally get to G8, we find out our flight has been delayed. If it hadn’t, we would have missed it, all because of TSA, and that seems wrong to me.
I never saw one departure/arrival sign anywhere in that entire airport. When we got to Pittsburgh, we called our hotel to send their van for us. It was after 2AM when we got to the airport, and it was deserted…..Half hour later, still no van…Rich calls again, and the hotel profusely apologizes and says he should have been there a long time ago. Another half hour and he arrives and Rich is MAD…..where have you been? Driver says he’s only been told we were there five minutes before….and there’s another group from our same flight, waiting at another door…they’d called five times. Our driver calls his dispatcher who says he can’t keep track of all the calls he’s got coming in…How many calls could he be getting from a deserted airport? We get to our hotel after 3AM and by now we’re both past the stage of exhaustion, but Rich is still got a boatload of adrenaline from our last hour’s wait.
All in all, I wish I knew the secrets that other travelers have. The ones who are never delayed…who get good service and are treated well. I feel like we make the wrong choices when nothing ever seems to go as planned when we travel, and we almost always end up frustrated and upset.
If I could wiggle my nose like Samantha in “Bewitched,” I’d go to St Maarten (or anywhere) in a heartbeat…but knowing the pitfalls of travel that plague us, I’m sure my nose wiggle would somehow transport me to a customs agent with a glove and a cavity search in my future.