Sunday, August 4, 2013

What to do if stranded at Newark Liberty

This is an odd one-off post for a neighborhood blog, but having flown from Houston with a connecting flight through Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) a dozen times over the past few years, and having not otherwise found what I consider to be valuable logistical coping strategies anywhere else on the internet, I thought I'd weigh in with my opinions on this one.
It's hell to get stuck there, but to make things even more challenging, EWR often elicits an "EWW..." reaction because of its archaic, piecemeal lay-out that looks like something transposed from behind the Iron Curtain. I often wisecrack to my family something along the lines of "Welcome to Estonia; we hope you enjoy your stay" every time we land there. 

Terminal lay-out screengrabbed from this site
Estonia:  It's a very difficult airport to navigate.  You go from terminal to terminal by wrestling your carry-on luggage up and down stairwells to the tarmac to catch a bus, walking past commercial jets in the process.  May God help you if you have to cope with a gate change that requires you to shift between terminals or even between spokes of the same terminal. 
Many Houstonians know that Liberty is a major hub for one of America's largest commercial airlines (Bush (IAH) is another hub for that same airline, which is why we know it).  But here's the issue with flying from Bush to Liberty:  It takes at least three hours.  And a lot can change in three hours.  So you might initially depart Bush with your whole itinerary looking peachy-keen, only to arrive at Liberty to face weather or air traffic issues that can scuttle the second leg of your trip (been there, done that). 

And in many circumstances, if your outbound flight gets cancelled, your airline will not pay to accommodate your resulting overnight stay which, due to razor-thin airline reserve capacities, can quickly morph into multiple consecutive overnight stays (been there, done that - my entire family was thusly stranded in Newark for three days on one leg of a trip last year, all of which we had to pay for ourselves, resulting in approximately $700 in unreimbursed costs to us).  If you get lucky, you might be able to make your way through a long, long line to a customer service counter where they'll hand you a partial list of local hotels (been there, done that).  But otherwise, you're totally on your own, so here are some pointers from me. 

(1)  Hotels. We found the airline-issued hotels list to be fairly useless, so what I did following last year's stranding fiasco was to create my own list, which I'm reproducing below as a JPG because Blogger won't host any other form of content.

Tap to expand.  It is important to include the addresses on such a list because, while some do have airport shuttles (ask them when you call), you'll need a taxi to get to many of these, and taxis need to be told precise addresses or they might take you to the wrong hotel. 

And oh, by the way, I eliminated several of the local airport hotels from my list because I found too many user reviews on the internet alleging that they were fraught with bed bugs, prostitution, or drug dealers. 
Here's the thing about Newark New Jersey:  If you are forced to stay at a hotel which is located more than about five miles from the airport, the round-trip taxi fare to get there might cost you almost as much as the hotel room itself (BTW, be sure you negotiate all taxi fares in advance of actually physically getting into the taxi).  For that reason, in a perfect world I'd prefer to prophylactically book a close-in hotel room on the day of my flight, cancelling the room before 6 p.m. if, in fact, my flight connection proves to execute successfully as scheduled.  Sadly for us, local hotels are wise to that ruse, and all reported to me in 2013 that they have a 24-hour cancellation policy rather than the standard "by 6 p.m." or "by 4 p.m." type policies. 

For that reason, the best stranding countermeasure I've been able to devise is to create the above list which I can quickly cycle through with my cell phone at the first sign of trouble.  There are about twenty hotels on that list, and my experience has been that, if there are *any* air traffic issues whatsoever at Liberty, every one of them completely sells out (it's a big airport - if you'd like to know how big and how complex, it's Wiki profile is fascinating).  If you get to the point where you can't get a room using that close-in list, I suggest calling the 800 number of your favorite hotel chain and asking them where is their nearest vacancy to Newark Liberty.  We had to do that last year, and the closest we could stay to the airport was twelve miles (and even those far-away hotels were also 100% booked with stranded air travelers).  It was the definition of SUCK, because every time we'd get an email notification of a new outbound flight booking, we'd take a cab to the airport, only to have a couple of those subsequent re-bookings also cancelled.  And each round-trip taxi trip to EWR resulted in yet another $100 wasted.

Here's a faint glimmer of hope should you be forced to stay in a more distant location such as East Orange.  If you know for sure (e.g., because of airline overbooking) that you'll be in Newark for several days, you can often shift your subsequent hotel stays to a close-in location, because you'll have enough lead time to actually snag a room.  That will save you on cab fares. 

(2)  Meals.  I have never found a decent eatery outside of Liberty, at least not in the immediate area, because it's really an industrial area that surrounds the airport, and there are few if any amenities.  For those nights when we stayed at close-in hotels, we timed ourselves to return to the airport (to the outside-security areas) for our meals. 

If instead you're forced to stay some distance away, you might have better luck with food access.  We spent two nights in an East Orange hotel which was near residential areas, and so we had access to one or two chain restaurants and even a grocery store (good for buying extra socks, underwear, and toothpaste, which we had not included in our carry-on bags - oh, I forgot to mention that, during our 3-day stranding last year, we also had no access to our luggage for two of those days because the airline kept our bags inside the secure area of the airport). 

(3) Entertainment.  None available in the areas surrounding the airport.  If you know you have the time and you can spare the mental and physical energy despite the inevitable exhaustion that comes from an unplanned stranding, there's a convenient train that runs from Liberty to Manhattan.  My husband and daughter did a Big Apple jaunt last year when we were stranded for three days and they enjoyed it, but I wasn't up for it and I just remained in our hotel. 

So good luck and Godspeed should you ever find yourself in this horribly challenging situation of being stranded at Newark Liberty.  I hope the opinions expressed above will help you in some small way. 
Breathe a major, major sigh of relief every time you make that transition safely and successfully. 


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