Primo Vatican Hackathon
Earlier in March I was fortunate enough to go participate in the first-ever hackathon held at the Vatican! Yes, the Vatican. I came to know about the event, affectionately known as VHacks, because my roommate at Apple last year was part of the organizing team, and I applied back in December. By January I was notified of my acceptance and the fun of planning my first trip to Italy began!
I am currently working on my third co-op with HubSpot in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I didn’t want to miss too much work due to the hackathon, so I booked my travel plans tightly around the four-day event. My plan was to leave from Boston Logan on Wednesday night, get there just in time for the hacking portion from Tuesday to Saturday, and depart again from Fiumicino on Monday following the Sunday activities. I found a neat itinerary on Air France featuring a transfer through Paris on the way out and an Alitalia-operated nonstop on the way back. The BOS-CDG leg was even on a Dreamliner - nice! I booked through Expedia to save $100 and submitted my travel confirmation to the VHacks team by the deadline in mid-January.
Weeks went by and little by little I found out more about the event itself. Via the social-network group set up for the participants, I found out that while many of the students attending were also from the US, many came from Europe and other places around the world as well. Aside from some partner-university groups, teams would be selected by the event staff and announced just prior to March 7.
Apparently the Holy See is interested in using technology to solve global issues, with the themes of this hackathon broadly fitting into those of social inclusion, refugee and migrant crises, and interfaith communication. On my application I had indicated my preference towards the first of which, and thus I was placed on one of the teams set to tackle human conditions that divide us.
Beating the Storm
On Sunday night, three days before my scheduled departure, I started getting increasingly concerned about the weather forecasts for the week. The Boston area was slated to deal with a Nor’easter on Wednesday, making flight cancellations pretty likely. I took a look back at the AF333 radar from during the previous week’s storms, and sure enough it got cancelled.
But Air France had not yet issued any sort of travel advisory, giving me a harder job in trying to be find an alternate plan. I was only scheduled to be in Italy four days, making a one or two day departure delay pretty devastating to the entire operation. I thought in trying to be proactive I might be able to fly out earlier.
Just a week prior I had read an article about an unfortunate woman who booked her United flight using an agent’s site and made last-minute changes directly with the airline, which “caused” the agent to cancel her ticket altogether. I wasn’t looking to end up in a similar situation, so I thought it was best to call Expedia first on Monday morning. The hold time wasn’t bad and I got to speak with an agent within a few minutes.
I described to the agent that I was scheduled to fly from Boston to Rome via Paris on Air France on Wednesday evening, and that storm forecasts in the New England area made a cancelation or delay likely. I was looking to fly out tomorrow, Tuesday, instead. She explained that because Air France had not issued a travel waiver yet, I would be responsible for paying the $300 change fee along with the fare difference. Great. I asked if I would be able to call Air France directly, and she thought that would be fine.
So I did. I used the Air France app to start the call, and it routed me to their US affiliate office, which is partnered with KLM and Delta. I recited my plea again, and this new rep seemed to understand a little better. She offered that she could waive the change fee but still due to the lack of a travel waiver, I would need to cover the fare difference. I was nervous about that second part because I had only been able to find business class seats bookable on some travel sites I found, but the rep went about searching for something I could do.
She comes back a few minutes later and says she found this flight plan through JFK on Delta that left on Tuesday! Great, and later I found out that some of the organizers were also flying that same itinerary. And I wouldn’t need to pay anything since the change fee was waived and the fares were comparable. So I consented to the change and went on hold again.
And then a minute later she comes back and me that she can’t do it because I booked through Expedia. Remember, I wasn’t really talking to Air France, but a US affiliate group, and flights booked through agents couldn’t be changed by them. She advised me to wait for a travel waiver or pay the fees. That $100 savings is looking pretty costly right now. The call ended and I went back to work for the day.
When I got home I started packing with the expectation that I just needed to be ready for anything at that point. I kept refreshing the Air France flight status page, hoping for some sort of an indication of what might happen. The weather reports all pointed to a huge storm with heavy, wet snow hitting the Boston area on Wednesday night, and some other airlines had started posting travel waivers offering free changes. I spent 15 minutes on hold with Air France again before hanging up in frustration and got the same answer from Expedia during another call to them.
But then I saw Delta post waivers, and I thought that might be different. After all, the Air France US affiliate is partnered with them, and Delta was offering the alternate New York flight the rep had found for me earlier in the day. My friend called in sick to our plans that evening, so I thought it would be worth one more call to Air France. This time I got a message mentioning the weather before entering the queue, and I was able to speak with a rep before waiting too long.
I pitched my request again and also mentioned how I booked through Expedia. The rep put me on hold for a few minutes, came back and made sure I was still there, put me on hold again, and finally came back with a new itinerary for Tuesday evening - this time sending me through Amsterdam. I said that was fine but knew already that there was probably some reason why it couldn’t happen.
“Okay, you’re all set to leave tomorrow,” she abruptly said after taking me off hold.
“And Expedia,” I said, remembering the United article, “they’re okay with this?” The truer reaction inside my head was one of true disbelief and mostly relief. The rep said it was all fine, and the call ended. I got a super janky email from the backend Air France system giving me flight numbers and the same confirmation code I had the whole time. I got a Delta flight to Schiphol and a KML hopper on to Rome. How many airports and airlines have we come across now? I guess I’ll have to chase down a Dreamliner some other time.
The Air France site had not yet picked up the change (and I was too afraid to check Expedia), but I found the booking through Delta’s site. I checked in and printed my boarding passes (the app wouldn’t let me do it), and the site also rejected my KTN for TSA-pre. I have a feeling the last rep I spoke to made a low-level change that left some systems a little out of sync.
I left directly from work for Logan the next day in the late afternoon, and I got my super-official boarding passes from the kiosk after scanning my passport. Hey, as long as I can get to Amsterdam, my ability to solve problems goes way up. After all, I have an extra day before the events start! I went and tracked down the organizers before their flight to New York. We were going to get to Italy at about the same time the next day, so they were able to get to the hotel and a spare bed for the first night!
Around boarding time, I ventured back to the other side of the terminal and joined the cluster of people going to the Netherlands. I got on just fine and settled in for the quick, six hour flight across the pond. Things are looking pretty good!
(About 24 hours later, Air France flight 333 look off from Boston Logan without a hitch, and it landed in France on time the next morning. The storm was a huge letdown and I may have overreacted. That’s also New England weather for you!)
I had just 90 minutes at Schiphol, which is really a shame. It’s a neat airport that I spent more time at a few years prior while departing. But I had to enter the Schengen area and didn’t have enough time to explore before boarding my next flight.
Of course, by this point I was more relaxed about the my haphazard flight arrangement now that I was actually on the right continent - my ability to solve problems goes up tremendously when I can just take a train to my final destination if need be. But when I boarded the KML flight on to Rome, I discovered someone else assigned to the very same seat as me, as confirmed by their boarding pass. Fortunately the flight attendants were flexible and there was an empty seat a few rows back, so after confirming that the plane was going to Italy, I settled in for the short flight south.