View of Garuda airplane propeller en route to Banyuwangi, Java
I penned this post almost a year ago, and am just now getting around to publishing our mid-August 2015 encounter with Indonesia’s recently-awarded “World’s Best Cabin Staff” airline: Garuda.

I’m sure Garuda’s cabin staff is indeed splendid, but you know what isn’t? Some of their ticket-counter customer service reps (particularly those in Balikapan, Kalimantan Indonesia), their general customer service for mere plebeians who pay coach class tickets instead of business or first class, and their layover hotel for customers of the aforementioned class.

Here’s what happened on our Garuda Airlines flight:

It was the long weekend of August 17, Indonesia’s Independence Day holiday, and Sam and I had booked a weekend flight from Balikpapan to Denpasar, Bali.

We were excited.

Sam gets one weekend a month to leave the camp area where he works, so we probably hold these weekends in a bit more esteem than most, and getting away to Bali was kind of a big deal for us. We’d booked a flight where we’d leave Balikpapan (on the island of Kalimantan/Borneo) at around 7:30 on Friday night, which would then stop over in Surabaya (on the island of Java) before ending its last leg in Denpasar, on the island of Bali, at around 10:30 at night. Since we had Monday off, we planned on returning to Balikpapan early Tuesday morning in time for Sam to go to work. Excellent! Right?

Except when we got to the airport that fateful Friday eve, the Garuda check-in counter ladies informed us that the flight was delayed by three hours. Since I speak passable Bahasa, I took the reigns for communicating and discovered that, due to the night departure and already completely full flights, there would not be a connecting flight we could take from Surabaya until the following morning at 7:30.

Well, we hadn’t much choice in the matter, so I asked the customer service lady if Garuda would pay for our hotel for the imposed Surabaya layover, and if we were guaranteed a seat on the 7:30 flight the next morning, to which said person smiled warmly and assured me with “yes.” She then proceeded to print out boarding passes for our departure to Surabaya later that night, and explained that she couldn’t print out the boarding passes for our next-morning Surabaya-to-Bali leg because it had to be done (for whatever reason) in Surabaya. “I have called our office there, however, and have confirmed your tickets for that flight,” she said. “Just go to the customer service counter when you arrive and they will hand the boarding passes for tomorrow morning to you.”

Assurances gained, we went home and returned a few hours later for our late night departure to Surabaya. It wasn’t the ideal start to our much-awaited holiday weekend, but at least we were still getting to Bali in a timely manner … right?

The Midnight Flight to Surabaya

We arrived in Surabaya a little past midnight, and blearily made our way to the Garuda customer service counter, passing a few Australian business men who’d also been on our flight. As we passed, we heard something of their conversation along the lines of “So the plan is, we’re going to go somewhere else, and from there….” the conversation faded as we continued to the customer service counter.

Upon arrival, two Garuda customer service ladies greeted us, listened to our explanation and request for tomorrow’s boarding passes, smiled kindly, then replied: “We are sorry, but there are no seats available on that flight.”

Stunned,I explained the assurances we received at the Balikpapan counter and that we were promised that tickets had been reserved. The ladies smiled again, shook their heads,  and then one of them ducked behind the counter to scrounge for something. When she reappeared, she held a computer printout seemingly from the Balikpapan office that had our names — and other passengers — listed, and underneath, in big, bold letters (in English, no less, which was a surprise to see), words that said something along the lines of:

“ALL CUSTOMERS HAVE BEEN INFORMED THAT THE MORNING FLIGHT FROM SURABAYA TO BALI IS FULLY BOOKED AND NO SEATS WILL BE AVAILABLE.”

I read that piece of paper twice, feeling my face growing hot as I did so, then looked back at the smiling women incredulously. I explained we were told no such thing; in fact the opposite was true, and persisted in trying to suss out the mis-communication. Eventually, I asked for a manager, but this only led to one of the ladies picking up a phone, holding it to her head, and after about ten minutes in this posture, I was informed the manager wasn’t available.

By this point in time, it was about one in the morning and I was in near tears. We asked what other flights might be available, and we were told that all flights were fully booked, but there was one flight leaving at 11:15 the next day to a tiny town on the east coast of Java called Bangiwangi, and from there, we could catch a connecting flight to Bali that would have us arriving at around 5:30 in the afternoon! A kind Indonesian man, who was also in our shoes, assured us he’d been told the same thing and meanwhile, Sam had been checking for any other flights online, only to find that all truly were booked. I asked our new friend if he knew of any train or bus options that could get us from Surabaya to the ferry terminal to Bali, and he said he’d actually looked into this as well, but that the journey would take nearly as long as our Banyuwangi connecting flight option.

I should point out at this part in the story that the late arrival in Bali wasn’t the only difficulty. The other difficulty is that we’d made room reservations (and other plans) in Ubud, which is a about a two hours’ drive from the airport. So, even if we arrived in Bali at 5:30 Saturday evening, we wouldn’t be checked in our hotel room until around seven or so, so Saturday would be totally shot. And since our departure on Tuesday morning was very early, we’d planned on staying our last night somewhere near the airport. So, in essence, with our altered schedule, we’d be checking into our hotel around seven at night in Ubud, spend Sunday and Sunday night there, then drive back down to the airport area on Monday to stay somewhere near there for Tuesday departure. Not exactly the restful long weekend I’d planned for.

But back to our Garuda nightmare:

The Bizarre Security Room

Realizing we had no choice in the matter, we then asked about the hotel for the night. The ladies smiled and said this was being arranged, so I asked where the shuttle was. They smiled and said it was coming in a few minutes. I asked if we could just take a taxi instead, but they just smiled again and said we’d need to wait for the shuttle.

After about 20 minutes and no shuttle, I asked again and they said it was coming. I asked how long and they said “soon.” I asked how far away the hotel was, and they replied, “not far.” I asked if we could simply walk there and save them the trouble of the shuttle, and they replied, “no.”

Another ten or so more minutes passed, and then we were escorted past the baggage claim and ticketing area to a little security room. No explanation was given except that we were “waiting for security” to exit the airport because the shuttle driver couldn’t park at the front of the airport and had to park in the back. This seemed utterly bizarre to me — but so did everything else about that evening — so I complied at first.

Another ten or so minutes later, however, and we were still standing in that room with no progress and no personnel in sight. I left the room and found one of our helpful ladies and asked what the hold-up was. “They can’t find a security officer,” she explained with a smile. She then directed us to put our bags on the baggage belt  behind the ticket counters so they could be x-rayed. After several more minutes of standing there with our bags and the baggage belt not moving, I asked again what the problem was. “No one to operate the baggage belt,” she explained with a smile.

At this point, it was about 1:40 in the morning and I was ready to explode. I took our bags off the belt and announced we didn’t need a security check because our things were all hand-carried and had gone through security prior to boarding. I expected some sort of reply or explanation to that, but none was given. So I then suggested we could exit the airport like normal people and then walk to where the shuttle bus was, or alternatively, the bus could simply park somewhere else near the airport rather than the front. This suggestion seemed to blow her mind. Some phone calls were made, and another ten or so minutes later, we exited a side door from the airport where we stood in a strange parking lot until a shuttle bus arrived some minutes later. We clamored onto the bus, ready for a shower and a good night’s sleep. The worst was behind us, we said.

We were wrong.

Garuda’s Hotel in Surabaya

The shuttle bus pulled up to a not-so-updated looking place on the side of the grungy main road leading from the Surabaya airport, called Hotel Sinar, I believe. Well, we were exhausted and ready for bed so we crawled out of the bus and made our way to the hotel counter and asked for a room. The counter people informed me that they understood, but that I would have to wait for them to process paperwork. This is almost at 2 in the morning, mind you. As if they haven’t had at least an hour to know we were coming!

We waited as they painstakingly stared at several sheets of paper over the course of fifteen or more minutes, and finally our keys were given. We found our way to our room, passing rooms along the way where local guests lounged on beds with their doors wide open. Strange we thought, but we were too tired to give it much more contemplation. But when we unlocked the door to our room, we finally understood why:

The room was stifling hot, and though there was an AC on the wall, we gathered upon turning it on that it was more or less there for appearance sake. I called the front desk and asked for a fan, then stomped off into the bathroom for a shower, trying to ignore the moldy bathroom tiles, the brown-stained toilet bowl and sink, and cigarette burns on the toilet seat. There was a hot and cold faucet handle, but apparently, the “hot” knob was also there for appearance sake. So I took a cold shower, thinking I was overheated anyway so it’s probably just as well.

When I finished, the fan arrived so we plugged that in (which helped a lot, actually — Sam was surprised they even delivered it in the first place) and I turned back the covers for bed, only to find a thin bottom sheet with unsavory stains (or maybe just soiled because it hadn’t been washed?) here and there that didn’t even cover the entire mattress (which in turn, was very, very, very stained). The top sheet wasn’t any better and the cover/blanket was, from the scent alone, clearly not recently laundered. Sam and I lay on top of the nasty bottom sheet and tried to get some sleep. It was close to three in the morning, but this time, I told myself, the worst really was behind us.

At around 5:30, our room phone rang. I stumbled about to find it, and when I finally got it to my ear, the hotel front desk informed me it was my wake up call. I told them I didn’t ask for a wake up call and they said, “But it is so you can go to the airport and attempt standby for the 7:30 morning flight.”

I informed them that I had already been told at the airport that the likelihood for two standby seats was more or less zilch, and that anyway, there was a list of people for standby well in front of us, so we planned on sleeping in and catching the 11:15 flight. I hung up and went back to sleep.

At around 8 in the morning, I woke up and went to take a shower. Sam said he was going to the breakfast room so he could use the wifi there, and I proceeded to wash my hair and generally disinfect from whatever might have crawled on me the night before. Just as my hair was nice and sudsy, the room phone rang. I stumbled across the dirty room tiles to pick it up, and I was greeted once again by the hotel front desk. This time, they told me I “must go now” to the airport. When I asked why, I was told because the plane was departing! When I said the plane wasn’t leaving until 11:15, they just kept repeating over and over that we “must go now and that the shuttle was waiting.” I stood there, dripping sudsy water and generally trying not to lose my temper, and told her that I was going to finish my shower and then have some coffee. I hung up and did just that, finding Sam in the breakfast room and telling him about the phone call. A part of me was worried the flight might be bizarrely early or something — hence the abrupt “must go now” phone call — but Sam had already checked the flight status and it was still due for take off at 11:15.

I had some coffee while Sam tried to cheer me up, then walked back to our room to pack and get to the airport before ten or so. It was only a little past nine when we got back to our room, and midway through brushing my teeth, the phone rings again. Sam answers this time, and more or less receives the “must go now!” message. He calmly replied we would be leaving shortly and hung up.

Long story short, we checked out by around 9:30 and found the shuttle bus waiting in the parking lot. When we arrived at the airport, the flight to Bangiwangi was indeed still scheduled for 11:15. We will never know the reason behind our “must go now” phone calls, but our general consensus is simply they wanted us out of the room. So once again, thank you, Garuda, for such a memorable weekend. Also? Those Australian business men headed to Bali never crossed our path since the Surabaya airport the night before. I know they were headed to Bali because I’d seen then in Balikpapan before our initial departure, having a flight-delay conversation with the Garuda customer service reps themselves, so I can only assume the business class men didn’t meet the same fate we experienced, and they certainly were not put up at the nasty Sinar Hotel.

Even though this post could qualify as a novella in length, I don’t think I’ve begun to scratch the surface on how stressful, irritating and downright enraging our experience with Garuda Airlines was that weekend. It is never a good feeling to be lied to, but to be lied to and have no choice in the matter but to stumble from one unfortunate situation to the next is not fun at all. Had we realized what would happen, we wouldn’t have taken that late flight from Balikpapan to Surabaya in the first place; we would have simply stayed home and tried our luck with a flight the next day going somewhere else, or just enjoyed having a long weekend off in Balikpapan. Oh, and while I did my best to document our nightmare delay and hotel with photos, wouldn’t you know it, I lost my camera in a public mini van during our trip!

But at least I can humor you with two photos of Balikpapan airport’s interior decor. I’m not sure which one I like the best: the strange, life-size orangutan display at the check-in counter area or the highly inaccurate portrayal of traditional Dyak dancers.

Bizarre jungle display of Oranghutan at Balikpapan Airport, Kalimantan, Indonesia

Funny picture of faux Dyak dancing ladies at Balikpapan Airport

Hmm. Choices, choices ….

The Upside to our Horrible Experience with Garuda Airlines

But here’s the silver lining; maybe three silver linings, actually:

1. Although I had to cancel our room reservations in Bali, at least I hadn’t pre-paid for them so we didn’t incur a penalty there.

2. Due to the 11:15 departure from Bangiwangi the next day, I had plenty of time to research our Indonesia guide book and discover that the Java-to-Bali ferry terminal is less than an hour north of the Bangiwangi airport. So, as soon as we arrived in Bangiwangi, we ditched Garuda, left the airport, hailed a taxi for the ferry terminal and proceeded to have a great adventure, arriving in Bali a couple hours earlier than the connecting flight would have!

3. The experience left us both having some stressful moments together, but in the end, we turned what could have been a completely ruined holiday weekend into a positive experience. And, because we ended up taking the ferry to Bali, we ended up on a completely different side of the island than the airport would have taken us, thereby allowing us to see and explore parts of Bali we might not otherwise see. My posts on north Bali, hiking around the mountain town of Munduk, visiting a home-based coffee factory and the Jatiluwih Rice Terraces all came from this single misadventure!

But all of these positive results are because we ultimately salvaged what was left of our weekend and got rid of Garuda Airlines as soon as possible. I’ve had some great flights on Garuda in the past, but this one definitely negated a few of the positives. And it wasn’t even the late flight scenario that was so horrible — I realize that happens all across the airline universe. What was so horrible, however, was the general apathy, inconsideration and downright dishonesty in which we were treated. And for goodness sake, Garuda, if you’re going to put your customers through the ringer, at the very least, give them a room with non-funkified bathrooms and clean sheets!

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