Easter Island is, without a doubt, a once-in-a-lifetime-never-again kind of trip. Getting to the island, one of the most remote in the world, is expensive and exhausting- some of the more desirable itineraries we found included 18 hours of flights in a 24-hour span. When you add up the cost, the time, and the energy it takes to gear up for this kind of trek, it becomes very clear why most people choose to visit only once in their lives. That’s how I approached this trip: we have one shot to get it right. We’ll never get there again. I knew this in the planning stages of this trip, which is why I poured over our plans in painstaking detail for months before we even pulled our suitcases out of the closet.
Though we didn’t know it at the time, the fate of our entire journey was reliant on those very suitcases.
This story begins at the Avianca Airlines check-in counter, where Adam and I spent a surprising amount of time waiting to drop off our two suitcases before our trip. We left the house much earlier than usual because we thought it would be nice to relax for a while with a meal and a glass of wine in the terminal before catching our first of three flights. However, every person in front of us had a SmarteCarte piled high with overweight luggage, so checking in took a lot longer than expected. We were very excited to find out our luggage would be checked all the way through to our final destination, which was a huge relief- there is nothing worse than the stress of claiming luggage just to recheck it at a foreign airport in between customs, security checks, and connecting flights. That piece of information was enough for me to forgive the fact we were in line so long we had to trade in our relaxing glass of wine for a burrito bowl inhaled as they called our row for boarding to Bogotá.
So we were off!
The flight from Washington to Bogotá is about five hours, and we had plenty of time to make our connection. So when the pilot made the announcement that, despite the fact we had started our decent, we were going to be in the air for another hour because a lightning storm had taken out the lights at one of the two runways, I wasn’t worried. When we finally landed and located our next gate, a gate agent for LAN Airlines called us up to confirm that our Avianca luggage was transferred into their internal system- a great sign since it meant our luggage was safely in Bogotá and ready to join us in Chile. Our second flight, five and a half hours to Santiago, was peaceful and we both got some sleep.
We landed in Santiago alert and almost refreshed at 7:15 AM. With two hours and ten minutes before our last flight of the day- the big one, the one we had dreamed about for years- we disembarked and headed off toward domestic connections. There, an airport staffer shook his head no at us and told us we needed to go downstairs to clear customs and collect our luggage before we could go to our next flight.
Ugh. Claim our luggage? I had slept soundly between Bogotá and Santiago knowing that was the one thing we weren’t going to have to do.
Clearing customs was easy- 20 minutes in line, a shiny new stamp in our passports, and a quick walk from there to the luggage carousel. Our first suitcase came out right away; by now it was just before 8:00 AM, and I was feeling great about rechecking the baggage and heading back to security in the domestic terminal. By 8:10 AM, our second piece of luggage was still missing. By 8:15 AM the carousel stopped moving, and nothing more was coming out. I went to talk to a LAN representative, and he assured me more luggage was on the way. I told him our next flight departed at 9:25 AM and we needed to recheck our bags and clear security before then. Five more minutes, he said. You have plenty of time.
So we waited for five more minutes. Sure enough, a few more pieces of luggage emerged, but none of them were ours. At that point, I told Adam we were just going to have to leave it- maybe they would send it to Easter Island the next day, maybe it would be waiting for us when we returned to Santiago- but now it was 8:25 AM and it was time to move on. I went back to the LAN representative (“Five more minutes!” he told me, “It will be here!”), and I told him we couldn’t wait- but I did ask what he thought might happen to it. “Do you have anything in the bag to declare?” he asked me. I told him no, it was just clothing, and he laughed and said, “Don’t worry. It will be there when you arrive.” Doubtful, but we were running out of time to think about that suitcase. With our one remaining bag, we dashed through customs. Another airport worker asked to where we were connecting. Easter Island, I said. His eyes widened. “Oh! Isla de Pascua! Vamos!” And with that, he grabbed our suitcase and sprinted toward an elevator- so we followed behind.
The elevator took us to the domestic terminal, and we followed the airport worker (and our bag) to the line in front of the check in window. After a brief discussion in Spanish, where a LAN Airlines rep shook her head repeatedly and turned her back to us, the airport worker said, “Lo siento. You cannot check this bag. The bag check is now closed.”
But really, universe, you must be kidding.
“But the airline worker downstairs said we had plenty of time!” I said.
“No, now it is not possible,” the airline worker said.
“What should I do?” I asked.
“You can leave the luggage here and go to your flight,” he told me. He gestured to the terminal as he said this; I knew he was saying my option was to abandon the bag in the terminal and just go to the flight. No, I told him, I can’t just leave it- so I asked if the bag could be sent tomorrow. He conferred with the lady who turned her back to us (still she refused to look at us), and he told me, “No. No passenger on the flight, the luggage cannot fly.”
So let’s recap. One piece of luggage was missing; we were told to wait for it, which caused us to miss the check in deadline for our next flight. We could abandon the suitcase we had entirely (which must be illegal, right?), or we could just miss the flight.
“Can we take a flight tomorrow?” I asked,. The airport worked pointed us toward LAN Customer Service. He waved sadly as we walked away. He must have known what LAN was going to say.
It was now 8:45 AM.
There was, thankfully, no one at the customer service desk. I approached the agent sitting behind the desk and began to explain the problem to him. He stopped me and asked for my number. Number? He pointed to an automated ticket machine at the other end of the desk.
Ah, yes. I had plenty of time for these games.
I got my ticket number- still the only one in line- and waited about 30 seconds to be called up. After hearing what happened, the customer service rep told me he couldn’t help. He said maybe we could get on a waiting list for the flight the next day, but he said it was unlikely because our ticket code didn’t allow for rebooking. He also told us it wouldn’t be possible to track where in the system our luggage might be. It might go to Easter Island, he said. Or maybe it will stay here. Or maybe it didn’t make the Bogotá-Santiago flight. Excellent, and very helpful. Captain obvious would be proud of this guy. The rep then sent us to the ticket window and said we could inquire about options there.
Now it was 8:50 AM.
The Isla de Pascua ticket window was completely closed. It was clear it would not reopen until three hours before the next flight, which was the next day. So I did the only thing left to do- I cut another line and approached a ticket agent seated behind a “counter closed” sign. I explained the whole story. The wait for luggage that didn’t arrive, the promise we had enough time, the fact the flight was boarding right now and we could still make it. The man behind the counter listened intently, and when I stopped speaking he apologized for not being able to speak English.
But what he did next saved our trip.
The ticket agent took us several windows down to two other agents. After some discussion that involved others on a walkie talkie, the three of them escorted us all the way down to where luggage was scanned and sent to planes. After some more discussion with the airport worker staffing that area, the worker wordlessly took our bag and put it on the conveyor belt- where it disappeared for parts unknown.
“Please now go to your gate,” one of the ticket agents said.
“Is our bag going there, too?” I asked, now in a state of total disbelief.
“Si. It will make the flight. They wait. Now you make the flight,” he told me.
I have never said the word gracias so many times in such a short span as I did to that guy.
And so we were off- through security (where we again completely cut the line- I pleaded with the passenger at the head of the line who very kindly stepped back and let us through), and by 9:10 AM we were at the gate and boarding the plane. As we sat in our seats, the plane taxiing toward the runway, I realized it didn’t matter if our luggage showed up- or ever showed up, frankly. We were going to Easter Island. We were going to set foot on Rapa Nui!!!
Five hours later, this story ended as the bag those kind ticket agents and the airport worker took from us rounded the carousel. Ten minutes later, I caught a glimpse of the second bag- the one that never showed up in Santiago- as it was transferred from the baggage cart to the carousel, and a minute later it was safe and sound and reunited with us. I’m only slightly embarrassed about the cheering, hugging, and high fiving show Adam and I put on for the other passengers, but hey, the travel gods clearly were on our side that day. And that’s something to celebrate.
A quick note about our luggage’s journey to Easter Island:
Upon inspection when we got to the hotel, I think I figured out the problem. On one bag’s luggage tag- the one that came through in Santiago- our Santiago flight was circled. On the second tag- for the bag that went directly to Easter Island– the flight wasn’t circled. It looked to me like one suitcase was flagged for the Santiago baggage claim while the other was sent right to our next flight (as the Avianca agent in DC told us it would be). Nothing we could have done to prevent that or be prepared for it, so we’re focusing our energy on being so grateful that our tale ended happily.
Lost luggage is remarkably common on the flight from Santiago to Mataveri International Airport on Isla de Pasqua- we met travelers who hadn’t seen their luggage in days, and all of them noted LAN was unhelpful and didn’t even attempt to convey that they would assist in any way. Keep this in mind as you travel here- with only one flight to the island each day, maybe carryon is the way to go!
Air travel can be pretty stressful, but it can also make an interesting story in hindsight. Here are a few more airport adventures.