2010: Officially the Worst Year for UK Travel, Ever

Every time British people try to go on holiday, the very earth rises up to stop them. This summer it was an Icelandic volcano; this winter it was massive amounts of snow pouring out of the sky. It’s all well and good to be dreaming of a white Christmas, but when it’s preventing you from getting on your plane home and there are 50 people in line ahead of you and they’re all crying, you tend to re-prioritize.

We’d been planning to go to England for the holidays for about six months, to surprise Jey’s parents. This meant six months of rigamarole as all the siblings concocted elaborate ruses about where they’d be, how to get presents to where, and so on. So by the time we’d forcibly fit all of our wrapped gifts into a single suitcase, we were already tired.

Little did we know that a stopover in Dallas to see my parents would turn into a much longer ordeal, and we would yearn for the relative relaxation of battling Christmas crowds full of children flying tiny wireless helicopters.

A map detailing every leg of our journey; click to view at a larger size

Note: we were flying on standby, which means you only get a seat if there’s space available, and generally other standbys are higher-ranked than us to boot.

Another note: this post gets lengthy, so if you can’t be bothered with the details, skip to the end for the TL;DR summary.

The snow hit Heathrow right when we were about to leave, so we were still hopeful that we’d be able to get on one of the two planes out of DFW International. But Heathrow shutting down meant planes weren’t returning to the US to be filled again, and flights-full of people were getting moved to the next plane over, or diverted via other cities. Several days’ worth of cancellations meant that literally every seat had a passenger. To discover this, we had to go to the airport, check in, wait at the gate for four and a half hours until the plane had departed, repeat for the next flight (usually waiting a bit less time), then going home again. Repeat for three days.

Eventually we decided to try flying out of New York City, as they had at least six flights going to Heathrow each day, plus connections to other European cities. The Eurorail was shut down, but we figured, there’s also land and sea.

In New York, we fared much better. We did spend the entire day in the airport, but we were pretty high up in the lists of standbys. There were a lot of people trying to get out of NYC, most of them crowded around the ticket desks at the departure gate — and when a British crowd receives bad news, they get hilarious. So that took some of the edge off.

Eventually, we were booked on a flight to Paris, and while at the gate the agent told us we’d have a much better chance of getting out of Brussels — if we could leg it to the complete opposite end of the terminal in time.

Number of airline employees who quite literally laughed at us, denied we would ever have a chance of flying out, and told us to enjoy our Christmas in New York: 4

Number of Jeys and Laus laughing in desperate, hysterical relief when we showed up red-faced and sweaty, and were allowed on the plane despite clearly being crazy people: 2

Once on the plane, we settled in for a restless sleep, having already messed up our west coast sleep patterns several days previous. When we woke as the plane was landing, we were surprised to hear that we had not arrived in Brussels, home of the Manneken Pis, but Dublin, home of the Men Who Can…well, you get my meaning.

As it turns out, the plane’s wing was leaking water, and had we tried to land in -14 degree Brussels, it would have frozen and made us crash. Fantastic! The Dublin airport had opened only two hours before we landed because of all the snow, and our flight attendant pal told us he’d never seen Ireland with any snow, much less completely covered.

The banks of snow were so high around the runways that the requisite emergency vehicles (“Standard procedure,” said our reassuring flight attendant friend) couldn’t even get to us. There were bunnies hopping around in it.

We sat on the runway for three or four hours as the ground crew tried to unfreeze the wheels of the portable stairs to get them close to the plane, so they could make repairs and coat it with a de-icing gel. Finally, we took off on our short hop to Brussels.

By this point, we were tired, jetlagged, smelly, dirty and frustrated. Our phones were dying. We’d missed our first (non-refundable) connecting flight out of Brussels due to the Dublin stopover, and had a few hours to wait before the next one, which would take us to Manchester. So we were pretty emotionally unprepared when we had to re-enter security, and they forced us to open every single one of our carefully wrapped Christmas presents and show them to a security agent.

Mostly it was books. Why could they not send them through the scanner a second time? The world will never know. We looked away when unwrapping the gifts we’d picked for each other. There may have been some tears shed. This was 100% the lowest point of the entire trip, so I’ll not dwell on it any longer.

Instead of partaking in a large pint at one of the many bars scattered around the airport, we found the gate for our Manchester flight, which was located in one of the remote add-on wings the airport built to accomodate short-distance planes. While it was technically a building, it was freezing cold, set on top of concrete and you could hear water running in the ceiling.

[Speaking of water, a fun fact about Belgium: they have the worst water in the world! (Seriously. “Sewage-laden.”) We wondered why the tap water smelled strange. Further research revealed that not only do they have terrible quality water, they didn’t actually make fixing the situation a priority until the 00s. Given this, you would be surprised at how scarce was bottled water for sale in the airport, how small and expensive the bottles. Maybe that’s why all the beer?

What a revelation to learn how privileged we have been, to grow up in a place where water is not only abundant — what you might normally imagine is the problem for deprived areas of the world — but also considered a human right.]

Our flight to Manchester was on a discount airline, and the plane literally had propellers on it. We landed, got a hotel room, and woke up at 5 to catch the earliest possible train to London. We’d booked on a Virgin train and it was fantastic; it was quiet, and the entire British countryside was blanketed in white.

We spent a few hours in the city (and saw Love Never Dies). Relieved to finally be in the safe, comforting embrace of the homeland, where everything is polite and orderly, we boarded our train to Dorking.

Which was cancelled when 3/4ths of the signals at Waterloo Station went out.

TL;DR: After many cancelled and redirected flights, stopovers and train fails, we finally reached England, where things weren’t all that much better, but at least we were with family.

1 comment so far ↓

#1 Sara B. on 01.13.11 at 6:47 pm

Wow – You have to be the most patient person alive. I’m glad you survived. You must have learned a lot about each other.

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