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The Worst Travel Experience & What I Learned

October 16, 2017

Social media notoriously makes everything look crystal clear in people's lives. Traveling to a new city (and country) every weekend has given me a very tough skin. I'm not bothered by early wake up calls, long flights, middle seats on an airplane, carrying multiple adapters, packing four days worth of clothing into a backpack, or all the other things people tend to stress out about during their travels. This is something that has just come so naturally for me. I never really stressed out because I am truly appreciative of the experiences along the way. I have chosen to see everything as a learning opportunity.

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So, what happens when everything that could go wrong, does? I had an incredible few days in Greece celebrating my birthday, but traveling home was not so blissful. Before that trip, I definitely took travel experiences for granted. I could count the number of cancelled flights I've dealt with on one hand and have avoided major travel faux pas. The reality is that life isn't going to or supposed to go smoothly. Everything certainly could have been a lot worse, but I wish I had someone to guide me when I truly had no idea how to remedy a very messy travel situation. Here's the run-down of the weekend & what happened...

Friday: 4 a.m. wake up call & flight from Dublin to Athens
Saturday: 1 full day in Athens
Sunday: 4 a.m. wake up call & flight from Athens to Crete
Monday: 1 full day in Crete
Tuesday: 4 a.m. wake up call & flight from Crete to Athens...and then everything got screwed up.

After an amazing and fully packed weekend in Greece, it was time to make the trek home to Dublin. To save money on flight tickets on the way back, I opted for a layover in Barcelona. This meant I had to fly at 6 a.m. from Crete to Athens, kill a few hours in the city, and wait for a 2 p.m. flight from Athens to Barcelona. As soon as I returned to Athens, groggy as ever, after just 3.5 hours of sleep, I was informed that my flight to Barcelona was delayed because of an air traffic control strike in France. I was fortunate enough that I had a five hour layover in Barcelona, so this delay would not affect my flight back to Dublin...or so I thought.

I finally departed Athens and arrived in Barcelona. Fortunately, I was just in Barcelona three weeks ago, so I was somewhat familiar with the airport. Unfortunately, I arrived in Terminal 1 and had to be transported five miles down the road to Terminal 2 where I went through security again. I arrived to a very isolated terminal where the only café was sold out of food entirely.

I started to realize this evening wasn't going to go as planned. At that point, it was approaching 9:30 p.m. and I hadn't eaten since my early lunch in Athens at 11 a.m. I overheard other Irish passengers saying that their 6 a.m. flight from Barcelona that day had been cancelled as well as every other flight to Dublin. I could handle another delay, but not a flight cancellation. I just wanted to get home and prepare for my classes the next day. People were stuck in this small terminal with no food and no possibility of leaving all day long. Talk about modern forms of cruelty. There were no representatives at the gate to even tell us what was going on. Typical RyanAir hospitality. After an hour of waiting, I received a text from RyanAir saying my flight was cancelled due to the air strike and I should apply for a refund. So at this point I had zero options of getting home. I was stuck in Barcelona...alone. I searched other Ryan Air or AerLingus flights and there was nothing available for another two weeks. What?! My worst travel nightmare had officially occurred.

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I made the decision to leave Barcelona airport, find a hotel to crash at so I could book another ticket back to Dublin. The problem was any flight flying over or around France was cancelled because there were no air traffic control workers working. Thousands of people were stuck in airports around Europe, and hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent to deal with this. 

I arrived at my hotel and had to frantically look for other flight options. The only flight that could get me back to Dublin without flying over France or being delayed at another city (like Amsterdam or London) was Istanbul, Turkey. So yes, I was just a quick 2 hour flight from Istanbul when I left Athens originally that day, but I had to book a flight that went all the way East to go all the way West. I was booked on the 6 a.m. flight and had to get up in just three hours for the flight, so a total of six hours of sleep over the course of two very stressful days. 

I was so close to Dublin while in Barcelona, but had no way of getting there. I couldn't fathom remaining in Barcelona for the entire week in hopes of getting a flight. I knew it just wouldn't happen. So, 10 hours of flying was ahead of me. I have never experienced such exhaustion and complete defeat in all of my travel experiences. I had to research in a matter of 30 minutes all of the potential options to remedy the situation. I had to think intelligently about the money I was spending as well as come to the conclusion that hundreds of dollars were being unnecessarily spent. I had to remain patient and understand that there was absolutely no way I could have prevented this from happening. I had to stay strong mentally and physically throughout the roughly 48 hours of continuous flying and traveling with a very heavy bag on my back. 

Here's what I took away from the experience & what you should know...

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This experience would've been hard with another person, but it was even harder experiencing this on my own. I have never wanted or needed a travel companion more than those moments, even just someone to watch my bag while I go to the bathroom, check the departure board, or speak to an airline representative. I learned to be much more patient with those I come in contact with on a daily basis. You never know if the person you're sitting next to on a plane has traveled West to East and back West in a matter of two days or if they're just having a really bad day. Be kind to that disheveled person in the airport who's laying across a row of seats just to catch a few minutes of sleep. Be kind to the person who looks like they haven't showered in two days. Be kind to the person who looks physically and mentally exhausted. Even if you can't do anything major for them, being kind will go a very very long way.

While I was sitting at a cafe in Istanbul during my layover, the person to the table next to me bought me a latte. It was the biggest and kindest gesture anyone had done for me during those two days and will serve as a constant reminder to never forget the "little" things during our hectic schedules. 

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Traveling can be a stressful experience, especially if you're just getting started. I hope no one ever has to go through this kind of disaster, but if you do, my biggest piece of advice is to be patient, understanding, and think rationally. The absolute worst thing to do is throw your hands up in the air and cry. Believe me, I wanted to do this many times over the course of the last few days, but I knew that wouldn't help get me back to Dublin. Remember that there are always alternative options. Logically think about your other options, even if it means another quick three hours of sleep and 10 hours of flying. If I didn't get on that flight, I wouldn't be back to Dublin right now. Think big picture. 

Though I'm nearly a thousand dollars short from this experience, I have stepped away feeling much stronger. I have certainly been tested in an entirely new way. I'm learning to love and live in the experiences that bring me both joy and hardship. Nothing is ever as bad as it seems and looking back, I know I will be somehow appreciative of this learning moment.

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