The problem with traveling by airplane is not that they crash but that they sometimes don’t work. This means you may get stuck.
That’s the reality of traveling, but it’s especially disappointing when traveling internationally. It can wreak havoc with your trip or end it.
This is one of the risks that you have to take when traveling internationally. If you can, it’s best to allow margins in your trips in case things go wrong. The worst case scenario is that you get there early and can do more things in the country you are visiting.
Plane trouble was magnified in the time of Covid, but I have had some crazy experiences with plane trouble that had nothing to do with it. In this post, I want to share a few examples to help you know what you are up against.
We flew from Knoxville to Houston. From Houston, we would fly to Germany and then on to Egypt. We got onto the plane in Houston, and it all looked good. Then, over the speaker, we heard the bad news, the flight would be delayed. There was a maintenance issue with the electronics, and it had to be checked out.
The problem with this delay is that we only had a one and a half hour layover in Germany. No problem, I thought. We can just get a later flight into Cairo. That’ll be fine. However, being the person that I am, I wanted to check what flights were available from Germany to Cairo. Ok. There was a problem. There were no other flights from Germany to Cairo that night. What that meant was that our Covid test for Egypt would no longer valid (see my explanation of Covid tests and international travel here). We also could not enter Germany because Americans weren’t allowed to enter at that time. We could be stuck perpetually in the German airport like Tom Hanks in The Terminal.
I got up and went to speak with one of the flight attendants to explain the issue. He said, “This is going to take a while. We will have you talk to one of our representatives, and they will arrange new flights for you.”
A few moments after that, I went outside to talk to one of United’s representatives. I explained to him my situation. He clicked away at his keyboard for a few seconds and then said to me. “OK. Here’s what you can do. You can fly into Istanbul, Turkey. Your Covid test will still be good to enter Turkey. Then, you can get a ride to the hospital downtown and get a new Covid test. You can stay at a hotel in Istanbul and then get a flight to Cairo the next day.”
I looked at him with disbelief. “Uhhh . . . that is way, way outside my comfort zone.”
He didn’t miss a beat. “Alright. We can put you up in a hotel for tonight and give you meal vouchers. Then, you can go to the Kingswood Emergency Hospital and get a test. You can expedite it, and they will get it back to you within an hour or so. It will cost you $500 a piece. Then, you can get the same flight tomorrow, and that test will be good for Germany and Egypt.”
At this point, there was no turning back. We were going to go to Egypt. So, if two $500 tests was what we needed to get there, then that’s what we were going to do. One more benefit. He moved us to first class for our trouble. My father looked it up on Priceline the next day. A first class ticket to Germany would have cost about $9,000 that day. So, in terms of assets, we were way ahead, even if we had less money in our bank account.
We went to Kingswood, and we had a wonderful experience. This was a really great hospital. If you are in Houston and need an emergency hospital, I highly recommend it. They also have great coffee, and it’s free!
We went back for our tests. In less than an hour, they gave us a folder with our results. I opened them. There was a paper copy, and at the bottom there was a stamp! And it was signed! This is what I had been wanting for months! And now, I had it! Exactly what the Egyptian government wanted.
Colombia and Spain
A surprising number of my plane trips went well after that. No problem going to Cancun or getting home. No problem going to Spain.
It’s not always the plane itself. Sometimes, it’s what you need to get on the plane. My daughter ended up moving to Bogota, Colombia to study. So, we bought her a plane ticket to get there. We did not buy a return ticket. Why? Because she did not know when her semester would end or if she would want to stay after the semester. Well, that turned out to be a problem. You can only stay six months in Colombia without getting permission. So, getting a one way ticket made it look like my daughter was trying to illegally immigrate to Colombia from the United States. So, they would not let us get on the plane. With the clock ticking, I looked online for a return ticket. Fortunately, she was able to purchase one but for a lot more than her ticket for going there. It was also changeable. All she needed was proof that she had a return ticket. So, we were able to board the plane.
When I went to Spain the second time, I had a long wait in Knoxville and a long layover in Atlanta. I was going on a mission trip, but I was going a week early to hang out in Madrid. The plane was delayed quite a bit, but I thought, “I have a lot of time, so I can just relax here and do my work.” I felt bad for the many people who were struggling. I experienced a delay of several hours in Atlanta, too, but it did not bother me. I had no schedule for my week in Madrid. It was all just fine, but people all around me were in a panic.
When the mission team left to go to Spain a week later and meet me in Madrid, it didn’t work out quite as well. They got on the plane, but the plane kept getting delayed. Eventually, the flight got cancelled all together because of maintenance issues. They had no backup planes available. They had to wait until the next day. Delta then gave everybody Uber trips to a Motel 6 in a sketchy neighborhood. They waited five hours with a large number of their fellow passengers into the wee hours of the morning to get their rooms. There was only one employee. The bathroom was closed. They waited on the floor. Finally, around 5:00 a.m., they got to their rooms. They got some good sleep and got on the flight the next day, which arrived in Madrid without any problems. We missed our day of touring Madrid, though, because of the plane trouble.
Sometimes the plane problem is not the plane but the lack of it. On our second trip to Colombia, we were going to go from Bogota to Ibague to Medellin to Cartagena and then home. I purchased 17 plane tickets for $500 total and was very proud of myself.
On Monday morning, we went to the Ibague airport. There was nobody there in that small airport. I brought the tickets to the counter. “These are from Bogota, not from Ibague.” Bogota is a minimum of four hours away. So, this was a problem. It was also a problem because we had to get to Cartagena to get home. Our flight to Cartagena was from Medellin.
I asked them, “How much is it to fly from Ibague to Cartagena tomorrow?”
I waited with a bit of anxiety to see how much it would cost for six tickets. “It will be about $100 a piece.” To purchase six tickets was more than I paid for the 17 tickets to fly around Colombia. But compared with buying a ticket the day before the flight in the U.S., it really wasn’t that bad. Plus, we would be able to take our return flight in Cartagena. So, I bought the tickets for the next day.
When you travel, you have to prepare for the unexpected. It is just part of the game. I experienced some difficulties, but others experienced worse. One family got to the airport to go to the Dominican Republic. The airline literally had no backup flights, so the entire trip got canceled. Another family, was taking a cruise around the British Isles, and their flight got canceled. They missed the cruise, and I am not sure if they ever even got a refund. Traveling is a bit of a risk. Recognizing that beforehand and accepting that God’s will is better than ours, as my Colombian friends said to me when I found out I had the wrong flight in Ibague, is a way to ensure that you will be mentally prepared for what might happen.
Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. This may be a bit of a downer, but knowing reality is always our friend in the end. Better to go into it with your eyes open, IMHO. I hope to see you here again. Each Tuesday, I’m exploring the ins and outs of international travel. Subscribe below or click on weswhite.net to read the article.