Tuesday, January 29, 2008

My Travel Horror Story: Some Serious Schadenfreude

(The bloggers over at Sass Attack, And the Pursuit of Happiness, and The Hotfessional, in their infinite wisdom, have decided to sponsor a contest dealing with travel horror stories. Great, a chance to relive my nightmares.

Naw, it's awesome. Thanks guys!)

After five months studying abroad, I have racked up an unsettling amount of character-building travel stories. Whether it’s sinking calf-deep in a peat bog on the isle of Skye or spending eight hours dozing straight up in a hard seat in a Bucharest airport, my misadventures have not only given some talking points that none of my friends can match, but the confidence to know that nothing can break the girl that survived months of Scottish food. However, there is one experience that stands out, scenes of which still haunt my dreams. This is my story.

Spring was beginning to spread over Europe, its fingers just creeping into the University of Stirling, my home away from home. But I wasn’t there. No, I was roving the Continent. After a few days of reveling in the sunshine and giggling shyly at the strangely attractive young priest of Rome, my friends and I were wrapping up a rather lackluster visit to Berlin. Germany, while not possessing the manically happy national personality of Italy, had treated us well. Still, Scotland was calling us back—my two friends had finals to complete and I had lodgings to find before I was kicked out of my flat.

Our flight was leaving that evening from Frankfurt, which was a relatively short train ride from Berlin and a mere hop-skip-and-jump for three world travelers. Our confidence was such that we leisurely enjoyed our breakfast at our hostel, packed up, and wandered over to the local internet café to check on train times. J, who organized the trip, hopped on one of the computers and began tapping away as N and I lounged over our bags.

“Oh, [expletive]!” J breathed.

And that’s when we knew the [expletive] hit the fan.

It turns out that there are two Frankfurt airports in Germany—the close one and one that was seven driving hours away from Berlin. Guess which one our flight left from.

By now, it was eleven o’clock in the morning. The flight left at seven-thirty in the evening. We were, quite possibly, screwed.

We held a quick conference, J in tears over her airport mix-up. After assuring her that it was a mistake that any ignorant American could have made, we researched planes, trains, and automobiles. Finally, we figured that the surest way to reach the Frankfurt-Hahn airport was by renting a car and racing across the country. Germany had the autobahn, right? We were sure to fly.

Oh, the naiveté of youth.

We quickly reserved possibly the only automatic car in Berlin and ran about two miles into the city to claim it. After waiting for a painful half an hour for the rental office to process our order, we began our journey across a foreign country, our entire fate resting on a questionable paper map.

Though I spent most of the drive asleep (bladder issues force me either to sleep or stop every half an hour), I woke up every few hours to observe our progress. We had indeed made it to the autobahn and it was beautiful. I don’t think I had ever pictured Germany like this: rolling green hills and wee villages stapled to the countryside by a steepled church. Gray clouds brought a delicate mist and fat droplets of rain to blanket the highway. It was all beautiful in its own way—but it was less beautiful for J, the only one of us who brought her driver’s license on this trip. Every so often, I would open my eyes in response an anguished cry as J reached the upper limits of her willingness to speed down the highway, perturbed German motorists sullenly sitting on her tail. Her cries would subside to a whimper and, harmonizing with the dulcet sounds of the Phil Collins songs that seemed to be eternally on the radio, I would slumber on.

My friends decided that I might like a picture
of me sleeping. What you aren't seeing is the drool.

When we pulled into a gas station/diner a few hours later, we admitted to ourselves that we would never be able to make our flight. Discussing it over subpar pasta, we decided that we would continue our drive, then spend the night in the airport. Most airlines are required to put you on the next flight if you miss your scheduled take-off. Surely it would work the same here.

We arrived at Frankfurt-Hahn around 11 PM and returned the rental car, now affectionately referred to as “Otto.” A quick check at the airline desk proved that the entire airport was beginning to shut down for the night.

N and me, loaded down with luggage, standing in front of Otto
in the Frankfurt-Hahn Airport.

And it wasn’t a pretty picture.

For those of you who have never had the privilege of spending any time in this airport, please, let me give you a brief description. Picture, if you will, possibly the hardest, coldest floor known to man. Also, please brace yourself for the most exorbitant prices for food and entertainment (I bought a coloring book for $8 dollars) you can imagine. Finally, imagine a nice draft blasting around floor level as you try to get some sleep. Put it all together, it creates one hellish night.

About 4:30 AM, I was shaken awake from my doze by J, tears streaming down her face. The airline (let’s call it Flyin’ Air) desk had just opened and J, planner that she is, decided that she was going to get a head start on organizing our flight home. The first slap in the face was the ticket lady, the only rude German we met on our trip. At J’s inquiry, the Ticket Bitch (TB from now on—it’s only right that I nickname her after a disgusting disease) snapped that Flyin’ Air does not replace tickets on missed flights. Not only that, a ticket to Glasgow was €200, about €193 more than we had previously paid and way above our budget. Finally, TB proceeded to metaphorically kick J in the ovaries by inferring that the three of us were complete asshats for missing our flight. J slunk away, broken, bleeding, and humiliated.

It took me a few minutes to understand what was going on, but once I understood, I immediately became enraged. Who the hell did TB think she was anyway? N, J, and I all stomped over to the ticket booth, ready to unleash the full fury of three girls who had just driven cross country and had slept on the cold ground.

Lucky for her (and maybe for me), another ticket lady had joined TB and that is who I confronted. This woman was totally unlike her compatriot. With a quiet and pitying smile, she confirmed that we did in fact have to pay €200 for a ticket, but also broke it to us that there were only two tickets for the only Glasgow flight that day. Stunned and quiet, we shuffled away to regroup.

A few calls to neighboring airports proved fruitless. Any other flight would cost a hardy €600 and an interminable bus ride. Finally, with much internal wailing, I offered to potentially stay behind, hoping and praying that a ticket would become available before the flight left. After all, my friends had a final the next day; I didn't.

So let’s step back and look at what we had gone through in less than 24 hours:
  • A leisurely breakfast in sweet, sweet innocence of what was to come
  • An overwhelming panic when that innocence was shattered
  • The renting of a car and a harrowing ride on the autobahn
  • Getting fleeced out of $8 for a damn coloring book
  • A less than peaceful night’s doze on a drafty floor
  • Being reamed by TB
  • The reemergence of that old familiar panic courtesy of the nice ticket lady
  • Surrendering to possibly another hellish night in the Airport That Civilization Forgot

A pretty bleak day. For the next 15 hours, I sweated it out, quietly crying in the women’s bathroom. These were the most painful 15 hours of my life, but I was ultimately given a ticket for €240, which I snapped up immediately. I finally made it home, stomping past my confused flatmates and collapse, unconscious, for a full 24 hours.

What did I learn from this? Well, I don’t think I came away with a true lesson. I did realize a few things about myself, however. I realized that I would shell out any amount of money for childish entertainment if pushed hard enough. I realized that I would sacrifice myself to another night of agony for friends. I realized that sometimes I just need a good cry, but am too embarrassed to do so in front of a bunch of German tourists.

Good for me.


  1. LOL!

    You know, I didn't even think to include any of my character-building study abroad travel in my Travel Hell memories... like the time we got stranded in the French countryside after our TGV received a bomb threat...

  2. l sass: Study abroad is full of horrific experiences-- it's where I draw most of my Travel Hell memories from!


  3. I think you are my new hero.

  4. veronica: Well, thank you!


  5. That is the single worst travel story I've every heard in my entirely life, short of the time when we overturned in a bus on the way to the airport to come to the United States. That wasn't fun, either.

  6. irina: Geez, well at least I didn't have a real chance of coming to physical harm (except for the TB-- she might have ripped our meaty little American throats out)! You win!


  7. I think, quite possibly, the description of the autobahn drive was my favorite. I would have lost it then...

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. (Oops accidentally deleted the comment I wrote)

    Ah, this is the kind of story I love to read on blogs. Thank you for the entertainment at your expense :)

  10. emilypie: I'm glad I was asleep for most of it. Poor J is scarred for life.

    Abzdragon: Well, at least you enjoyed it! :)


  11. Anonymous3:33 PM

    you poor little ignorant girl. my heart bleeds for you. is this really the worst, terrible-est time you have ever had abroad? your writing style is worthwhile, i hope you grow up enough to see its realization.

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