Cancelled flights, missed connections, airport chaos, and a 72 hour journey home

Of course I knew that travelling to Europe would carry some risks. But as I breezed through my five-week holiday, I skimmed over news articles about airport chaos and considered myself lucky. On what was supposed to be the last day of my holiday, that luck finally ran out.

I was on a shuttle bus to Reykjavik Airport when I received an email telling me that my WizzAir flight to London was delayed. I’d booked a Malaysian Airlines flight from Heathrow to Melbourne the following morning, but that was fine because I’d left myself a 12-hour buffer.

By the time I arrived at the airport, the flight had been cancelled. Dozens of passengers were moved to one side of the check-in queue — not, as we believed, so that somebody could tell us what was going on but just to get us out of the way. We were left on our own to rebook travel, receiving another email telling us the next WizzAir flight was two days away but we had one night’s accommodation and food booked for us.

Eventually, an airport staff member, who did not work for WizzAir, told us there was a shuttle bus outside waiting to take us to the hotel. While I was still desperately trying to find another way to London, we were informed that we either had to get on that bus or miss out on a bed for the night.

The bus stopped outside a different hotel to the one in the email. There was almost a riot when the passengers refused to get off the bus while the driver, who also did not work for WizzAir, pleaded with us to just leave because he’d finished his shift and wanted to go home. He refused to drive us back to the airport, so we all poured into a hotel we hadn’t booked to explain our case to the hotel employee who had nothing to do with WizzAir either. I eventually got a room but no food.

After struggling to even track down a phone number for Malaysian Air, I discovered my only option was to rebook a flight and pay the fare difference. Fares had leapt to 6,000 British pounds during my delightful Sicilian sojourn, so my fare difference would be 9,000 Australian dollars if I wanted to return home any time before the end of August. I gave up on that flight.

Back at Reykjavik Airport the next morning and paralysed by indecision, I opted for a cheap flight to a friend’s place in Helsinki to buy myself a few more days to figure it out. She left Finland and I hightailed it to Greece (by way of a night on the floor of Charles De Gaulle Airport) to stay with other friends, until my sister who works for Qantas said she might be able to get me on staff travel if I went back to London. 48 hours later, I was on another flight.

The day I arrived in London, Heathrow was so overwhelmed and understaffed that it announced a cap on the number of passengers airlines could carry. Naturally, they all immediately limited sales to business class: ranging between $10,000 to $12,000 AUD. My sister told me staff travel had disappeared from the system. She went to bed in Sydney and across the other side of the world, I contemplated whether at this point I should just move to Europe and be done with it.

I spent a day in London scrolling and clicking my way through different journeys around the world, on the phone to my brother in Germany doing the same thing for me. My whole concept of cheap travel was obliterated; I would see a fare for just $3,500 and try to grab it, only to find that it was no longer available.

By midnight, my brother had found a fare of $2,100 leaving the next day. There was just one catch: the itinerary was six legs and 72 hours. I booked it. Not two minutes later, my sister told me that staff travel was back up and she was ready to put me on a flight. And I just laughed.

My first leg was a 30-minute hop across to Amsterdam, followed by an overnight layover. The flight was overbooked so I was on standby. If this failed, the whole row of dominoes would fall over. But I made it to Amsterdam airport, dozed for a few hours and got on my second leg to Zurich. 90-minute flight, 13-hour layover. I cursed myself for the op shop shoes I had bought in London for the travel; my feet were blistered and bleeding in five different places as I hobbled to the gate.

As I cracked open my 1200-page book and stood in line for two hours to check in for my third leg to Muscat behind a family with 12 suitcases, the Oman Air staff member commented, “I saw you waiting so patiently.” 30 hours into my trip and with over 40 hours of travel still ahead of me, my time was not exactly a precious resource.

I popped a Valium that I’d ordered over WhatsApp (legally apparently) from a doctor in Sicily and drifted through my fourth leg to Kuala Lumpur. Every time I closed my eyes, I fell asleep but only for a few minutes at a time. I’d booked an airport bed for 12 hours, and finally managed to sleep for the last three of them until my alarm rudely woke me. Since I was travelling in real time, I didn’t think jet lag would catch up with me but my body had no idea if it was day or night.

With seven hours of layover left, I dragged myself into downtown Kuala Lumpur to take in the sights, dazed and baking in 34-degree heat. I arrived back at the airport drenched in sweat without a change in clothing and 12 hours left to go. My last stop picked up a planeload of Australians fresh from their winter break in Bali — and ramped up announcements about foot and mouth disease.

We touched down in Melbourne just before dawn but sat on the tarmac for another hour due to lack of airport staff to attach the stairs, as I had with almost every other flight. A young man sporting a rattail across the aisle complained loudly to the stewardess that he wanted to get off the plane. He was tired after his six-hour trip, he moaned.

My 74th hour of travel was spent in the customs queue snaking all the way around the luggage hall, as three flights from Bali landed at the same time. Melbourne airport had only just opened for the day. By some miracle, I was reunited with the suitcase I had left four countries ago.

Four days after departing London, I made it to my bed and stayed in it for most of three days. WizzAir emailed to confirm they’ll give me a credit instead of a refund, which I won’t be able to use… because I’m never leaving the country again.

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