On Saturday, April 10, I left on an innocent business trip to Europe via Icelandic Airlines. After changing planes in Reykjavik, I arrived in Amsterdam for the conference beginning my trip. It was a good conference where I was able to catch up with old industry colleagues and collect good information about the state of my industry in Europe. On Tuesday, my colleague and I moved on to London for several important meetings with prospects for our start-up business.
Wednesday, April 14 was a sunny day full of productive meetings and we came away with several different new ideas for our fledgling business. We had been unable to match schedules with other business associates in Geneva and Stockholm, so we scheduled more meetings in London. Meanwhile, in Iceland, a volcano erupted and ash began to spread.
Initially, we did not pay much attention. I was scheduled to fly out of Amsterdam on Saturday and return home to the Tacoma area via Reykjavik on Icelandic Airlines. Then a business associate called to cancel our Thursday meeting since he was based in Dublin and unable to come to London due to the flight restrictions. What fllght restrictions?
By Friday April 16, I was in full travel emergency mode. I had meetings scheduled in Gig Harbor Monday and Tuesday. Was I going to be able to make it home? My initial thought was my ticket home was out of Amsterdam and I was in London. How to get to Amsterdam from London? By the time, I figured out the extent of the problem, all Eurostar trains from London to Paris were fully ticketed for several days. You could not buy a ticket. All ferries across the Channel were booked. All rental cars in London were taken. The media reported the volcano might continue erupting for weeks, if not months.
The Reykjavik airport was still open. The airport was up wind from the volcano and had no ash in the air above it. The Glasgow airport had a couple of flights leave from that airport to fly to Iceland and flights from Iceland to the US were still flying. Meanwhile, an industry friend was also in London and trying to get home for the weekend since he had out-of-town friends visiting his Bellevue home. We agreed to take the train Saturday morning to Glasgow and try to catch a flight from Glasgow to Iceland and then home.
While we were on the train, they closed the Glasgow airport for an indefinite period of time. All of northern European air space was shut down. Including Amsterdam. So my original flights home were canceled. Upon arriving in Glasgow early Saturday afternoon, we hunkered down with our computers and cell phones to try to determine the best way to make our ways back to the Puget Sound.
We watched the news and determined that Madrid was our best chance to get home. The Madrid airport was open and a long ways from Iceland. In particular, it seemed like it was out of the wind pattern which was blowing the ash. But we were in Glasgow.
We found a car rental in Glasgow which we could drive to Madrid. But surely, there was a series of trains which would be a better option. We quickly determined our cell phones did not have the battery life required to wait until we could get through to a real person to buy train tickets. So we hit the train websites. We hit the Eurostar website to buy tickets from London to Paris. We hit the Eurorail website to buy tickets from Paris to Madrid. No luck. For four hours, we tried to buy these tickets with no luck.
I went down to the lobby bar to buy us a couple of beers. There in the lobby was a wedding party celebrating. The bride was of Indian descent and dressed in a besutiful sari. All of the women from her family were also dressed in saris. The groom was of Scottish descent. He was dressed in kilts. Many of the men from his side of the family were also dressed in kilts. It made for an interesting visual.
Back to planning travel, we were able to get a reservation on the Chunnel train to take a car from Britain to France. It was an easy ticket to get. We were confused. Why was it easier to get a ticket to take a car to France than to ride as a simple passenger to France? In our tired state, we decided not to question our good fortune.
Meanwhile, we looked for plane tickets from Madrid to the US. This was also aggravating. Tickets would disappear before our very eyes. We would see a ticket online and by the time we were able to hit the buy this ticket button, the ticket had been sold. Finally, we were able score tickets from Madrid to…Mexico City. Upon review, it looked easy to get from Mexico City to Seattle, so we reserved those tickets.
About 11 pm, we finally decided the lowest risk plan was to drive to Madrid and try to fly home from there. Now, my friend and I are a bit crazy on travel issues, so we were reasonably certain that this plan was unusual since most Europeans do not drive 1400 miles in a few days.
First thing in Sunday morning, we went to the car rental location at the airport. There were a couple of stranded travelers sleeping there, but otherwise the airport was deserted…except for a parking lot full of rental cars. We rented a nice Audi A4 wagon. Built for the autobahn.
We started driving. My friend owns a Porsche and drives it on private race tracks for fun on weekends in the US. He likes to drive fast. We drove the length of Great Britain to the Chunnel location near Dover. We made excellent time and did not receive any tickets along the way. We arrived two hours early for our reservation at the Chunnel and were able to catch an early train. This was too easy, but we high fived upon getting to France.
We drove on to LeMans, home of the 24 hour car race, and stopped there, deeming it an appropriate place to stop on such a trip. We had covered roughly 700 miles in about 12 hours of driving. It was a great start to our journey. The internet was reporting that airlines and passengers were beginning to say out loud, they were not sure such stringent restrictions on European air travel were required for safety.
Monday morning April 19, we were up at the crack of dawn again. We drove through the famous French countryside, south towards Spain. Southern France is a lovely place for quiet reflection and wine drinking. Too bad we did not have this planned with our wives and the rest of our lives. We pressed on and arrived in Madrid in early Monday evening. We had covered 1400 miles in two days.
When we arrived in Madrid, we discovered there were no rental cars left and there were people waiting to rent cars. Europeans traveling outside of Europe had flown into Madrid, filled the trains and rented all the cars to get to their homes in Britain and Northern Europe. We were sure that someone was going to immediately take our car back to Britain. It felt like we were contributing to someone’s journey home being easier.
The Madrid airport was full of people with crazy stories. Days in airports. Trains, planes and automobiles. Missing passports. Canceled flights. Re-routing itineraries. Buses. Taxis. But flights were taking off and landing. It was an operating airport. For some. There were long unmoving lines to go to northern European locations. At the same time, flights to North and South America were flying.
Tuesday morning, April 20, I showed up early at the airport and was able to go stand-by to Newark and from Newark to Seattle. 14+ hours on the plane home, but it did not feel bad since I knew that others were still in the London airport waiting for flights. Tuesday night my wife picked me up at the Seattle-Tacoma airport and I “slept” in my own bed.
That night I received emails from other Americans who were still in London. We don’t know when they will get home.
Quite an adventure for many people. If the airline safety people don’t figure out a better solution to volcanic ash, this situation could go on for quite a while.