With the snow on the East Coast this weekend which thankfully was a non-event in Philly for a change (although I did stock up on essentials – not milk, eggs, bread but wine, chocolate and potato chips to reward me for any shoveling I may need to do) it reminded me of a snow storm a few years back (snowmageddon, snowpocalypse or some other name that the 24 hr news cycle assigned) when I was scheduled to fly back from Paris. I had been in London on business and decided to visit a childhood friend who had relocated in Paris a few months prior with her family. It was December and both cities were lit up for the Christmas holiday. I would travel to Paris on the train – my first time doing this through the chunnel.
Waiting for the train at the station with the hoards of strollers and families going to Euro Disney wasn’t exactly the image of train travel to Paris that I had imagined but that aside, it was a lovely ride from London past the open green landscapes that I rarely associate with London. Arriving in Paris, the city was cold and grey – not surprising for December. What was surprising was the snow that I woke up to the next day and the reports of a train stuck in the chunnel. Snow in Paris? The chunnel that I went through yesterday? I didn’t pack or plan for snow on this trip as evidenced by my clogs and missing snow gear. When i saw the snow outside of the hotel window, it was beautiful and coated the Paris buildings and landmarks in such a perfect photo memory.
After adjusting my mindset to dealing with snow in Paris, i checked my phone and had received a number of texts and emails from family, friends and colleagues alerting me to the chunnel incident to see if i was stuck (thankfully i was warm in the Westin Paris on an award stay) and to let me know that the east coast was expecting to get “a lot of snow” the day i was flying home. The word “a lot of snow” was a bit unsettling when I was so far from home, checking online the forecasts predicted at least two feet (24″ or more) of snow – quite a lot. I immediately emailed our corporate travel agent to change to an earlier flight from Paris (scheduled to connect in Heathrow) so I could be stranded in London Heathrow with more time to deal with the impending cancellation. I spent the rest of the day exploring Paris in the snow and visiting the Louvre.
When I arrived at Heathrow the next day, I needed to go through security again despite clearing in Paris, I almost started an international incident (ok, this is overly dramatic) but the security people confiscated my contact lens solution. The bottle with the picture of a plane and the words “TSA approved”, the same bottle that cleared Paris and had cleared Heathrow at least three times earlier in the year. It was slightly over 100ml. So i got a bit upset & loud knowing that I would be stuck in a hotel overnight and was taken aside to meet the supervisor. Despite my pleas of needing my solution and how ridiculous they are (note to self do not tell airport security that they are contradictory with stupid rules they don’t enforce), I realized that a warm bed was a more preferred place than a cold room of security inquiries and probable fines (I imagined this, not really sure what they do if you freak out over confiscated liquids). Looking at the number of confiscated contact lens solution in the bin -there must be an arrangement with Boots as I went there to replace the solution at a ridiculous price.
When I checked into the lounge, I had a light snack and started stocking up on water for my bag knowing that once the flight was canceled I would need to line up to rebook, retrieve luggage, etc. I then called the Sofitel Heathrow hotel attached to Terminal 5 (deciding my Amex card and I will worry about costs later), to reserve a room and said I hope to be there soon (it would be nearly three hours later!).
This is where being prepared is helpful and also knowing your rights as a traveler – the European Union (EU) and the US are a bit different. I had a business class ticket which was booked directly with British Airways (BA) via my corporate travel agent – this gave me priority and made it easier to change. Had i been on a leisure coach ticket, reward ticket or book through an online agency, it may have been a lot trickier to change. You need to understand not only your rights as a traveler but all of your booking/re-booking/change options. How do you contact your travel agent after hours? What if you don’t have an Internet connection or international phone access? Do you need to call a US number or is there a toll free option or can you wait in line?
I was entitled to a hotel room and a food voucher, neither of which was initially offered to me (make sure you know your rights in the EU). When I did inquire, the hotel was off site requiring a shuttle that may or may not get me back to the airport the next day given the UK snow so I declined the room but accepted the food voucher. As it was Christmas time, the flights were full and finding an empty seat home would be challenging for most of us. I was extremely lucky to be stranded overnight, others weren’t going home for days.
So nearly three hours after BA finally canceled the flight I made my way to the Sofitel. An inviting bed (their So bed) was easy to fall into after the stress of the past few hours, the welcome bottle of water and chocolate was heaven and after dinner, i enjoyed one of my favorite holiday movies, Love Actually. It was an enjoyable way to be stranded and relax before going home as I knew what was ahead of me – shoveling all of that snow!
Preparing to be stranded somewhere is something to think about when I plan my travel (I really didn’t worry before this incident). Having options and apps available should something happen along the way provides a bit of comfort. Looking at alternative flights with TripIt Pro (I like that it shows available seats in each class) and using Hotel Tonight to find a hotel room (rooms are made available at noon each day) gives me a backup plan which alleviates some of the travel stress of delays, cancellations, etc. Having my essentials is another way to add a level of comfort during travel (Ipod touch, chargers, multi-country adapter from Swiss products , a book and some food in my bag).
Snow is pretty when you can view it from your warm house, it’s fun to build snowmen or throw snowballs with the kids and makes for lovely photos but it wrecks havoc on travel plans. How prepared are you when you travel for weather disruptions – be it snow, tornado (Chicago in October), hurricane, etc.? What essentials make your travels less stressful?