I have Facebook (an original “roll out” member from when it was restricted to college students only!) and I check it daily, but I’m not really very active on there anymore. It’s a nice way to keep in touch with family/friends whom I rarely (or never) see anymore, but if I’m being honest, most days I just scroll through my newsfeed a couple times a day and save/read any interesting articles or quizzes or memes, etc. that I come across as a way to waste time at some point in the future.
One of these articles that I came across the other day was entitled something like “People Share Their Worst Experiences Flying” and was (as the title would lead you to believe) all about peoples’ worst experiences flying. One person had long delays resulting in lost luggage, one got stuck next to the worst seatmate ever, another person had a near-death experience when their plane was struck by lightning, and so the article went on and on with each person sharing their own awful story. This of course got me thinking about my own personal adventures with flying — more specifically, it got me thinking about my first experience flying out of the country and this is the story that I am going to share with you all today!
When I was at Western Michigan University studying German, I had the opportunity to study abroad for one semester. Several classmates were going to be attending the same program with me at the University of Bonn (Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn) in Bonn, Germany (in North Rhine-Westphalia for those of you who care about the specifics). I was very excited for this opportunity/adventure and couldn’t wait to discover somewhere new (to me) and put my German skills (however limited they were at the time) to the test. I also liked the fact that my semester abroad was going to be March-July, meaning I got an especially long break from school after our fall semester had ended in December.
One of the girls in my class (for the sake of this story, I will call her Allison) already had quite a bit of experience with world-travel and had already been to Germany at some point with her family. They had friends there and since her and I got along well enough in class she asked if I wanted to go a week early with her to stay with these friends until our program started in Bonn. Despite the fact that I am not very comfortable around strangers I said, “Sure!!” Why not, right? We were young, it sounded fun, and I was smart enough to know that an opportunity like this doesn’t come along every day. So we started planning!
A side note: Out of curiosity, I just looked back through my Facebook Messenger conversations from that January/February (when we started planning) a couple days ago to verify that my memory of events was accurate. This proved to be entertaining in itself as technology has come such a long way since 2010 when this story takes place. We exchanged phone numbers at one point to set up a meeting time to solidify our travel plans and our conversation after the initial number swap went like this:
Me: I also text if that’s an option for you. haha Just fyi.
Allison: lol actually I’m like the one in a thousand who doesn’t have free texting : /
Me: 🙂 It’s all good… I finally had to get my own phone this past fall and I didn’t have texting because of the cost. I finally decided to cough up the extra money for it though a couple weeks ago because it was “inconvenient” for my family [for me not to have it]. Texting is pretty pointless anyway really so no worries. Feel free to catch me on here or give me a call. 🙂
So, as you can see… It wasn’t all that long ago that some of us still had flip-phones and didn’t have texting as a convenient means of communicating with each other and we still had to do things the old fashioned way by calling or meeting in person to make plans. And that is exactly what we did.
At the beginning of January, we decided to meet at Allison’s house. I’ll add that the entire afternoon before we were supposed to meet up, I was feeling a little “off” (dizzy on and off and generally just a little out of it), but I felt better enough by evening that I figured I would be fine to meet as planned. I was wrong.
We sat at Allison’s kitchen table planning this exciting trip when I started to feel dizzy again. As I mentioned earlier, I really do not feel comfortable around strangers and even though this girl was a classmate, I still did not know her all that well and had been a little anxious about actually getting together to plan this whole thing in the first place. So with all of that being said, I chose not to say anything about how I was feeling. I’m still not sure why. Maybe I was worried that she would think I was weird for coming to her house to get sick? Maybe I was worried that she would rescind her invitation? I’m really not sure, but to continue, at one point Allison got up to say goodbye to her boyfriend who was leaving for work and it was at that moment that I suddenly felt the edges of my vision getting dimmer and all the sounds around me getting muffled — I completely passed out in that poor girl’s kitchen as she was walking back into the room.
I was so embarrassed. It lasted only a moment, but when I got back into my chair, I felt exhausted and weak and shaky. She had me go sit on her couch and got me a granola bar to hopefully help with the shakes. This pretty much ended our in-person planning and the rest was done via Facebook messenger where I made a couple jokes about promising not to pass out again.
And so our trip was planned. At the end of January, we bought our plane tickets. We were on the same flight together from Chicago to Frankfurt and Allison’s dad (who was a frequent traveler and knew all the tricks to find a good deal) scored us a great price for roundtrip train tickets from Frankfurt to the small town of Kiefersfelden where their friends lived. Our trip was all set in stone and perfect and we were ready to go!
Nothing ever goes as planned. I’m pretty sure there’s a Murphy’s Law somewhere about this. “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.” And it did for me. And this is where the story of my first trip out of the country really goes downhill.
What I failed to mention before is that Allison and her family actually lived in West Michigan so she had them take her to the airport in Chicago, but my family lives in East Michigan. I didn’t want to leave my car sitting in West Michigan for the entire summer and thought it would be better to leave it with my mom on the east side of the state while I was gone. This meant that I had actually gotten a connecting flight from Detroit to Chicago where Allison and I were going to meet up for our flight together to Frankfurt. Let me tell you — Having a connecting flight in February in the northern Midwest is the worst idea ever and I had to learn this hard way.
The inbound flight (St. Louis to Detroit I think) had been delayed by about 40 minutes due to snow and I only had about an hour and fifteen minutes to work with in Chicago before having to get on my flight to Germany. I thought, “Great, I’m going to have to rush to get to my next gate! At least I still have a little bit of time.” Again, Murphy’s Law came to my rescue (not) and the inbound flight from STL was delayed even longer and arrived to DTW about an hour behind schedule. I was desperately messaging my friend on Facebook to let her know what was going on and that I would be there hopefully just in time to catch the flight with her to Frankfurt.
Well, by the time I got to ORD, I was so worried. I turned my phone back on as soon as we landed to see that I had gotten a voicemail from Allison wondering how close I was and letting me know that boarding was about to start. I had received multiple text messages from my mom as well that let me know that Allison contacted her to inform her that she had asked the crew to wait for me, but they wouldn’t (of course) so she had gotten on the flight and left me behind (quite understandably). I had missed my flight by only 5-10 minutes. I was so disappointed and worried and suddenly a little stressed out. Allison was supposed to be my “tour guide” essentially since she was the experienced traveler, not me!
The airline rebooked my flight (thankfully for free since it was no fault of my own) and I was disappointed to see that I no longer had a direct flight to Frankfurt. I now had a layover at London Heathrow and my flight out of Chicago didn’t even leave until 3 hours later. At this time, it was close to 6:30pm (CST) putting my flight out about 9:30pm(ish). I was suddenly glad I had my laptop with me to kill time since I knew I would be sitting for a while. In hindsight, I probably should have thought to find somewhere to recharge my computer, but… another rookie mistake.
Well, about 8pm a little snowstorm conveniently showed up and my flight was delayed yet again. It was snowing so hard at one point that you could hardly see out the windows. The flight was delayed until about 11pm, but when 11pm came, the flight was delayed for a bit longer because we had to wait for a fresh crew to arrive. I was already tired and I wasn’t even en route to Germany yet. I was also starting to worry about the fact that we were going to have to get new train tickets since I wouldn’t be making it in time to catch the one we had scheduled ahead of time. I messaged Allison to keep her updated as well as I could, but the fact that she was still in the air on her flight made it impossible to plan or communicate with each other.
A new crew finally arrived and I think we were all relieved when they finally started letting us board. It was close to midnight by this point. This was the largest plane I had ever been on. I was in an aisle seat (thankfully) with one person next to me in the window. After we boarded it was heard that we would be delayed for a little longer because one of the engines had an oil leak. It was a “quick fix” so they didn’t make us all deplane, but I remember drifting in an out of sleep for quite a while and peaking out the window occasionally to see that it was still snowing. Pretty soon the de-icers came, but halfway through de-icing the plane, they ran out of fluid and had to go refill. By the time we actually took off, it must have been close to 2am. To my dismay, I already knew that I would be missing my connecting flight in Heathrow by several hours and had another rebooking to look forward to whenever we arrived.
The flight from Chicago to London is about eight hours long and I didn’t/couldn’t sleep very much of it. The actual flight, however, went smoothly and I arrived to a rainy, gray Heathrow. This was better than snow, but did nothing at all to improve my situation. Once I turned my phone back on, I received a voicemail and messages that Allison had waited as long as she could for me in Frankfurt and that she had taken the last train for the day to Kiefersfelden. I was out of luck. I messaged her to let her know that I had arrived in Heathrow and would be rebooking (yet again).
I don’t even remember how long I had to wait for my newest flight, but I know I wandered around that airport for a good long time. I also remember that there was no end to my bad luck. Close to boarding time, someone announced overhead that our gate had been changed and not surprisingly, this gate was at the complete opposite end of the terminal. So I rushed, with about 50 business men in suits (of course it would be my luck that I would be the only exhausted, crappy-dressed, travel-worn girl on this flight with a bunch of posh Englishmen, sigh), to the opposite end of the terminal and sat at a much more crowded gate for about 15 minutes. At this time, another announcement was made that our gate had been changed, again, and that it was, again, at the opposite end of the terminal where we had been in the first place. This time, since it was now the scheduled time to start boarding, all of us (me with my backpack, laptop case, and messy hair and all the businessmen with their nice suits and briefcases) ran quickly back across the terminal to our new/old gate.
The flight from Heathrow to Frankfurt is less than an hour long. I got my first lesson in European flight service where I was surprised to see that beer was a free drink option. All of the businessmen took a beer and despite the fact that this was the least appetizing thing to me at that moment (I was completely exhausted, hungry, and stressed out), there was no way I was going to pass up a free beer! When in Rome, right?? Thankfully, this flight also went well and FINALLY, I made it to Frankfurt. Now all I needed to do was figure out the train situation and I would be on my way to Kiefersfelden.
I managed to follow the signs (mostly in German at this point, logically) all the way to baggage claim so I could collect my giant bag that I had checked. Now, some of you (if you’ve made it this far into my story) may be thinking, “Alright, she finally made it to Germany, good.” But wait! My bad luck does not end here! My bag… My bag which I had packed in all of my rookie flying wisdom… My bag which contained every single bit of clothing I had brought to Europe with me (other than what I was currently wearing) was still in Chicago and would not be arriving for one whole week.
I was stressed out. To make things even better, my laptop only had 10% life left, my phone had died before I left Heathrow, and again, in my infinite wisdom, before I left on this wonderful journey, I had not even taken the time to think about the fact that Europe uses different electrical outlets than in the U.S. so my chargers were of no use to me. I had no adapter. It was about 1am (CET) and again, to my dismay, the train station wasn’t even open. That section of the airport was completely closed until about 5am when the first train left so I didn’t even have a way to buy a train ticket.
I wandered around that stupid airport for quite some time. I had nothing else to do until the train station opened, except worry about how the heck I was going to get to Kiefersfelden or contact my friend Allison. She no longer had the use of her phone (international = way too expensive at that time!) and I wasn’t even sure that she would be able to access Facebook at her friend’s house. I found a place where you could buy time to use an airport computer to access the internet. Another rookie first: European keyboards are different than those in the U.S. It took me quite a while to even get logged into Facebook to message Allison since I couldn’t type my email address without difficulty. Once that was completed, I went in search of food and found that McDonalds was literally the only food place open at that time of night so I grabbed something to eat there. I did manage to find a little travel shop that sold over-priced outlet adapters, so I bought one of those as well.
Another side note: I had never had experience traveling out of the country (duh) which meant that I had no experience with currency exchanges. Everything I bought up to this point (Heathrow and Frankfurt) I had just purchased using my debit card (which I later found, again to my dismay, results in an additional fee for not paying in cash). Exchange rates suck. Anyway, back to my story… (It’s almost done, don’t worry!)
Electrical adapter in hand, I quickly found another big difference between airports in the U.S. and European airports (at the time) — lack of available electrical outlets. I looked EVERYWHERE. I finally found one in a corner on the floor by a less-used part of the airport. I sat right down there on the floor with all of my belongings and let my phone charge. Something else I learned is that Europeans are not so quick to sit around on the floor. I got some weird looks while I was sitting (okay, and kind of laying and trying to unsuccessfully sleep a bit) there in my corner on the floor. At that point though, I no longer cared. I was tired and my phone needed charged. Gotta do what ya gotta do, right??
Once my phone was charged enough, I decided to go wait closer to the train station where I sat back down on the floor near the entrance gate until it opened. This is the part of my story that starts to get a little fuzzy in my memory. As I have mentioned several times, I was just exhausted and stressed out and had never traveled by train in Europe. I got on the train that I needed, but I didn’t buy a ticket beforehand because I was worried (for whatever reason) that it was pay only in cash (which I didn’t have) or that I would say the wrong thing and embarrass myself so I just got on the train. I found, again as a rookie traveler, that this is acceptable, but the conductor finds it slightly annoying and it costs more when they come around and find that you have not purchased your ticket ahead of time.
Ticket purchased, train on its way, I now thought that I would be able to relax for the next four hours while I sat there, but I was stressed out even more once I discovered that the train actually didn’t go directly to Kiefersfelden. It was actually going to stop in München (Munich) where I would have to transfer over to another (smaller) train that would take me where I needed to go. Upon making this realization, I didn’t even care about international rates anymore. I was texting friends at home to help me figure out which train I would have to get on once I arrived in Munich. The maps made no sense to my American eyes as they were all in German and I had never had any experience with the train system in Germany before. It was so stressful and I was so afraid that I was going to end up stranded in some random German city with no way to contact anybody. I still had no good way to confirm with Allison for sure what time I was going to arrive or if she/they would be there to pick me up. I tried to text her just in case she received it to let her know where I was and when I would (hopefully) be arriving in Kiefersfelden.
With that, I picked the train that I thought the map said I should get on and hoped for the best, again not purchasing a ticket ahead of time. At this point I had been traveling for over 40 hours and I was just ready to be done. Plus, as an added bonus, I was now worrying about what to do about my lack of clothing for the next week. I closed my eyes and tried to relax for a little while and finally, before I knew it, I had actually arrived in Kiefersfelden.
And, thankfully, the first bit of good luck I had had in those two days — standing there, next to the tiniest train station ever, was my friend Allison and her German friend waiting for my arrival. And this is the end of my story about my first/worst time traveling outside of the country.
I apologize for the length of this one, but it isn’t the same without all the details. I even feel like this is a little rushed so you’re welcome – it could have been even longer! My time in Kiefersfelden was incredible and an adventure all on its own that I will have to share with you at some point in the future. Thanks to all of you who actually read this far! I hope you enjoyed my misadventure.
I would love to hear from some of you! What was your worst travel experience? Feel free to leave your own stories in the comments! See you all again soon!