Beware: this is going to be my longest blog post so far, and hopefully ever... this is my story about getting stranded in Europe due to the Iceland volcano.
A few weeks ago I embarked on what I expected would be a very fun and interesting trip. My plan was as follows:
- Leave Jacksonville, FL on the evening of April 10, connect in Atlanta then overnight to London (Heathrow), switch airlines and head to Olso, Norway and by Sunday night, April 11, land in Trondheim, Norway.
- Teach SharePoint Designer 2010 to a consulting firm Monday, April 12 - Friday, April 16.
- On Saturday, April 17 fly to London.
- Attend & present at the SharePoint 2010 Evolution Conference in London Monday, April 19 - 20.
- Return back to the US on Wednesday, April 21.
Unless you've been completely out of touch Iceland decided to get back at Europe for their financial crisis and decided to neglect one if it's volcanoes, Eyjafjallajokull, blow it's top and send tons of ash into the skies that shut down European airspace for quite a long time. I saw this news on Thursday, April 15 and monitored it through Friday but couldn't do much about it as I was still teaching and couldn't exactly cut class short. Unfortunately that meant sitting still and watching Norwegian airspace, with the rest of Scandinavia and Europe, close to all air traffic.
I had a certain degree of responsibility to make my best effort to get to London for the conference. Many US based speakers were not going to make it due to the ash cloud... I felt like they really needed me to be there but I also desperately wanted to be there. After quickly realizing getting there by air was not going to happen, I looked at every other option including train, bus, ferry, rental car and car pools. The goal was to get to Brussels where I could get on the EuroStar up into central London. My students were incredibly helpful in assisting with other modes of transportation over to London for the conference. We looked at train options that in 37hrs and 8 transfers would take me from Trondheim » Oslo » Gothenburg » Copenhagen » Hamburg » Cologne » Brussels. They even used their own travel agent to secure me a seat on a Norwegian Air flight direct to London on Sunday morning. And that wasn't the end of it... the guys at Enable AS were AMAZINGLY helpful and generous.
In all, I decided to wait until Saturday and see what happened. And this is where my travel nightmare started...
Saturday, April 17:
I wake up to find out the Trondheim airport is still closed and my flight has been cancelled. I had a flight booked on Sunday AM but Norway airspace wasn't expected to be open by then. I worked all day on train options, but everything was sold out. I found a guy on Twitter who lived in Oslo but didn't have a license... he was trying to get to the same conference and offered to be my navigator. Using an American travel agent provided as part of my business American Express Platinum card, I reserved a rental car at the Oslo airport (all rentals were booked in Trondheim) to be picked up Sunday morning at 9:00 AM to be dropped off at the Brussels airport at 12:00 PM Monday: a 15hr drive, the car was to cost $2,200 + $125/hr for every hour past 12p. Expensive and a brutal drive, but I was up for it. All I needed to do was get to Oslo by 9:00 AM.
So I went back to the train/bus station in Trondheim to get the overnight to Oslo but the bus ticket office was closed by the time I got there. I linked up with some students and their spouses for dinner and then they were going to help me get on the bus (because you could buy tickets when you got there). At 10:30 PM John & Lars from Enable walked with me over to the bus station and the driver said there was no chance I'd on as it was sold out and there were at least 10 standby passengers waiting in front of me for no-shows.
What happened next floored me: John & Lars offered to drive me the 6-hour trek down to Oslo right then. We left Trondheim at 11:30 PM on Saturday heading for Oslo. They insisted if I was going to drive as much as I planned to the following day, I needed to sleep so they drove and sat there in silence while I slept on and off. I can't express how grateful and how much in debt I am to these two guys. I've only started to try to express my thanks to them.
Sunday, April 18:
We arrived at the Oslo airport at 6:00 AM, well before my car would be ready & the office would be open. Thankfully there was a Radisson Blu hotel attached to the airport so I elected to book room on a day rate and get a few hours of sleep with internet access to go over my route. Just after 9:00 AM I went over to get the car where I found out that it now wouldn't be ready until later that afternoon. That means driving through the night AGAIN, this time solo as my Olso navigator had to back out (no complains, didn't make sense for him anymore as things changed). Frankly, that did not sit well with me as I was still pretty tired.
So on Sunday afternoon I was working on train options... all afternoon... with some help from some other local Olso folks. The guys at the conference were in a war room working on a way to get me to London (among other things and juggle the session agenda for all the speaker cancellations). Steve Smith, the conference organizer, posted a tweet on Twitter offering free registration & hotel to anyone who could get me to London. We had a plan where someone was going to pick me up at the Oslo airport, drive me south four hours to Gothenburg where we'd link up with someone else and all three of us would drive through the night to Brussels and then catch the Eurostar up on Monday afternoon. We even had booked tickets (thanks to Steve). Unfortunately the Gothenburg connection fell through at the last minute and it got too late for us to even make it to Brussels in time for the train... so Sunday came and went with me in Oslo.
Monday, April 19:
With nothing to do on Sunday night or Monday morning I did the best thing I could think of, expecting quite an adventure the rest of the week: I slept 12 hours overnight and man I needed it. So I got up and started working the news Web sites, watching BBC, airline sites, European train scheduling sites, Twitter... you name it. Reports make it seem like the skies over Scandinavia would be opening up Monday night or sometime Tuesday. About 6 hours later I had booked tickets for Tuesday afternoon on a KLM flight from Oslo » Amsterdam » London. Course that meant all three airports and flight paths had to be open.
Realizing it was going to be a close call that airports would be open by the time of my flight I looked for another backup plan. It was obvious I was going to miss the conference in London, but my Delta flight back to the US was booked for Wednesday afternoon and I really wanted to be on that flight. So I found a little direct British Airways flight to Heathrow on Wednesday morning that I went ahead and got a refundable ticket for giving me a 3hr connection.
Sure enough, the Oslo airport opened late Monday and stayed open the rest of the week.
Tuesday, April 20:
When I woke up Tuesday, I had two text messages: both flights, the KLM flight that afternoon and the BA flight the next morning, had been cancelled. Great... so for the next 6 hours I had a lot to do:
- Convince Delta I was making every effort to get to London and convince them it was physically impossible for me to get to London. Finally, I was able to convince them to cancel my flight and refund the funds for the unused portion.
- Give up on getting to London... by the US news sites account there were over 40,000 Americans stranded in the UK. 40,001 wasn't going to help my chances of getting home. Damn... there goes London... totally bummed at this point.
- Find a new way home.
I then had the most interesting conversation with my AMEX travel agent. They asked where I was trying to go. After a brutal few days of the rollercoaster trying to get to London/home and sitting on hold for a total of 2.5 hours between Delta & AMEX (even with platinum status on both), I said the following:
"I am in Oslo, Norway. I need to get to North America. I will take any flight to any city in North America on any airline on any day at any time in any seat class... it just has to originate in Oslo."
After a bit of a laugh, they realized I was serious. I wanted to get to Jacksonville, FL, but I could care less... just get me out of Europe (by now I was using the #FleeingEurope hashtag in my tweets). Once in North America, I'll figure out how to get home. I refused to book any connections. Finally we found a Continental flight from Oslo to Newark, New Jersey for Thursday. It was late in the afternoon so I got a little work done & called it a day.
Wednesday, April 21:
Before I did anything meaningful, I wanted to make sure the daily Continental flight took off as it was cancelled the day before. After a brief delay, I could see it lift off from the runway from my hotel room. Finally... a bit of relief so I headed into downtown Oslo and finally got to do some sightseeing.
Amazingly enough, this was the first day since the previous Wednesday that I didn't have to any travel planning or sit on hold with any travel agents. I honestly thought that after plans #6 & #7 fell through the day before, plan #8 (the Thursday Continental flight would take off). Before heading to Oslo I called my parents as it was my mom's birthday. My dad made some comment about booking a flight out of Newark to get to Florida and I refused... I refused to book anything until I was back in the US as I'd seen so many other plans that looked promising fall apart. Good thing too... unfortunately...
Thursday, April 22:
Finally, an 11:25 AM flight out of Oslo direct to Newark. I got on board got my headphones & Zune out, got my laptop out and stuffed it in the seatback to get some stuff done once we took off and started reading a book on the Kindle. We boarded a bit late, but no biggie, they can makeup time in the air.
And then it starts all over again...
The pilot notifies everyone there's an oil leak and they are going to take an hour to get it resolved. About 45 minutes later I watched two mechanics go into the cockpit for about 5 minutes... no way can it take five minutes to deliver good news. I'll spare you the details but we were all asked to get off the plane and 4 hours later it was cancelled.
And here I thought getting on the plane was it. Ha! Well, at least I made progress and got on the plane before it was cancelled! Argggg!!!!
Friday, April 23:
OK... this is now my 9th plan to get back to the US. I was booked on SAS from Oslo » Frankfurt and then on Lufthansa from Frankfurt to Newark. And they all went off without a hitch. Finally... made it back to the US! It was a long day. All in all it took just over 24 hours to get home. When I arrived at the Newark airport I didn't have a ticket to get home to Florida. I walked up to the Delta ticket counter and asked for a ticket home. They looked quite surprised that someone hadn't bought a ticket home and just showed up, but when I briefly explained my ordeal trying to get home, they were more than accommodating. They gave me the cheapest ticket, moved me up to the top of the board for an upgrade and waived all extra fees. Thanks Delta ladies!
This whole incident started on Thursday, April 15... it didn't directly affect me until Saturday, April 17... but it look me six days to get it resolved. As you read this you might think "gee, why didn't he just sit tight and focus on trying to get out later in the week?" The news changed all the time. You'd see the ash cloud moving around and where there was a clearing you'd think you could get out in that area... but then things would move again. The news indicated the same stuff. No one knew when it would end. People, including the news, talked about it lasting potentially for weeks. Had we all known there was some finality to it and a date it would clear up, I'm sure we all would have stayed put. But that just wasn't the case. Have to thank the airlines for pushing the issue on Monday/Tuesday of that week.
Now granted, this was an unprecedented incident... but it happened. Something similar happened in the US when September 11 caused the feds to shut down US airspace for 3 days. But throughout this process I learned a few things.
What did I learn? Make sure you have links to local & national news sites BEFORE you head to a foreign country. You think you can get the news when you're there, but then you quickly learn a few things:
- You can give up on the TV or newspaper... they aren't going to translate for you (duh).
- When you search online for the country's / local leading news websites, they don't exactly index "Norway's Leading News Site" in English (or your native tongue).
Make sure you have your laptop and cell phone battery charged at all times (or any chance you get) because you have no idea when you'll have access to power. Also, make sure you don't check your power converter if traveling international in your checked bag. That's just plain dumb. I didn't, but I realized a few times how screwed I would have been without it.
If possible carry a multipurpose battery you can use for your cell phone, GPS or MP3 player.
Have an offline map of where you're going. Sure, you've got online maps, but they don't help if you hit the road. Thankfully this dawned on me Saturday night and while I was at dinner, I left my laptop downloading Microsoft MapPoint Europe 2010 from my MSDN subscription.
The thing that was the most amazing to me was looking back, Twitter was very helpful. I had a ton of people who were helping me with plans and working on options. Others helped answer random questions. Once you found the hashtag people were using (#ashcloud) you could see the areas that had the most promise or were the worst to try to get to.
There are a number of stories of people moving all over Europe trying to get home. For those who lived in Europe I get that... but for those who were from the US, for many it might not have been worth it. Most people didn't start getting out until the skies started to open up and by then, they were all open. For me, while I kept trying to get out of Norway and get to London, I think it ultimately worked in my advantage to not leave Oslo and stay put. I didn't exactly mean to wait it out, nature and mechanical issues pretty much imposed that on me, but it worked out nonetheless.
You heard some of the most interesting stories. I know a guy who drove with friends from Sweden to London. Another set of guys stuck in Croatia made it to the coast, took a ferry to Italy, got a flight to Barcelona and then another flight back to the US. Another guy I was supposed to sit next to on my cancelled Thursday flight was in central Germany, made his way north to the coast, then caught a ferry over to Sweden and ultimately a train up to Oslo. Sort of ironic he had to connect in Frankfurt to get home. There were some crazy stories...
There you have it. While I was only a few days late getting home from my original plan, I also missed half of the whole reason I did the trip (SharePoint 2010 Evolutions Conference in London).