This is my story…
I was one of the thousands of people that was impacted by the volcano in Iceland. (It’s safe to say I never thought I’d end up typing that in my lifetime.) Enough people have asked me about it that I thought I’d write my story down.
Thursday, April 15th (in Moscow) –
Reports of the volcano and the ash impacting flights. I check my flights (to London via Dusseldorf) but they’re all listed as “On Schedule.” I’m hopeful but don’t really believe it. Set my alarm clock to wake up a little earlier to check in the morning.
Friday, April 16th (in Moscow) –
I’m scheduled to fly back to London today, and first thing in the morning I check my flights on Lufthansa. A number of the flights to Germany have been cancelled, but mine is still “On Schedule.” At this point I’m feeling pretty lucky and close my computer to start getting ready.
Less than a minute later, I get a text from Lufthansa telling me my flight has been cancelled. I immediately log back into Lufthansa and find out in the two minutes since I last checked the flight has indeed been cancelled. (I’m VERY thankful to Lufthansa for this!)
I figure I need to head south, and to a place where I can start booking train tickets back home. I looked into Italy, but no luck. But I quickly found a flight on Air Berlin from Moscow to Vienna, and book it immediately. From there I figured that I would sort it out.
(The business bit of Friday is a bit of a blur. I had a meeting but spend most of the time worrying about getting home.)
Friday afternoon my colleague and I made it to Moscow’s DME airport. I managed to get there about five minutes before checkin opened for my flight, so even managed to get an exit row seat for the flight! For the next couple of hours I shared a laptop 3G connection with my colleague, and managed to book a train from Vienna to Koln and *tried* to book a Eurostar ticket for the end of the day Saturday, without success.
The flight to Vienna was fine, and found out from my cab driver later that our plane was one of the last to land… the airport closed just a few minutes later!
My biggest worry once I was in Vienna was boredom on Saturday. My train was scheduled to leave at 6:40am, and I didn’t have anything to read for the 10 hour train ride! Despite looking all over Vienna that night, I couldn’t find anything and was a little worried for the morning.
The other VERY lucky thing that happened was that I managed to book a Eurostar ticket for Sunday the 18th! I think that I Eurostar had added extra trains, and I managed to get a ticket on one of them. Needless to say I was pretty happy about that!
Saturday, April 17th (in Vienna) –
I made it to Vienna’s Westbahnhof at around 6am. Got in line at the ticket office to get my tickets.
This was the lowest point in the whole journey… When I got to the ticket agent it turned out that I *didn’t* have a ticket on the 6:40am train, and there were no other tickets available on the 6:40am train.
Or the 8:40 train.
Or the 10:40 train.
Or the 12:40 train.
Luckily, there was a ticket available on the 14:40 train, getting into Koln nearly 10 hours later at 00:05. I bought it, kicking myself. (I hadn’t gotten an e-mail confirmation of my ticket, so I must have f**ked up when I thought I booked the original train while sitting in the Moscow airport.)
Three important things came out of this, however.
1) I was able to find an English language bookstore (literally, the British Bookshop) and buy books for the train.
2) I got some quality time at Starbucks on a WiFi connection to catch up on work e-mails. (And the weather in Vienna was incredible, which helped, too.)
3) The new train meant I wasn’t going to be able to visit my friend in Aachen, Germany. That really sucked, but at least I had a great phone call with him to catch up.
Finally, I made it back to Westbahnhof and got on the train. On this I need to make an important point:
I LOVE DEUTSCHE BAHN. (German national rail system.)
Sure the train was 10 hours long, but it was such a pleasant journey. Seats had plenty of room, the ride was comfortable, and the scenery was gorgeous. There was a bit of delay, but we pulled into Koln around 00:30 that morning and made it to the hotel, which was about a 2 minute walk away.
Sunday, April 18th (in Koln) –
My the time I checked in, got settled, checked e-mail and went to sleep… I didn’t get much sleep. Woke up early to make sure I was able to get breakfast and back to the station in time for my 7:40am Thalys train to Brussels. The train wasn’t as nice as the Deutsche Bahn Inter-City Express (ICE), but it got me there.
As soon as I made it into Brussels I got in the queue to pick up my Eurostar ticket. The Eurostar office was a mess… they only had two electronic machines to check in, and one of those was broken! It was probably a queue of 40–50 people just to print out tickets that we had purchased online. A TV station was there video-ing everyone and interviewing a few passengers.
After managing to find a bar to see the end of the Chinese F1 Grand Prix, I got lunch and then it was time to queue for the train. Again, the station is small so the check-in queue was crowded and a bit of a mess, but moved quickly enough.
Finally, I was on the train and we started moving. Not many memories after that… I was so exhausted I slept nearly the entire way home.
By 3pm on Sunday I was home in London.
While it was certainly a bit of an adventure, I really came out of this whole thing relatively unscathed. I was lucky to get a flight from Moscow to Vienna, and lucky to get a Eurostar ticket. Between was a very straightforward train ride. It helped that I was on a business trip, so I could use a corporate credit card and sort it all out later. (Not that anyone was really ripping people off, even Eurostar wasn’t ridiculously expensive…)
I do feel bad for people that were caught in much worse situations (sleeping in airports for days, etc.). When stuff like this happens, a WiFi or 3G connection and good communications (from Lufthansa!) are like gold dust.
Total flight time: ~2.5 hours (Russia, Austria)
Total train time: ~14 hours (Austria, Germany, Belgium, France, UK)
Postscript — My colleague
I was in Moscow with a colleague that was (and still is) trying to get back to Dublin. By the time his flights were officially cancelled there weren’t any others leaving. He managed to catch an overnight sleeper train from Moscow to Helsinki, which I understand was filled with drunken Russians playing dance music all night long. He’s still in Helsinki, but happy to at least be in a city where lots of people speak English and the Euro is the currency! Hopefully he’ll be coming back soon….