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Your next 7 moves when housesitting travel plans go wrong

THE worst part of travelling is getting from Point A to Point B. The stops along the way usually are great.

Since the world-altering events of September 11, 2001, getting through airports has become a grind. Everywhere you turn it seems there are lines of impatient people being subjected to metal detector searches (or worse!) by even more impatient people. Tempers can become frayed and, if you’re running late, it always appears as if the lines are even longer.

The cardinal rule is to arrive at airports and clear security early, even if it means sitting in a gate lounge for an hour or looking at all that stuff you can’t afford anyway, whether it’s duty-free or not.

But sometimes running late is just not your fault, although you have to wear the consequences.

Recently, after a few days in Lisbon, Portugal, taking a break from housesitting, we flew to Madrid, Spain, to pick up a flight to our next sit — in Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off the coast of northwestern Africa.

We were up before dawn and were all packed and waiting when the pre-ordered cab arrived at 5.15am. Our first flight was at 7.45am, to arrive in Madrid at 10am. Even with the one-hour time difference between the Portuguese and Spanish capitals, we still had two hours to recheck our luggage and be on our 12 noon flight to Tenerife South.

What could possibly go wrong? Plenty.

The flight from Lisbon was delayed by 10 minutes and eventually lifted off about 35 minutes late. After we arrived in Madrid and picked up our two 20kg suitcases, we had to find our way from Terminal 2 to Terminal 4. Madrid, it turned out, is a massive airport and changing terminals involved taking a bus on a seemingly endless, circuitous route that actually took more than 30 minutes. By the time we arrived to check in for Tenerife South, we were way too late to have any hope of getting on the flight, never mind our baggage.

Then it was take a number and stand in line at the customer service desk. Like “airline food”, the term “customer service” also can be an oxymoron, even more so when there are language barriers. It turned out there was a later flight to Tenerife North — an hour by car from where we wanted to go — and it was fully booked, anyway, so we had to wait until the following day.

So here is what to do when you are stranded in a big city such as Madrid, your grasp of Spanish is limited to “hola”, “gracias” and “hasta la vista”, and you are expected elsewhere to start a housesit.

  1. Well, the first thing, of course, is panic. Until you can almost feel your head explode. Then, just before detonation, stop panicking. That’s about 30 seconds worth of sheer helplessness. Get it out of the way, right off the bat.
  2. Next, secure the next available flight and — very important — contact your housesitting hosts to apologise and let them know you have made the best possible alternative arrangements. We discuss elsewhere on this website the wisdom in having a day or two in hand before each sit, and it was extremely valuable here. We were still able to live up to our end of the bargain.
  3. Sit down and try to figure the rest of this out calmly. You have a few Euros in your wallet and a  credit or prepaid debit card, so accept that there has been a blunder somewhere, there is no use beating yourself up over it, and you are going to have somewhat fewer Euros by the time this has run its course.
  4. Try to do this in a decent airport food outlet where you can get a little something to settle your tummy and pat the big black cat the man at the next table has in a travel cage. Even if it’s not his care animal, it can be yours for a few seconds and make you feel a whole lot better.
  5. Hit the internet and find a hotel that’s (a) nearby; (b) relatively cheap but not too nasty; (c) has a shuttle service to and from the airport; and (d) includes one of those all-you-can-eat breakfasts in the tariff.
  6. Figure out what you’ve learned from the experience. We already knew that booking two flights with the same airline would mean our bags would be checked through to our final destination, but we did not learn from that. Instead we booked our Lisbon-Madrid flight with Europa, the third largest carrier in Spain after Iberia, with whom we booked Madrid-Tenerife, and Vueling. It was our first flight with Europa and we learned that it probably would be our last. It wasn’t just that they were late. Right from the get-go in Lisbon, when we did not know whether we had time to buy food, so asked when our flight would be boarding, the smart alec (or, in this case, smart alexis) at the gate lounge desk replied: “When the aircraft arrives.” Thanks for that. You just cost your company some potential business.
  7. Become vindictive. Web-based flight booking services always send out surveys asking about your experience, so tell them. Tell them bluntly.

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5 Responses

  1. Thankfully we’ve never missed a flight in our 4+ years of full time travel! We did get stuck in Copenhagen for 8 hours on our way to Norway – we couldn’t leave because nobody could tell us when the next flight was. There are worse airports to be stranded in.

    These are all sound tips, for sure. The key is to not get so angry because then everything else spirals out of control.

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