Fun things you can get wrong while travelling

When you make an assumption, you make an ass out of you and umption.

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I did a lot of travelling around as a teenager (I lived in France and my best friend Tom still lived in London), and I made a lot of mistakes. I missed trains, lost my wallet, ended up in the wrong station (Margaret and Bruce drove down to Toulouse station to pick me up, only to find me happily asleep in a parked train after a railway worker took pity on me). Fair enough; it’s only by making mistakes that you learn anything, and I think my parents reckoned that me making them early was a decent investment; once I started travelling around as an adult, I’d know a lot about how things work, what to look out for, and what to never, ever do.

1: Trust the train company

For instance, I was travelling back from London to Dordogne one day, and I had a really long wait between trains. So I arrived in Gare du Nord, got on the Métro for the quick trip to Austerlitz, and then had an hour or two’s wait for my train. While I was waiting for my train’s platform to pop up on the departures board, I noticed that the incoming train from Limoges was arriving at platform 5 (say), so I hopped on it and made myself comfortable.

It pulled out, and I slowly realised there was nobody else in my compartment; for that matter, there was nobody else in the rest of the entire carriage. (Also, the train was stopping an unusual amount.) Nor, having grabbed my bags and gone through carriage after carriage, was there anyone else on the entire train. I made my way to the front carriage, waited until the train stopped, opened the doors, jumped down onto the track, and had a brief unsatisfactory conversation with the train driver along the lines of “Why is this train empty?” vs “What are you doing on the train that’s going to the depot?”

Anyway, it happened that we’d stopped just after a suburban train station, so I nipped across the lines, jumped the turnstile (I think I reckoned that because I’d been hijacked by a rogue train I didn’t owe the train company anything), and made my way back into Austerlitz.

And given that I had a long wait ahead of me, I studied the arrivals board, and worked out which train my train down to Limoges was going to be. It pulls off, hey this train is pretty empty, oh shit I’ve done it again

So you might think that I’d discovered all the ways you could get travelling wrong. Ha! I fooled my parents, I did. I turned into an adult and found all sorts of adult ways to get travelling wrong. You can tell that they’re adult ways because they’re much, much more expensive.

2. Trust technology

For instance, there was the time that B. and J. were coming down to France with us, with a flight leaving Prestwick early in the morning, and our alarm didn’t go off, and we missed the flight, and ended up faffing about traipsing from Prestwick to Glasgow and back, multiple times, trying to shift flights, considering going down to London later on the day and staying at an airport hotel, booking the hotel then realising that it was cheaper to just fly down on the next day’s early morning flight, doing so but forgetting to cancel the hotel so they charged us anyway, etc.

(The biggest mistake there? Refusing B’s offer to put us up in his parents’ house in Ayr the day before we left. I remember some tit on an Edinburgh newsgroup - yes, yes, I’m old - ranting about how Glasgow airport should be called Paisley airport instead, because that’s where it is; Prestwick is about 5 minutes away from Ayr by train.)

3. Trust yourself

Well, this week I flew down to France again, just for a fortnight, to fix various tenant and paperwork things, and because Ryanair like to fuck you over, the flight times to Limoges during the winter season are horrendous if you’re not leaving directly from London. Many of the flights from Limoges get you in at such a late time that there are no flights back up to Glasgow left that day; all of the flights involve hefty layovers at Stansted. The best combination of flights I could find left at 6:50am, which meant a 4am alarm, so I made a list of all I needed, I packed as much as I could the day before, got up on time, packed everything else, called a taxi to Glasgow airport, caught it, arrived at the airport with plenty of time, scanned the departure board… scanned the departure board…

Sorry. Make that “arrived at the wrong airport”.

I’d been comparing Easyjet to Ryanair, and only reached the decision to fly down from Glasgow to Stansted with Ryanair fairly late, but I don’t think that was the entire reason. Rather, I think I subconsciously thought “OK, my flight leaves at 6:50, so say arrive at 5:50 in case I need to have an argument with Ryanair” and therefore, logically, “you get to Prestwick via a train from Glasgow central, but they don’t run this early, so I can’t be going to Prestwick, I must be going to Glasgow airport”.

Anyway, having considered then quickly discounted the idea of getting a taxi and haring it from Paisley to Prestwick (rightly so, in retrospect - Google says it’s about an hour’s drive, an hour which I didn’t have), I then needed to decide which of the upcoming London flights I was going to try and get on. Easyjet’s Stansted flight had already left, BA and British Midland were flying to Heathrow and Gatwick which are both a) bloody far away from London and b) on the wrong side of it anyway, so that left Luton. Easyjet’s website quite reasonably assumes that if you’re booking a flight, you’re at home or at work, and only shows you flights that leave in 2 hours’ time or more, so I don’t know how much the ticket desk in terminal 2 added on as an emergency fee, but £100 later I was sat in the departure lounge waiting for my flight, and desperately trying to work out how the hell I was going to get from Luton to Stansted.

It’s at this point that I have to thank my work for getting me a 3G modem, and reflect gratefully that I’d decided to pack it so I could have something to do during the interminably-long wait at Stansted; a wait which, I rapidly realised, wasn’t actually as long as I would now like. A combination of Stansted and Luton’s “travelling to the airport” pages, National Rail, Transport for London and National Express revealed a rather worrying and perplexing array of subtly different timetables, but one thing was clear: if I was lucky, I’d only miss check-in closing by 10-15 minutes.

Only a few years ago, without any form of mobile internet, I think I’d have dashed to the Luton Express, run around on the Underground, hopped on the Stansted Express, got off the train, waited frustratingly for the shuttle bus from the airport to appear, and arrived comprehensively, and in a manner that could lead to no appeal whatsoever, too late.

As it was, I knew enough that when my plane landed 20 minutes earlier than I expected, I went to the National Express counter, checked whether there was in fact a bus that went to Luton (there was, contra their website), agreed with them that I wouldn’t want to chance it, given that the bus stopped quite a while away from the terminal; the nice woman at the counter gave me a number for a taxi firm, and told me to get a quote before agreeing. They quoted me £50, which was exactly what I’d budgeted for this; the taxi arrived, I got in, I explained to the driver why I needed a taxi, he proclaimed me his best ever story and then proceeded to tell me a number of other (inherently, by his own reckoning, less good) stories of people who had achieved Airport Epic Fail until he thankfully Shut The Fuck Up, we arrived and I gave him £50 rather than the £50 + 50% because of a bank holiday that he was angling for (thanks, National Express counter woman).

I checked in without Ryanair arguing with me in the slightest, and the only remaining problem - other than I was £150 in the hole because of my stupid mistake - was that I didn’t have time to stop at the Stansted Wetherspoon for a pint. (I had my first ever pint of Banana Bread Beer there; it’s a most excellent summer beer.)

So what have we learned?

Don’t get on a train until you’ve been absolutely told that it’s the train you want, make sure you know the difference between front train and back train etc., and if nobody else turns up on your train you’re probably doing something wrong.

If leaving early, set two alarms, at least one of which won’t stop by itself, and you can’t stop without getting out of bed. Test them.

Learn where different airports are, how you get to them, and how you get from one to another. (Or have tools that can do this for you.)

Write everything down on your list, and double-check it. (I had “French phone” on my list, and crossed it out, but then put it back in the drawer and didn’t write it down on the list again, which is why I don’t have it with me.)

And while it’s pissing it down, and blowing a gale, in Glasgow, it’s been t-shirt and shorts weather here, my rental car has air conditioning even though it can’t overtake a truck going up a hill, the fridge is now full of excellent French cheese, ham and sausages, and Vali is purring on the landing.

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