Travel Tips

Saga of a Stranded Traveler

Surprise We're Stranded

My connecting flight from London to Washington was cancelled a day before the great Heathrow Weather Crisis of 2010 even began last December. But thanks to the power of social networking, I had it better than most others whose Christmas/vacation/escape plans were ruined by the airport's poor preparation plans to deal with a winter storm.

Compared to many modern travelers, I am not very well-connected when it comes to the internet. I don't own an iPad, and I only recently purchased a basic mobile phone, which, last I knew, was lying at the bottom of the Nile River. Just days before my flight departed Cairo for Washington, DC, I threw it in the river, following an impassioned disagreement with an overly jealous woman.

Facebook can be found everywhere from movie screens to magazine covers these days, but it cannot be found on my own computer. I remain one of the relatively few people who cling to the notion that my personal life is, well, personal.

The beauty of the social network is that one doesn't need full access to gain from its benefits. You just need a single entry point and then let the network do the rest. For a stranded traveler facing days of uncertainty, this proved invaluable.

Surprise, We're Stranded
There was barely a snowflake in sight when my ordeal began on December 17 as our plane sat on the tarmac waiting to be deiced due to freezing rain. After 3 hours sitting at the gate, the captain of our British Airways flight informed us that our flight was cancelled and he asked all passengers to disembark the plane. The deicing machine had not arrived in time.

Phones, netbooks and tablets immediately emerged from pockets and handbags all around the plane. Passengers canceled dinner reservations in Washington or informed loved ones not to bother driving to Dulles Airport, our destination. Others were already trying to rebook flights, some out of Gatwick Airport in London and, in one case, out of Paris. A woman, overcome with tears, was desperately trying to convince her sister to postpone her wedding because it appeared that she wouldn't make it in time.

Once off the plane, we were told we could collect our baggage at carousels and that we would be rebooked but neither of those things actually happened. Still, some passengers from the scores of flights that were cancelled managed to retrieve their luggage that evening.

Many others, myself included, were not so lucky. Furthermore, British Airways removed many agents from behind the check-in counters to help customers retrieve bags and take others to hotels, which made rebooking possible only by telephone or over the internet.

As a resident of Cairo, I stop just short of comparing the conditions at Heathrow during that time to "third world" or akin to a "refugee camp," as some have done. But for thousands of people stuck at the airport, the conditions were unacceptable. The offers of crackers, bottled water and aluminum blankets made by airport staff scarcely addressed the frustrations, distress and even rage of many passengers forced to spend days at the airport with no real sense of when travel would resume.

Saved by Skype (and Facebook)
We were left to our own resourceful devices. Without a mobile phone, I was forced to rely on my laptop computer and Skype. I have lived in 7 countries in 7 years, and Skype is the one social-networking application I have embraced fully. With Skype I was able to connect to the Wi-Fi network at Heathrow, which, interestingly, airport officials did not make available for free to stranded passengers.

Despite having studied in London, my contacts in the city had dried up. So I floated a balloon on Skype to see who could help me. I changed my profile message to a simple "Help! I'm stuck in London and have nowhere to sleep!" Then I turned my lamp to green and waited to see what happened.

Within a quarter of an hour, it seemed half of London had made itself available to me. A colleague in Cairo had given me the number of a childhood friend in North London, who could not help due to a jealous boyfriend. Another friend from my days in Berlin and who lives in Croatia set up a Skype conference call with an ex-boyfriend to see if I could sleep on his couch. The best options came from a close friend in Budapest who relayed my Skype SOS to her Facebook page, asking if anyone could provide a real bed and some shelter for a stranded soul. Within minutes, I received a half-dozen replies. Those who opened their homes to me over the 6 days included a Danish-born Pole, a Ukrainian-Australian couple and a Canadian acrobat.

Normally, the prospect of a week in London would be met with glee, particularly just before Christmas, when a trip to the British Museum or the Tate Modern art gallery can be followed by a nice pint of beer in one of the capital city's venerable pubs. But my recent unplanned layover in London was anything but a holiday due to snow and freezing temperatures that crippled Europe's busiest passenger airport, London Heathrow.
Rebooking Roundabout

Rebooking Roundabout
As the travel chaos at Heathrow increased once snow started to fall in London, rebooking my flight proved near impossible. The British Airways telephone hotline was so overwhelmed with callers that it automatically hung up rather than put me in the queue. My mother in Takoma Park, MD, tried to help by phoning the airline in the United States. She managed to get put on hold, but was informed that the wait time was an unimaginable 861 minutes, so she hung up. Two days into my ordeal, after spending hours in internet cafes repeatedly calling British Airways over Skype I decided to call the airline's offices in Cairo to find a flight to DC. I got through to a service agent immediately and was booked the following Wednesday to DC on United Airlines.

I was spared the worst of the UK's pre-Christmas travel chaos thanks to the social networks' far-reaching tentacles. Unlike hundreds of others stranded for nights at the airport, I found a comfortable, quiet place to sleep in the cozy homes of strangers. I even made time to visit the Tate Modern and enjoy a nice pint of my favorite bitter on the Southbank in London, which is a pleasure in any season.

Seeking Socks and Underwear
Still, I needed to resolve the matter of my missing luggage. I was forced to pay 247 pounds sterling for new clothes and toiletries for the remainder of my stay in London. British Airways provided me with a letter that stated they would "consider" paying out-of-pocket expenses totaling 200 pounds per day for a hotel, 25 pounds per day for food and drink and 50 pounds total for transportation to a hotel and back to the airport. It offered no reimbursement for clothing because they vowed to return my luggage, which I received a week after I arrived in Washington, DC.

I plan to board my return flight to Cairo out of DC late on January 26 toward the end of a storm that could dump up to 8 inches on the area. If I get stranded again, at least I won't be far from family in the DC area.

My flight to Cairo includes a transfer at Heathrow. During my stopover, I'm hoping to secure from British Airways reimbursement for clothing and toiletries expenses as well as an additional 175 pounds for food and transportation expenses. British Airways doesn't have to worry about reimbursement for lodging, which I am hoping will make it easier for them to write me a check.

And if they do, it will mark the first time I will be pleased to "receive" socks and underwear as a Christmas gift.

Mate Tokic is assistant professor of Modern European and East European History at the American University in Cairo.

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