At some point in the last few years, I lost my enthusiasm for commercial flying. It wasn’t any one thing that caused it, but rather a slow death from the exhausting process that it’s become. Even a one hour flight still requires the inevitable 1 to 2 hour drive to the airport, the 2 hour process once there that’s a weird mixture of hurry–wait–hurry–wait, the boredom and discomfort of the flight itself, and once you land, you’re still just at another airport. Lamesies. I’ll take a road trip any day.
After spending three days in London for Trav’s job interview, we were both looking forward to going home to Switzerland. All we had to do was catch our flight.
Since we weren’t sure how exactly to get to Luton Airport (different from Gatwick, where we landed in London), we got up early and were on our way to the train station hours before our flight. Typically when we fly, we’re so late arriving at the airport that we walk onto our plane shortly before the doors close for take-off, so we were quite pleased with ourselves!
If I knew in advance what our day would turn into, I probably wouldn’t have gotten out of bed.
From our Airbnb, we walked to the nearest Tube station, manhandling our wheeled luggage over the rough cobblestone roads. Unfortunately, we were completely unprepared for the London Tube – on a Wednesday morning – at 8 am.
*YouTube video courtesy of Chris Warmann*
Arriving underground on the platform, we realized the solid mass of people packed along the platform wasn’t moving. Everyone was waiting for the next train. Lines didn’t exist – it was a solid wall of humanity. Stopping when we couldn’t get any closer to the incoming train, the space behind us quickly filled with people stepping off the massive escalators into the artificially-lit Tube. When the train came, very few people exited, absorbing only a handful of folks from our platform. We inched forward, then watched the train leave without us.
Travis and I stared at each other mournfully, wondering if we would ever get on a train that morning. After this process repeated with several more trains, we finally successfully boarded, in large part because of the sheer crush of people behind us pushing us on board.
For about 15 or 20 minutes, we rode that way, standing, smushed against the window, surrounded by silent morning commuters dismally avoiding eye contact.
Disembarking at St Pancras Station (adjacent to King’s Cross, another major train station), we began an extended and rather hopeless search for our next train that would take us all the way to Luton Airport. Finally tired of walking aimlessly in search of any information or maps that would direct us, we split up. Divide and conquer! I waited in line for about 15 minutes at an information booth while Travis went in search of an employee to ask. When he found a helpful employee, she directed him to
- go to the nearest bank of machines to return our Oyster cards and get a refund for the unused portion, and
- leave the Tube and go upstairs to catch our train, which would be an above ground train.
For country bumpkins like us who aren’t accustomed to cities, it clearly was not obvious to us that our train to Luton wouldn’t be below ground like the Tube trains.
We were fools (fools I tell you!) for thinking our troubles were behind us. Returning our Oyster cards should have been as easy as withdrawing money from an ATM machine.
Nah. Not at all.
After waiting in line at the machines, we went through the entire process of attempting to return our cards, only to have the machine reject our refund because we had more than £15 remaining on each card. We had to go to the actual office for someone to perform the transaction.
*commence frenzied hair pulling*
Again, a helpful employee directed us cheerfully to the Oyster office, where we got in line. Again. And waited. Again. Once we successfully returned our cards, we zipped off to the above ground train station right upstairs to buy tickets. Again.
Dear Queen Elizabeth,
If you’re reading this (which I’ve no doubt you are), please make it possible to use the Oyster cards on all public trains and buses in London.
Two Small Potatoes
It then took two attempts to buy our train tickets from the machine. When we chose our route and inserted my credit card, it was rejected. The machine gave us an unapologetic message that because that card had already been used that day for a transaction (minutes before to return our Oyster cards), the card could not be accepted.
Are you scratching your heads right now?!?!?
I almost went ballistic.
Luckily, Travis was able to use his card, we bought our tickets, and a few short minutes later, we slumped in our train seats, heaving huge sighs of relief. The hard part was over. In roughly 30 minutes, we’d be at the airport, just in time for our flight. Whew!
Twenty-five minutes later, I turned to Travis.
You have our passports, right?
Staring at me in horror, he shook his head. Not wanting to leave them out at our Airbnb where folks were coming and going, he’d safely tucked them under the mattress. And that’s where they remained when our flight departed London Luton Airport without us.
As soon as we arrived at Luton Airport, we checked in at Departures. An airport employee confirmed that we absolutely couldn’t fly without our passports. Perhaps if we’d been within Schengen, we could have used our Swiss residency permits, but even those were expired and we hadn’t yet received our new ones. A sympathetic attendant with EasyJet offered to get us on a flight the following day, but there was little else she could do. With no other choice, we booked it.
But for that, we’d still need our passports…..
I messaged our Airbnb host, Kat, and told her that we’d forgotten our passports at her flat. Since she wasn’t even in London, I didn’t expect she could do much, but I was worried about someone else finding them.
Quickly responding, she immediately offered to either let us stay an additional night for free at her flat or to call a courier company and see if they could deliver our passports to us asap at the airport.
The thought hadn’t even occurred to me.
We were tempted by her generous offer to stay at her place, but after the 3 1/2-hour ordeal of getting to the airport, neither of us wanted to turn around and go back in to London, only to repeat the experience the next day.
The sun slowly crossed the sky while we waited for the courier to deliver our passports. We had lunch. We messed around on our smart phones until we’d used up our 30 minutes of free WiFi at the airport. I’m pretty sure Travis fell asleep for awhile where we sat at the entrance, the over-sized “Departures” sign mocking me while he napped.
While we waited, I browsed around on Airbnb and found a possible room rental just five minutes from the airport. Not only was it half the price of nearby hotels, but the host listed transportation to the airport in the morning as a free option. I sent the host a message explaining our situation, and he immediately accepted our reservation, even offering to come pick us up when he got off work at 6 pm.
But we still needed our passports!
By then, we’d realized the courier wasn’t coming.
Would the passport fiasco never end?
We were trying to figure out if one of us should head back into London for our passports while the other waited with our luggage when we got a message from Kat, then a call from a friend of hers.
He was on his way on the train with our passports!
Astounded and grateful, Travis offered to meet him at the train station a few minutes away so he could catch the next train back.
While Trav went to retrieve our passports, I worked on a cheesy puzzle on my laptop. Like a true knight in shining armor, Trav deposited a Costa Coffee mocha in my hand before he left.
True love, people. True love.
Minutes after getting back with our passports, our Airbnb host for that night, Ian, arrived to pick us up. He immediately erased the misery from our day with his cheery greeting:
Your stress ends now!
Showing us to his car, I started to climb into the front passenger seat, then realized we were in England where the steering wheel is on the right side – and by right side, I mean wrong side. Haha!
We’ve seen it in movies, but it doesn’t compare with actually driving. It was wild!
For the rest of the night, we got to know Ian. He welcomed us into his home, showed us our immaculate room, recommended a stellar take-out Chinese place (even placing our order for us), and uncorked a Figure Libre “Freestyle,” a nice bottle of French wine.
Giving us his personal email, he encouraged us to contact him if Travis gets the job in London. He said he’d be glad to help in any way he can if we relocate there.
In the morning, he made us coffee and warm chocolate-filled croissants before giving us a free ride back to the airport. We couldn’t have asked for a better host or a more pleasant last evening in England.
Back at Luton Airport, our morning flight was delayed by 30 minutes. We were so ready to get on that flight, passports in hand. So ready.
Can you tell we’re excited to be going home? These are the faces of Two Small Potatoes who are clearly not ready for the big city yet. Of course we would adjust to some things about city life, but I fear my heart would grow heavy to hear the rush of cars, trains clacking, and the constant noise that is the city. As our plane rushed us back toward the tinkling cow bells and rolling green fields of our village, I just wanted to get home to Switzerland.