Travel Horrors

The prototypical holiday season usually induces images of roaring fires, shiny presents and families convening from around the world to gather together around a well-laden table.

The part that usually gets left out of the imagination is the one of bad weather, cramped planes and crowded airports. Images of gently-falling snow morph into the harsh reality of torrid blizzards that keep aircrafts circling runways for hours. Gingerbread houses? Eggnog? Ha! Try ancient-looking chicken pasta, wannabe fruit salads and getting to know your seatmates much too well. Piles of presents under the tree begin to look more like piles of suitcases you have to sift through to find your lost luggage. You get the ugly picture.

This past December, I ventured to distant parts of the globe with ten other family members and, apparently, half of North America. First on our itinerary was Paris, where we would spend four glamorous days before going on to meet up with the rest of our family (yes, there are more of us) in northern India. It was to be the ideal trip: extravagant yet eye-opening.

The post-finals vacation began seemingly smoothly: despite a one-hour delay, which is hardly significant for an international flight, we were bon voyaging to Paris without incident. Although, in retrospect, I should have taken the steely glares and upturned noses of the Air France stewards in response to my asking for an extra blanket as a warning sign of things to come.

It was at the Charles de Gaulle airport, at the conclusion of our trip, where our nightmare began. After being herded chaotically into our New Delhi-bound plane in a manner of no rhyme, reason or row number, we proceeded to wait in our assigned seats while a “technical delay” on the plane was taken care of. The minutes ticked by, and before we knew it, we had been sitting, cramped and motionless, for five entire hours before the Air France captain announced in incredibly broken English that the plane would soon take off.

A mere fifteen minutes later, seatbelts buckled and tray-tables locked, we received another announcement that since the cabin crew had already been there for five hours (doing nothing, I might add), they would be going into overtime if they actually stayed on the flight. This was apparently against union regulations — a stewardess had threatened to walk out — so our international flight was cancelled.

Never mind the regulations against holding 400 people on a stagnant plane with no food or drink. Never mind that many had connecting flights or time commitments that couldn’t wait an entire day. The air hostess actually ended the announcement with the words “Um … the ground crew will take care of you? Bye.”

The ground staff did indeed give us food and hotel vouchers. After wandering the airport for two hours, we were told to look for a black bus that would take us to our hotel. We ended up taking several unmarked black shuttles to hotels that had the same name, but weren’t actually ours, before we were told that the black bus was the name of a bus company, not the color of a bus. Thanks for the clarification, Air France. After catching a very white shuttle, we found ourselves on the outskirts of Paris in a tiny, dingy motel with hundreds of other angry Indians, doomed to be without food or luggage for the next 24 hours.

Upon arriving at the airport at the appointed time the next day, we waited for our flight to finally take off, an entire day late. Crowds of passengers began to form at the gate as the flight time steadily approached, though we couldn’t see a plane outside. The Air France stewards busied themselves with arranging and rearranging the stretchy line barriers, despite the fact that they had not derived a system for boarding passengers like most competent airlines do. When asked why we hadn’t boarded yet, why the plane wasn’t there or if there would be another delay, they had no response.

Our flight was delayed another six hours, with no explanation or assurance. Tempers flared as several fights broke out, a German woman tried to organize a mob riot to get her luggage back and a steward referred to another passenger as an “animal” in French, which the man unfortunately understood. I actually saw an air hostess and a passenger sitting and crying, side by side. Passerbys were venturing closer to take pictures of the angry, mostly brown crowd yelling outside the gate. It was the travel experience from hell.

We did eventually make it to India, where we embarked on a several-day tour of the state of Rajasthan. I got to ride a camel, sleep in a tent in the desert and stay in an ancient palace, among other things. However, the next week, we were to face a new kind of holiday hell in this country.

Members of one of the smaller communities of India began to protest the fact that they didn’t have enough seats in the Rajasthani government, which has reservations for seats by caste. Long story short, it’s completely illegal to give them more seats. Their solution to this was to disrupt travel throughout India, either by breaking railroad tracks or blocking roads.

We ended up spending a week of our vacation trying to figure out if it was safe to travel, as this was the third consecutive year that these riots had occurred, and dozens had been killed and injured in the past. We determined that it wasn’t, and ended up canceling most of our travel plans and being stranded. Of course, nothing happened and the riots ended abruptly but our plans were still ruined.

Currently, our biggest worry is getting back to Delhi from the city where we are staying so we can catch our international fight. In order to ensure we’ll be able to do this, we paid hundreds of dollars to book flights between the two cities, which are about a five-hour car ride apart, thinking this would solve the issue of travel.

But we will not be let off so easily. Because of the climate in the winter months, Delhi is currently surrounded by thick fog, causing the delay and cancellation of hundreds of flights, including several that my cousins have been attempting to catch over the last few days. In addition, blizzards in Europe and on the East Coast have been delaying layovers even further. Even as I write this, I have just received word that my flight to Delhi in eight hours is cancelled and that I will have to find some alternate form of transportation.

Was this the holiday from hell? Yes. Were the croissants and the camels worth it? Definitely. Here’s hoping I find some way to Delhi, that my flight from Delhi to Amsterdam isn’t cancelled and that the heavy European snowstorms that have been landing thousands of passengers in situations similar to mine don’t delay my eventual journey back to San Francisco. It seems 2010 was the year for travel torture. Let’s just hope I make it back to read this article in print.