KINGSBRIDGE, ENGLAND – “Expect the worst, and hope for the best”. It’s always been my travel mantra, and in general, has served me well over the years. Sometimes, I’m accused of being overly negative with this view – I prefer to see it as being realistic; if things go badly, I’m prepared. If things go smoothly, it’s a benefit. Of course when planning a trip, one can do one’s best to ensure things will go well, by allowing adequate time for connections, not booking unreasonable itineraries, and keeping an eye on things as you go. Having your smart phone loaded up with travel apps can help a lot as well. Sometimes though, Murphy’s Law (“Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”) kicks in, and, hard as you may try, there is nothing you can do to stop it.
In recent years, I’ve been lucky. Trips have gone smoothly, luggage has arrived, and connections have been hitch free. The more trips that go smoothly, the more overdue a bad trip becomes. Sooner or later, Murphy will get you. This week, finally was my turn.
Background: I needed to get from Mérida, Yucatan, to Kingsbridge, England. By far the best price was with Air Canada from Cancun, via Toronto (almost 2 hour layover) and Halifax (90 minute layover) to London. I planned to take the bus from Mérida to Cancun (the previous day, since I am not a fan of early morning buses,) and on arrival in London had booked a train departing Paddington some 3 hours after my arrival at Heathrow. All seemed well planned. What could possibly go wrong?
It’s Monday afternoon, and I board ADO’s bus at Altabrisa at 12.45pm. 4 hours later we arrive in Cancun, where I head around the corner to the Hotel Alux, a basic, clean, budget choice which I have used before. I check in, do a little work, and then head out to El Crucero, in Centro, for some tacos and a beer. Tuesday morning, I consult Air Canada’s website to see if the flight will leave on time. It shows that the aircraft has left the gate in Toronto en-route to Cancun, and is expected on time. Therefore, the flight out of Cancun is expected to depart as scheduled. I check out, walk around to the bus station, and take the ADO airport shuttle, arriving at Terminal 2 at 9.30am. Air Canada’s check in is just opening for the 12.40pm departure to Toronto. I check in for the flight, at which point I am advised that there will be a 30 minute delay.
I clear security (keep your shoes on, this is Mexico), and head to the Mera Business Lounge, accessible with Priority Pass, a program highly recommended to frequent travelers, with over 700 airport lounges worldwide. I have a coffee, fruit plate, and several delicious ham and cheese filled mini-croissants. I glance at the flight monitor screen, to see that the delay has increased to one hour. A short time later it increases again, to 90 minutes. I start to get worried, since with a 90 minute delay arriving in Toronto, I won’t have time to clear Canadian immigration, collect my luggage, clear customs, and make the connection to Halifax. I check Air Canada’s website, which is indicating an estimated arrival delay of 105 minutes. Figuring there is no chance of making the connection, I consult the website for alternatives, and see that there is space on a later flight from Toronto directly to London, avoiding the need to even go to Halifax. Couldn’t I have just booked that in the first place? Well, yes, I could, however it would have meant a 6-plus hour layover in Toronto, and a later arrival in London, which is why I took the option via Halifax.
I decide to pro-actively address the problem, and send a message to Air Canada on Facebook, since they have responded very quickly in the past when I have used that method of contact. Sure enough, within 20 minutes they respond, agreeing that I am unlikely to make the connection, and advising that they have made a backup reservation for me on the direct flight leaving Toronto at 11.10pm. It arrives in London at 11.05am, some 90 minutes before my train leaves, which, while tight, should be doable. Unable to do anything more for now, I relax in the peace of the Mera lounge, and enjoy a beer and some more of the mini-croissants. The flight finally departs at 2.10pm, 90 minutes behind schedule. It’s operated by Air Canada Rouge – the ‘low cost’ arm of the main airline, and about which I had heard primarily bad things. In the event, the flight is fine, with friendly crew, complimentary soft drinks, and an acceptable buy onboard menu of food and cocktails. The captain apologizes profusely for the delay, and explains that they did indeed leave the gate on time in Toronto, but then developed a fault, which needed to be fixed before takeoff, leading to the incoming delay.
We land at 7pm, and I proceed quickly to Canadian immigration. The officer is in a chatty mood, however I eventually get away from him, and move at speed to the baggage belt, still hoping against hope that I may still make the connection to Halifax (hey, maybe it is delayed too!) Luggage delivery is slow, and by the time mine appears, I’m pretty much resigned to the fact my connection has gone. Sure enough, after I exit customs, I look at the flight departures screen, and the flight to Halifax has departed. I proceed to Air Canada’s connections desk, where I receive my boarding pass for the direct flight to London. The lady at the counter looks surprised that I was even going to Halifax in the first place. I explain the reasons, but she still looks doubtful. Since I will need to rush tomorrow morning in London, I decide to carry my luggage on the flight this time (anyway it is carry-on size, so no problems there).
Through security I go (keep your shoes on, this is Canada!), and with almost 3 hours until boarding, I head for the Plaza Premium Lounge (also accessible via Priority Pass). I enjoy some broccoli soup, a salad, and a couple of glasses of Chardonnay. The flight to London departs on time, and, apart from near constant turbulence, is uneventful. We land in London on Wednesday morning at 11.15am, ten minutes behind schedule. I want to catch the 11.48am train from Heathrow to Paddington, to allow a comfortable connection when I get there, and I’m worried I may not make it. Heathrow is infamous for its huge distances, and the new Terminal 2 into which we have arrived is maintaining the tradition. It seems like miles from the gate to immigration, however, thankfully there is no line when I get there, and I am soon through and heading for customs. On the way I stop to buy a ticket for the Heathrow Express train, since it’s “only” £21.00 (approx. US$34.00 or $460 pesos) if bought in advance, compared with £26.00 (approx. US$42.00 or $565 pesos) on the train. For a 15 minute journey, this has to be one of the biggest rip-offs on the planet, but if you are in a rush, there is no other choice. I usually use the Heathrow Connect service instead (a more reasonable £11, approx. US$17.50 or $240 pesos and a 30 minute journey,) but today, there just isn’t time.
I sprint through customs, and into the arrivals hall. Following the signs for the Heathrow Express, I descend into Heathrow’s warren of tunnels. Miles later, I arrive at the station, and take the elevator down to the platform. It’s 11.47am. As the doors open, I see the 11.48am train pulling away. The next train is at 12.03pm, due into Paddington at 12.18pm, which will give me 12 minutes to make the connection. I take it, and arrive as advertised at 12.18pm. I’ve been awake over 24 hours at this point, but summon my remaining energy to charge across the station, collect my ticket, and board the 12.30pm train. At 12.27pm, I sink into my seat. Trains are expensive in England, however are more reasonable when booked in advance, hence the need to make this particular departure. If I missed it, I would have to buy a new ticket, which, on the day, would almost require a mortgage.
12.30pm comes and goes. The train doesn’t move. After a few minutes an announcement is made. A fault has developed with the safety radio, which will need to be fixed before we leave. Fifteen minutes later, it is apparently fixed, as, without further warning, the train departs. I heave a sigh of relief. I did it. My relief is short lived though, as it seems that Murphy is not done with me yet. A couple of miles outside Paddington, the train suddenly comes to a halt. We wait. And wait. An announcement is made for the train manager to contact the driver. Moments later the train manager himself announces that a person has been hit by a train a few miles further down the line; we will not be able to continue, and will return to Paddington. A few minutes later, a member of the train crew tells me that “This happens all the time in the run up to Christmas, but they are starting early this year – we had two last week”… The train manager makes another announcement suggesting passengers take the underground from Paddington to Waterloo, then the train to Reading, where “hopefully” we will be able to make onward connections to our destinations. “Hopefully”? I don’t like the sound of that, and am not keen to get stuck in Reading. I’m also way too tired for all those connections.
We arrive back in Paddington. The departures board shows that all trains are cancelled, at least for the next couple of hours. I give up. Feeling defeated, I join the line at the ticket office, where I tell the ticket agent I would like to change my ticket for tomorrow (which is now permitted, due to the train cancellations). He tells me that’s a good plan, since travel for the rest of the day will be challenging. Ticket changed, I head out onto the street outside Paddington, with no idea where I will stay the night. I feel like my friend Carole, of Drop Me Anywhere. She travels without a plan all the time. If she can do it, so can I! Inspired by this thought, I wander around looking for a likely place to stay. I remember from the past that Norfolk Square, just around the corner from Paddington has a number of hotels, one of which I’ve used before. I head over there, to find it is full. A couple of doors down, I see the St. David’s Hotel, which has a ‘Vacancies’ sign on the door. Unable to check Trip Advisor (my go-to source for making sure a hotel is not a rat-hole or primarily doing business by the hour) due to lack of a Wi-Fi connection, I head inside. First impressions are good, and I am greeted by a smiling receptionist, who advises that yes, rooms are available, and yes, of course I can take a look before committing myself. I do (take a look that is) and find the room to be clean, comfortable, and the en-suite bathroom (not always included in budget level properties in London) to be compact but functional. I’ll take it! I return to reception, check in, pay, and head back upstairs (yes, stairs, this is London…)
I shower, and debate what to do. I’m exhausted, but it’s only 4pm, and if I go to sleep now, who knows if I will sleep through the night? I’m also hungry, so, feeling slightly refreshed from my shower, decide on a late lunch. I wander around the corner to the Sawyer’s Arms, a pub I noticed on my way from the station. I order the lunch special, a sandwich (I choose the ‘Fish Finger Sandwich’, which I am later informed is a British culinary specialty), a side (I choose the couscous and watercress salad) and a pint (I choose Foster’s beer). It’s £8.45; not bad for London. Having refueled, I walk down to Oxford Street, and towards Oxford Circus. I’m reminded that one of the things I like most about London is the fact that even on a Wednesday evening, there are people out and about, and the bars and restaurants are busy. I enter O’Neill’s, but find so many people waiting to be served (yes, this is London, please buy your drinks at the bar…) so instead walk a little further and go into The Green Man. It’s busy, but not only do I not have to wait to buy my drink, I also manage to snag a seat. I drink my Guinness and reflect on the journey so far, hoping Murphy is done with me now. I leave the pub, to find it raining heavily. I’m reminded that one of the things I like least about London is the weather. Luckily, anticipating this, I have an umbrella with me, which shelters me from the worst of the downpour as I head back to the hotel. After another shower, I fall into a deep sleep.
Thursday morning dawns, and hungry again, I head to the basement of the St. David’s for breakfast (included in the rate). A smiling waitress takes my order, and moments later delivers my orange juice, coffee, full English breakfast, toast, butter and marmalade. It’s all delicious, and sets me up well for the day ahead. I check out of the hotel, and return once again to Paddington, to catch the 10.30am train. It’s delayed 15 minutes, but makes up time en-route, and we arrive on time. I feel I’ve been well visited by Murphy on this occasion, and hope he takes a long break before his next call.