Lonely Planet Writer

Ash Tuesday

Volcano-related chaos may be abating in parts of Europe, but the problem shows no sign of going away.

Heathrow: only sparrows flying

Yesterday at Heathrow Airport in London it was so quiet you could hear birdsong where normally there’s the roar of jet engines taking off, one a minute, all day. Today the most audible noise has been the growing howls of frustration from airlines unable to put plans into motion and unable to get things moving. As I write this things remain patchy. Spanish airspace is open, Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam is open and getting back up on its feet and various other countries are now getting cracking again. Parts of the UK are open to receive flights. The one consistent where airports are open is that the flight schedule has been decimated. There are usually 28,000 flights into, out of of around Europe on a regular working day. Today (Tuesday) around half of those are expected to leave.

The British media loves nothing more than tales of great endurance to get back to our shores, and has lapped up tales of three-day train rides from Moscow, cab fares with costs soaring into the thousands of Euros and shared stories of hotels who have hiked up room rates. The travellers stuck in north America and unable to do anything other than twiddle thumbs, and those stuck in transit without leave to exit whichever airport they’re unfortunate enough to be marooned in haven’t had as much of a look-in but are among the saddest victims of all this.

The Calais ferry: target for cross-European wanderers

One traveller’s experiences are an example of what many travellers have experienced in the past few days. Robert Dee, Sales Director at Radisson Hotels, was in a party of tour operators and airline staff on a trip to Trysil in Norway when the volcanic ash cloud caused the closure of not just Norwegian but European airspace. Having decided the party needed to return to the UK, Robert’s group got busy online: ‘Some outlandish ideas including driving through the night to Rotterdam to pick up a ferry or buying pushbikes to get on a ferry in Calais. We settled on taking a train to Larvik, boat to Hirtshals in Denmark, train to Aalborg. Overnight in hotel, then 5 trains to Hamburg where we could get a cruise boat heading to Southampton to start its maiden voyage.’ He confesses that ‘Journeying with travel professionals certainly gave us options as people were calling up contacts they hadn’t spoken to in 10 years and in my case, who I had never spoken to at all.’ This marathon odyssey led to a glass of champagne on a brand-new cruise ship, which on arrival in the UK was swiftly dispatched to Spain to pick up more stranded Britons. And a story, no doubt, to pass on to the grandchildren.

Hats off to Robert and congratulations on covering some undiscovered and lovely parts of Europe, especially Jutland and Hamburg, but if you’re trying to get home what should you do? Here are some quick tips:

  • Only start travelling if you have a definite travel booking on a flight, train or ferry that is confirmed as taking place. If you’re heading to cross-channel ferries however you can at present turn up and queue with a reasonable wait.
  • Contact your insurance company even if you’re not officially covered. These are exceptional circumstances and you may find exceptions are being made. Keep receipts.
  • If you’re finding hotel accommodation to be expensive, haggle hard.. Hoteliers are as much in limbo as you might be and as another night without flights in many places goes by another set of reservations will go begging.
  • If you haven’t travelled yet, a postponement for even a couple of weeks is a good option, as many hotels will waive cancellation fees at present. You’ve got a great excuse.
  • A booking for a flight, even a few days ahead of now, is worth having. It may even be a ticket to get home quicker once things get moving.