It was a cold January afternoon in Madrid. I had just arrived at the airport with my two friends, Maria and Janice, ready to jet off to southern France where we were going to spend three days exploring all the region had to offer. Feeling excited and fulfilled from a wonderful visit to Madrid, the three of us eagerly approached the counter ready to visit our next destination. In a matter of seconds, our wide-eyed faces immediately fell as we stared up at the departures board:
We stopped short and gaped at the woman behind the counter.
“When is the next flight?” I asked worriedly. After all, Maria had work the next day. “There are no flights to Lyon for the next three days,” the woman replied curtly.
We frantically looked at each other, while simultaneously giving this woman the stink eye. How could a little snow be delaying us for three days? For an hour, we tried to get on a flight that might reroute us to our next destination without any luck. Finally, we had to make a decision: either stick around Madrid for three more days or find another way to reach our destination. Obviously, we weren’t going to let Maria miss three days of work, so we buckled down and made our way to a different ticket counter.
Trains and Railways
Luckily for us, Europe has one of the best rail systems in the world. We set out to find a route that would get us to the small French town of Montélimar. However, there was one glitch in our plan:Montélimar was not easy to reach. Situated in southeastern France,Montélimar is famous for its production of nougats. Yes, we were trying to get to a very small (though charming) French town known for producing a candy you see at checkout counters. How many trains could include it on their route? (Answer: not many.)
Time to brainstorm: Lyon was the closest train station with a direct line to Montélimar, and was about 2 hours north by rail. At this point, it was around 1:00pm, so we figured there was enough time to spare. A train from Madrid to Lyon would take approximately 12 hours, leaving us with enough time to get to Montélimar by early morning.
The three of us raced off to the nearest ticket counter only to meet another obstacle: no trains were running. Flustered by the constant running around and stress of trying to find alternate transportation, we knew we would have to come up with another idea. A bus would take too long and we’d have to transfer in Nimes to reach Montélimar. (Not to mention, all the bus tickets were already sold out.)
Eventually, we came to the realization that we would have to drive.
Since the ideas to take a bus or a train fell through, we raced across the airport to the nearest car rental agency. To our horror, everything had been sold. Frantically checking each company, we finally found one with an available vehicle that would also allow a drop off in France. In order to reach Montélimar, we would have to drive through the Pyrenees mountain range, a daunting task to complete at night.
At this time, it was around 4:00pm and a winter storm was beginning to pick up speed. Darkness had already fallen over the city of Madrid. The weather had gotten colder by the hour, the snow had deepened, and roads were beginning to freeze over. The three of us knew that we would have to drive through the night to make it to Montélimar on time. We split up to maximize our preparations before hitting the road. Hurriedly, Maria and Janice grabbed sandwiches and made sure to stock up on lots of caffeine.
Meanwhile, I busied myself with signing the contract and getting directions from the ticket counter. As I was about the sign the dotted line, Janice and Maria suddenly burst into the room shouting, “Check if the car is automatic!”
It wasn’t; it was manual just like many other cars still used in Europe. None of us knew how to drive a manual vehicle.
Crestfallen, we handed back the keys, accepted our refund, and made our way back through the airport with our luggage and bags of snacks.
Keep Calm and Learn to Give In
At this point, there were no other options and we had to accept defeat. Maria made the call to her employer, who was completely understanding of our situation. While she handled her affairs, Janice and I queued up to get on the earliest flight to Paris where we would take a train to Montélimar. When we found Maria again, she was sitting by a window eating an ice cream bar and trying to decompress.
While the entire ordeal was stressful, everything worked out in the end. We ended up getting treated to dinner and a night’s stay at a 4 star hotel close to the airport, including transportation to their early morning flight. In the following years, we would laugh and share the story about how we almost drove through the Pyrenees at night so that we could get Maria to work on time. (We even shared this story at her wedding.)
At the time, we were just learning the in’s and out’s of travel, which naturally included flight cancellations. We probably could have driven that car and tried to get to France by morning. However, I wasn’t about to learn how to use a manual car before driving into the mountains at night, and during a winter storm no less.
As the phrase goes, “you live and you learn.” Well, I’ve had to “live and learn” this mistake many times over before finally getting comfortable with public transportation. However, we can only control so much before we have to let go of the stress and accept the outcome. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: when you travel, you have to expect the unexpected and learn to evolve with each situation. So next time you see “flight canceled” across the departures board, keep calm. You’ll get home one way or another.