Are you are a seasoned traveler? Consider yourself lucky if you have never had the experience of being stuck at an airport. Chances are, you must have, at some point, due to factors that are out of your control. Nature is a big part with one of the prime examples being the volcanic eruption of the hard to pronounce volcano in Iceland. Then, airlines trying to cut costs and going bankrupt left-right-and-centre is another reason you might find yourself enjoying the cold floor of an airport. Let's also not forget political unrest in countries leading to closure of airports at the very last minute.
In most cases, like flight delays or cancellations, airlines provide hotel accommodations, which to be honest I quite enjoy as in most cases it has landed me in a nice five star hotel with good amenities and free food. But, every now and then something happens that makes you realize how vulnerable and unexpected things can get in life.
After a 14 day cruise in the warm Caribbean islands, me and my family ended up at London's Gatwick Airport in the middle of a cold wave that hadn't been seen by Britain for the longest of times. December/January 2010 was a time that pushed UK Airports to the limit with snowfall resulting in mass closures and cancelled/delayed flights. By the time we had crossed immigration, the snow was falling like crazy and announcements for flight delays had just started. Since we were out of the plane and in the airport, the airline had absolutely no responsibility left, so imagine our horror when we found out that the shuttle service had been suspended and taxis were refusing to venture out in the cold. Traveling as a family all we had was each other and our huge luggage made taking a train, with multiple connections to Birmingham, impossible.
As we made frantic calls to friends in the vicinity, to the National Express, and to nearby Taxi stands, we knew in the back of our minds that we must get ready to spend the night at the airport. While things eventually got better and after spending close to 18 hours at the airport we finally did make it back to our place in Birmingham, thanks for some personal contacts, there were a few tips I accumulated if ever this were to happen in the future, to anyone;
Numbers - It's very important to keep certain telephone/contact numbers always handy;
Airline numbers are important if you get stuck before an outbound flight. Although there are check-in counters, but sometimes depending on the time of the day or night, these counters might be close. So have as many numbers of the airline with you as possible at all times. Also, never shy away from demanding food and accommodation in case of flight delays.
Taxi/Bus phone number are equally important. If you are stuck, keep calling them again and again after some time to check. While most airports have information about some taxi services, it's best to note down a few more while you research your trip and try them for you never know where one might get lucky.
Location is the key - Once it is evident that you are stuck at the airport, find a comfortable place and never leave it, even for a minute. Since we were five adults traveling, we could save seats at all times, but with time you will realize that location is everything and those cushioned recliners are like prime property of a metropolitan city.
Stock Up - Food and drinks are those other commodities that will eventually become scarce as time passes. Stock up on drinks and food. In our case, the local M&S and some other shops remained opened well past their closing time, but with each hour their stocks were diminishing. It is not a bad idea to keep a little on the side for later on, especially if you are traveling with a small child, as we were.
Keeping Warm - With the cold wave at its peak, the airport authorities were nice enough to distribute blankets to the passengers. After standing in long queues we managed a couple. Don't be shy to use the "I’ve got a small kid" card. While we only took two blankets for 5 adults and 1 child, I saw others take 2-3 blankets each which they used to spread on carpeted floors before sitting on them. So once again, it's every man, woman, and child for themselves and being shy or too generous will only leave you feeling cold.
Hotels - It is quite obvious that in such a situation hotels will get filled up first and foremost. So if you are aware of delays in advance, leave everything and run to a nearby hotel first and worry about everything else later. A lot of the rooms are on standby for airlines, so you really have to be lucky to find a room, but it is always worth a try.
A change will do you good - Keep change and cash handy because eventually ATM machines are going to dry up and while most place accept credit cards, you still might need some change for the bathroom or food dispensers, or to make a call in case your phone battery dies.
Remain charged - I have always made it a practice to keep my phone charger in my hand luggage. Although we had our entire luggage with us, but in case you do not, the last thing you want is having a phone that is of no use.
Look Out - Thieves rely mostly on moments like this to strike. These are moments when people are tired, sleepy, not thinking straight, and have their luggage everywhere around them. Once again with 5 adults in our group, some of us were always on the lookout. We did however see a few shady characters roaming around the scattered luggage time and again and at one instance had to wake up a sleeping couple and warn them. If it is hard for you manage, get a locker, or at least have your luggage with you in such a fashion that it is not easy for a thief to steal it.
Announcements - Make sure you listen to all the announcements for new information and updates. But, you do not have to take everything seriously. As time went by announcements requesting passengers to leave the airport were being made. We didn’t think that any country would kick out passengers into the cold. No one really came and asked us to move, but the announcements stating that passengers must find an alternate mode of transport and move out were repeated time and again.
Stay in Touch - Stay in touch with the airport authorities at all times as they can be of great help. Although, when the air-conditioning was switched on (Yes! air-conditioning in the middle of heavy snowfall) they were unable to do anything as the mechanics had already left. Still, we just covered ourselves up and did not leave the good seats we had even though we were getting a cold draft of air. That's how important comfortable location is in case you were wondering.
Share - Talk to people around you. Someone might have a person coming to pick them up and going in the direction of your destination. Someone might know of a hotel nearby. Information is out there and you can only get it if you talk to people. Keep calm, keep on mingling, keep walking around the airport (if you can while someone holds on to your space), and just keep your eyes and ears open at all times for new ideas or information.
Me Time - Ever wanted some of that "me time"? Well that's what being stuck at an airport gives you; all the time in the world to do what you want. Take out your iPad and play a game of Angry Birds, switch on your kindle and start that book you bought but never read, or maybe browse the airport bookshop for something new at a leisurely pace. Everyone around you is too tired to really bother you for anything, so enjoy this unexpected free time.
Be Social - Social media in the present day is a very powerful tool. Get on Twitter or Facebook and let the world know what's happening. You might unknowingly help someone who was about to leave for the airport and didn't after reading your tweet. If nothing else, it's a great time to catch up with friends old and new and write those pending personal email. In fact, forget emails, head to the nearest souvenir shop and pick up some postcards that will surely brighten up yours friends day.
The Good Stuff - Yes every cloud does have a silver lining it seems. So you are stuck at an airport. Look around you, for you can never find so many people from different parts of the world together at one place with nothing to do. Sometimes you are just stuck and try as you might; you just have to wait it out. Use this time to learn about different people and their cultures. Share experiences, similar or otherwise, or bitch about the world if you must, but make the most of the time you have.
Being stranded at an airport is an experience that not many have, and after all, every such experience does make for an excellent dinner story afterwards.