Counting the cost of the long journey home


Go Report:Where were you when Eyjafjallajökull erupted? If you were one of the thousands of stranded travellers, how did you get home? We asked some Go writers to explain how, and when, they made it back to Ireland

'So began our odyssey by land and sea'

Passengers who had already checked in for flight EI 403 to Dublin at Leonardo da Vinci airport, in Rome, on Thursday April 15th learned at the departure gate that the flight was annullato. The airline bussed passengers to a hotel for dinner and an overnight stay and back to the airport the next morning for a “rescheduled flight” that was cancelled.

A 53-strong group then formed to plan a great escape. The epic adventure began when John Coleman from Co Sligo and Dubliner Dara O’Boyle audaciously approached a bus parked outside a garage in suburban Rome and asked the driver: “Can you take us to Dublin?” Our motley crew included oil-industry executives in Rome for a business meeting, chaplains from Trinity College attending a pow-wow at the Vatican, people on a short citybreak and a nine-month-old baby.

And so began a three-day odyssey by land and sea that began with boarding a coach in Rome at dawn last Monday (above) and ended in Dublin Port at 5pm on Wednesday.

Before disembarking from the bus for the last time there was a final message over the PA system: “Annuncio vobis gaudum magnum: in Hiberniam ad venimus.” (I bring you news of great joy: we have arrived in Ireland.) It was the trip of a lifetime. - Michael Parsons

The cost:about €1,000 per person. The experience: priceless

'I rebooked flights that kept being cancelled'

Delta flight 176. I’m unlikely to ever forget that particular number, because the Atlanta-Dublin route it refers to was cancelled so often in recent days.

I flew to Dallas via Atlanta on April 13th for a reunion with friends who were flying in from around the US. We had a blast catching up, exploring and partying, and initially I paid little attention to the news that filtered through about the Icelandic volcano. It seemed so far away, so surreal and so unlikely. Besides, I was on holiday and was trying to switch off from news.

But by Friday April 16th I could think about little except the volcano. I was due to fly home last Sunday, and flight 176 was showing up every day as cancelled. By Sunday everyone else had left the reunion; I was still on my friend’s futon in Dallas, going online every half hour to check the Irish-airspace update.

I developed Delta-ear syndrome, with daily phone calls on hold for up to two hours, rebooking flights that kept being cancelled. By Monday, when airspace had already been closed for several days, Delta told me its first available date back to Ireland was tomorrow, Sunday April 25th, because of the backlog.

In a situation like that you have to make your peace with the volcano. There are no buses across the Atlantic. I tried to make the best of the situation by taking another, unscheduled week’s holiday, and flying to Ohio for a few days to see friends who couldn’t make the reunion. Tomorrow – touch wood, plastic, glass – I will be on flight 176 home. - Rosita Boland

Total cost of delay:about €1,000, including a return flight from Dallas to Ohio plus endless domestic and international calls, meals, taking my friends out for dinner for having me, and more

'Major reality check. Washington is very pricey'

Day 1

Monday, April 12th. Start of maternal visit to daughter in Washington DC. Stroll out from our charming $260-a-night BB. Stop for coffee at chichi deli in Georgetown. Twenty minutes later we’re back, panting, for the wallet I left on the counter. The assistant has it. That’s the good news. The bad? It’s missing $650.

Day 2

We rise above the biting rain and early deficit and designate this Shopping Day.

Day 3

Smart lunch. Killer heels required. Twist ankle waving woozy goodbye to hosts. Limp down to the marvellous Lincoln Memorial, where swarms of school kids are being tutored in American greatness.

Day 4

(Another) long lunch. Journalist with offbeat sense of humour mentions ash, volcanoes, European airports. What a good joke, I say gaily.

Day 5

Friday. Texts from the old country say flights are grand. Evelyn Cusack is cool about the ash.

Day 6

Saturday. Dawn text from home saying transatlantic flights are cancelled. Cripes. I’m due to fly to New York tomorrow, with a connection to Dublin. Delta Airlines’ website offers a two-line “advisory”: some flights may be disrupted. Thanks, chaps. My Irish travel agency says to contact the airline. Thanks, lads. Daughter’s US phone comes in handy, as she’s on it for most of the day, holding for 30 minutes at a time for a Delta human. One finally materialises, offering a flight on Monday week, nine days away. That’s a joke, right? “No, ma’am,” replies the eerily calm humanoid.

Day 7

Sunday. Major reality check. Washington DC is a very expensive place. Last day in upmarket guest house. Daughter treks reluctantly back to her modest lodgings to excavate in readiness for mother. Arrives back with news that window has fallen in and smashed on to her bed. “Norm says he’ll fix it,” says the laid-back flatmate. When would that be? “Sometime next week.”

I drop into the Capital Hilton, assuming it will be devastated by cancellations. The hotel has one room for one night, at $350, ma’am. The only hotel for under $200 a night is 25km away, in Maryland. Around Dulles International Airport weekend occupancy rates have soared by 60 per cent, “so we’ve been able to charge premium rates, ma’am,” says a beaming Dave at the Marriott Suites.

But the sure sign DC visitors are, in the main, reasonably well heeled is that Travelers Aid volunteers at Dulles report no despairing squatters doing laundry in the Ladies.

We need to stay in our little northwest area. Srish, the guest-house manager, cuts the rate to $100 for Sunday night but is otherwise booked out for the week. He suggests a friend’s place, 15 minutes away. Let’s call it the Nirvana. It’s Fawlty Towers in real life: creaking floors and doors, flowery chintz and wallpaper, antimacassars and doilies. Srish, who works here at weekends, offers a room for $75 a night. I’ll take it, I say gratefully. He suggests $50. Deal. Then he bills us $27.

Srish is a startling Nepalese gentleman who uses “Dia dhuit” as a greeting. Turns out he had been madly in love with a Galway girl until it ended in tears. The Nirvana is due for demolition next Wednesday.

Day 8

Monday. is full of derring-do by tweeters Twittering their way across Europe on boats, buses, bikes and trains. Right, let’s see you tweet your way across 5,000km of ocean.

My prescription pills have run out, though I happen to have the prescription, amazingly. The notoriously unhelpful pharmacy chain declines to fill it without the imprimatur of a US physician. I schlep to the recommended walk-in surgery. That’ll be $115, ma’am.

Two hours later I’m told there will be no prescription; they don’t have the brand in the US and will not supply ma’am without a certified copy of her medical history.

I flounce off, $115 poorer, to the Washington Monument, to watch the protest du jour – my daily pleasure. Today it’s the self-styled “freedom’s defenders” – a few thousand gimlet-eyed countryfolk and their children, slathered in gun-rights badges and huge flags bearing images of huge rifles with the message “Come and take it”. Sadly, they’re not allowed to bring their real AK-47s into DC because of pesky gun laws.

Tonight we dine at a Greek takeout with a few outdoor tables. A delicious feast for about $20. We’re getting the hang of DC on the cheap. It’s the second $11 glass of wine that does the damage, we decide. And, really, there’s a lot of free stuff to see in the city. Then we blow it all the next night on dinner for five, because, hey, we’ve only a few nights left together. - Kathy Sheridan

Cost of delay:more than €1,000

'Out of pocket, but it wasn't like penance'

A long weekend on a smelly bus? Nope. A protracted journey in a Trabant, hovercraft and hot-air balloon? Afraid not. Four days on a camel? Not even close.

When the epic stories of transcontinental travel are told over the coming days and months, stories like mine won’t be provoking astonishment or even sympathy.

I woke up last Tuesday morning with bags nearly packed, expecting to enjoy a final few hours in glorious Strasbourg before making the short journey to the spectacular train station to catch an afternoon TGV to Paris and then go on to Charles de Gaulle for my flight to Dublin.

After becoming well versed in the previously arcane field of volcanic-ash distribution patterns, I had expected to remain blissfully unaffected by the aviation chaos. But then I discovered that Eyjafjallajökull had erupted again, forcing me to spend another 48 hours in one of the most under-rated cities in Europe. I was delighted.

A few unexpected days in sunny Strasbourg is not exactly Robinson Crusoe-level abandonment, and my decision to stay put until I had firm travel arrangements saved me some unnecessary schlepping. Sure, I was out of pocket for the two extra days, but it didn’t feel like penance. - Davin O'Dwyer

Cost of delay:€200

'Internet booking died during this crisis'

An empty airport is eerie. When I arrived at Milan Malpensa on Sunday afternoon rows of planes stood on the runway and the terminal contained only handfuls of people and no sign of my flight.

I went to a car-hire company. It had one car left. Could I take it to England or Ireland? No. France? Yes. How much? About €400 a day and €100 a day after that. No way.

I asked about trains, but they were full. So I calculated the cost of staying put. I had work lined up in Dublin on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. If I missed them I wouldn’t get paid. Maybe, I naively thought, I could get back for Tuesday and Wednesday. If I stayed in Milan I would pay about €100 a night for a hotel.

I was now adding my way towards paying the extortionate car-hire price. I booked it. I’d done the drive before with my family. It takes 10 hours.

I headed north, past Lake Como, and its beauty pierced the panic. The Alps made me sigh. I queued to get into the Gottard tunnel and stayed the night in Switzerland. Kerching. The following day I turned west into France – kerching, kerching, petrol and tolls.

I drove blindly hoping that when I got to the sea I would be able to get over it. I arrived in Calais at night to be told I could get a boat but it would be too late for a train from Dover to London. So I stayed in Calais. Kerching: €79. The next morning we waited just 20 minutes to buy tickets for a ferry that sailed an hour later. Kerching: €65. Profiteering, said people in the queue. The train to London was speedy, but it cost £31.70.

From London I imagined I could get back to Dublin via train and boat, but the Stena Line and Irish Ferries websites didn’t let you book online. When I phoned Irish Ferries they said I had to book the train and boat separately, because the train companies now couldn’t guarantee boat space. What a ridiculous story – and how fortuitous for the travel companies. It would probably double the normal sail-rail fare of £40 or so. I couldn’t get through to Stena on the phone.

Internet booking died during this crisis: many firms wanted people to turn up at stations and ports to see whether they could continue their journey and to pay whatever was asked for. Why? - Emma Cullinan

Total cost of getting home:€929. Lost earnings: €500

'We ended up like Jake the Peg, with an extra leg'

In time they will be known as the Volcano Bores. As in: “Steer clear of your man unless you want to hear how he got from Agadir to Windy Arbour by swimming the Strait of Gibraltar and selling a kidney.”

The boat on Tuesday night was packed with middle-aged men in crested golf sweaters, all of whom will be holding forth in their locals this weekend on heroic journeys from the sunny fairways of southern Europe to the ferry ports of Spain and France. Many mused, as campaign tales were swapped in the bar, that the abrupt cancellation of all flights “was a great leveller.” Sure, didn’t Whitney Houston travel over to Dublin on the Stena?

In truth it was only a great leveller for those who could afford to journey overland by hire car or public transport in the first place – an exercise involving a lot of cash and promiscuous flexing of plastic cards. Some nasty bills will be dropping through letter boxes next month.

Still, the delay gave us time to study more Spanish menus. We bought fartonbiscuits to dip in our coffee, sniggering like schoolchildren. We agonised over Bavarian-style trotters and a juicy steak, eventually choosing “slice of fattened animal to the gridiron” over “elbow to the German”.

The rail system is excellent, but getting information can be difficult. The websites of Renfe, in Spain, and SNCF, in France, are baffling, with the French one so cluttered it’s near impenetrable.

The bus network is extensive, although bus stations in the main are grim places with little information from diffident staff, even with a good Spanish speaker in tow.

Our holiday involved a stay in the city of Alicante, then on to Valencia and finally a stop in a quiet seaside town on the road back towards Alicante airport.

Thanks to the volcano we ended up like Jake the Peg, with an extra leg. It included two cancelled Ryanair flights, four more hotel nights in Alicante (€220) and one in Montpellier (€60), trains to Barcelona (€90) and Figueres (€25), a two-hour lift from a colleague across to Narbonne (bottle of wine and some tinned cockles) and a local train from there to Montpellier.

The following morning we took the double-decker TGV to Paris and a train to Cherbourg (€110) before getting a taxi (€10) to the ferry (€118). - Miriam Lord

Cost of delay:about €625 per person, excluding meals

'The journey means 36 hours of terrible Spanish music'

Some things should never be conveyed via cold, impersonal text. One of them – and I say this with the benefit of hindsight – is: “Wow, it looks like you won’t be coming home for at least a week!”

It is Friday, it is raining in southern Spain, and an unpronounceable volcano in Iceland is threatening to ruin my weekend. My Saturday flight is rescheduled for Monday. The next day, another unhelpful text messager. “Met Éireann says it could be weeks!”

I decide to book a ticket on a 25-hour bus to London from Malaga, arriving on Tuesday at 9am, for €162. From there I will take a train, at 12.15pm, to Holyhead (£76), for the 5.15pm ferry to Ireland (€27). It’s not ideal, but I will get there.

Sunday passes in a blur of rain. I get the bus to Malaga from Granada; I hole up in a hotel and pack. On Monday I board the bus at 8am and things begin to fall apart. Some people have 36-hour tickets; others say 32. The bus drivers say “maybe midday” and, later, “maybe six in the evening”.

The journey takes 36 hours. That’s 36 hours of terrible Spanish music, of attempting to sleep, of being requested to ask the bus driver questions every five minutes. (If you are on a bus in Spain, and you speak Spanish, tell no one.) I sit next to a young girl who shows me pictures of her “pwetty” 36-year-old boyfriend and the teddy that “smells like him”. I move and sit next to an elderly couple who offer me whiskey from a plastic bottle (yes, please).

I miss both train and ferry. I book another train ticket, again at £76. I book another ferry, at the elevated price of £41, leaving Holyhead at 2.40am.

I get home at 6am, tired, a little groggy and entirely delirious. Home is, after all, where the heart is. Where we all speak English and where europop is just one more reason not to watch the Eurovision. - Rosemary Mac Cabe

Total cost of delay:€411