I had dreamt of a European vacation a thousand times and every time it was the same. The weather would be warm, which is just the way I like it. I figured it would be at least 35° Celsius every day. After all, it is never cold in Europe right? The hotels and hostels would be cheap and I would meet lots of exciting travelers that would help me along on my journey. That was the way it was in every movie that I watched and every book that I read so I figured that at least one of them must be right. The bathrooms would be clean and the showers would be hot. The transportation would be quick and reliable. I would be able to travel everywhere by train because I knew everything there was to know about Eurorail. I had researched it for several hours and I knew all of the hidden perks. My romanticized version of the trip was much better than the real-life, unplanned version. Even before I set foot outside of the airport in uncharted territory, I ran into several big snags.
My husband and I arrived in London after a six hour over night flight. The flight left at 11:30pm, which I thought was a great idea. I planned to sleep on the way and then I would wake up fresh and ready for my first day. Let me tell you, that was my first mistake! I was so anxious when I first got on the flight that sleeping was the last thing on my mind. It was like I took one too many uppers and I was ready to fly with or without the plane. By the time I finally settled in and thought about sleeping, it was time for the first meal. It was rare to get a meal on a plane and I will eat just about anything so I figured go for it. I put down my tray and I waited to be served. It took about one hour to get my food, eat, drink and get everything cleaned up. So, I was back in the same situation again. I was not ready for sleep, but this time there was a movie about to start. I surprisingly forgot my earphones and had to pay $2 for them on the plane. It seemed like a small price to pay to be able to watch the movie, relax, and maybe get some sleep.
Not even five minutes after the movie ended, there was an announcement that another meal was going to be served. I was a little confused because I had never been given two free meals on a flight before, but I was more than happy to eat all of the free food that I could get. After all, I was on vacation. I put my tray down for the second time and this meal was better than the last. Then, the next movie was about to begin.
I am not sure if you’ve ever tried to sleep on an airplane when the attendants are serving food, a movie is playing, children are crying, and adults are snoring, but it can be sort of difficult. I was able to get at least 20 minutes of sleep out of six hours before we finally arrived in London. Things were not going as planned.
I worked the day before and the 24-hours of no sleep were playing on me. I was in no mood to deal with any confrontational situations.
Don’t even talk to me right now. Hurry up and get off the plane.
I hoped my husband was not half as tired as I was. I just wanted him to pass me my bag and look in the opposite direction. I realize that should not have been my first reaction, but I really didn’t care. We walked off the plane and I stretched my legs. I think the anticipation of it all was still the driving factor in my ability to make it through the long lines of customs.
While we were waiting in the line, we heard the London accent from one of the customs agents. I normally love to hear the different accents, but at this point her voice sounded loud, shrill, and a little like a dying cat. I closed my eyes for a second and thought, “I am in London. This is amazing. Forget about the crazy customs lady and think about what a great day you’re going to have.”
We proceeded through the lines and I quickly realized that the annoying customs lady was going to be the one to process our arrival. We walked up to the counter together and laid our bags on the floor. I think she was tying to impress a new, young agent-in-training because she was rude in all of her actions. Even the way she rested her fat arm on the counter irritated me.
Her first words were, “What is the purpose of your stay in England?”
“We’re on vacation. We’re backpacking,” I said proudly.
“How long are you here for?” she said with a voice even more piercing than before.
“Um… I don’t know. Maybe a few nights,” I said.
“So, you don’t even know how long your vacation is?” she hissed. “When is your return flight?”
My husband spoke up, “Eleven weeks! We are in Europe for eleven weeks. We’ll be traveling to different countries while we’re here. We’re just in London for a few nights.” He attempted to match her unchangeable attitude.
His answer must have been sufficient because she went in a different direction with the questions. I was starting to feel like we were being interrogated by the police as she rambled on.
“Where are you staying while you are in London?” she said.
We both haphazardly attempted to tell her that we didn’t have a place booked and we were just backpackers. We were going to leave the airport and look for a place to stay. She was completely appalled with our ignorance as she proceeded to tell us that it was the peak tourist season.
“Why would you arrive in London during the busiest time of the year and not have a place booked in advance?” How much money do you have at your disposal?” she asked.
“I’m not quite sure what the right answer is. I can’t seem to get this right.” I honestly wasn’t trying to be smart; I just felt defeated.
She continued glaring at me with her eyebrows raised.
I felt like saying, “What is a good friggin’ answer for you? What would make you let us continue on with our day?”
My response was a little less abrasive, “We have about $20,000.”
Again, the answer must have been sufficient because she finally stamped our passports and let us through the gates.
All of London awaited us… as soon as we found our bags, figured out how to get out of the airport, found transportation, and made our way downtown.
If you have fantasies about flying over night and arriving in a new country fresh and prepared for the day, you must be young and naive. Our ill-prepared journey began with a tired and irritated couple who had no place to stay and no idea how to get where we wanted to go.
Welcome to the world of international travel. I was fortunate to have gotten my first trans-atlantics in while still a teenager. Unlike yourselves, I’m one of those people who feels paranoid at not having a reservation guaranteed for every single night I’m on the road somewhere. Back a few years ago, I went to Italy and stayed with a friend in Genoa for a few nights, then headed off to Florence. He resolutely refused to let me make any reservations (it was February, so it turned out to be utterly un-necessary). That was an eye-opener. I did survive, and learned a new travel skill while I was at it. As to sleeping on the plane, I think that’s a skill you have to learn, but not everyone can. I’m one of those lucky few who can sleep just about anywhere. Once I’m out, little short of a thermonuclear detonation can wake me. So on a flight from DC to Barcelona, I can get a good four hours sleep in on a seven hour flight. A word to the wise, when you’re returning to the States – anything you want to bring home (like oh say some of the wonderful wine you’ll try in your travels), be smart and ship it. DON’T carry it on, and don’t trust the luggage compartment.
Thanks for your response.
This trip was a few years ago and I was naive to think that I could travel around Europe without any plans at all. It was, however, the lack of plans that made my vacation something unique and unforgettable. I was free to travel and sleep where ever suited me best, sometimes that was in a parking lot after a whiskey tour and other times it was in a car parked on the side of the road. I was able to meet people along the way that I will stay in touch with for the rest of my life and if I wanted to spend more time with them, it was only a matter of tagging along. For the first time in my life, everything was new and I was able to take in as much or as little as I wanted. I think it would have been a totally different experience if I had of planned the vacation before hand.
As for sleeping on the plane, I’ve now been to 34 countries and I’ve yet to master getting more than a few winks during a flight. I envy your ability to sleep anywhere. It is a blessing.
Good luck with your travels and thanks for your comment; it is appreciated.
Another England Customs snippet for you,
I normally land in Paris, but last year at Christmas time I decided I would visit my sister first in England and then get a continuing flight across to hubby. After a little longer journey than yours (Brisbane, Australia via Dubai to London) I arrived at customs.
Same horrible attitude, nearly like a robot.
Purpose of visit, how long is your stay (I was lucky to have an exact date & time as I had my ongoing flight already booked), who are you visiting and where do they live.
Now she stuffed me up with the where do they live part. Whenever we mailed stuff to my sister the whole family chucked something in and then my mother would bulk post it. I knew the area and town… but not the specific address. Then of course was
“what’s her phone number?”
“Ummm I just skype her”
“So you don’t actually have a phone number?”
“No… Sorry I don’t”
“When did you last contact her”
“Via Facebook at the Dubai International Airport”
I honestly felt like a product of my generation saying that I didn’t know her real living habits and thus was visiting on a “whim”, but she was my sister. This lady had me sweating that I might not “get in” and that my consistent sister may not be there waiting at arrivals for me!
On the other hand Paris never ever seems to care. I carried diseased gum leaves into the Paris airport and they were like “OH so you can keep them still.” A smile at them and they stamped my passport quicker than you could say cheese!
Result for you, don’t take it personally English customs don’t like anyone really
LOL! Your post really made me laugh out loud and brought back so many memories of my first transatlantic flight, lol. I couldn’t get a wink of sleep, everyone on the plane agitated me (probably because I was sleepy but wired), I felt cramped (I’m sorry but there needs to be a law against how closely they pack those seats), and they wouldn’t stop serving food! Unlike you, I do not enjoy airline food so the only silver lining for me was that we’d land eventually. Hubby on the other hand can sleep standing up and has a stomach made out of cast-iron. Oh did I mention my bathroom fiasco? Here I am sitting in the middle of the row and everyone’s feigning sleep so I had to stay put until someone woke up and I could gratefully crawl over them and make my escape!
Luckily, my husband is European so he handled all the customs queries/forms/etc while I stood around looking completely out of place in sky-high boots, skin-tight jeans, fitted blazer, and designer shades – yes, everyone stared, lol. I recall when my husband claimed me as his wife, the customs lady stared at him, then me, back at him, before resettling her eyes on me with dirty looks, probably thinking ‘Where does she think she’s going?’ or ‘Foreigners!’ LOL, hey that is what people flying to Europe wear, right? Yeah, no, everyone was decked out comfortably in sneakers, jeans, and sweaters. Oh did I mention it was freezing too? Nobody told me it was going to be cold in July!
Now I live here and getting registered as a resident was eerily like your situation – tons of questions barked in monotone, strongly accented voices for which you just can’t seem to find the answer that pleases. My only suggestion, paste on a smile and wear it until it hurts, and count it as part of the experience, lol!
Congrats on your coming bundle of joy and many happy travels!
Thanks for sharing your journey with me! It’s uplifting, in a sick sort of way, to know that others have suffered at the hands of long, extended flights.
Interesting experience – It can be the luck of the draw. Sometimes you’re greeted like a king or queen and sometimes everyone is a criminal. Coming back home (into London in 2005 having just been to Brazil), literally as my mate and I stepped off the plane – as in the tunnel connecting the plane itself to the terminal – a couple of burly looking security guards were standing at the exit and promptly asked us… ‘Where have you just come from’? Trick question we thought as we glanced back through the tunnel where we could still see passengers disembarking. ‘Errr the plane’ we replied’. Needless to say they weren’t impressed and must have radioed through to their colleagues ahead. Where upon picking up our luggage we were called over to one side and told to empty our suitcases before the officials accused us of having drugs! After half an hour of trying to catch us out they eventually let us through…
Visiting America is often a problem where even with a British passport you’re made to feel like you’re there to invade @Why are you here!!!!’ lol Japan on the other hand is bliss. Politeness all the way. A place I’d definitely recommend 🙂
I got caught up in the web of British passport control, several times before and it is not a pleasant experience. A friend of mine actually had to go to a medical room to have her tested for TB!!!!!!! A tad embarrassing to be treated like a disease-ridden criminal, when all you want to do is spend a couple of relaxed weeks with friends…
I actually enjoy travelling long distances on planes. I stay up all night and watch all of the movies and enjoy my conversations with my seat mates. The whole experience is always so exciting for me.
That said, I have been to Heathrow Airport before and found it awful as well. I think the entire staff decided to go on tea break the moment my plane arrived. I’m not too harsh on them though, because the worst customs experience I’ve ever had was in Minnesota. I had the same criminal interrogation that you had, but I had to go through it three times before I was able to pass through security (apparently there was a possibility I might have become a criminal during the 10 yard walk from the first agent to the second one).
Now when I travel I just expect to be strip searched at every airport, and then I’m pleasantly surprised when I’m not. Ha ha!