Saturday, 10 January 2015

Holiday disasters and how to avoid them - 'Our Great Cairo Catastrophe'.

Travelling the world, seeing the sights and visiting foreign countries, sounds like a lot of fun - and it is. But it is not all plain sailing. Sometimes things go wrong and when they do it can be downright frightening. There is nothing like being thousands of miles from home to make any problem seem a lot worse than it is.

Fortunately we have never had an irrecoverable holiday catastrophe but that doesn't mean we haven't had our share of  mishaps.  Next time you are away from home and things go wrong just remember you aren't alone - chances are someone, probably lots of someones, have been in the same situation before you and got out alive.


Today, I want to share some of our own holiday mishaps, along with a few tips on how we might have avoided them. This started out as a single post but even my most loyal readers can only take so much in one go so I have turned it into a series. Next week will be ' Escaping the clutches of the Czech Republic' - click here to read it now.


Our Great Cairo Catastrophe


This experience has pride of place at the top of our personal holiday disaster list. It will take a debacle of monumental proportions to knock it off - one I hope we never suffer. Our 'Great Cairo Catastrophe' occurred eight years ago and it still smarts. I NEVER want to go through that again. 

Regular readers will know that David hates tours. He refuses to take them - which is how we found ourselves travelling independently in a country where any sane tourist would leave the organisation and stress to the professionals.

To be fair, we almost made it. We spent two weeks in Egypt. During that time every reservation was honoured and every connection made - until Aswan. In Aswan, David came down with a serious bout of gastroenteritis and his usual superb organisation floundered. I suspect the tea on board our Nile River Cruise had been made from river water.



The view from our hotel in Aswan.

Aswan was our final port of call. We were due to fly from there to Cairo, where we had a six hour layover, and then on to Rome. There should have been plenty of time to make the connection - except Egypt Air cancelled our flight and didn't tell us. We had confirmed it before arriving in Aswan. We even walked past Egypt Air's offices in Aswan the day before we were due to leave. David was recovering but still weak.

"Maybe we should call in and check our flight", he said.

"No, we've already confirmed it and they know where we are staying. What's the point" I stupidly replied.

We arrived at the airport next morning to find our flight had been cancelled. We were only a few minutes too late to catch the earlier flight to Cairo. The next flight was several hours away. It would touch down with about a half hour to spare before our Alitalia flight left. If we were lucky we would make it. We weren't lucky. Our plane was delayed by about twenty minutes. We arrived literally as the Alitalia plane took off.

It was Thursday afternoon and NOTHING opens in Cairo on Fridays. The staff at Egypt Air wanted to help. They promised to find us a hotel and make sure we could get seats on the next flight to Rome. They talked and talked and talked. We were passed from one customer service person to another. We went up the chain of command, or down or sideways - we really weren't sure. It got later and later.

Finally we realised that despite all their promises Egypt Air were not going to help us. The cancelled Egypt Air flight and the Alitalia flight were on two separate tickets - our problems were not their responsibility. They cut us loose just as it was getting dark. David left me and our son with the luggage and went off in search of a hotel.

The day had taken its toll and my stress levels were off the graph. It didn't help that the Haj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, was on.  The airport was teaming with men, very few women, all dressed only in what appeared to be white towels.  Finally David returned. He had found an airport hotel  - where we paid a small fortune for their worst room.

At this stage we had no idea when the next flight to Rome was. It seemed very likely we would have to buy new tickets. The Alitalia service counter had long since closed and our phone calls to their city office went unanswered, so we took a shuttle to the hotel and hit the internet. The first good news of the day was to discover an Alitalia flight to Rome the next afternoon.

No story about Cairo would be complete with a pyramid.

Early the next morning we left our son with our luggage at the hotel and returned to the airport. At the Alitalia counter we were helped by a lovely lady. She confirmed there were available seats on that day's flight and she transferred our tickets without charge. I could have fainted with relief.

Re-entering the airport with our luggage that afternoon was a nightmare. We couldn't get in without putting our bags through the x-ray machines. There are seven million people in Cairo and every single one of them was trying to enter the airport at the same time as us. The system was completely overwhelmed with nothing which even remotely resembled a queue. Everyone was just fighting their way to the front of the crowd and throwing their bags into huge piles on top of the x-ray machine belts while a couple of baggage handlers tried vainly to feed them into the machines. Most of the bags seemed to be toppling off and piling up on the footpath.

We got there in the end though and settled down for a long wait for our flight. There was no way we were missing this one.

Lessons we learnt from the experience: How you can avoid making the same mistakes: - 
  • Don't drink tea made from Nile River water - ever.
  • When your spouse suggests you re-confirm a reservation, just do it - don't argue.
  • Confirm and re-confirm airline tickets right up to the day you depart.
  • Don't assume that because an airline has your contact details they will actually contact you with  cancellations or schedule changes.
  • Never transit through Cairo airport during the Haj. On second thoughts, never transit through Cairo airport at all.
  • click here for tips on booking airline tickets and how to avoid the separate ticket nightmare.
Click here to read about our arrival (24 hours late and a travelling nightmare in its own right) in Rome.


One of the temples next to the Nile - I have no idea which one.


Come back next week for 'Escaping the clutches of the Czech Republic'. In the meantime if anyone has a holiday disaster of their own that they would like to share and maybe a few tips to help others avoid the same pitfalls I would love to hear about them. 

27 comments:

  1. What a nightmare! I can understand how it must have felt to be stranded in an airport like Aswan with no hopes to get to your destination. Something very similar happened to us in Fiji and we had to loose 3 days before we were able to live the city. It costed us over $1,000 (unexpected expense) to book another flight.

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    1. Hi Anda. It sounds like we got away lightly compared to you. What happened to you was our real concern ie: that we wouldn't be able to get on another flight for a week and that we would have to buy three new tickets. All the time our non-refundable accommodation in Rome was sitting there empty. You can't even enjoy the extra days because you are so stressed. I hope it hasn't put you off travelling.

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  2. Sorry to read that... Indeed, missing your intercontinental flight is one of the worst nightmares (loosing your passport is definitely the worst).
    Very good list, even though re-confiorming flights is nowadays no longer a standard procedure.
    For myself, I check that we always spend the last day in the city of departure, so that you have time for the unexpected, that happens to occur more often than one would like.
    So if visiting Egypt, then plan visiting Cairo at the end.
    I had the same game in Senegal, but there we had not to pay anything, Alitalia was helpful...
    Cheers
    Gilles

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    1. Hi Gilles and thanks for the comment. We have never lost our passports fortunately (touch wood) although my son came very close once when he was 15 and travelling to Europe on his own to meet us in Vienna.

      Re-confirming flights is less important in places like Australia and the US but I wouldn't chance not doing it in Sth America for example. I don't think we have ever been on an Aerolineas Argentinas or LAN flight which hasn't been changed at least once very close to the departure date - often they are changed multiple times.

      Egypt was fabulous and yes it was worth the hassle.

      cheers

      Lyn

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  3. Oh no!!! This sounds very stressful! Alitalia's customer service and treatment of your situation sounds wonderful!

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    1. Hi Fabulous, Alitalia were great but I think it is the only time we have flown with them.

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  4. It sounds awful! I'm surprised you were even slightly calm. I would have been a mess!

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    1. Hi Jess. I was an absolutely mess but David stayed calm(ish) and found a way forward. It was pretty stressful for a while there though.

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  5. Oh no!! What a nightmare! Perfect timing after the gastro too, not! I'm really looking forward to your Czech story next week. I love that place. We've had plenty of mishaps on our travels too. It all makes for a good story doesn't it?! :) Visiting via #teamIBOT

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    1. Hi Renee, You're right, after you survive these mishaps you look back on them and think - well there's a good dinner party (or in my case blog - lol ) story.

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  6. Yeah, that's bad. I am pretty sure flights and airports are the centre of a lot of people's travel disaster stories. I hate it when people just go round and round instead of helping you or outright saying no we can't (or won't) help. Point noted - no tea made on the Nile for me.

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    1. Hi Malinda, I think the going round and round is a cultural thing. We lived in Hong Kong for a few years once and had much the same problem. When people don't want to say no to you it can take a long time to realise that's what they really mean. Australians might be blunt but at least you know where you stand - lol.

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    2. I think that's where it is hard. Aussies are blunt. :/
      Thanks for joining in my #wednesdaywanderlust link party

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  7. Wow, I'm so lucky that in all the travel I have done my flight has never been cancelled. You feel so vulnerable overseas so it makes it 10 times worse. Glad you got on the place in the end!

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    1. Hi Jess, It is particularly hard in a country where you don't speak the language or understand the culture and thinking you might have to pay for three new airline tickets is pretty stressful in itself.

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  8. Egypt looks fascinating but I think I would be too frightened to travel there currently. Your travel disaster rings true. Several years ago when we were flying to Thailand we discovered upon check-in that our internet booking did not actually work and you guessed it we never bothered to confirm our flight booking. Fortunately the airline was able to squeeze us onto the flight. A very valuable lesson was learnt!

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    1. Hi Kathy, We went to Egypt before the current political troubles but I have read that tourism is beginning to pick up again. Your story is a bit of a worry. We book our flights through the internet all the time but I'm fairly sure we always get an e-mail to confirm the reservation.

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  9. What a nightmare, lucky the three of you stuck it out and it all ended well. I will take that tea advice - I often think if the water is heated it will be fine, but you can never be too careful!

    Glad to find your blog through #wanderlustwednesday

    Sarah xo

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    1. Hi Sarah, Thanks for the comment. I think the problem with the water is that to kill all the bugs it has to be boiled for ten minutes. It was probably just heated up without boiling.

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  10. These types of missed connections are why sometimes it's worth paying the extra for tickets taking you through to your final destination. If you miss your onward flight due to flight delays/cancellations the airline will organise to transfer you onto the next available flight and if that flight is not until the next day then they will have you accommodated as well.

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    1. Hi Sally, You are right. This is a lesson we learnt the hard way. Getting ticketed through to your final destination is one of my main travel tips now - http://www.thetravellinglindfields.com/2015/01/booking-airline-ticket-yourself-how-to.html

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  11. Bad luck seems to happen all at once! It must have been very stressful, but at least you made it to Rome in the end :)

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    1. Hi Grace, As it turned out we only missed one night in Rome. It was the uncertainty which made it so stressful and Rome was fantastic - worth the aggravation - http://www.thetravellinglindfields.com/2013/12/christmas-in-rome-isnt-this-where-pope.html

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  12. Oh my that's is on holiday disaster. Traveling really is no walk in the park sometimes. I had a similar situation where I missed my flight because the line for the security was so long and not moving. And i was freaking out so much considering I was leaving for a 10 day cruise the next morning and that ship will not wait for me. Luckily I caught a later flight and was in the clear, but that was probably my most stressful time in my life ever.

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    1. Hi Yvonne, That would have been just awful. I'm amazed you didn't ask if you could cut in at the head of the queue. I did that once when we got stuck in traffic and my son was travelling from Maui to LA. I was just hysterical because I was sure he would miss his flight and it was our fault. Missing the flight would have had a cascading effect on a connecting flight and a tour he was joining. I asked an American couple at the front of the queue if he could cut in and they were just delightful about it. The irony is he ended up missing the tour anyway for a completely different reason but it turned out okay. He flew to the first stop on the tour and joined it on the first day.

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  13. Hello. That temple right there is Kom Ombo temple, dedicated to god Horus and Sobek and contains a unique egyptian calendar in it, along with Cleopatra´s baths. Cheers.

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    1. Thank you. I remember it now. It was fascinating.

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