Monday, 14 January 2008

Travelling Trials

One facet of the Christmas holiday season, alongside the usual festive activities and the following post-festive let-down, is travel. Like lemmings, we all rush around the country (or in some cases, out of it) as if driven to undertake some seasonal human mass migration.

Most travel to visit family, of course, although many find some way to avoid the apocryphal trials of family Christmases by doing the complete opposite, getting as far away as possible, usually with the excuse of seeking some precious winter sun.

But whatever the reason and destination, the common feature is travel chaos. It simply doesn’t make sense to put such huge pressure on airports, railway stations and motorways at the time of year most likely to bring bad weather. Whether it’s security queues at airports, diversions for engineering works on the railways, or motorway service stations cram-packed with fraught humanity, it’s usually hell. (Thinking about it, why do other people’s children reserve their tantrums for public places? Why not get it over with in the car beforehand?)

Last year, my other half and I were treated to the full force of the fickle British weather when we got stuck in fog at Gatwick Airport, two days before Christmas. Problems had been predicted, but heck, we're optimists. And indeed, we thought all was well as we checked in and waited, watching other flights being called and their passengers happily going on their way. (Or at least, as happy as it gets, snaking through Gatwick’s security queues).

No such luck. The delay got longer, and longer, and longer – until they finally put us out of our misery and confessed that our flight was going nowhere that day, or any other. "Please go to the service desk to arrange an alternative flight". Ha! Cue a massive scrum, with hand luggage, arms and legs flaying everywhere. Cue frayed tempers as the Italians queue-jump. (Or perhaps they just played their Joker, Jeux Sans Frontieres-style?).

We, of course, ended up at the back of the queue, exchanging heated words as to whose fault it was that we didn’t bag a better position. But at last, it was out turn, to be told that Gatwick was no longer an option, but would we mind Luton Airport, to-morrow afternoon?

While we deliberated, we were offered some food vouchers as a palliative. This, at least, worked: the thought of a pint of real ale in the Wetherspoons bar and some grub did their trick. (Theakstons has a wonderful way of curing all sorts of ills.) We actually made an evening of it, before going back home with our luggage...

And so to Luton, the next day, bright and early. Rather, that should be 'still very foggy', and early. We were full of trepidation, expecting huge queues, generalised chaos and yet more cancellations. But we were pleasantly surprised. Apart from a bit of a scrum to get on the Airport shuttle bus from Luton Airport Parkway (this time getting our own back on some Italians...), check-in seemed an oasis of ordered calm. Security was a breeze – we seemed to the only ones there – and it wasn’t until we reached the departures lounge that we met the seething throng of displaced fellow travellers. To be fair, all was reasonably under control, but there just weren’t enough seats. So, following some of the new friends we had made on the bus – it’s funny how being crushed together like sardines can engender friendship – we made for the pizza restaurant and ordered a panini and some beers. (Alas, no real ale here). An hour later, and we were boarding happily on our way.

And the moral is? Thank you, Luton! You shall never be the butt of my jokes again. Oh, that and our New Year’s Resolution not to travel again at Christmas - at least, until next year...

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