Everyone has a travel horror story. Passports get lost, buses and trains arrive late, and even the best laid plans can (and often do) go awry. Shit happens. This being said, this particular travel horror story is definitely one I could do without repeating. Once in a lifetime was more than enough.
This is the story of my 48 hour trip from Thailand to Korea - an experience during which everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. A journey that should have taken no more than eight hours, yet somehow ended up spanning over two days. Though it is a little bit of a long story, try to stick with me because the lessons learned are pretty important.
The entire debacle started the morning we were supposed to leave Thailand. My friend and I woke up early for a flight that was supposed to leave around 11. We decided to, very stupidly, have breakfast near our hostel, as we had been told that the journey from central Bangkok to the airport only took about 30 minutes total. It ended up taking closer to an hour and 30 minutes total. So that was our first mistake.
We arrived at the airport about an hour before our flight. We knew we were cutting it close, but figured if we rushed like mad we could still make it. Upon entering the airport we scurried around for close to 25 minutes trying to find the correct check-in gate. In total, there were five desks that had China Eastern Air (our airlines) signs on the them; however, not one of them were actually checking in for our flight. Look at the "Departures" screen you say? We did. The check-in desk number changed multiple times.
Once we actually found the desk, we were promptly informed by employees of Thai airlines that our flight gate was closed and that we would be unable to board. Again, admittedly, we were cutting it close, but theoretically we were still there within the specified time-limit and had the China Eastern desk been labeled correctly we would have made it through. The Thai Airlines employees told us to find the China Eastern information desk, which we did, only to find that of all the information desks, China Eastern was literally the only one that was not staffed. Our panic growing, we headed to the general information desk.
Once at the general information desk, we were told that our flight gate had just closed. What??? This was almost 20 minutes after we had been told that the first time, so it hadn't actually closed when we got to the first desk.
After another 15 minutes of being shuttled between various clerks, none of which knew what was going on, we ended up back at the desk staffed by Thai Airline members. At this point we were informed that we needed to book a whole new flight, and were given the phone number for China Eastern Air. We went to a pay phone and called, but were unable to connect - the line just rang and rang. We returned to the Thai Airlines desk, this point on the verge of tears. We had no flight, no idea what to do, and no more change for the pay phone. Finally, a nice woman at the desk took pity on us and used her personal cell phone for about 30 minutes to get us on a different flight the next day. It would cost us $75 extra, but all things considered, a price worth paying. Exhausted and forlone, we headed to an airtel to while away an extra day in Thailand.
Lesson #1: Don't mess around with international flights!!! Get to the airport with AT LEAST two hours to spare. International flights are not nearly as easy to re-book as Domestic flights.
Don't play! Just get there early!
The next day we arrived at the airport and were told that the extra $75 USD fee had been waived - everything seemed to be on the up and up. That is, until we arrived in at our layover in China.
While going through the international ticketing line in Shanghai Airport, the attendant took one look at our tickets and kicked us out of line. We were then herded into the main airport, forced to fill out an arrival card, questioned rudely about why we wanted entrance into China (we didn't, at all), and then issued a temporary entrance visa. All of this despite the fact that we had absolutely no desire to enter China in the first place, and said so several times.
Our layover time was supposed to be 45 minutes, so we were freaking out about having to go back through international customs and security. Then, we were informed that the $75 USD had not in fact been waived. The frustration was growing...
Finally, we got our tickets sorted, made it through security, and rushed to the gate with about 15 minutes to spare. Little did we know we could have taken our sweet time. Our flight ended up being delayed for over five hours, the take off gate changed three times, and once actually on the plane we waited on the tarmac for close to another hour.
Eventually, we took off and sighed a breath of relief. We were on our way home. Our troubles would soon be over. Right? Right...
The flight took about four hours, and arrived in Incheon International Airport around 11:30 pm. We headed to the bus desk only to find that the last bus had left at 10:30 pm... So on account of our airlines extreme lateness, we were now stranded in the airport.
Right as we were about to head to the airport jimjilbang to tuck in for the night, a China Eastern employee stopped us and told us that there were buses outside that would take us to Seoul. We informed him that we needed to get to Daejeon, not Seoul, but he assured us multiple times that there would be a bus in Seoul, which would then take us to Daejeon. The entire situation seemed a bit fishy, but we were exhausted and really just wanted to go home, so we trusted him and boarded the bus.
Lesson 2: Trust your instincts! If your gut is telling you someone is full of crap, they probably are.
Once we arrived in Seoul, we quickly realized there was in fact no other bus to Daejeon. It was simply too late, and the next buses weren't leaving until 6:30 am - and at that time is was around 1 am.
Eventually, we decided to head to Seoul Station to take the first train home because the trains begin running earlier than the buses. We took an expensive cab to Seoul Station, bought our train tickets, and figured we would just hang out in the station all night. Again, our hopes were dashed. Around 2am we were roughly told we had to leave the station.
At this point, I'm pretty sure I had reached a state of temporary insanity. We had been trying to get home for close to 40 hours, and there we were standing on the steps of a train station, in the middle of the night with no clue where to go. Not a good look. Luckily, we spotted a 24 hour Lotteria right next to the station, and decided to duck in and consider our options. All the hostels around the station were either booked or very expensive, considering that we only need one for about four hours.
In the end, we decided to just tough it out and make as much light of the situation as possible. We bought two bottles of soju, two beers, and two boxes of chicken strips, then whiled away the wee hours of the morning. I never thought I'd be so thankful for soju and 24 hour chicken strips...
We talked, drank, and eventually morning came and we boarded our train. After 48 hours of frustration, disappoint, and more bad luck than seems humanly possible, I finally made it back to my bed.
Lesson #3: Things will always work out. Eventually.
Though the experience hugely stressful and I'm definitely not eager for round two; in a way, I'm glad it happen. It taught me several valuable lessons, and more importantly I am much less fearful about experiencing an epic failure of the plan. Before traveling, deviation from the plan was a huge source of stress for me - I was always thinking about the worst possible outcome. All things considered, our trip home was not the worst possible outcome - we did make it home alive, mostly well, and with no bodily harm - however, in terms of a plan gone awry this one was definitely one for the books.
Enjoy the beautiful view!