Last night we got home from a long weekend in Stuttgart, Germany and it was really great. This was our sixth country in the last year and we are all really getting good at navigating unfamiliar places, trying out phrases in new languages, and sampling new foods.
But we’re also learning that not every trip can go well. Our weekend in France in May was our first real experience with a major travel snafu, and we’ve been really lucky in the last 15 months that we can point out just ONE time that things got messed up pretty badly.
Last night would be time number two.
Flight delays happen all the time. We’ve experienced them more times than I can count. But sometimes they just really, really suck.
Our flight home was scheduled to leave Stuttgart at 8:50PM on Sunday night. We got to the airport reallllllly early because we wanted to eat a full dinner before getting on the plane, not just an airport snack. We had almost three hours from the time we had checked our bags and gotten through security to the time we were supposed to board the flight, and that was largely by design so we could sit and eat at a restaurant in the airport without any stress about making it to our gate. We ate slowly and leisurely, even getting coffees and hot chocolates after the meal, and walked to our gate without incident about 30 minutes before we were supposed to board. And then, about 15 minutes later, they made the announcement that the flight was delayed an hour and ten minutes, putting our new estimated departure at 10PM.
It’s no big deal to have a flight delayed. Sure, it’s annoying, but it happens. For this particular trip, though, we were flying in and out of an airport on the opposite side of London from where we live. Once we landed, we’d have to take a train from the airport into London, transfer to the Underground to get to Kings Cross station, and take another train out to the station near our house where our car was parked. In total, it took us about 2.5 hours to get from our car to the airport on the way out to Germany. That’s a long time to travel tacked on to the time you’re already spending in the airport.
We bought the tickets from the further airport because the prices were so good — half the cost of flying from the airport closer to our house. And though we’d never flown out of this further airport, we knew people who did use it and it seemed like no big deal. Unfortunately, we didn’t take into consideration the toll it would take to travel for so long with luggage and the four kids, transferring trains, waiting on platforms, hoping to find seats, managing bathroom trips, etc. It was fine, but it meant we basically left home at noon to just make it on time for a 5:40PM flight out on the way to Germany.
Now we were sitting in Germany facing a flight that wouldn’t leave until 10PM and even once we got to London we’d still have 2.5 hours of travel ahead of us to get home. Suddenly the good deal on plane tickets didn’t seem so good anymore.
In addition, because we’d be arriving so late we had to determine if there were even trains still running to get us where we needed to go. Matt searched the timetables and found the schedule for the airport express into London. The last train left at 12:15AM. We should be able to make that train, then we’d have to switch to the underground and get to Kings Cross to make the final train out toward our house, which would leave the station at 1:35AM and arrive at our destination at 2:50AM. Then we’d have to drive the 15 minutes home. At best, we’d get in at just after 3AM. At worst, we’d have to get hotel rooms in London for the night and then make the trek during Monday rush hour with all the kids and the luggage. I could almost see Matt’s skin crawling with the thought of that.
To complicate things, the flight was delayed another hour, with a new estimated departure at 10:49PM. We realized that if we landed by 11:15PM (London is an hour earlier than Germany) and could get through passport control, customs, and get our baggage, plus make our way from the North terminal of the airport we’d land in to the South terminal where the train station was located in 45 minutes, we could get the last train into the city. Basically we’d have to hope the passport lines were quick and we’d have to run for it. But if we were late at all, there was simply no way to make it to all the connections and get home that night.
As we sat in the airport in Stuttgart after a long three days of walking and exploring and the clock ticked later and later, the kids started to nod off. Quinn fell fast asleep. When we finally got the word to board, he was simply out cold and wouldn’t be woken up, so I had to carry him onto the tram that took us across the tarmac and then up the flight of stairs onto the plane. He never woke up. In fact, he slept through the whole flight. The rest of the kids fell asleep within minutes of take-off. I knew though, that we had HOURS of traveling ahead of us, so although I closed my eyes and dozed a few times, I couldn’t fall asleep because I felt like that would just be worse. It’s easier for me to power through than to get some sleep and then have to wake up and run again.
When we landed, we woke up all the kids because they’d have to be able to be awake to get through passport control. We speed-walked to the baggage claim, got our bags right away, and made our way as fast as possible to passport control, but the lines were already long. As we stood there watching the minutes tick by, Matt went and checked with one of the agents to be sure we were eligible, and then went online and registered for priority clearance — which we had to pay for — so we jumped out of the long line and into a very short line. We probably saved 30 minutes of standing in line, but even still, at that point we had less than 10 minutes to get across the airport to the train station, buy tickets, and get on the 12:15AM train that was the last express into the city. We RAN. The kids, exhausted and groggy, were absolutely awesome. We made it literally by seconds, dashing down the escalator into the open train doors just before they closed.
Then we had an hour train ride into Victoria Station, where we’d transfer to the tube, get to Kings Cross, and finally head home. The kids crashed out on the train, sitting on their luggage and sleeping with their heads leaned up against each other because the train was full and we didn’t have seats.
We made it to Victoria Station, but realized that the Underground had already stopped for the night. It was 1AM, and we stood outside the station with our four kids and all our bags and saw the taxi line of people in similar situations waiting to get in cabs. We knew we wouldn’t make it to our train in Kings Cross if we had to wait, so instead of getting in the cab line, we walked out to the main road and called an Uber. Our driver was 7 minutes away. When he arrived, we explained that we had to get to Kings Cross to make the 1:35AM train or we were stuck in the city — and he was so great about trying to get us there in time. I watched the ETA on the Uber app on my phone — it literally had us arriving at Kings Cross at 1:33AM, then went up to 1:36AM — TOO LATE — and back down to 1:32AM again as we drove through the quiet late-night city. We still had to unload our luggage from the Uber and buy the train tickets, too, so even with 3 minutes to spare we were cutting it close.
As soon as we pulled up I grabbed my suitcase which had been by my feet in the Uber and ran into the station to get tickets as Matt unloaded the rest of the bags and got the kids. He checked the platform on the departure screens — which was easy because it was the only train still listed, the last of the night — and got the kids running toward the correct platform while I hit the ticket machine. A guard at the station saw me frantically trying to get the right number of tickets and yelling to Matt and the kids to keep going and I would get there, and asked if I needed help.
“We just need to be on that 1:35 train!” I gasped. I didn’t pay much more attention, but I do think he called over to the engineer on the platform.
I finally got the tickets ordered; they printed individually, painfully slowly, and I flat out sprinted through the deserted train station to catch up to my family.
Matt and the kids were climbing on to the train as I ran down the platform. I looked up at the clock at the end and it said 1:34:32 as I jumped through the doors. The engineer on the platform blew his whistle as I climbed on board, and the doors instantly closed behind me. We had made it with less than 30 seconds to spare.
The kids fell asleep again almost instantly, but I was so adrenaline fueled, it took me a little while to calm down. We made it back to our station, woke the kids again with some difficulty, trudged out to our car and loaded up the bags and drove home, pulling into our driveway at 3:10AM.
This will become one of those family stories, I think, that we tell again and again — at least this isn’t as bad as that one trip home from Germany! — but it is not something I want to repeat. We’ve learned that a good deal on flights isn’t always a good deal, because we have to take a lot of other factors into consideration.
We also learned, though, that when we’re in a tight spot, we can make things work. To be honest, I would probably have given up on trying to get home while we were standing in the passport line with 10 minutes left to get on the last train into London. But Matt SO did not want to spend a night in a hotel, which would have cost hundreds of extra pounds because we always need two rooms with our big family, and then make the 2.5 hour train trip home on Monday morning during rush hour with luggage and children. He really, really needed to try to make it home. So we all rallied and ran and weaved through crowds in the airport and lugged suitcases down escalators even though we were exhausted and the kids were dead on their feet. At one point on the train from the airport into London, Owen just stood there crying silently because he was so tired he just wanted to lie down and go to sleep. But he pulled it together, wiped his eyes, and made the last bit of the trip without complaining. I was really proud of him and of all of us.
Matt and I have learned a lot in the last year, about ourselves, our children, our strengths and weaknesses, about traveling and down time and how we want to shape our lives. Last night was just another lesson. Even though it sucked while we were in it, it was also a victory because we did it — WE MADE IT HOME!
But next time, we’re flying out of the close airport, even if the tickets are 5x more.
Also, our terrible initial arrival in London a year ago.