Perils of the “Perfect” Itinerary: 3 Flights and a Train

Train Station in China

Lessons Learned

After writing this post, it occurred to me that a story about someone else’s transit travails might not be that interesting to everyone. So to respect the reader’s time, here are the main takeaways. I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide whether they want to read to the end.

Takeaway #1: Airline Agents Have Divine Powers

Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but within the realm of airline administration it certainly seems true. Agents can put you on a different flight: even if it’s full, even if it’s on another airline. That said, you need a convincing reason plus a sympathetic agent. So if you ever find yourself in need of help, remember to be kind and respectful, but persistent. And you don’t have to stop at the first “no”.

Takeaway #2: Make Low Stakes Plans

What I mean by that is to do one of two things: a) leave a lot of time (at least half a day, but a full day is better) between scheduled arrivals and departures; b) if you must book transit legs with little time in between, make sure backup options are available, easy, and low cost.

Our biggest mistake was booking a sequence of connections that provided no room for error. Even in the best of times, pulling that off would have been challenging. In an unpredictable world, planning with no room for slippage is recipe for stress and potential disappointment.

A Perfect Storm

When I learned that my flight was cancelled at a ticket counter at O’Hare Airport, I wasn’t as surprised or dismayed as I should have been. In fact, I had played that possibility in my mind a hundred times in the weeks leading up to this day.

This was very bad news, to be sure. But I was prepared and accepted the inevitable news with resigned calm.

Despite my apparent equanimity, I couldn’t miss this flight or even be late by more than an hour or too without destroying our carefully laid plan. Unfortunately, a smooth trip to Europe no longer seemed as likely as it did in earlier in 2010 when I booked my flight.

I was to depart on May 28th. A month before, an Icelandic volcano erupted — Eyjafjallajökull, in case you were wondering — belching a plume of ash that clouded Northern Europe and completely shut down air travel for a week. Intermittent localized groundings occurred in the weeks that followed.

To top it off a British Airways went on strike a week before my trip further snarling air travel. This was not looking good for me, especially since we had planned a tight relay of planes and trains to get to our destination. If I missed any of my target arrival times, our plans were toast.

A Perfect Itinerary

Our plan started out simply enough. Liuan, worked for a non-profit whose entire enterprise was an annual conference in Budapest. After her conference, I was going to meet up with her. We would then move on and spend the rest of my two weeks in Italy and Spain.

We looked for the cheapest way to get from Budapest to Italy on the exact date her conference ended. The closest thing we found was a Ryan Air flight from Bratislava to Pisa for $50 (USD) a ticket. The flight took off early in the morning the day after her conference ended. Perfect! But then, how to get from Budapest to Bratislava?

We researched and found a train starting in Budapest that made a stop in Bratislava the evening before our Ryan Air flight. It departed a couple hours after the arrival of my connecting flight from Madrid to Budapest and took about two and a half hours. We booked a room at a small, inexpensive hostel in Bratislava to get a night’s rest before our early morning flight to Italy. And that is how we booked our “perfect” itinerary.

But then, weeks before our trip, air travel in Europe looked unreliable at best. Not to mention, one of my connections was through Heathrow Airport in London, which was affected by both proximity to the volcano and the workers’ strike.

We looked at what might happen if I was late and we missed our train (and consequently our Ryan Air flight to Italy). It was not good. There was not another flight from Bratislava to Pisa until nearly a week later, which would destroy our tightly choreographed two week itinerary.

I hedged my bets and booked another $50 Ryan Air flight from Madrid directly to Pisa. I’ve spent money in more foolish ways, I reasoned. If traveling through London proved to be problematic I, I could abandon that plan and fly directly to Pisa. Liuan would have to travel to Pisa on her own.

In Case You’re Lost

I know that was a lot to take in, so here is each leg of the journey bullet by bullet.


  • 4:40pm: Flight departs from O’Hare


  • 7:40am: Arrive in Madrid
  • 9:55am: Connection from Madrid to London
  • 11:15am: Arrive in London
  • 2:05pm: Connection from London to Budapest
  • 5:35pm: Arrive in Budapest
  • 7:58pm: Train leaves Budapest for Bratislava
  • 10:30pm: Train arrives in Bratislava


  • 9:00am: Flight departs from Bratislava
  • 11:00am: Arrive in Pisa, Italy

Airline Agents Have the Power of God

At the O’Hare ticket counter (my home airport), the agent asked me how sensitive my schedule was.

“I really can’t be late by more than an hour,” I responded truthfully.

She put me on direct flight to London through another airline (they can do that?), bypassing my layover in Madrid. It left five hours later from O’Hare, but it arrived in London several hours earlier than I was supposed to get there originally.

Miraculously, this put me ahead of schedule.

Well, sort of. At this point I realized the foolhardiness of trying to board a train a mere two hours after an ETA that could easily be delayed by that much and more. Even if I did arrive on time, what if we had trouble getting to the train station? Or couldn’t figure out which train to get on?

I arrived in Heathrow first thing in the morning. Maybe I could get on an earlier flight. I checked, and there were two earlier flights! One was leaving too soon, but the other would get me there with a couple more hours to spare.

I searched out an airline agent to see about getting transferred.

The woman I approached with my request pulled up my itinerary. As she tapped and scrolled on her computer terminal, she became irritated. “What is going on here?”, she demanded. “You already have a connecting flight to Budapest this afternoon. Why do you need to get on another flight? And why on earth do you also have a flight from Madrid to Pisa in an hour!?!” She probably didn’t want a full explanation so I said it was complicated. But I mentioned that I was worried about missing my train.

She said she had more pressing problems to address and sent me away empty handed.

I hate rejection. But, ironically, this first failure emboldened me. I survived a “no”, there were other agents, and I had a lot of time on my hands. That time would be well spent petitioning every airline agent I could find to put me on that earlier flight.

A Miracle

Fortunately, I didn’t have to ask every single agent at Heathrow airport. I only needed to ask one more.

I snaked through the ticket counter line, settling in to my new determination.

I stepped up to a British man in his late thirties. He listened to my request and tapped at his computer. Though sympathetic, he regretted to inform me that the earlier flights were full and there were already a number of people on the waiting list.

I thanked him for trying and asked if I could be put on the waiting list just as a long shot. Because, why not?

“Can I see your ticket?”

I handed it over. To my horror, he proceeded to rip it in half and toss it in the trash bin.

“Wait! What if I don’t get on the earlier flight?” I asked, alarmed.

“You will have a seat. But you’d better hurry, they are already starting to board!”


I was beyond relieved to know I was going to make it to Budapest ahead of schedule. In my exuberance, I broke a buckle on my sandal, the only footwear I brought, while taking it off in security. It was a minor inconvenience amidst an otherwise fortunate turn of events.

My anxiety about needing time to figure out the train system was not unfounded. I took us a long time to decipher which train we were supposed to take. Communication was nearly impossible since we knew no Hungarian and the people we interacted with at the station knew almost no English.

Once we had the tickets in hand, we then scurried around trying to figure out which train we were supposed to get on. With less than five minutes before the departure time, we got on a train that we were only 70% sure was the right one.

We didn’t know for certain until the conductor checked our ticket twenty minutes after we pulled out of the station and didn’t kick us off the train.

I wish I could say everything else went smoothly after that. However, once we arrived in Bratislava at 10:30pm, the cute little hostel I had booked for the night informed us we weren’t on the guest list. I mistakenly booked us in March instead of May. They kindly called around for vacancies and drove us to another hotel, which was way more expensive than we had budgeted.

Having at this point learned our lesson we decided to get to the airport in Bratislava extra early (3 hours) for our flight, just in case. We left our hotel at 5:30am, yearning for more sleep, only to realize that the airport was so small that nothing was open. They didn’t even let us into the gate until a half hour before the flight.

Were we successful? Well, it depends on your definition of success, but we got to Italy in spite of the circumstances. We had one more mishap once we arrived in Italy, but you can read about that in another post.

All I have to say is that I’m glad we are no longer young travelers.

  • Matt

    Matt is a software consultant by day and a wide ranging hobbyist at night. He enjoys baking, art, music and lives for travel experiences. But what gets him out of bed in the morning is fresh roasted coffee.


Matt is a software consultant by day and a wide ranging hobbyist at night. He enjoys baking, art, music and lives for travel experiences. But what gets him out of bed in the morning is fresh roasted coffee.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *