Losing your luggage on a trip is a huge inconvenience. Losing it twice? Now that’s some bad luck…
My earliest foray into traveling on my own wasn’t smooth sailing, even though I’d done extensive research and felt I was properly prepared. It was going to take place at the tail-end of a trip I was taking with my husband.
In July of 1999 my husband Bill and I decided to take a 2-week trip to France, a first for both of us. We first planned to rent a car and spend a week touring Normandy and Brittany, and then spend a final week in Paris, which would include the usual museums and famous landmarks. The problem was, we arrived at the Paris airport, and Bill’s luggage arrived, but mine didn’t. For the next 3 days, mine didn’t. We stayed an extra day in Paris, waiting to see if my luggage would arrive. When it didn’t, I was forced to go out shopping for some clothes to wear so that we could try to resume our sightseeing plans. On the surface this might sound like fun. But trying to squeeze my American body into clothing cut for French women with no hips and not being familiar with European sizing was definitely NOT fun. Plus, the clothes were expensive, and it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing on my vacation. And, Bill was getting impatient to hit the road. I managed to throw together a few minimal outfits that would work for the weather, picked up some toiletries, and we were off. When we finally got notification from the airlines that my luggage had arrived, we had it delivered to our hotel near Giverny, where we were touring Claude Monet’s gardens and home. The rest of the trip went along well and without incident.
Two weeks later back in Paris, by pure luck of timing the final day of the Tour de France was coming through! We stood along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées for 2 hours with the thousands of other tourists waiting, then cheering like maniacs as the riders made their final laps. It was one of the most exciting in-person sporting events I’ve ever seen. This was the first year that Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France; it was a big deal for an American to win the Tour and all the French citizens and tourists around us were genuinely happy for this American man and were celebrating his win. Of course, six wins later and a spectacular fall from grace would follow.
My first solo trip: England
After that, Bill headed home and I made my way to England on the Chunnel (the English Channel Tunnel train) for almost 2 weeks on my own. I had a couple of special people I was going to visit, and then I planned to tour London by myself for a week. First I headed to Dorchester in Devon County, where a British geologist I worked with in my first job in Dallas now lived. Tim, his wife, and two young girls graciously welcomed me into their home. Tim took me on a tour of Stonehenge (only about an hour from his house!), which I learned is like the Grand Canyon: until you’ve seen it for yourself, in person, you just haven’t seen it. Also nearby was the birthplace of the famous British author Thomas Hardy (a little village with the funny name of Puddletown), where I remember learning that when Hardy was born, the midwife thought he was stillborn and “tossed him aside for dead.” One of the attendants looked a little closer and exclaimed, “Why, he’s alive for sure!” and saved the boy’s life. In this thatched-roof cottage was where he wrote some of his most famous works, including Far from the Madding Crowd. Finally, we went to Salisbury Cathedral, which has one of only four remaining copies of the Magna Carta.
From Devon County I had plans to crisscross England and make my way to Norwich in Norfolk County, which was in the northeast part of the country. Ever since I was 11 years old, I’d had a pen pal in England, a girl named Yvonne whom I’d never met. When I was in junior high school, I read in the back of a magazine (maybe it was American Girl?) a short text ad that read “Do you want a foreign pen pal?” And if you did, you were to send your name and address into the magazine, and they would perform a matching service. I learned later that Yvonne had submitted her name to a matching service through her school. Somehow, through both these services, we were matched up as pen pals. So ever since we were both 11 years old, we had been writing to each other and essentially growing up together. We’d sent photos to each other of ourselves, our families, graduating high school, our weddings, she’d sent photos of her children, and on and on. On my first wedding day I remember getting a telegram from her. We’d also sent little gifts throughout the years.
When I knew I’d be within striking distance of England, I decided I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to finally meet Yvonne. I contacted her early in 1999 and let her know I’d be in the country, and would she be open to a visit? Of course, she responded positively, and the day had come. Tim dropped me off at the train station in Dorchester, and I was on my way.
I had never done any train travel whatsoever. The Chunnel didn’t count as having experience on British Rail. So I was not prepared for what was about to happen. Of course I was traveling with too much luggage for one person to handle, something that I rectified in my later years of solo traveling. I boarded the train with two small carryon bags in my hands, leaving my two larger bags on the platform because I was planning to go back down and get them. After I found a seat, I headed back for the door. Now there was a throng of people crowding the doorway and shoving their way in. Because I was trying to be polite, I stepped aside and let everyone pass until the door was clear.
Then, to my horror, the automatic doors closed and the train started rolling down the track! There were my two bags, just sitting there on the platform as we rolled away. Those doors couldn’t have been open for more than a minute! I freaked out, started running up and down the aisle, screaming to people “What should I do? What should I DO?! My f**king bags are back there!” I was banging on the red Open Door button, which I discovered doesn’t work once the train starts moving. I was cussing up a storm. A bunch of elderly people were in that car and they were just stunned, watching this American woman make a spectacle of herself. Finally a gentleman came to his senses, jumped out of his seat, and helped me find a ticket taker so we could tell him what happened. He saw the bags sitting there as we pulled away and said “Oh, you’re joking!” At last, I thought, someone with a sense of urgency! He raced to a phone and quickly called back to the Dorchester station. They asked what my plans were? I said I would be in Norwich for the next few days, then in London for a week of touring. They went back and forth with this, because we were right at the weekend and reduced train schedules to Norwich. They advised that the safest course of action would be to collect my bags and put them on the next train to London, where they would give instructions to be sent to my hotel. While this wasn’t ideal, I agreed to the arrangement.
I plopped into my seat and just fumed. If I had known boarding the train was going to be such a cattle call, and you had less than a minute to do your business, I would have been as rude as everyone else was and just shoved my way through those doors. Next time, I thought, I’ll know better. An elderly woman sitting next to me cheerily chirped away in her British accent, “You know, I guess I could have just pulled that chain up there. But you just don’t think, do you?” I looked where she was pointing. There was a cord stretched above all the windows and a sign with something to the effect of “Pull this cord in case of emergency to stop the train.” I glared at this woman in my foul mood and it took all my self-control to not express the uncharitable thoughts that popped into my head.
First the airlines did it to me; then I did it to myself. So, I did not have my clothing or my camera with me on the one and only weekend that I met my lifelong pen pal and her family. If ever I needed a harsh lesson about traveling lightly and keeping my wits about me, about not traveling with more than I can carry in both hands—well, I learned it on this trip.
My comedy of errors with British Rail didn’t end there. At the end of the weekend with Yvonne and her family, they were all gathered at the train station to see me off to London. Really, they had been the sweetest family I’d ever met. She was married with three young children and I’d been treated like royalty the whole weekend. I’d felt so comfortable in their home, like I was visiting my own family, and it made me realize how much we’d truly gotten to know each other over the 30+ years we’d been writing. Now, all five were there to say goodbye as I was leaving. Yvonne and her two girls started to cry, which made me cry too.
Maybe all this emotion got me a bit distracted. (OK, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.) I found my platform and found a seat on the train, then came back outside one last time to say goodbye. They all stood outside and waved as my train pulled away from the station. I settled in and wiped away my tears. When I heard the announcement that my train was headed for Liverpool, I jerked my head up and said “What?!” I was supposed to be on a London train! A wave of panic went through me as I located a ticket taker: “This train is headed for Liverpool? I think I’ve gotten on the wrong train; I’m supposed to be going to London! What do I do?” He heard my American accent, grinned widely and said, “Well, nothing, now. You’re going to Liverpool. When you get there, you’ll get on another train to London. You’re just taking the scenic route now.”
I sank back into my seat in disbelief. I could not believe I was on the wrong train. I could not believe that Yvonne and her family didn’t notice that we were standing on the wrong platform; they also knew I was headed to London. How did this get by all of us?
What a fiasco—on top of everything else, now instead of a short jaunt southwest to London, I was heading in the opposite direction, northwest, all the way across to the other side of England, to Liverpool.
I had many hours to stew over this absurdity. In the end I had to decide that it didn’t matter. No one was waiting for me in London. I thanked God that Bill wasn’t waiting for me there, who grew up navigating the New York subway system and would never have made such a rookie mistake. I wasn’t going to miss a flight or any big performance or event because of my stupidity. My hotel reservation would be there when I arrived, even if I was several hours late. I had a full week of touring London ahead of me and I would make the best of it. No one ever needed to know. 😊
Of course, when I arrived at my hotel in London, guess what? No luggage! They didn’t get put on the next train, or on any next train; they just weren’t there when I arrived. It took a half-day of phone calls and explanations after I arrived in London before someone in the Dorchester station finally discovered the bags in their lost-and-found and sent them to me.
Once I was settled and had my luggage back, I could relax and finally resume my plans. Touring London on my own turned out to be pure joy for so many reasons. I signed up for a “Walking Tour of London” with one of the city’s highly trained tour guides. I was to meet the guide at a certain place at 8 a.m. The guide was there when I arrived, but no one else showed up. I asked him if he was going to cancel the tour, thinking he would require some kind of minimum attendance. “No,” he said, “you’re here, so we’re going on a tour.” That day I got a private 6-hour tour from an amazingly knowledgeable and personable tour guide. We went to all of London’s hot spots, and for the ones that weren’t open that day, he gave me insider tips on how to get into them during that week. To this day I still remember how fun that day was; we chatted and laughed nonstop. At the end of the tour he even remarked, “You know, I have to say, I was dreading this. You never know how these are going to turn out. There was one woman I had to take out alone one time, and she hardly said a word for the entire day. It was torturous. But this has been great fun.”
My guide told me exactly where to stand to get the best picture for the Changing of the Guard. He told me if I wanted to attend church at Westminster Abbey on Sunday, exactly what time to arrive early so that I could be seated up in the choir, where the best acoustics were (which I did on my last day there). Also in the Abbey, he asked what my background was so that he knew whose tombs I might be particularly interested in seeing. When I said geology, he made sure to show me Charles Darwin’s tomb, among others.
I say all this because had I been traveling with a companion, I would not have received such personal attention from a tour guide. The connections one can make when traveling alone are completely different than those you make as a couple or with a friend. This first attempt at solo travel, while full of missteps and mishaps, also opened up a world of possibilities to me.
When I was doing my research for this trip, I also learned that I was lucky to be arriving in the 6-week window when the Queen of England opens Buckingham Palace for public tours, so I made sure to purchase a ticket for that in advance (now, the Palace is open from July to October, so it’s much easier for tourists to gain entry). I won’t say we shared tea and crumpets, but I will say that the royal family has got some bucks! (OK, OK, I know the British public paid for that out of their exorbitant taxes, don’t get your knickers in a twist.)
I’m happy to say that not all of my solo trips qualify for an episode of Keystone Cops! I learned my lessons and was a quick study. I now prefer solo travel to traveling in group tours or with companions because of the level of control, flexibility, and autonomy it gives you.
Do you have any funny stories about luggage going awry, or any missteps you took while traveling—that are far enough in the past that you can finally laugh about them? If so, please share them in the comments below. I’d love to hear that I’m not alone in making boneheaded mistakes!
See Woman Traveling Solo II for how I incorporated home exchanges into my budgeting strategy for affordable solo traveling.