My Most Intense Travel Experience of All

February 17, 2018

The five-day turnaround involving two sets of domestic flights in different countries compiled with family time and the need to be presentable was certainly a contender for my most intense travel experience, but it’s nothing compared to what happened to me just a few short years ago when I was living in Seattle. Ladies and gentlemen, travelers and sloths, I present to you the craziest travel experience in my 30+ countries, ten-year journey.

A few days before I was set to fly to Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey to meet my then flight attendant girlfriend, she decided that rather than waiting until we saw each other in person, it would be better to end the one-year relationship with a vague text message. With everything booked and paid for and a refund out of the question, this was the only time that I as a traveler considered just throwing in the towel and spending my vacation locked in my apartment, eating ice cream and watching YouTube videos.

I questioned going as I was packing. I questioned going as I arrived at SeaTac. I even questioned it up until I presented my boarding pass to the Alaska Airlines gate agent; by then, I suppose it was too late. In my mind, I knew that there was very little to lose by heading out into the world, staying at nice hotels, and not succumbing to grief. Nevertheless, my brain certainly wasn’t working at the time; my heart just wanted me to huddle in a corner, or dip my head in a vat of chocolate.

Both Bulgaria, Greece, and the first days in Turkey were relaxing and a welcome escape. My intense story isn’t about the trip as a whole, but merely the last leg, from Istanbul all the way back to Seattle.

“The Scream part 2” by Laura Lafond

My original plan was to leave Istanbul in the morning, catch a bus to Sofia, get a relaxing night’s sleep in Bulgaria, and then hop on my international flights back to Warsaw and home. However, I had made a crucial travel mistake and not checked up on local events. The Eid holidays were set to begin in the next few days, and though Turkey didn’t shut down in that time, seats on buses and planes were getting filled far sooner.

I went to the travel agency in charge of the only bus service available to Sofia and inquired about the morning buses… No go.

Afternoon buses…? No.

Evening, overnight buses? I was in luck – there was ONE seat available on the last bus of the day, leaving Istanbul in the middle of the night and arriving in Sofia at 9 AM. This wouldn’t have been so bad, if it didn’t mean an international border crossing a few hours into our journey, with seats that barely reclined. However, I didn’t have a choice – it was this cheap bus, or paying a few hundred dollars for a flight.

Rather than using a few IHG points for a Holiday Inn in Sofia, I cashed in my free Hyatt night in Istanbul for my last night, checked out, and walked around for several hours waiting for the bus to depart, hoping I was correct on the location and time – if I had missed it, I risked being stuck in Turkey during a religious holiday, with everything in high demand. My legs were already stiff by the time we boarded, the city behind us glowing in the darkness.

Shuttle bus in central Istanbul to bus terminal outside of it. Long-distance bus to the border crossing at Kapıkule Sınır Kapısı. Disembark, check passports, check luggage, get back on, head back on the highway. By the time we arrived in Sofia dawn was breaking, I hadn’t had anything substantial to eat, and my legs were begging me for activity.

My flight for Warsaw didn’t depart until 2:00 PM, and the airport was just a short Uber ride away, meaning I had five hours to kill with two bags and an empty stomach. Looking frantically on my phone for anything that might be open and scanning the area with my eyes, I spotted my best chance for sustenance: a Ramada hotel just across the street.

Cafes for breakfast and brunch may be major sources of income in some countries, but others simply don’t do them, or at least advertise them well for tourists. However, a chain hotel lobby is usually a reliable source of food and wifi when there are no Starbucks or comfortable places around. Add to the fact that this was a large occupancy hotel, and I could mix in with the crowd unnoticed, not being asked to leave and haul my two bags across the city.

On this occasion, it worked beautifully. I was able to squeeze into the breakfast buffet and find ham, eggs, cheese, and bread – gotta love eating in Europe – and then order a tea as I caught up on a few emails next to reception. However, the fact remained five hours is just too awkward an amount of time for a stopover, even one by bus: not enough time to check into a hotel and sleep or exercise, but too much time that one just can’t go to the airport early.

Eventually, I did make my way to Sofia Airport a few hours early and waited in the nondescript terminal with little to do. Boarding now, Sofia to Warsaw. Warsaw to Chicago. At that point, I had checked out of the hotel a little over 36 hours prior, doing nothing more than eating or sitting. Ironically, if I weren’t a runner I would probably find these little breaks and travel times tolerable; however, as a runner my legs were on fire, screaming at me to do something, anything.

Luckily, I touched down in Chicago on time and used the last of my IHG points for an airport apartment suite nearby, which happened to be walking distance from a pizza place. I believe I passed out in the chair with just a few slices consumed, sauce and cheese no doubt dribbling from my mouth, before throwing myself on the bed and reminding myself to set the alarm – early flight the next morning, no time to sleep in.

Take it from someone who has been the victim of a breakup at the most inopportune time and still forced himself to step on that plane: travel helps you move on. Heart broken, legs strained, and stomach unsatisfied, I still found myself laughing at the absurdity of it all, and wondered when I would head out again.

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