Thursday, 22 April 2010
Stranded in Paris
Stranded in Paris
Natalie Budgen, Membership Services Executive, Association of Cruise Experts (ACE)
The first I heard of the Volcano eruption was after we had landed at Charles De Gaulle airport in the early hours of Thursday 15th April. We were so glad that we had chosen the early flight with easyjet as otherwise we would have not made it to Paris for our trip. We spent the Friday and Saturday enjoying our trip as intended as we hadn’t really grasped the magnitude of the disruptions or the impact that it had had all over the world. By the Sunday evening we started to realise that it was unlikely that our flight would be departing the following evening, we started to receive text messages from family and work colleagues and started to pay more attention to the French news. Charles De Gaulle airport was completely shut and the UK airspace was completely shut off. On the Monday am we started to search the Internet for alternative travel arrangements, which led us to panic! All of the ferry crossings were showing full for that day and the next. The Eurostar had availability but it came with a price tag of £350 per person (rather a lot compared to the £25 easyjet flight booked). They would rebook our flight but not until the Friday and put us up in a hotel. Sounded lovely but unrealistic with jobs to get back to. We realised that not only was it going to be a struggle to return home but it was also going to cost a lot of money.
After speaking to my colleagues at the PSA we decided to head for Calais. Unfortunately there were also problems with the trains due to strikes with SNCF however luckily we were staying with friends approximately an hour and a half outside of Paris and they very kindly drove us to the Paris Nord station where we boarded a train directly to Calais . This was not cheap for a 2 hour journey - it cost us €60 each.
When we arrived in Calais the mayhem properly began. There were herds of people queuing and pushing to get out of the station along with luggage, children and sports equipment such as snowboards and skis. We fortunately travelled light and only had backpacks. Once we made it out of the station it was a mad dash to get onto a transfer coach to the nearby station of Calais Ville, where we would then be transferred onto another bus to take us to the port. I really think that this could have been arranged better, direct transfers would have been a lot easier then everyone lugging their luggage onto one bus for a short ride and to then having to do the same again. Once we were on the second bus some people came around and handed us a typed piece of paper. I do not know who they were but this did not help the already panicked and frustrated travellers. It gave a warning to passengers stranded in Calais that large numbers were already stranded and that the response of the French government, Calais administration and the police was not positive.
It went on to outline that travellers had been put into temporary detention for not showing ID on request. Others who had been camping on the beach due to not being able to find accommodation had been repeatedly harassed and in some cases had their belongings taken and destroyed and their drinking water poured into the sand. It also spoke of violent behaviour from the police during such operations. Some people had also been arrested for helping other stranded tourists out. It ended by saying that as many people were on a shoestring budget and therefore local charities had started to hand out food from a distribution point (see last page for full article).
So in the already stressed state I was in, this made me panic and I had images of having to sleep rough on the beach. Luckily my other half calmed me down, however if I had been travelling alone this would have been horrible!
We finally made it to the port at around 5.30 pm to be greeted by a long queue of people outside the terminal.
At this point we had no idea how long we would be queuing, how long the crossing was, when they were departing and how much it was going to cost. Some boards with information would have been helpful. Chinese whispers were going around the queue and all you could hear were unhappy travellers muttering €65! Initially this seemed a lot to pay out, especially for families travelling with several children. It is common knowledge that ferry crossings are usually a lot cheaper and everyone had already had to pay through the nose for travel to the port, we were feeling exploited for the unfortunate position they were in. However, when you think about it the ferry companies had to put on more crossings, bring across their freight ferries, have more staff and transfers and all of this needed to be covered. I therefore came to the conclusion that this price was fair.
The queue moved a lot quicker than expected and within two and a half hours of arriving at the port we had purchased our tickets at €65 each, gone through security, been transferred by bus and were in the restaurant onboard one of P&O’s freight ferries by 8pm having a much needed meal and alcoholic beverage and setting sail for our 90 minute crossing to Dover, this felt amazing!
Once we reached Dover we had to deal with the reality as with many others that our car was parked at Luton airport. So into another queue for a bus to transfer us to Dover Priory station to catch a train into Kings Cross St Pancras, we were very lucky with the times as a fast train was just about to leave, however we had to pay another £35 for the ticket – ouch! The costs were mounting up. One poor guy sitting close by on the train had to pay £208 per person (and there were 3 of them) for a ticket to take them back to Leeds, this was after having to hire a car to get them from Switzerland to France. Another lady had paid a large sum of cash in Tunisia to board a boat to Marseille and had then got various trains and buses to Calais and still had to get to Heathrow to retrieve her car and get home. She had already been travelling for 27 hours! It was at this point I realised just how lucky we were to have been close to Paris and that actually our extra expense had been a lot less than many others around us. We reached Kings Cross St Pancras and bought another ticket to Luton Airport another £13.50. Once we arrived at Luton we jumped straight onto the transfer bus to take us to the airport where our car was parked. It was good to get into our car and the car park very kindly gave us the extra days parking free. We then had an hour and a half drive home and eventually, after around 15 hours of travelling, we finally made it home in the early hours of Wednesday morning – Home Sweet Home!