What Happened When Our Airline Went Bankrupt and Left Us Stranded

 
London - Couple Travel - ochristine
 

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Last week we were in England preparing to catch our flight home when I noticed our airline’s (Primera Air) website wasn’t working. It was late and we’d just finished cramming in all the travel we possibly could before heading home. I was exhausted and didn’t have the energy to figure out why my flight information wasn’t working, so I decided to sleep it off and check again the next day.

Still nothing.

I thought maybe I was looking up the wrong website so decided to Google search the company instead, thinking I’d be directed to a better link. I got much more than that.

To my surprise a slew of recent articles popped up referencing Primera Air’s bankruptcy and its stranded passengers. (See screenshot below)

Primera Air bankrupt articles - ochristine

My jaw dropped.

It was 7am and the day of our flight (scheduled for 5:55pm that day). I jumped out of my bed and woke up Alex. “Alex, please get up — I don’t think we have a flight,” I whispered.

“What are you talking about?” Alex wiped his eyes searching for his phone. In crisis-resolution mode, I began dressing and collecting my wallet and electronics, “Just search ‘Primera Air’ on your phone and you’ll see. We have three hours before we need to check out and eight hours before we need to have this car back so let’s figure this out.”

Swear words and grunts ensued, naturally. But when in these situations, I have no time to complain. The clock was racing against us.

The details of the crisis

After doing further research, we realized that while we were living our best life (in agreement to not be on our phones that much) our airline, Primera Air, went bankrupt. It didn’t notify anyone other than pinning a tweet on its twitter account, and BOUNCED.

When I say “Bounced” I mean it. In the moments following its bankruptcy announcement, people were IN THE AIRPORT waiting for their flight! People were left stranded, scrambling to figure out solutions. And weeks later — we were one of them.

Back to the story…

Pissed off and appalled, we knew we needed a new flight but they were costing $2,000 per person to get home — for economy!

Then we saw an article listing other airlines who’d offered discounted fares to people affected by the Primera Air shut down. Airlines like Norwegian, British airways, Delta, Virgin Atlantic, and more.

So we spent the whole morning in our lobby (thank goodness for free WiFi) using our mobile devices’ free WiFi calling feature (here’s a blog post on how to activate free calls on your phone) and called every listed airline to inquire about their relief fares.

Waiting for good news felt a lot like waiting for my Hogwarts acceptance letter. #NeverForget

More bad news around the corner

As mentioned earlier, despite me working in media and Alex reading the news daily, we never heard about the bankruptcy and three weeks had gone by without us knowing. I did have a moment of self-blame because I thought, “I knew I should’ve checked on the flight earlier!” But who checks on their flight three weeks early? No one. I had to accept that it wasn’t my fault. That I did all the right things, reasonably expecting that the company we bought airline tickets from would indeed follow through.

Anyway, because of our delayed uncovering of this information, each of those aforementioned airlines had an October 16th cut off date for their relief fares and guess what?

I didn’t notice anything was amiss until the 17th! And didn’t check the news until the 18th.

That was probably the worst feeling about it all. We were so close to getting assistance yet so, so far.

Sure enough, no airline would help because we missed the cut-off date. What’s worse: the agents didn’t realize there were cut-off dates and would take us through the entire process, getting our hopes up, and letting us down. It wasn’t their faults — they had nothing to do with this. Unfortunately, though, we wasted about five hours discussing solutions and being put on hold.

Again, there was no time to sulk.

At this point it was 12pm and we had to return our rental car by 3:30pm — a 1hr 30m drive away (corrected from 1hr). I searched my favorite websites looking for a great last minute deal.

Yes, even in crisis I’m a deal shopper

I could sense the tension in the air as the clock ticked closer to our deadline. We were hangry. Tired. And understandably upset. We grappled with the idea of just staying another week for cheaper prices, but when we did the math, the UK’s stronger currency would make our expenses breakeven — the amount of money saved would be minimal.

I searched Google Flights, Skyscanner, Kayak, Priceline, and Fly.com. All the flights remaining for departure that day or the following day were so expensive. They also required ridiculous connections like flying from London to Moscow, then over to St. Petersburg, in order to get to New Jersey.

HUH!?

I’m not flying to Russia to get to New Jersey from London, sorry.

I know beggars can’t be choosers but this beggar wasn’t that desperate.

Anyway, then I remembered one of my most recent favorite sites. I used this website to find cheap flights to Quebec City in May and used it to find unique connecting flights to save over $600 on my trip to Chile. I think I also used it to go to Taiwan last January, too — but I can’t recall.

The website was called Kiwi.com. They have a great flight price map which helps you figure out better countries to fly from while you conduct your search. They also list small airlines that weren’t being listed on other websites. This is where I finally found a deal!

Edited for clarification:
the brands & companies mentioned (including Kiwi) did NOT pay me nor contact me for this mention

But they need to — Kiwi, where you at!? I’m out here giving free advertisement. Also they’re not the best at finding flights, they just solved this situation for me. I still recommend using all of the above sites when searching.

(The image below is a snapshot of their website layout. This is not the deal I found.)

 
Kiwi flight finder example - ochristine
 

Finally Found Flights!

I’ve used them before for reference, as I mentioned, but I never actually booked through them. In the past the listings just gave me travel ideas and then I would process the booking with airlines directly (or using points on the Chase travel portal).

This time, however, I had no time for all that. I saw a set of flights from London > Barcelona > Porto with Vueling and TAP Portugal that would land in EWR (Newark, NJ) for the cheapest price — and leaving that evening! The flights also came with a transfer guarantee (in case the Vueling flight made us miss our TAP Portugal flights).

NOTE ON BOOKING SEPARATE FLIGHTS (from any 3rd-party): If you aren’t familiar with booking separate airlines, you should know that if Airline #1’s flight shows up late, they are not responsible -nor will they compensate you- for missing Airline #2’s flight. In addition, Airline #2 is not obligated to get you on another flight if you weren’t checked in; they don’t care about what happened with their competition. So always make sure you give yourself extra layover time or buy insurance (or book with a transfer guarantee like we got).

I immediately BOOKED IT. For two people it totaled about $950, but there was a catch…

Another glitch in our plans

As if our experience couldn’t get anymore complicated, our newly booked flights were leaving from a different airport than our rental car drop off. We initially planned to fly out of London Stansted (before Primera Air left us hanging), but this flight deal departed from Gatwick Airport — nearly two hours away from the Stansted drop off location.

Doing the math: if we drove 1hr 30m to Stansted to drop off the car, then transferred and booked public transit to travel two hours to Gatwick (all assuming no traffic) we’d need a minimum five-hour leeway in order to arrive 2-3 hours early for an international flight. Say that three times fast.

Long story short: we’d be cutting it really close and spending even more money on last minute train tickets. Let’s not forget train departure times aren’t being accounted for in this calculation.

Instead we called up the rental car company (we used Europcar but I didn’t like that they wouldn’t accept our 3rd party insurance and forced us to buy theirs when we picked the car up, so go book from Easirent instead, hmph! I just have an attitude — honestly they were both just okay.)

After a bit of a runaround, Europcar ended up being pretty flexible when it came to changing the drop off location to Gatwick Airport. It cost an additional $45 but saved us a lot of time.

Screen Shot 2018-10-25 at 1.40.40 PM.png

Off to Gatwick Airport to begin our journey

Yes, we were about $1,000 poorer but things were looking up. We were driving to the new Europcar drop off location and just had to reconfigure our baggage to meet the airline weight requirements of our newly booked flights. Primera Air had a 10kg carry-on limit. Thinking back on it, we shouldn’t have moaned about it because Vueling and TAP Portugal airlines had an 8kg limit, according to our confirmed tickets.

After dropping off our car, we sneaked off to a corner and prepared to layer ourselves with as much heavy clothing as possible to lighten our bags. It didn’t help that we purchased a new (gorgeous) wool blanket from Scotland to support the National Trust. That thing was pretty thick.

I brought out my scale (I always carry it with me — you should get one, it’s about $15) and weighed the bags. But we had a problem… we were still over the limit! I ended up throwing away a rundown pair of shoes, jeans, pants, and a top to lighten the load. Alex threw out a few things too (and I later found out, snuck his rundown trainers back in his bag — we were supposed to be sacrificing together!)

We tried our best, but we still were slightly over the limit.

Exhausted, we gave up and went to the check-in desk, awaiting our fate. At Primera Air (we flew them when we came to the UK) they were really strict about bag weight, so we expected our first leg with Vueling to be equally harsh.

Finally an ounce of luck: we quickly learned Vueling was NOT strict at all (at least, not this agent at Gatwick). At check in, she didn’t even look twice at our bags. I wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t look twice at our passports, either.

Our flight to Barcelona was two hours in pretty uncomfortable economy seats that didn’t recline, nor did it offer entertainment. Unlike U.S. economy flights though, they still offered a free ham sandwich and dessert.

Another hurdle to jump

We arrived in Barcelona, Spain around 12:45am. Our initial plan was to head over to TAP Portugal’s section and sleep there until our 10:00am flight to Porto, Portugal.

Of course there was another hurdle…

Because the booked flights were technically separate tickets, we couldn’t get our TAP Portugal boarding passes until the next morning, when staff arrived at the airport’s main check-in counter. Security manning the transfer section strongly sent us on our way to customs and baggage claim… leaving us worried about our sleeping fate.

At baggage claim, we followed signs for “Check In” and looped around the airport to the main concourse. Just as we arrived, the airport shut off the lights with us inside. There were many other travelers like us, all cozying up on the floor and in corners, waiting for the counters to open too.

At this point was 1:30am and we knew we needed to at least try to sleep. We expected counters to open by 6am and there were available bathrooms, chairs (with armrests, ugh — not good for trying to lay down), and a 24-hour cafe downstairs that sold overpriced sandwiches and pastries. Basically, a luxury experience.

 
Travel Bloggers on Instagram - ochristine
 

We gladly ate those overpriced items and enjoyed authentic Iberian Ham for the first time… in the dark… with some random person playing Bollywood videos on their phone next to people trying to sleep.

In a blink the sun rose and beamed into the airport’s floor to ceiling windows and rays of light seeped into my eye mask. Muffled conversations grew louder despite my ear plugs, and I eventually realized the airport was open again. It was about 6:00am, as expected, and we had the opportunity to check in and at least get to a more comfortable area.

Eventually we boarded our short flight to Porto, and when we landed, found a great set of seats and charging outlets for the five-hour layover before our last leg.

Insight on Barcelona & Porto airports

I really liked the Porto airport. Food was amazing there, and much less expensive. The free Wifi was strong enough to make phone calls, and the employees were very nice.

Barcelona-El Prat wasn’t horrible, we just didn’t have a great experience there because of our circumstances. Spending 20 euros on two sandwiches didn’t help either. El Prat also offered free WiFi.

One thing I will say, is both airports allowed us to sleep wherever and whenever, so I appreciated that. Not having that privilege would’ve made things way more stressful.

Flying home Alone on TAP Portugal

Our flight home was decently enjoyable. The seats weren’t great and the carrier itself didn’t feel the cleanest (we also didn’t pay to choose our seats so they sat Alex and me in separate rows). It essentially was a flight home alone, but I don’t mind being alone. Alex didn’t seem to mind either, as he knocked out for the majority of the flight.

The highlights: TAP Portugal offered alcohol, soft drinks, tea/coffee, and water with full meals, delicious desserts, and snacks all for free. They also had a long list of movies playing in Portuguese and English for each seat’s entertainment center — even in economy!

During the flight I watched Deadpool 2, Oceans 8, and then resorted to a saved Netflix movie on our mobile device (a Netflix original called “Extinction”) before nodding off. The flight was about eight hours.

 
 Dinner on TAP Portugal International Flight (OPO > EWR)

Dinner on TAP Portugal International Flight (OPO > EWR)

 

Lessons learned from being stranded after our airline went bankrupt

While I consider us pretty seasoned travelers, there were many lessons learned (or reaffirmed) during this experience. Here are five of the major lessons that stood out to me:

  1. There's nothing we could've done to prevent what happened (other than see the future and book a different flight). Blaming myself for not finding out sooner wasn’t going to fix it.

  2. Always make sure you book your travel with a credit card that offers trip insurance (if you don't buy travel insurance on your own) -- we use Chase Sapphire and waited until we got home safely to file our claim. That is still in process now.

  3. Always have at least 3x enough money (or a good credit limit) to get home in case of an emergency. I couldn’t believe how many people booked their flights on debit (less likely to have fraud protection), didn’t have a credit card, and had to overdraft their checking accounts in order to get home. In my opinion, if you are in this situation and have no funds or credit line for an emergency, you should prioritize finances over leisure travel.

  4. Don't waste time crying over spilled milk. When we initially found out about the bankruptcy, we wanted to find someone to yell at. The reality, however, was that there was no one to yell at. Not in that moment, at least. What was done, was done. We needed to use our time wisely, assess the situation, and find a solution.

  5. Have extra pages in your passport and proof of vaccinations in case you have to bounce to another country for a solution. We initially stayed in the UK because we didn’t want to waste our last set of passport pages. I’m glad we had enough pages after our UK trip, because when Barcelona-El Prat’s airport security wouldn’t let us transfer until the next morning, we had to get stamped into the country.

Eventually we did make it home (albeit 35 hours later), and we were lucky to have Alex’s father pick us up from Newark, NJ (EWR) in Friday rush hour traffic. We landed at 6:45pm and went through immigration logistics, left the airport around 7:30pm, and got home at 9pm.

What an adventure.

Have you ever had your travel plans drastically fall through? This story is for the books, I’ll tell ya.

xx, O.

 
Travel stories - ochristine