From Belfast to Zagreb: My week as a volcano refugee

Sitting in Dublin and watching British televisions talk of the problems with volcano ash was a pretty torturing experience. Gordon Brown was explaining that “money was not an issue”, that he had sent the Royal Navy to help those trapped in Spain, that he had arranged a larger number of trains with the French and additional service with the ferries. Banks had agreed to increase the credit card limits and stop charging fees for using the ATM machines abroad. The Irish government called on its stuck citizens to keep their receipts so they could claim their money back, and had declared that Ryanair’s announcements that it would refund the passengers just for the tickets and no additional expenses, “unacceptable” and “against the law”.

This was all I wanted at one point, but this business was out of business

Meanwhile, I got stuck in Belfast and took a refuge with my friends in Dublin, trying not to lose my mind because it was becoming obvious that this adventure could cost me a whole month’s pay. Or at least half of it. And it wasn’t obvious at all that I’d ever be able to go home.

“Maybe our government will think of doing something as well,” I thought. Yeah, right.


On TV, people were advised that, according to the EU laws the airlines are obliged to not only exchange their tickets for free, but also pay for the hotel and three meals a day. This is why some airlines had organized buses for their passengers.

“Maybe Croatia Airlines is also organizing something. Definitely not from Dublin, but maybe from London?” Again, the naive me.

I asked a colleague who organizes our trips at work to ask around, but her friend in Croatia Airlines apparently “just laughed” at this thought.

My experience with the travel agency through which my ticket had been bought, was equally frustrating, to say the least.

The first info came last Friday. My Saturday flight had not yet been canceled at that point, but it was obvious it would be. Since the agency does not work on Saturday – why would they, it’s not like anyone is traveling during weekends – our organizer suggested that we immediately change the ticket for Monday because, who knows if there’ll be seats available later.

“We can reserve a seat for you on next Saturday. Or, we can issue a new ticket for you for Monday, but that will cost you 2200 kunas,” a gentlemen from the agency told me. We were talking about 300 euros.

My ticket apparently had some code and could only be exchanged for a ticket with the same code, and such tickets weren’t available on the BMI’s flight from Belfast to London for another week.

“You could go directly to a BMI office and ask them if they would change this for you, but I doubt they would dare to touch a Croatia Airlines ticket,” this guy told me.

Here I learned a new term – the ticketing airline. The one that issued the ticket. And the one responsible for changes plus the one that determines your rights.

But, at the George Best city airport in Belfast, the lady at the BMI counter changed my ticket with apologies and didn’t even mention she was doing me a favor. My expenses at this point: exactly three pounds for a return ticket on the airport bus.

When Monday finally came, I was already in Dublin, and the airspace in the United Kingdom was still closed. I was calling the agency, asking them to change the ticket again.

“But, I can’t change the ticket if I don’t know when the planes might fly again at all,” said a lady, not trying to hide that she finds my requests slightly irritating.

I tried to explain to her that, if we waited until it was officially confirmed that the planes were flying again, there wouldn’t be seats for days to come, so it would be better if we just tried to guess. After some persuading – all this while my phone was still in roaming – the lady agreed to do it. My new flight was on Wednesday.

At this point I started to panic because there were some estimates that flights would be canceled for a whole week and possibly beyond, so I started thinking of alternatives. One was Oliver Dragojevic, a legendary Croatian superstar singer who had a concert at the Royal Albert Hall the next day and who came to London on a bus. Maybe there would be a seat available for me.

Some of the ideas sounded like good craic, but were in fact quite crazy

“They will not know until the last moment. So, you’d have to go to London and then see how it goes,” our organizer told me.

I wasn’t persuaded I should do it. If it didn’t work, I’d be stuck in London. In case I had to do it on my own, I preferred a ferry directly to France, avoiding both London and Dover, where tickets were running out. But any such combination was too expensive. For instance, traveling through France would entail a three hour ride on a bus from Dublin to Rosslare, a ferry from Rosslarea to Cherbourg, France, for 100 euro, a train to Paris for some 40 euros, and from Paris to Vienna for 200. In any case, too much.

“Truck drivers,” my friend said.

Their advantage was that they could get their hands on ferry tickets easier, because a certain number of tickets is reserved for them – at this moment tickets for foot passengers on the ferries were running out and people were buying bikes to get into a new passenger category. Plus, I wouldn’t have to pay a fortune for train tickets.

I asked a colleague doing business news to find me a truck driver who would take me home.

What’s worse, he found one. I had to meet him in London the next day, but then we still had to go to Kent and Plymouth, then to Brussels and the trip was to take days. I didn’t really know where I could sleep those few nights, but I still tried to buy tickets for London, and wasn’t even thinking about the expression the driver might have when I turned up with all my luggage.

After trying to enter the web site for the Irish Ferries for a few hours, I managed to buy a ticket for Holyhead. Forty-five pounds. A train ticket from Holyhead to London was 75 pounds. Luckily, their system rejected my credit card. Because, a few hours before I was to set for the Dublin harbor, there was news that the whole U.K. airspace might open on Tuesday. And I had a ticket for Wednesday. Yay!

Of course, Wednesday morning, the BMI web page said my flight was canceled. Some other flights weren’t, but mine was. The same flight Thursday was to go forward as planned. I called the agency, that same woman, and she told me that there were no available seats Thursday or Friday. And she said her system didn’t even show that my flight was canceled.

“But the Croatian Airlines has just announced that it will fly today from London to Zagreb. Could you book that flight for me, and I’ll try to get to London on my own?” I asked.

It can be done. I got a ticket for Friday, but that change would cost me 50 euros. That honestly shocked me. After all, the airlines were supposed to pay for hotels and food, and it goes without saying that they should change the tickets for free. But the Star Alliance obviously thought differently – a friend who got stuck in Croatia, and was supposed to fly Austrian Airlines, was also charged. Apparently they waited until the last minute to cancel their flights, even when they knew there would be none, so they could charge people for the change.

In the end I got a ticket for SailRail to London

In the end, I bought a RailSail ticket from Belfast to London for 46 pounds (plus a 5 pound fee for the credit card). I started at 7 a.m. in Dublin to Belfast on a bus – I already had a ticket for that. Then a ferry to Stranraer in Scotland, a train to Ayr,  another one to Glasgow and the third one brought me to London half an hour before midnight. I slept at our stringer’s place and at the crack of dawn headed to Gatwick – another 17 pounds for the Gatwick Express.

Summary: spent five days of unplanned vacation, at least 300 euros by my very conservative estimate (depends on how much the roaming will be) and a bunch of nerves. Luckily, today I found out that the Croatia Airlines has not in fact charged me to change the ticket, and my agency says that the airline should, according to the laws, indeed cover my expenses from Belfast to London. I hope they are right.

Read how it all started almost like a joke here.



2 thoughts on “From Belfast to Zagreb: My week as a volcano refugee

  1. You poor thing. What a marathon journey. There I was sitting smugly in Croatia while you were desperate to get home. Next time you’re in London, let me know.

    Posted by Mary Novakovich | April 26, 2010, 20:39
  2. Thanks, Mary, I’ll definitely give you a shout :)

    Posted by triviallyyours | April 27, 2010, 10:45

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