It’s been a long time since I travelled abroad by plane. The last flights were to and from Berlin in 2019, before the coronavirus made travel impossible and then people’s insistence on avoiding face masks made it inadvisable.
Given that our trip is only for a week, and our destination a good two-day drive from home, we opted to fly. With bags packed and face masks at the ready, I worked out that the price of return train tickets to the airport would cost as much as driving there and parking in the long-stay multi-storey car park. Not being in the routine of travelling in this way, I neglected to prebook a space and so it was with some alarm that I found two of the three long-stay car parks full when we arrived. The first stage of the trip had already become stressful and I had no choice but to settle for the more expensive of the car parks, given that the check-in had already opened and — as we’d been advised — the queues for the bag-drop weren’t inconsiderable.
Once we’d passed through the interminable zig-zag security lines and scoffed some adequate sustenance, the flight was good, despite there being a higher than usual number of babies and small children on board. I got an unexpected window seat when we found that the plane was less than full, so I was able to see both the Channel and central London as we passed overhead. Two hours after ascending into French rain, sated with my habitual Pringles and super-sugary Fruit Shoot, we landed though a gap in the clouds and were welcomed to the north of Britain.
As soon as my phone connected to the local network when walking to collect our suitcases, I got two missed-call notifications from a local number. It turned out that the calls were from the car rental company, who had been advised by the airline of the time that we were arriving. The calls were to let me know — with no pre-warning — that the office was to close just 20 minutes after our flight was due to land. With some alacrity, I raced through security and headed for the pick-up point, only to be advised by phone that the staff had elected not to wait.
Stuck now in the almost deserted airport with no help point and no means of getting to our intended destination, we weighed up our options. The chances of getting an alternative car at this time on a Saturday evening — even in the major city nearby — were non-existent: we’d reviewed all of the available car rental providers and found that they all close exceptionally early on a Saturday. Given the lack of other options, we elected to stay overnight in the closest trustworthy and affordable hotel. As the taxi fare was estimated to be £25, we decided to take the bus; half an-hour later, after rattling through the slightly damp and less-than-slightly knackered streets, we traipsed ten minutes through a darkened industrial estate to the hotel, dragging our thankfully wheeled suitcases behind us.
As I write this, I’m less annoyed after a good night’s sleep and I’m on the bus back to the airport, rattling again through the now sunlit streets of a typical British town. Ahead, I’m expecting to be irritated by the ineptitude of the rental car staff — what is it about rental car companies and car garages these days? — and I’m expecting at least a slight possibility that there will be problems picking up the car. If so, then there will be nothing for it but to go to one of the other, better-known companies and hope that they can propel us on to our goal for the week.
In the meantime, I’ll put my phone away, be unwillingly serenaded by the tinny tunes coming from a kid’s mobile phone a few rows behind me, and look out upon the country which has become so foreign to me and increasingly inept.
Addendum, some time later. To my surprise, the car collection went smoothly and well. Although I’d expected to collect the car from the rentals car park next to the terminal, a driver from the unfamiliar company picked me up and shuttled me across to another nondescript industrial estate. There, I swatted away the usual questions and attempts to get me to take a paid upgrade, and kept my cool after the stresses of the previous evening. A forced upgrade thanks to a flat tyre and I was on my way, finally, heading back to the hotel and then onward to the house we’d rented for the week.