Travel planning is one of my favorite hobbies. Apart from actually going on a trip, I would have to say it is the best way to spend my free time. If you are anything like me, you spend hours researching a destination to put together the ultimate itinerary for an upcoming vacation. Or you are not like me and think I am slightly insane and travel-obsessed. Regardless, by the time I arrive at the airport for departure, I have planned out (sometimes down to the minute – with room for some travel delays) every little detail of my adventure.
Don’t get me wrong here, I can be spontaneous. I enjoy leaving room for unpredictability while I’m traveling both domestically and abroad. However, I don’t like leaving certain things, such as where I will lay my head at night, to chance. For this reasons, I tend to over-prepare so I may fully relax once there. If I don’t feel like doing something on my itinerary, I don’t. If I feel like doing something different, I do. But, in the back of my mind I know I have a plan mapped out for me, should I need to refer to it. It ultimately gives me a sense of security to have in my back pocket, just in case.
What happens though, when you plan everything out, and things start to go awry? When something happens, totally out of your control, that causes your trip to spiral down into total chaos? Well, I’ve traveled enough to know that unexpected travel delays come with the territory. I have grown accustomed to small travel delays along the way that have caused changes of plan.
Flat tires or broken-down rental cars caused me to stay a night in an unintended destination during a road trip. Flight delays or cancellations brought me home a day later than expected. Taxi drivers who weren’t paying attention to directions got me good and lost in a foreign country (read this post for the story). Sicknesses caused me to miss out on a good time. Unexpected expenses have put me way over budget. However, I had yet to experience one sole problem that resulted in a cascade of many travel delays, which concluded in almost (but not totally) ruining a trip. That is, until this past weekend
Hour One: The Beginning
We arrived at the airport three hours beforehand, as expected of us for an international flight. If you are from my area, you are aware that three airports serve the New York City area. LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy can be quickly reached via taxi, rideshare, or public transport. One of these airports is much preferable to the other. If you have been to them both, you know which one I am referring to and why. Then there is Newark. A large, international airport, with thousands of flights to any destination in the world.
I find, most times, that out of the three airports, Newark has the most flight options. I also find that these flights are cheaper. The frustration I have though is that it’s much further than the other two, as it’s based in New Jersey, not New York. Mileage-wise, it’s not too far, and now that they have a direct train connecting it to Penn Station (one of Manhattan’s primary train stations) it’s not too inconvenient to reach via public transport either. However, when you are driving your own car there, as I chose to do, for whatever reason, this time around, traffic can be a pain.
I say all this simply to let you know that we had to leave my apartment at 6:30 in the morning for our 11 am flight from Newark. We arrived within an hour and parked in the economy parking lot, with no problems. The problems began around 8 am, shortly after boarding a bus that was supposed to be taking us to our terminal from the parking lot. Our bus stalled out in the middle of an exit and was unable to restart for close to ten minutes. We were blocking traffic during this time, mind you. All the while cars were behind us honking and passengers on the bus were threatening to get out and walk (which would have been SO dangerous).
Hour Three: The Travel Delays Start
So here we were, almost half an hour after we had originally planned to check-in for our flight, on a bus that refused to start. After a dozen attempts, the bus started just enough to accelerate over a slight incline, which allowed us to roll the rest of the way down the exit into the first terminal (which thankfully was ours!).
Inside the terminal, we were greeted by a long line. A line for what? We had no idea. As you know, I have been inside hundreds of airports. I have checked in and dropped off baggage for hundreds of flights. Even in foreign countries, I have never had so much trouble figuring out where I was supposed to go.
There were essentially zero staff on the floor and a handful of staff behind the counters, which you had to stand on the long line to get to. The electronic kiosks were everywhere, but did they work? Of course not! We decided to join a line and wait. After close to forty minutes, we made it to the front, when we found out the line we were just on was for domestic flights only. It turns out we needed to be on another line this entire time! I would like to point out that there were no signs anywhere differentiating the two lines because I promise, I looked long and hard.
After ninety minutes total between the two lines, we made it to the correct counter and were able to gather our tickets and drop off our bags. This may be a good place to note that a huge benefit to traveling with only a carry-on is checking in online and avoiding this process altogether!
My travel companion and I made it to security, which Newark does a great job with! Getting through TSA was an absolute breeze. With only a few minutes to spare, we made it to our gate! We both desperately wanted to grab some coffee and use the restroom but were worried we wouldn’t have time. We felt relieved when boarding hadn’t started yet, so we were able to do what we needed to do. I came to regret that feeling of relief though when twenty minutes later (fifteen minutes past expected boarding time) an announcement came over the PA system informing us that our flight was delayed until further notice.
Hour Six: The Travel Delays Continue
I’ll save you the details of that miserable, sweaty, and crowded wait that they extended four times! What I will say is that getting up before 6 am was clearly unnecessary and led to some unwarranted exhaustion. Nonetheless, nearly five hours later, we boarded our aircraft.
Normally this would be the end of the story, right? You deal with the travel delays until it’s time to go. You get to your destination and all is well. Your vacation begins, just a few hours later than expected. No worries, you are landing in paradise after all!
I mean, that’s what I was expecting. Whenever I’ve had any issues with travel delays such as this, that’s how it goes. But no, not this time. Why? Well did you know that the Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM) in Simpson Bay, Sint Marteen shuts down after sunset? Like actually shuts down? No? Because I didn’t either.
Hour Twelve: The Consequences of the Delays
Our flight gets into SXM at 8 pm, which would be an hour and a half after sunset. We deplane and notice the airport is empty, and I mean empty. Two customs officials, two security guards, and three additional airport staff were there to greet us. I have never proceeded through immigration so quickly before, even with the added COVID security measures. We were informed that the remaining airport staff and officials had been awaiting our arrival for the last three hours when the last plane prior to ours came through.
We went through baggage claim and walked with our luggage past a shut-down airport. The original plan had been to rent a car at the airport (I had made a prior reservation), as this is the easiest and cheapest way to get around the country. However, that plan changed, against my will, when we stepped outside and no rental car shuttles we waiting for us, as had been promised online. A quick google search informed me our rental company was closed for the evening. Aside from a handful of private cars picking up passengers, the outside of the airport was dark and deserted.
A lone man was asking passengers if they needed a taxi. The plane passengers were jumping all over him, requesting taxi after taxi, as like us, their plans had changed. I knew from my research of the area that taxis are not readily available on the island, and he confirmed this fact. He said he will make sure that we all get to where we needed to go (thank you random man!), but there aren’t many taxis, especially during nighttime, so we will need to wait.
Well, wait we did, as we had no other real choice. We did eventually get our taxi and provided the address to our AirBnB. It was all of six minutes away, but you would have never guessed it with how much the one-way ride cost. I’m from New York, and I am used to expensive taxi fares, but this was another level. We needed to do what we needed to do though, as there was no other choice at this point.
After a ridiculously long journey from New York (that should have been relatively short, mind you) we arrived at our [[beautiful]] AirBnB. Despite the fact that we had to go to bed hungry, as all the restaurants and stores around us were closed, it still felt that all was good in the world again. We were on vacation, in paradise! Tomorrow we could rent a car, and go on with our trip as planned. Of course, it didn’t work out like that…
Hour Twenty-Four: The Travel Delays are not Over
We slept in and had a lovely breakfast, with an even lovelier view at the AirBnB, but I’ll save that part for the more positive posts I will write about this wonderful trip. Yes, it still ended up being wonderful despite the first 36 hours that are outlined in this post. At this point in the story, we still needed to hunt down a rental car.
We were staying on the French side of St. Martin, a ten-minute walk from Marigot, a town with plenty of stores and businesses. According to Google, a car rental company existed thirteen minutes away by foot. I’ll be honest, I didn’t love that walk. We were straight-up offered drugs by a random guy on the street, which was a first for me. I would like to mention here that my interactions with locals outside of this one particular walk have been nothing but pleasant. I have plenty of good things to say about the residents of the island. Again, these stories will come in a later post, so stay tuned!
Anyway, we walked all that way to find this car rental place no longer exists and realized we had to find a way back to the airport. As I mentioned before, taxis are hard to find around St. Martin/Sint Maarten. There are no websites or large taxi companies, nor do rideshare apps exist. If you need a ride, it’s by word of mouth only. We eventually asked the right person, whose sister happened to be a taxi driver, and were able to arrange an [[expensive]] ride to the airport. Read more about taxis in St. Martin/Sint Maarten in this post here.
Hour Thirty-Six: Finally, Paradise
Regardless of the two-day frustration, I do find that this trip was still a noteworthy one. I can’t say I am annoyed any longer, as I sit here in paradise writing this post, looking up occasionally from my AirBnB’s balcony, as the sun is setting over the lagoon. Yes, the first 36-hours of my trip were a hot mess, but I am so glad I am here.
We got to the airport and were finally able to rent a car. We drove immediately to the beach to begin our vacation. By the time we arrived, it was 4:30 in the afternoon. We had already lost a day, and our second day was almost over by the time we got everything figured out. In the end, we lost almost 36 hours’ worth of vacation time.
From the moment we drove off the car rental lot (read about the rental process here), we have had nothing but a wonderful time here in St. Martin/Sint Maarten. I will have plenty of wonderful content to share with you and I don’t believe that will be affected too much by the delay. However, we did have to shorten some beach and relaxation days, which was unfortunate.
Part of travel is to expect the unexpected (read: travel delays). The island runs on their time. Their culture and people are their own and it’s their right to live how they want. They are not here to cater to tourists, though they do to an extent to make a living, they shouldn’t have to. We are here to see their beautiful island and experience how they live firsthand. If the island shuts down at sunset, then it shuts down. If taxis are infrequent, then they are infrequent. They shouldn’t have to change how they live to make my week-long vacation more convenient.
No matter what has happened in my travel experiences, I have never once returned from a trip and thought to myself, “that wasn’t worth it.” I maintain that view, even after experiencing what I did here. That is why I’ve continued to travel and will do so indefinitely. It’s always worth it in the end, despite the travel delays I may face along the way.