It’s 2006. My partner and I are off to visit friends in Australia. At that moment, we had only just moved in together and both of us had just started working. These circumstances being what they were, our budget was rather limited. Luckily, thanks to our experience with the aviation industry, we were familiar with the concept of ‘standby flights’. The total cost for a return ticket from Amsterdam to Sydney: € 185 per person. Not bad, right? But the catch is the ‘standby’ part.
Allow me to explain: usually, people book their flights online or through a travel agency. This is called a ‘confirmed flight’, which means you’re 100% sure that there’s a plane seat with your name on it. It’s simple: you’ve booked a seat and paid for it. If things don’t go according to plan, you can expect to be compensated.
Standby flights are an entirely different story: you just go to the airport and hope there’s a seat available on the plane. It’s a stressful process. Since my boyfriend was working in the aviation industry at the time, we had access to the booking systems aviation companies use and we could choose our departure date depending on the plane occupancy rates. Nonetheless, I was stressed. Incredibly stressed.
All checks were done, our tickets were booked: time to go to Amsterdam for our very first standby flight. We were travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur and on to Sydney with Malaysia Airlines. Our flight number: MH17. Yes, it sounded familiar to us too.
The friendly check-in lady from Malaysia Airlines asked if we’d like to check our baggage through to our final destination, Sydney. Sure, sounds convenient, we thought. But here’s another catch: we weren’t allowed to do this. Apparently, luggage must always travel together with its owner – and because we were only ‘certain’ of our flight to Kuala Lumpur, our bags needed to go there as well. It was a bit unusual.
With our bags checked, boarding tickets in hand, passports checked and security check behind us, it was time to board the plane to Kuala Lumpur. Whew, we’d survived step one – and we were lucky enough to be seated next to each other.
When we arrived in Kuala Lumpur, it turned out that our plane had reached its destination earlier than expected. That meant we might be able to catch an earlier flight to Sydney, which still had plenty of empty seats – but we’d need to pick up our bags first, because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be going anywhere. And there’s the rub: the destination on our baggage’s labels was Sydney, so it was probably sitting in the luggage area of KUL Airport. We could do nothing but wait, wait and wait some more, until we’d missed that earlier flight. We now had no other options than to try the evening flight instead. Well, at least we were able to spend some time in Kuala Lumpur on our way to Australia.
In the underground train to the centre, we felt like giants among Smurfs. Kuala Lumpur is a metropolis full of people who are used to seeing foreign tourists, and my husband and I aren’t exactly tall. But on that train, all eyes were on us.
Here’s a useful fact about Kuala Lumpur: it’s HOT. Tropically, humidly, inhumanly hot. After visiting the city, we couldn’t resist stopping at the local Hard Rock Cafe for some much-needed AC and clean T-shirts. Oh, and they had cocktails, which was nice. I imagined the person who would spend 7 hours next to me on the plane that evening would be grateful if I changed out of my sweaty shirt before boarding.
Back at the airport, we wanted to check in for our flight to Sydney, but we had to wait: the plane was booked full. All seats were already taken. STRESS. We had to wait until check-in ended. DOUBLE STRESS. After a seemingly endless wait, we finally got the news that there were two no-shows, so there were two seats for us! But we had to make it to the other end of KUL airport in just 15 minutes, because the plane was already boarding. They wished us good luck and we darted off.
Question: have you ever been in Kuala Lumpur Airport? If you haven’t – it’s big. Really big. Trains-between-terminals big. So much for our clean T-shirts. Luckily, we were just in time for the flight. We weren’t seated next to each other initially, but then a kind Dutch lady swapped seats with one of us.
When we arrived in Sydney, we picked up our baggage and went to the hotel near the airport. I’d booked a room there because the next morning, we were supposed to fly on to Adelaide, where our friends were waiting for us. That meant we’d have almost a day to visit Sydney’s highlights. Downtown Sydney, the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge awaited us. But after a 10-hour flight, a 12+-hour transfer in a tropical environment and another 7-hour flight, we thought it’d be a good idea to lie down for a bit before heading out. Just a short nap. It was 9 am.
When I awoke, it was 10 pm. Ouch. Did we really sleep all day? We haven’t even had a chance to get something to eat yet. And we hadn’t been to Sydney! Disappointedly, we went back to bed so we could rise early and make our flight the next day.
My grandmother had a special word for these mishaps: she used to say that every trip needs a boule carrée, a ‘square ball’. During every vacation, there must be something that doesn’t go according to plan – that’s what makes travelling interesting.
And I can guarantee you that I’ve had my fair share of boules carrées while travelling. I must’ve run a marathon in airports to catch flights. My plane has unexpectedly landed in Las Vegas (instead of Phoenix) and Rome (instead of Lisbon), I’ve had an unplanned flight transfer in Peoria, Illinois (of all places), foldable baby beds that won’t fold open, children’s car seats that won’t snap shut, excursions with a guide who turns out to speak Spanish... But that won’t keep me from travelling more. On to the next adventure; I’m already curious as to what my next boule carrée will be!
By the way: the rest of our trip through Australia went without a hitch, but I’ll have to return there sometime. Sydney is still waiting for me.
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