I was departing Bali, Indonesia two days before Viking River Cruises began the Myanmar Explorer itinerary in Bangkok, Thailand. The night before my departure, the Mount Rinjani volcano on Lombok Island erupted (which it does roughly every five years). After the eruption spewed volcanic ash into the air, the Ngurah Rai airport grounded all planes and suspended all operations for an indefinite period of time. I wasn’t able to leave Bali until the fourth day of the Myanmar Explorer itinerary; meaning I did not spend two days in Bangkok nor two days in Yangon. I joined the itinerary on day five at Inle Lake, Myanmar.
This is an opportune time to share tips for handling travel plans that go seriously awry. Aaron Saunders, as explained in our introduction to this voyage report, is covering the logistics of our ambitious itinerary and the technical specs of the Viking Mandalay ship itself. Without creating too much overlap in our coverage, I offer the following 10 tips in the event you’re waylaid by a volcanic eruption or any other significant delay.
1. Contact the cruise company immediately.
By e-mail or phone (both if possible), let the company know about the delay. Furthermore, consider the significant benefits of booking your airfare directly with the cruise company. I booked my own travel because I was not coming from home nor was I returning home afterward. However, if you are coming to and from your home, booking with the company allows for logistical coordination that is otherwise your sole responsibility.
2. Stay at the airport, train station, dock, etc. until you have a degree of resolution.
If you do not have a dedicated travel agent working on your behalf (or even if you do), you’ll get more accomplished and you’ll accomplish it more quickly if you work face to face with a customer service representative. I made three trips to the airport over the course of three days, sometimes spending five hours at a time working every angle I needed to work. Be prepared to make multiple trips to the departure point, or camp out until you’re sorted.
3. Kindness wins.
Everyone is stressed during wide-spread delays. Everyone has somewhere to be. Everyone has some reason they need to be on the first flight out. It seems too obvious to even mention this, but for the sake of our collective humanity, give the ticketing agent a warm smile and ask how their day is going before launching into the business at hand. Imagine how exhausted they are. I was able to watch hundreds of interactions between passengers and airline personnel as I waited in line. Kindness always received the best and fastest resolution. You don’t have to love the situation you’re in, just don’t be That Guy.
4. Don’t underestimate social media.
While standing in line to speak with a ticketing agent, I was still communicating with AirAsia customer service on Twitter and attempting to use the live chat feature on their website (which was jammed with traffic, as you can imagine). Most major airlines maintain Twitter accounts for marketing and Twitter accounts for customer service. It’s wise to follow both, even if you yourself never wish to post a single tweet it will keep you in the know. I was also searching relevant hashtags on both Twitter and Instagram. For example, #dpsclosure helped me track which passengers were getting re-booked on which airlines and to which destinations.
5. Pre-load travel-wise smart phone apps.
Also while standing in line for hours and hours, I made reservations for nearby lodging on Airbnb, researched cab fare on Uber, and scrolled Trip Advisor for restaurant recommendations since I was now staying in a town I hadn’t visited before. All things considered, getting stranded in 2015 with a WiFi connection was pretty posh. Reading Ralph’s account of Myanmar in the 1980s, I marveled at how differently we are able to travel these days. Some changes for the better, off course others not.
6. Save a bit of local currency.
I had been in Bali for six weeks prior to departure and spent nearly all my Rupiah. I needed a taxi to take me to a money exchange shop before carrying on to my lodging. He was happy to leave the meter running, but it would’ve been more efficient if I’d kept a cab-ride’s stash of local currency handy until I was officially out of the country.
Double Triple check everything. Everything.
I know I was all savvy with the social media chatter, but even though it’s 2015, print your travel documents when possible. Request receipts and verification and vouchers and anything else that will help you sort out the situation with your travel insurance provider, or even just yourself when the dust settles. Triple check all of the paper work that you think you’ve organized properly. On day two I left the airport with an understanding that I was booked on a flight from Bali to Bangkok to Yangon. They couldn’t print boarding passes, they said. I mistakenly left anyway. When I checked my app on the morning of day three, I was not in fact booked past Bangkok. Back to the airport.
8. Stay focused on your Visa requirements.
As I write this post I am technically an outlaw, an illegal immigrant in Indonesia. My visa was set to expire 48 hours after my departure flight. With the volcano delay, my visa expires before I’m able to leave the country. Consider booking your travel plans with 3-7 days left on your visa, if you prefer to be over-cautious. If there are ever problems with your visa, email your country’s local consulate immediately. I now have a paper trail of conversations with the U.S. Embassy that ensure I will not be charged fees (or imprisoned) since I was in fact leaving on time before the volcano erupted. Granted, my country doesn’t have jurisdiction here, but anything helps. I also requested a hard copy letter from my airline verifying that I was in fact leaving pre-expiration. Also, it’s wise to register with the State Department on the STEP app before you leave on any trip abroad (advice for US citizens only, but I’m sure other governments have something similar). The volcano didn’t affect Bali in terms of physical danger, but if it had, the embassy knew I was a US citizen and where I’d be staying.
9. Always purchase travel insurance.
Always always always purchase travel insurance. This lesson has been hard-earned for me over the years. Purchase both insurance with your airline that will govern your ticket directly, and insurance with a more generalized, comprehensive policy. Aaron will talk about this in his posts, but Viking required all passengers to secure a certain level of medical travel insurance + repatriation of remains policies for the Myanmar itinerary. Also, remember what I said about keeping every scrap of paper you receive? It will help with your insurance case if you’re allowed to file a claim.
10. Go with the flow.
As long as you’re physically safe and in no immediate danger, you’ll sort it out. Just keep at it and stay flexible.
We’d love to hear how you’ve handled unexpected delays and other travel snafus. What advice do you have for us and other readers? Leave a comment below and let us know.
The remainder of my Voyage Reports will be posted in a few weeks. For now, I’m finally off to Myanmar and look forward to full days exploring with Viking River Cruises!