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Stranded in Europe? Yippee!

Volcanoes do erupt, once again proving the need for an emergency fund. As they say, stuff happens.

By Karen Datko Apr 20, 2010 3:16PM

Despite what one TV commercial suggests (ladies, you know the one), Mother Nature is not to be messed with, underestimated or denied. Her latest dustup -- eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull (click here for a pronunciation guide) -- has put a major crimp in many people’s travel plans.

 

Oh, sure, it’s a shame that some of Europe’s royalty weren’t able to attend the queen of Denmark’s 70th birthday bash because flights were grounded. But for possibly millions of regular, everyday people like you and me, the shutdown of air traffic across Europe because of the massive ash cloud has caused a real hardship. (Update: Flight restrictions began loosening today.)

 

Do the words “emergency fund” come to mind? Yes, you could put your unanticipated expenses on a credit card, but you still have to pay it off. And some travelers are facing mighty big expenses.

 

Some snippets from a special blog set up by the Guardian for the occasion:

  • The Guardian’s Helen Pidd managed to get a Eurostar ticket to Berlin after her Ryanair flight was grounded. Train travel was crowded, with many people standing in the aisles. “Despite the overcrowding, it's still way more civilised than many of my Ryanair adventures. Shame the last-minute ticket cost more than EURO 500,” she wrote.
  • John Cleese of Monty Python fame paid $5,400 for a 1,500-kilometer taxi ride from Oslo to Brussels. (Test your geography: He would travel through five countries. Can you name them?)
  • Alice Woolley, also of the Guardian staff, is forced to spend another eight days in Phoenix, here in the U.S. That’s the soonest British Airways could fit her family on another plane.

Meanwhile, the British government has sent three warships to pick up citizens stranded on the Continent.

Stories abound here too about Europeans stranded in the U.S. The Washington Post reported on a British man and two small sons who are stuck in the D.C. area. Virgin Atlantic offered him another flight on April 25 or maybe May 6, but said he could leave earlier on another airline if he was willing to pay $9,200 total for three tickets. His tab so far, including hotel and food: $1,500.

 

What are stranded passengers entitled to? The British transport secretary said airline passengers can get either a refund or an alternative route, which could include other means of transport. According to the Financial Times, EU rules provide that those who accept alternative bookings should be reimbursed for room and board -- but the situation seems somewhat murky.

But we are in slightly uncharted waters here because passengers rarely need accommodation for more than a night. European Commission officials say that most passengers are taking matters into their own hands and making alternative arrangements rather than testing the airlines' commitments.

If you bought travel insurance, you may be in luck -- or maybe not. The Wall Street Journal’s The Middle Seat Terminal blog says there are limits to its usefulness. For instance:

If airlines refund tickets for canceled trips, for example, there’s no claim with insurers. If you haven’t left home, you won’t get money for hotels and accommodations under most policies. And many policies have limits on daily expenses if you are stranded away from home.

CNNMoney.com also points out that “it's probably not in your best interest to buy travel insurance if you don't have to put down a large down payment or if you can cancel your plans without penalty.”

 

What can stranded travelers do? The Telegraph reports that Twitter and Facebook are invaluable resources for news about travel updates, car-pooling arrangements and cheap accommodations, including couches in private homes. The hashtags #getmehome, #stranded and #putmeup are recommended. The When Volcanoes Erupt Facebook page is another good resource -- and an inside look at what these stranded travelers are up against.

 

Message boards like those at Lonely Planet also discuss how to find free housing or get back home.

 

“This is a rare opportunity to extend a vacation and have a bullet-proof excuse to give to the boss -- volcanic eruption is a much better excuse than I lost my passport and had to stay an extra two weeks,” "Mignon" wrote.

 

Strandedbrit” said that “yes we are lucky to be stranded in the sunshine state but with a family you can't rough it as I did when I backpacked my way round the world 20 years ago. I have to pay thru the nose and also need to get back to work to cover the bills that this extended stay is costing, kids have exams ….”

 

Meanwhile, look for bargains and deals:

  • Harriet Baskas’ travel blog, Stuck at the Airport, said the company that operates restaurants in International Terminal 4 at JFK is providing a free meal to stranded passengers who have run out of money.
  • SeaWorld is giving stranded travelers a free one-day pass to its Florida parks.

Some people will just be out of luck. “My dad is stranded in New York for a minimum of 8 extra days. He doesn’t have enough money for this!” said SadieGeoghegan on Twitter, according to Lonely Planet.

 

Me? Oh, to be stranded in Italy, because I have a healthy emergency fund, and, who knows, maybe the airline would reimburse for room and board. If not, so be it. I would have done plenty of research before leaving home, so I know what there is to see (and to eat). Let the good times roll.

 

Twitter poster Dren_Ramone had the same idea: “Been rebooked on next available flight home. It’s in two weeks. Time to enjoy Thailand some more!”

Related reading:

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