Travelers stranded by volcano creatively cope with lengthening delays

stranded travelersSome travelers built makeshift living rooms in airport halls with cots encircling cardboard boxes, while seniors got a taste of the long-forgotten college life in dorms in Florence, Italy, and others plunked down thousands of dollars on cab fare in desperation to get where they needed to be sometime before next week. Others ran out of cash and relied on the kindness of strangers for help.

Even as air traffic authorities cautiously allowed some flights into European air space today, thousands of travelers around the world were still coping with turbulence a volcanic eruption in Iceland wrought on their best-laid vacation plans.
The unprecedented delays that followed an almost total shutdown of European air space after an ash cloud started to drift over the continent last week threw together residents from far-flung countries who couldn't speak one another's language, but understood all too well the pain the other was feeling after not showering or eating properly for days.

Some stranded travelers turned to a new unconventional online service that matches "hosts" with people who need a place to stay for free.

Jen O'Neal, who started in January with a former co-worker after they cashed out when EBay bought in 2007 for $300 million, said scores of potential hosts responded to messages she sent over Twitter and Facebook on Monday.

"We're doing everything we can to increase awareness and let travelers know that even if they feel completely stranded, there are people out there who are willing to let them into their homes," O'Neal said.

Staying for free is a bonus, after some broke travelers were dumbfounded when hotel costs doubled as they slept, with rooms that normally went for $120 a night morphing into $350 a night, according to published reports.

Palo Alto, Calif. resident Wolf Price, 23, recounted several near-riots during the 48 hours he and his new wife were stranded at Moscow's Shermetyevo Airport as they were trying to return to the United States at the end of a whirlwind nine-month "honeymoon" around Asia to "document folk music and alternative travel."

Food at the airport was scarce, Price said, with travelers waiting up to three hours in line for a single meal ticket. Even after Aeroflot offered to pay for scores of delayed passengers to stay in a hotel, they couldn't leave the airport because they didn't have a visa to enter the country.

And most couldn't obtain a visa because the cash machine at the airport was broken, or they were running low on money at the end of their travels and authorities only took U.S. dollars, Price said.

"I asked a man if he had $100 and a Pay Pal account," he added. "The idea paid off because he did have a $100 bill and even had a Pay Pal account. I sent him $100 to his account and he handed me the bill."

Using Facebook, Twitter and instant messaging, weary travelers reached out to relatives -- and strangers -- trying to get help rearranging flights, booking train tickets, and finding a warm bed to sleep in away from obnoxious airport messaging systems.

"They were staying with her boyfriend's son who is attending college in Florence. They stayed in his dorm for roughly $50 a day," said Shere Dore, of her mother-in-law's vacation to Italy and France with her boyfriend which was short-circuited by the eruption.

"When I called airlines and rail services, the hold times averaged two hours," she said. Her mother-in-law, Joyce Hattin, waited three hours for a train in Milan, only to be told that she must return to a station in Florence to book a train to London.

Even though Hattin is due to arrive in London today, she does not currently have a return flight to the states and fears she will have to "live at the airport until she can leave," Dore said.

Those who weren't out of money, or who still owned a credit card with available funds, forgoed crowded train and ferry stations for longer, but more expensive cab rides. According to Sky News, Monty Python star John Cleese paid a jaw-dropping $5,000 for a 930-mile taxi from Oslo to Brussels.

The sheer number of stranded passengers around the continent has also forced travel companies to get creative. Celebrity Cruises said today that instead of dispatching its newest ship, the Celebrity Eclipse, on a planned-for inaugural celebration, the liner set sail this morning from Southampton, England to Bilbao, Spain to pick up thousands of Brits who have been holed up there since Thursday.

Other cruise companies were also trying to figure out how to cope with an avalanche of calls from weary travelers. Travel Weekly reported that the wait list on Cunard's Queen Mary 2 for a transatlantic trip from Southampton leaving April 22 exceeds 1,000 bookings.

With half of the typical 28,000 flights expected to be allowed into the continent's air space today, according to Europe's air traffic control authority, there will be plenty of stories to come about how travelers dealt with the most serious disruption in air travel since the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Eurocontrol has canceled 95,000 flights since last Thursday.

And that's left many still camped out at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport for what seems like endless days. Some aren't scheduled for flights out until this weekend.

Looking for any place to sleep besides the street, some people continued to take the bus from Milan's train station on a 40-minute ride to its international airport -- simply planning to spend the night there on a cot. The next morning, they took the bus back to the station to catch their train. Their trains rumbled by anxious passengers in hotel rooms who are working with travel insurers to book flights home.

"I am sitting here hoping to hear the welcome sound of planes in the sky," wrote Karen Bauer, a travel agent who ended a cruise in Venice on Saturday and has been trying to get back to Los Angeles ever since. "but as of right now at Malpensa airport, it's still silent."
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