Some people are anxious fliers. From takeoff to landing—and likely long before, as well—they’re a mess of nerves. Personally, I’m fine once we’re in the air. Turbulence and certain food smells are the only issues I have once I’ve boarded the plane. Instead, my anxiety comes in planning my trips and, most especially, at navigating airports.
Shy and scared to do the wrong thing, I relied every chance I could on those traveling with me to guide my actions. Was my boyfriend taking his laptop out of his bag for the security check? Was the girl I met who is part of my study abroad program getting into a certain customs line? These are the things that terrify me. Though sometimes I fret over them because I worry about making a looking foolish (“Did I get to the gate too early? Are these people waiting for a different flight?”), often I have legitimate reasons for concern.
“I could get into the wrong customs line and be sent to the back of the correct one. What if I miss my connecting flight?”
“Do I fill out this portion of the customs declaration form? What if I don’t and it delays my entry into the country? Do I even have all of the correct forms with me?”
“Is my flight boarding at this gate? Did I miss an announcement to switch gates?”
“Do I board now, or has my section of the plane not been called yet? Or worse: did I already miss it?”
If you’ve read my travel mishap stories, you’ll know that some of these fears have been realized. I have:
- missed the first flight on an international trip and had to re-book the final flight
- forgotten to get my baggage claim ticket (luckily I got another printed copy)
- had said luggage turn up missing (luckily I got it back within two days)
- mixed up passports and was almost sent back to the United States
- navigated Tokyo alone in the rain with suitcases to get an emergency passport
- gotten sick right at the end of a flight and had to ignore the “remain buckled up” rule to rush to the bathroom (now I really can’t eat or even smell food on a flight)
- been told at the gate to board the final leg of an international flight that I didn’t have a visa to enter the country (thankfully they got an electronic visa for me)
That’s not to mention the anxiety I feel about figuring out buses, trains, taxis, and other transportation. There are simply fewer options for me to worry about where those are concerned. My stress over airports got so bad that even passing a sign that read “Airport next right” sent my heart racing and my stomach curling.
As you might imagine, then, booking my flights to Hungary left me feeling physically ill or shaken up. Was the layover time too short? They aren’t even my typical layovers, either, as I had to book all my tickets individually. This is new territory and another reason to fret. I went over and over the route, shopping for the cheapest, most convenient tickets I could find. Plus I had to factor in baggage, which was easy to do for Japan but is far more confusing now. To top it all off, I had to make sure my final flight arrived in Hungary by 7PM so I can get an escort to the hostel I’ll be staying at.
Everything factored in, I found my flights, booked them all, reserved a hostel in Iceland. It took me two hours yesterday morning to double-check that everything was in order. Once I finished, I made myself coffee. Yes, even though I was practically jittery with nerves. My online friends distracted me, and within a few hours I had calmed all the way back down.
Then I woke up this morning.
I followed my usual routine of letting the dogs out, brushing my teeth, and getting a shower, and it was during my shower I had a moment of panic. They “layover” between my flight from Iceland to Germany and my flight from Germany to Hungary is about three hours. Seeing as the airport map looked fairly small, I figured that was plenty of time to grab my checked bag, return to departures, check-in for my last flight, and get to my gate.
What I realized mid-shower was that I hadn’t factored in going through German customs.
The first leg of my journey is a domestic flight, so that gave me little cause for concern. When I land in Iceland, I’ll stay for three days, so dealing with Icelandic customs wasn’t a concern, either. If a problem arose, I had time to figure it out. But for Germany, I hadn’t considered going through customs.
So I panicked. And when I’m alone and panic, I cry. I tell myself all the ways it will go horribly wrong, then all the ways it’s really not a big issue. I cycled in and out of calm and terror. I looked at the airport maps again to try and plan a fast route. I thought about all my experiences with customs and immigration, then I threw them out the window because they were for Asia or the United States. Europe has the EU and the Schengen Area, and as I’ve never been to Europe, I have no frame of reference to fall back on except what I read online.
As I drove to work, the cycle of peace and misery repeated itself. I texted a friend for prayers for peace (bless her for her immediate reply). I got to work early and sat in the sun and read more of a mystery book. I cried a little more somewhere through there. Then I went to work.
And—praise be!—one of my coworkers has flown to Germany! Though I’ll be arriving in another city than she did, at least I have some idea of how it might work once the plane lands. I almost cried in front of her from relief (and a small dose of lingering panic).
Though I love traveling and I don’t particularly mind airplanes, it’s the nitty-gritty, ins-and-outs of airports that shoot my stress levels through the roof. Baggage limits. Customs and immigration. What to take out for security checks. Getting from place to place. Having the correct paperwork.
Who else shares these anxieties? And does anyone have any advice for an American flying to and through Europe for the first time?