A Backup Plan: Don’t Leave Home Without One

words + photos by Elyn Aviva

At last the long-awaited day arrived. Our kids (Jesse and Yui) and Sophie, our adorable granddaughter (two years and eight months old), were flying from California to visit us in Spain. My husband, Gary, and I took the train to Madrid on Wednesday, the day before they were supposed to arrive, and spent the day exploring museums and sipping espresso at outdoor cafés. It was a lull in the middle of Holy Week, which runs from Palm Sunday through Easter.

That night, just before we went to bed, the cell phone rang. It was Jesse, my son, calling to say their flight had been cancelled and they would update us when they knew more. Two hours later, another call. Jesse again. They’d managed to be rebooked, but instead of arriving at Barajas Airport at 11 a.m. on Thursday, they would be arriving at 7 p.m. No problem, we assured them. We were relieved they were still arriving the same day.

The initial plan had been to drive north on Thursday to Sahagún de Campos, the small town where Jesse and I had lived for a year in 1982. Jesse was hoping to reunite with schoolmates he hadn’t seen in 28 years. These friends were returning to their pueblo, Sahagún, to celebrate Holy Week. We realized that if the kids arrived at 7 p.m., by the time they got their luggage and we picked up the rental car, it would be too late to drive all the way to Sahagún. So Gary went online (we had free wifi at our hotel) and booked two rooms in a hotel in Segovia, en route to Sahagún. We knew that Jesse and Yui wanted to see Segovia, so we figured that would make the best of the situation.

Thursday arrived a little early, but, after informing the car-rental agency of the change in plans, we enjoyed the unexpected extra day in Madrid. We visited more museums and more outdoor cafés, and then we took the metro to the airport. The kids arrived around 7:30 p.m. without further mishap—and so did their luggage, which included two large hard-sided suitcases, two smaller suitcases, and a folding “umbrella” stroller.

We had reserved a rental car through a discount brokerage based in the Greek Islands. The rental-car agency they booked us with didn’t have an office at the airport, so our instructions were to wait for the agency representative at the concourse rental-car area. So wait we did. And wait. And wait. Half an hour later, we called. Where were they? We were greeted with rapid-fire Spanish and then they hung up. We called again. And again, talking to someone different each time.

Finally a car-agency representative showed up and walked our weary group to the parking ramp at another concourse. He led us to a car that looked surprisingly small. Was this really what we had booked? The model code on the agency contract didn’t match the code on our printout. After extensive debate about whether this really was the car model we had booked, we were told definitively: “This is it.”

We opened the trunk and tried to fit in two of the kids’ hard-sided suitcases. They wouldn’t fit. More discussion followed. Was there another car we could upgrade to? The rep shook his head. This was it. Oh, and by the way, he indicated, pointing to a beat-up car parked nearby with the driver’s window open a crack, that was where we were supposed to leave the keys when we returned the car.

We looked at him with disbelief. No way were we going to return the rental car without having it checked over first by a rep. After all, we didn’t want to be held responsible for damage that might occur after we parked the car. More discussion followed, and he called in reinforcements. The agency manager arrived, looking much put out, and informed us that since it was now after 10 p.m., it was this car or no car. They had no access to other cars after their “office” was closed. After additional nasty exchanges, we cancelled the contract and headed back to the rental car area in the concourse. We were sure we could do better.

We were wrong. This was, after all, Thursday evening of Holy Week in Spain, and all rental cars of any size at the airport were already reserved. Sorry. By now it was 11 p.m. and our merry band was anything but. We were stranded at the Madrid airport without a rental car. Desperate, we called the hotel where we had stayed the night before. They had (only) two rooms left. We reserved them and went out to get a taxi.

Or two. It turned out that no taxi in the queue was large enough for four people and six (our two plus their four) suitcases and a baby stroller. We split up. Gary took one taxi and four suitcases. He drove off while Jesse, Yui, Sophie, and I started to get into another taxi. The taxi driver began loading our suitcases into the trunk, but then he changed his mind. He refused to take us without a child car seat. Since we had reserved one with the rental car, the kids hadn’t brought one with them. More discussion. Suddenly the taxi driver dumped the suitcases out of the trunk and sped off, leaving us standing at the curb. Another driver pulled up and we started the process again, this time with more success.

About half an hour later, I had arrived with the kids at the hotel but Gary hadn’t. At last he showed up down the street, wearily dragging the four suitcases as best he could. His taxi driver hadn’t been able to figure out how to reach the hotel and had let him off at a nearby corner. But he had arrived, and he had the suitcases, and the kids were happy with their room, and all that was left was to figure out how to get a rental car the next day to drive to Sahagún. Oh—and to cancel the rooms (already paid for) at the hotel in Segovia.

Gary went online again and found a passenger van available at Atocha train station, not far from our hotel. He rented it—along with a car seat—for the next morning. We called the hotel in Segovia and explained the situation, and the helpful clerk said we wouldn’t be charged. (We were, but we protested and the charge was cancelled later.)

Somewhat bedraggled, we got up early the next morning, “a day late and a dollar (or several) short.” We took two taxis to the nearby train station, picked up the rental van, and drove without further misadventure to Sahagún. Jesse did, in fact, manage to connect with six of his school friends. We even arrived in time to see one of the Semana Santa processions, complete with a bloody, articulated statue of Christ being laid to rest in a glass-sided coffin.

The rest of the two-week trip (to Girona, Barcelona, and back to Madrid) went with very few hitches. Maybe all the dominoes had toppled on the first day. Although we got tired, our charming granddaughter had the time of her young life. Sophie learned to say “Hola” and enjoyed interacting with friendly Spaniards. She also figured out how to defeat the security system in the Royal Palace in Madrid. She started to toss her sandals under the “do not enter” cordon at the doorway to one of the rooms; her plan was to run in after them and retrieve them. Her parents grabbed her just in time.

We had a wonderful visit with our family, and we learned a few lessons to follow in order to avoid “the domino effect” the next time.

1.     Always have a backup plan. Or two. Or three.

2.     Prepare for the worst but hope for the best.

3.     If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.

4.     Be flexible. Extremely.

5.     Never give up, no matter how much provocation.

6.     Always rent from a car company with plenty of cars and numerous offices. You may need them.

7.     Always rent a larger car than you think you need, especially if you are traveling with kids (think: diaper bag, stroller, extra luggage, etc.).

8.     Always try to have access to the Internet and a credit card.

9.     Always remember the reason why you are traveling together: to enjoy each other’s company and have a good time. The rest is just so much static.


Elyn Aviva is a writer, fiber artist, and transformational traveler. Currently living in Girona (Catalonia), Spain, she is fascinated by pilgrimage and sacred sites. Her PhD in anthropology was on the modern Camino de Santiago in Spain. Aviva is author of a number of books on pilgrimage and journey, and she is co-author with her husband, Gary White, of the guidebooks series Powerful Places In … The most recent guidebook, Powerful Places in Brittany, will be published in September. To learn more about Elyn or her publications, go to www.pilgrimsprocess.com and www.fiberalchemy.com

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