My 24-Hour Trip From Hell

I knew there was a problem when we first walked into the airport.

My boyfriend and I had arrived at 5 o’clock in the morning, 2 hours and 20 minutes early like good little travelers, ready for our Vigo-Madrid-Chicago flight. We had purchased the tickets more than 6 months earlier, and I was more than ready (a.k.a homesick) to get back and visit my family in southern Indiana. We marched up to the departures screen to find our flight, but it wasn’t there.

“Dani, there’s only one flight from Vigo to Madrid, and it’s not our flight number, and it’s not our flight time!”

I tried to stay calm as I started scouring my phone for the emails the airline had sent me months prior. Correct date, correct time, correct location. Whew! I was able to rule out any small, stupid error on my part, which was my first thought. We decided that it must have been a flight change of which they didn’t inform us, so we got in line to check our bags.

The lady behind the counter checked our passports. Then she checked our tickets. Then she looked at her computer screen for an uncomfortable length of time. I was rehearsing sentences in Spanish in my head to better explain our situation, when she finally said,

“I just can’t find your ticket or flight anywhere.” This moment marks my first heart attack of the day.

“WHAT?! We bought these tickets months ago! Look, I got them from the American Airlines webpage and our first flight is operated by Iberia.” I showed her our electronic receipt.

“I just don’t see it in the computer. Head over to the customer service desk where my coworker can help you.”

Our eagerness to get on our plane to the U.S. was quickly turning to anxiousness. The next airport employee knew just as little as her coworker. Dani was starting to get angry, cursing in Galician under his breath. We listened intently while the lady phoned someone higher up in Madrid to resolve the issue. The 2 hours and 20 minutes we had started with was now down to barely one hour left.

“Ok,” she began. “I got you on the only flight to Madrid, but that’s all I can do. You still have no flight to the U.S. You’ll have to resolve the issue when you arrive in Madrid.”

Angry, but without any other options, we hurried through security to our gate and arrived just in time to board the plane.

We hit the ground running in Madrid to sort out our current mess as fast as possible, with no idea the worst was yet to come. After waiting quite some time at baggage claim, we collected our suitcases and ran to the airline help desks. First, Iberia accused American of being the guilty party and told us we had to talk to them. Then American claimed it was Iberia. This is a pretty standard runaround routine that I had encountered more than once in Spain, but we weren’t having it this time. We told the American Airlines employee that since they sold us the ticket, they were going to fix it.

“Alright,” the lady told us, “it looks like you can go Madrid to London to Charlotte to Chicago.”

“NO!” Dani and I said it almost simultaneously. The tickets we had initially purchased would have taken us directly to Chicago from Madrid, so four stops in total was just unacceptable, especially with how much we had paid.

Two employees were now working to get us a new flight and explained that our original flight wasn’t just canceled, but had been erased in some way, which is why they couldn’t find any record of it in Vigo. This was becoming the strangest trip I have ever been on in my life.

One of the ladies who was helping us suddenly said, “Book that! Hurry!” to her coworker. They managed to save us seats on a British Airways flight to London and then to Chicago right before it filled up, and since we would arrive in the U.S. only about three hours later than we had planned, we took it.

Finally! Everything was going back to normal. We once again had a flight and three and a half hours till its departure, plenty of time to get through security and relax. We breathed a sigh of relief—that is, until we reached the front of the line at the baggage check-in counter.

“You’re American, so you’re fine, but he is Spanish. Do you have his visa for the USA?” Second heart attack of the day.

VISA?! Dani didn’t have a visa. A strong wave of bad feelings swept over me as I thought of all the paperwork, consulate appointments, and documents I had needed to get a visa for Spain, knowing it was too late for anything like that now. I had even researched visas for the U.S. beforehand and didn’t find anything, coming to the conclusion that nothing was required for Dani. The airport employee saw my eyes starting to water and quickly said,

“You can complete the visa here in the airport if you really hurry. It’s just something you complete online. The travel agency office on the other side of this terminal can help you with it.”

Dani and I perked up so fast. There was still hope, and after coming this far already, we were going to fight till we were on that plane.

Sprinting as fast as we could with our backpacks and large suitcases flying behind us, we arrived at the travel office. Closed. We were on our own with only three hours left. I frantically began to Google tourist visas for the U.S., coming up with pages and pages of misinformation, until I found what I thought looked like the correct page, which said we first needed a passport-sized photo. We spotted one of those 5-second photo booths and Dani hopped in. With the photos in hand, we quickly realized we had no way to make them into a jpg file to upload them and the travel agency was still closed. Could we not catch a single break?

There was a police station right next to the photo booth so we decided to ask for help since we were out of ideas and running out of time. A very nice lady-cop informed us that she had gone to New York the prior year and remembered the visa process, but knew that a photo wasn’t required. She searched and found the webpage on her phone and helped Dani fill it out. He paid the money, and back to the baggage counter we ran.

We huffed a very out-of-breath “We did it!” to the employees at the baggage counter as we jogged up, but they looked confused.

“No…it doesn’t look like you have done it yet, because the computer still doesn’t show that the visa is processing. You must have completed the wrong page.” Third heart attack of the day. 

I was at my breaking point. We now barely had two hours left and I was exhausted and beat down. As Dani sprinted across the airport yet again, this time leaving me alone with all the luggage, I slumped onto the ground in the middle of the terminal and couldn’t fight back the tears any longer.

Though I’m usually a pretty positive person who believes that everything works out in the end, in this moment my hope was gone as everything pointed to us not boarding that plane together. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I had taken this same flight at least seven times before and every time it had been as simple as showing my passport and passing through security; that was it. But this time we’d been through hell and back and Dani still wasn’t going to be able to come to America with me, after everything. We had screwed up.

Just as I was mentally giving up, Dani rushed up to me smiling and waving a piece of paper in the air. He saw my puffy eyes and scooped me up into a big hug. “I got it!” he said. I was in absolute shock but could feel my stress melting away. It felt like a miracle.

The visa took another very anxious 20 minutes to process until it finally was accepted and we checked our luggage at the last minute possible for our flight. We raced through the winding maze of security check points that is the Madrid-Barajas Airport, snarfed down some vending machine sandwiches, and stepped onto the plane to finally collapse into our seats. I’ve never been more relieved in my whole life.

The next 15 hours, two flights, a layover in London, and transatlantic flight went without incident, though it took me until we finally touched American soil to fully shake the anxiousness the day had caused me. Dani had no problems whatsoever passing through costumes—TSA actually interrogated me more than him! Although this was one of the most stressful days I’ve had and definitely was my worst day of traveling ever, I learned some important lessons from the experience and can even laugh about it now. Travel is very humbling. Just when I was thinking I really had this whole travel thing down, this was a quick reminder to always stay on my toes in transit. It’s one part preparation, two parts luck. Next time I’ll be ready for everything!

Thanks for reading! What’s your travel horror story? Have you ever had a flight where everything went wrong? Leave a comment below! Hopefully you have happier travels in the future!

Written by

I'm an American expat living in Galicia. I want to inspire travel, learn a dozen languages, and try every food in the world.


  • Janet Metzger

    I had no idea you went through all of that! Wow! We had a flight to Madrid cancelled one time and we were stuck in DC for 24 hrs but at least we were in the US.

    • Heather

      Hey Janet!
      Traveling was definitely testing what we were made of that day! Wow! 24 hours in the same location is very rough though! I probably would have hated that even more. We just had a full day of bad news and anxiety. You just have to fight the good fight!

      Happy travels!

  • Amy Abbott

    Hi, Heather, I accidentally found your site. It is WONDERFUL. So happy you are living your dreams! Our horror story is Dublin to London to Dulles to Indianapolis with five people, including one who was elderly, crabby, and very tired. i am not a volatile person but almost got flight rage getting on the plane at Dulles. I cannot remember why, just that we were godawful tired and both my brother and I got pulled by security and customs upon arriving at Dulles for reasons I also don’t remember. It took something like 28 hours to get from Dublin to Indy. Love your stories. Amy Abbott

    • Heather

      Hey Amy!

      Thank so much for the comment! I’m really glad you both found my site and like it! You can subscribe in the top right-hand box if you want and get updated via email. I didn’t have internet for the last couple weeks so I haven’t updated lately, but I will be soon! Your trip sounds miserable as well. You really never know what will happen when you step into an airport. We just have to hope for the best!
      Happy travels!