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Lessons learned from a volcano

By JOLENE CARPENTER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 29, 2010

"Volcanoes can erupt for weeks."

These were the discouraging words my travel companion, Sue, uttered to me on April 17 as we were stunned to learn that our flights to Paris and back to the States — along with almost every other flight on the boards at Naples’ Capodichino airport — were canceled due to Iceland’s volcanic eruption. As in ... indefinitely.

The two people serving passengers at the Air France counter did not have much to say about when our flight through Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport would resume. "It depends on the volcano," one attendant told us. "Come back ... maybe Tuesday."

To which I self-importantly replied, "I can’t wait until Tuesday." (Alert the volcano!) It turned out that we didn’t get out until Thursday, five days later. So much for being in a hurry.

I don’t expect anyone to pity me for spending five extra days in Italy following our 10-day whirlwind vacation there.

We were extremely lucky that the U.S. Navy base at Capodichino, called "Capo" by most Americans, was one mile away. And because we both had military ID cards (Sue is married to a retired Army lieutenant colonel), we were eligible to stay at the base hotel in a suite with a full kitchen for $60 a night total. That included access to all base facilities: gym, pool, NEX, theater, library, business center with free Internet, and free laundry facilities.

Because two days’ worth of flights had been canceled before ours, hotels in Naples were jammed. We shuddered to think of how we would have endured five nights of sleeping on our bags at the airport, as thousands of people were doing all over Europe.

Our greatest inconvenience, besides not knowing when the volcano would stop spitting, was standing in line for 2½ hours on Saturday and Monday as only three attendants at the airport’s ticket counter slowly and deliberately served each person whose flight had been canceled. That’s the Italian way; prepare to wait!

Despite our good fortune, I did learn a few things from our delay that might come in handy if disaster strikes again.

• Check the news occasionally while you are on vacation. We didn’t, and we were ignorant of the calamity until friends told us on the way to the airport.

• Book a hotel in your departure city at the first whiff of travel disruption. You can cancel the reservation if flights resume, but if they don’t, you’ll be ahead of the huddled masses at the airport scrambling for lodging. Don’t expect your airline to help; despite the European Union Passenger Charter, many airlines (including Air France and Alitalia) told grounded passengers they are not obligated to arrange lodging in exceptional circumstances.

Obviously, if you have a base nearby, make use of billeting.

• Pack extra medications in case you should be delayed. Otherwise you’ll find yourself at a foreign pharmacy sputtering and using sign language. Bring the prescription bottles so the pharmacist can see the name of the drug and the dose.

• Bring extra money or an extra charge card (and know your PIN number) in case you are stranded indefinitely. Don’t exchange all of your local currency for dollars before you head to the airport. You may need some for meals at the airport, a taxi, etc.

• Buy travel insurance when you book your flights. I bought a policy for $25 that reimburses hotel, food and transportation expenses during a delay due to a natural disaster. But you must save every receipt; most companies won’t reimburse expenses without them.

carpenter.jolene@stripes.com

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