Updated: Nov 2
Travel tip #1: If you are in the airport of a non-English-speaking country, you will not see English on the signage or hear English over the loud speakers. This was true at CDG in Paris, France. This was true at both SAW and IST in Istanbul, Turkey. We who are solo-English-speakers and English-speaking-centric need to know this. Maybe we can prepare for this. I don't know how we might prepare for this, other than becoming fairly fluent in the languages of the countries we travel through. That is a big ask, though. You, my solo-English-speaking-centric traveling compadre, may be like me, highly language-challenged. I am proud that I can currently say "hello" and "thank you" in Turkish.
Travel tip #1 is more of a you-may-want-to-know kind-of-thing than a bona fide tip. You may want to know, for example, that when trying to depart from IST to see your kids in Tashkent, no one will understand you when you ask, "Excuse me, where is Uzbekistan Airlines?"
Travel tip #2: Even if you use your phone's translator app while asking for directions in the non-English-speaking airport in which you may find yourself, don't expect anyone to take your hand and walk you to your destination.
Warning: Travel tip #2 is merely another you-may-want-to-know kind-of-thing. And really, it is merely an extension of Travel tip #1. Still, you may want to know...
At the airport, it is often unclear who is traveling and who works there. When you happen upon someone who works there, it is often unclear as to what their capacity of work is. What is clear is that the person you just asked for directions from is most likely non-English-speaking.
The person you want help from may also be traveling. They may not be sure how to get to where they are going. They may be feeling confused, frustrated, and frazzled. They may look at you and want to cry. They may want you to take their hand and lead them to their destination. But you can't. You can only mirror back how lost they feel, as they are mirroring back your disorientation (right now).
If you ask someone who does work at the airport, it doesn't mean they want to help you, or that they know where your particular destination is. They may be a security guard and helping you is not their job. They may work at that one gate and that's all they know. Even when they do understand you, and know where it is you're trying to get to, and are willing to help, they will most likely point (not speak). The direction of their pointing, and/or the distance that their pointing indicates, will most likely be all together unclear to you. That's how it was for me. I asked, he shrugged. I asked, she pointed to another person. I asked the other person, he pointed. And when my eyes followed his pointing finger, I still had no idea what he meant, and no means to extrapolate more information from him.
Travel tip #3: While traveling by plane, have available a combination of $5 worth of cash and coins, in every currency of all the county's you'll be traveling through. This is not a rambling you-may-want-to-know rant that you can do-nothing-about. This is a real tip.
If you don't have Turkish Lyra on you, don't expect to get a rolling cart at the SAW nor the IST airports. You may remember that at the CDG airport in Paris, I learned that rolling carts were for the taking. Not so at SAW (where I had arrived the night before) or at IST (where I was currently at). At the SAW and IST airports, you need Turkish Lyra to unlock the horizontal stack of rolling carts to free the one savior you've been looking forward to borrowing. You'll get the money back, mind you, when you return your rolling cart. But you can not have a rolling cart to begin with if you do not produce the proper coinage.
Friends, please heed my warning. Take this tip to heart (and pocket). If you have more than nothing to carry, get the rolling cart. Be like Nike. Just do it. If you happen to be me, with no Turkish Lyra on you, expect to, once again, lug your too many too heavy bags around a big huge airport while lost.
This time, I was flying out of IST, destination Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on Uzbekistan Airlines. I had asked my Uber taxi driver to let me off by the rolling carts at Terminal 1. Terminal 1, I had read on my ticket, was where Uzbekistan Airlines lived. You know what happened with the rolling carts. It turns out I was also wrong about where to get off.
I ended up trudging along with my too many too heavy bags from one end of the extremely large building that started out to be Terminal 1, to the complete and utter other end of that building. I am not good at judging distance, so I looked on the IST airport website. Here's what I found: "The huge Istanbul airport terminal sprawls over a 1.440.000m2 area and is considered the biggest terminal building worldwide, under one roof." After researching a bit, I learned that m2 is square meters. I tried to research this further and got stuck. If you can figure out how to translate that number of square meters into something I can relate to, like miles, let me know.
As I trudged along, I asked, many times, "Excuse me, where is Uzbekistan Airlines?" I asked this because it was not obvious. Every new line that wound to what appeared to be a ticket and baggage-check counter was situated under a big Turkish-flag-looking sign. Every. single. one. Even when I got to the very other end of the building, and (miraculously) found two Uzbekistan Airlines counters, they were tucked behind the Turkish Airline counters. It was so very not obvious.
Travel tip #4: At least when flying internationally, there is most likely more than one ticket/baggage-claim counter/line going to your destination. Your destination is specific. It's not just the country. It's not even just the city. Show your ticket to someone working at the line you're wondering about before settling in line.
Remember when I was at CDG in Paris (the second day)? When, even though I had asked an attendant "which way to Istanbul," I was directed to the wrong line? Because there were two international airports in Istanbul? And she thought "Istanbul" meant "IST" (not SAW)? I did learn my lesson from that. This time, I did not ask "Uzbekistan Airlines?" This time, I showed my ticket to the attendant standing by the line I had been pointed to. And she pointed me across the corridor to the other line... the one going specifically to Tashkent.
In line I got, and in line I trudged, inch-by-inch with my too many too heavy bags. Until... I saw an abandoned rolling cart up by the counter. I defiantly (and either bravely or stupidly) left my bags unattended in the line, while I ducked under a couple of ropes, grabbed the rolling cart, pushed and shoved it (as gently and unoffensively as I could) back through the crowd and under the ropes, and back to my bags. I piled my bags upon it and suddenly, once again, I felt some semblance of peace. I'm sure I looked, at best, desperate. No one said a word.
When it was my turn at the counter, the Uzbekistan Airlines attendant was joyfully pleasant, and asked if I'd like an emergency exit seat. An emergency exit seat, come to find out, is my favorite seat choice. Emergency exit seats usually have more leg room. They are most often across from where the steward/ess sits, and I like that. And I like feeling helpful. I'm usually good in emergencies. Maybe not so good, I'm finding out, under pressure, while on the Universe ruled by Murphy's Law, but good, in this universe, grounded on this planet, while helping others in an emergency. Usually, I think.
"Yes," I said. "Do you have any physical or other reasons why you couldn't help in an emergency," he asked. "No," I said. "Great," he said and smiled. We both smiled. "What I do have is too many bags," I said. "Let's see," he said, "put them on here, one-at-a-time." I put one bag on the conveyor belt and he said "they need to be under 30k." "No problem," said I, "together, they're less than 30k." "Ok," he said, and I put the second bag on the conveyor belt. "You don't have too many bags at all," he said, and smiled at me, "you should see what people bring." He pointed to a huge pile of large plastic wrapped cardboard boxes behind him. He gave me a wry look, like, "See what people do? You did not do this. You are an Ok human." I was enjoying this moment with my new friend, the Uzbekistan Airlines baggage-claim attendant whose name I do not and will never know. It was the longest and most friendly exchange I'd had all day.
I think the conversation was too long. Because, suddenly, out from nowhere, a man from behind me, impatiently still waiting in line, I suppose, came up, grabbed my rolling cart (as I was putting on it my rolling backpack, wool coat, wool hat and scarf) and started rolling it away. I ran after him, saying "no...," caught it, took it from him, and took it back to my attendant. At the same time, my attendant was yelling, "Wait your turn. Get back. We're not done," holding my passport up for the man to see. The attendant was saying this in maybe three languages. My attendant said to me "Don't let anyone touch your things." I mumbled, "I'm trying."
He looked at me with an expression that seemed to say, "You poor thing, you are in for it," handed me back my passport, and said "It's too long." I looked at him, confused. "Where you're going. It's that way," he pointed, and said, "a twenty minute walk, and then more." I asked, "Will I still make it," but our friendly conversation was done and he was on to the next in line. I pushed my rolling cart forward in the direction that my last temporary new friend's finger had pointed. I was wearing my washed-and-aired-but-newly-stress-soaked-clogs. They were about to get more drenched. It was indeed a long walk.
When I arrived at the security section, I once again had to abandon my rolling cart. Here it did not feel like a hardship. I was, after all, two too-many-too-heavy bags lighter. I now had to navigate my rolling backpack, wool coat, wool hat, and scarf. I had learned early on, way back at the JFK airport in NY, to take off all excessive, unnecessary clothing items, as, trudging my bags had proven hot work. I was learning still. I decided to consolidate. I folded my coat over the front of the backpack. I tucked my scarf into my hat, folded my hat, and tucked that above my coat. Then I took the excess string hanging from the bottom of the backpack and pulled it up over the coat and scarf-filled hat, securing everything by looping the string around the rolling backpack's handle on the top. Everything was tucked in. Everything seemed secure. The backpack was now bulgy but quite easy to maneuver.
I scootched me and my bulgy rolling backpack between the thick metal poles toward the security line. The attendant who stood outside the security check point... the one who signaled to me that I must abandon the rolling cart... the one who stood watching me as I consolidated and secured and flashed an expression of utter satisfaction... the one now smiling and waving at me... said, in recognizable English, "Have a good life." It was the second best conversation I'd had that day.
I got through the security line, through security, got my consolidated bulgy rolling backpack and (stinky) clogs (again) from the conveyor belt, (reluctantly) put my clogs on, pulled out the backpack handle to roll it, and off I went. At one point, maybe during the security check, the string holding everything together must have gotten loose, come undone, and was hanging down on the ground. While walking, the hanging-on-the-ground string must have got caught on something on the floor and, mid-step, I was abruptly brought to a halt. I turned around, figured out what had happened, put my long wool coat back on the backpack, restrung the string, and off I went. No problem. Things were going well.
When I got to my gate, I checked to make sure I was indeed in the correct spot.
Travel tip #5: When you get to your gate, check to make sure you're in the correct spot.
I had learned this lesson years earlier. Years earlier, I sat at a gate at the JFK airport with my 14-year-old son. He was about to get on the one flight (per day) to Osaka, Japan, where he would meet his host family who he would live with for a month. It was strange to me that no one else was at the gate. It was concerning that the time of departure was near. I kept hearing a heavily accented woman calling someone's name over the loud speaker. I said aloud to my son, "That person is going to miss their plane." Finally, I got up and showed someone his ticket. Come to find out, the gate had changed. Come to find out, it was my son's name that we had heard over the intercom. Come to find out, they had finished boarding the plane before we figured all this out, and it was too late for my son to board. Years ago, my son missed his flight to Japan because we were waiting at the wrong gate. Now, I get to my gate, walk up to the attendant, show them my ticket, and ask, "Am I in the right place?"
I walked up to the attendant at the Uzbekistan Airlines to Tashkent gate, showed him my ticket, and asked, "Am I in the right place?" "Yes," he said, and pointed. "You can sit there." It was easy to follow his pointing finger and understand. He was pointing to the other passengers at that gate, sitting in chairs, chatting with their people, relaxing, waiting. Since the seats were full, I decided to walk-about to get food or coffee. I knew there would be food during the flight but I didn't know what and I didn't know when, and I hadn't yet eaten or even had a sip of water.
Please, let me digress.
You may recall that the last leg of this trip, from Paris to Istanbul, was on Turkish Airlines. When I wrote about that, I did not tell you that the flight was... how do I say this... a disappointing culinary disaster. I will explain.
In May, I had flown on Turkish Airlines, from JFK (in NYC, NY, USA) to IST in Istanbul, Turkey. It was a direct, 10-hour flight. The huge plane was full to capacity. My guess is that, for most passengers, it was a crowded and uncomfortable flight. At the ticket/baggage-claim counter, the attendant had asked if I'd be willing to be seated in an emergency exit seat. I had said "yes." Because of that seat choice, I was relatively less crowded and more comfortable than most. Still, it was a 10-hour flight. The saving grace on that trip, besides the yoga and meditation I did, was the food. We were served two delectable meals. Both meals were by far the best food I'd ever eaten. I'm talkin' airline food, my Friends. The Turkish Airlines food was impressive.
Needless to say, I was looking forward to flying and (more importantly) eating on Turkish Airlines again. The problem now was, this flight was from Paris (not JFK) to Istanbul. It was a very short trip, duration 3 hours plus some. It was too short, I guess, to serve delicious Turkish food. During that flight, (as was true for this one I was about to get on) I had not eaten all day. I had not even had water. I'm realizing a pattern here. When I'm feeling late and stressed about boarding my plane on time... and spend three full hours in lines and walking... I don't eat for a very long time. And then, I'm dehydrated and very hungry.
Travel tip #6: Bring snacks and purchase water, just in case.
During that flight (from Paris to Istanbul) the stewardess practically ran up the aisle throwing a packaged sandwich and a packaged water at each passenger. She did not really run. She did not really throw the packaged sandwiches and packaged waters at us. She kind of didn't do these things... but she kind of did. Those details are up for debate. There are some things not up for debate, though. She definitely did not stop at each row. She definitely did not ask, "Would you like a sandwich?" She definitely did not offer an alternative to the sandwich or a choice of drinks. This quick little thing that happened was a quick-handoff of a quick-snack. It was a "You have no choice. Here. Have it if you will" kind-of thing. I opened the packaged sandwich to find a roll (which I was not going to eat) and inside it, a piece of (rubbery and tasteless) cheese, a thin piece of red pepper, and a thin piece of yellow pepper. That was it. for the flight.
So, "fooled once shame on you, fooled twice shame on me..." I thought, "I won't get fooled again." You know, as I write this, I wonder if The Who had a similar experience while traveling.
Off I walked with my bulgy rolling backpack to see what the offerings were. I passed a very cozy looking area. It had lean-back cushy seats and outlets and tables at which people were eating and drinking and using their laptops. "Hm," I thought, "I'll come back here." I saw a coffee shop and ordered "an Americano. No sugar, please." I sipped my coffee as I turned and saw that my plane was boarding. Everyone was up, and the line was moving. I quickly joined the line, sipping on my coffee, that was super strong and bitter. "It must be Turkish coffee" I thought, and realized there was no milk in it. "Oh well," thought I, "too late," and drank it down anyway, just as I got to the check point.
Walking the hall to the plane, I felt... light. happy. caffeinated.