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Whenever I travel with my parents, I find myself amused by the trouble they go to to maintain a sense of control over the whole affair. They pack their bags days in advance, choosing clothes for everything from blizzard to typhoon, and they print out stacks of paper so thick I’m amazed they can get a staple through them. What’s on them? Tickets, receipts for tickets, copies of tickets and copies of receipts for tickets. Directions to the airport, and directions from the airport. Names phone numbers and addresses of all the people we plan to meet up with throughout our travels. Directions to hotels. Hotel reservations, bus routes, fairs, and times. Any travel number, document, or map you can think of, they’ve got it on paper. And don’t forget cash. Gobs and gobs of cash, preconverted into the appropriate currency. What’s funny about it is the stark contrast against the way I myself travel.
For me, less is better. I leave as much at home as is humanly possible. I check the 10-day forecast to make sure I’m not bringing any clothing I don’t need, and then I stuff it all into a carry-on bag so I don’t have to wait around at baggage claim. All my documents — flight information, boarding pass, phone numbers — are on my phone, and I’m usually staying at an AirBnb, so I’ve got that app downloaded and ready to help get me there when I arrive. As for where I’m stayingtomorrow, I haven’t planned that yet. I’ll handle that booking from my phone while I’m in the car. What’s the best way to get to town from the airport? I dunno — but Google Maps does. I didn’t rent a car, but that’s cool: flip the app to the transit tab and it’ll get me there by whatever combination of train and bus is most efficient. Hell, it’ll even tell me how much it’ll all cost. And how will I be paying? Credit card, of course. Or, in the hyper-weird event that credit isn’t an option, I’ll visit an ATM and use my no-fee debit card to withdraw some cash in the appropriate currency, surcharge free.
Technology moves so fast these days that when someone comes up with a good idea, it’s hard to imagine that idea might not instantly spread to everywhere else. Psy’s Gangnam Style took what seemed like less than a month to hit all four corners of the earth. If catchy music can spread that fast, everything else must too. Right? Right?
When I landed in Helsinki last week, I immediately whipped out my phone to pop in the address for the Airbnb I was staying at. And I know what you’re thinking: “You can’t use your data plan abroad!” But no, I thought of that before I left, and I made sure to add a temporary international data plan for my trip. Everything was set. Except it wasn’t: my data didn’t work. Yep, that’s right, it just didn’t work. 3g, 4g, LTE… nothing.
Oh well. “Maybe they just don’t have it at the airport,” I thought. I decided to try and find my way to the city center the old fashioned way: by reading signs. And alas! I found the bus I needed. I walked out to the platform and found the ticket dispenser. Cool. We’re good now. I’ll take this bus, and then they’ll definitely have some sort of data network available when we get closer into the city, so I’ll just look the address up while I’m on the bus and figure out which stop to get off at. Awesome.
I nav’d through the ticket machine process and then dipped my credit card. Surprise! Card read error. It turns out that even though most European card readers are prepared to handle the archaic US mag strip technology that we for some reason insist on using, this one wasn’t. On the off chance it was just a bad card, I tried paying with two other credit cards and a debit card, but alas, I had no luck. I needed the chip. I didn’t have the chip. Crap.
I needed cash. This bugged me, because I knew that airport exchange facilities don’t exactly give you a sweet deal on currency conversion, but I figured given the circumstances I’d just take the hit. I wandered back inside toward the exchange counter, completely forgetting that my flight from Germany earlier had been delayed by over six hours, and that it was quite a bit later than I had originally expected to arrive. When I got there, much to my chagrin, they were closed! Argh! Why didn’t I bring cash with me!?
Feeling helpless, I shuffled back out to the bus stop bench and slumped down onto it, hoping to god the bus driver would accept a credit card. Amazingly though, before that happened, a sweet Finnish girl asked me (in perfect English, of course) if I was having trouble. When I explained to her my situation, she happily offered to pay the five euros it cost to ride the bus. I felt horrible accepting the money from a girl I’d just met, but given that I was in no position to turn it down, I obliged. Fortunately, she worked at the airport, so I was able to offer her some US cash I had in my wallet as payment. She assured me she’d be able to convert to Euros at work the next day.
After a while, the bus arrived and we both got on. She asked me where I was going and I told her I wasn’t sure. That one earned me a weird look. As we got closer and closer to the city, I started to get nervous. My cell still wasn’t working, and the only thing I knew about the place I was staying was its address which, without a map was fairly useless, and that it was pretty close to the city center. I stared at my phone, hoping that a signal would pop up. I must have been staring pretty intently, because the girl eventually asked me if she could help–again. Man, did I feel useless. I showed her the address of where I was hoping to end up, and once again, she came through for me. She recognized the street name, and knew exactly which stop to get off at. Incredible.
“This is you!” she said as we pulled up to the stop. I thanked her profusely and hopped off the bus. Then, as the bus pulled away, I scanned for my street. Too bad it wasn’t there. For some reason I had assumed that the bus would just magically let me out on the street I needed to be on. Why, I have no idea, but it definitely didn’t. Okay, time to start searching then. What was that street name again? I pulled out my phone and popped open the Airbnb app to start digging through the conversation with my host. The address wasSäästöpankinranta 4 a 2, 00530 Helsinki. And no, that’s not a spelling / UTF-8 conversion error, it’s just Finnish. Worse still, after reading over the address, I remembered that I’d been using my phone quite a bit, and that my battery was likely pretty low. My phone had a run-in with a swimming pool last summer and the battery meter has been pretty unreliable ever since. This meant my phone could die at any minute, and I wouldn’t even get a heads up about it.
Let’s see, what happens when my phone dies. Oh god. What happens if my phone dies!? I can’t remember this address! All the information I thought I had carefully accounted for might simply vanish in a matter of seconds. If only I had a pen and paper to write is all down!
24 hours earlier I’d nav’d my way from checkin to gate at LAX using nothing but a cell phone. And yet, there I was, stranded on the sidewalk at midnight in Helsinki with… nothing but a cell phone. And even that could at any minute become an expensive brick. Man. I would kill for a really thick stack of papers and some Euros.
I ended up being saved by a lucky coincidence. The fact that my flight was delayed meant that my travel buddy who was meeting me at the Airbnb had gotten there before me. I reached out to her for help via what I expect to soon confirm was an annoyingly expensive text message. What happened after that was a comical amount of bumbling around.
When we finally made it inside, I explained to her how ridiculous my reliance on technology was, and that I vowed to be more prepared next time I travel, since obviously, I can’t just assume everything works the same on one end of a flight as it does on the other. She humored me.
In a related story, I’m writing this post from the airport. I’m headed to Copenhagen. When I get there, the guy who’s picking me up at the central station is named Quincy. I’ve never met him. My notepad remains empty, and that’s all I know.