The Mystery Trip

A childhood diet of TV soaps had convinced me that a stag do is a last-night-of-freedom drinking spree, which can only end on the morning of the wedding with the groom handcuffed to a lamppost as time ticks away at the church. Fortunately, within my social circle they’ve been more sensible events, finding excitement in pursuits from escaping serial killers to ziplining across Welsh valleys rather than crawling through a series of pubs.

As the sober one of the bunch, I certainly intended to take a similar tack for the group activities – but I also wanted to find a way to capture that “will they make it?” aspect, so proposed an extra adventure to Luke, my best man. The concept: that we head to Heathrow sans tickets, choose a destination at random, then use my staff travel perks to try and get seats on the next flight out. If we failed, we’d just try another one – but if we succeeded, we’d be whisked across Europe to who-knows-where, with no plans beyond the hope that we could get on a return flight the next day!

This improbable scheme scored bonus marks for allowing a proper catch-up in advance of the wedding – although our fifteen year history includes three of shared student homes, these days jobs and geography conspire to give Luke and I less time together. Plus my partner Alaina’s greener approach to travel means it’s unlikely she and I would take flights on a whim like this – so it ticked the “one last moment of recklessness” box too.

That’s the ‘what’ and ‘why’; as Luke was indeed up for giving it a go, the ‘who’ was also settled. After a bit of calendar wrangling, we pinned down the ‘when’ – the last weekend of March, or the start of summer according to both British timezones and aviation schedules. The ‘where’, though, would await the throw of a die!

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Of course, the planner in me could not leave things completely to chance, so I did pin down some parameters to tilt the odds of a successful getaway in our favour. As I work on the systems that forecast demand levels, I’m about as well placed as anyone to estimate which flights are likely to leave with at least a few seats.

The potential need for a visa, plus higher fares and greater time requirements, immediately ruled out anything longhaul. For balance, we then dropped the domestic network to make sure we got a good distance from home. Similarly discarded were the nearby French and Dutch airports, which are regular destinations for Luke and I respectively: if we found ourselves with too many options, the preference would be for cities – or countries! – neither of us had visited before. Finally, I excluded anything pre-7am as being unreasonably early.

Those rules in place, I spent a couple of lunchbreaks pulling together a dashboard of possibilites, identifying aiports with paired Sunday morning departures and Monday evening returns, and rating the chances of getting on both. Although the exact forecasts naturally wandered around, the set of viable destinations was fairly stable, and by the Friday night we still had over twenty options:

The destination longlist: the darker the circle, the more outbound seats; and the larger the circle, the more inbound seats.

On Saturday I switched to live seat data to verify my predictions were sensible, pulled in weather forecasts, and skimmed trip advisor for each unfamiliar city. Luke arrived that evening, and we set about whittling down the longlist:

  • A third of the options were German: Frankfurt, Hamburg, Dusseldorf, Stuttgart, Hanover, Munich, Berlin. Sensible choices for the airline, as business types position themselves for the week, but less exciting as holiday destinations (except Berlin, but that had alarmingly few seats available in both directions), so we agreed to thin these out.
  • Despite Milan having two airports, the flight times meant we would have to commit to one or the other for a single return flight – and both looked almost full. Plus I’ll also be passing through for my honeymoon later this year.
  • Gibraltar presented no difficulties with regards to the flight – but from my previous visit, I expected we’d have great difficulty finding accommodation at such short notice.
  • Billund had some appeal due to its obscurity – but its main attraction is Legoland, which isn’t open this early in the year. Trip Advisor couldn’t find much else to recommend besides an assortment of churches, and the weather forecast looked a bit grim.
  • Luke had been to Oslo a few weeks back, so that also got cut to increase the novelty factor.
  • We’d have very little chance of getting seats to Budapest.
  • Bucharest I just wasn’t sure about, for some reason!

Due to the shape of the schedule, I had already planned to split the flights into two waves of pre- and post-8am options. This meant we could roll for the first wave, list for whatever came up, and then still have the second wave in reserve if we didn’t get seats. Whilst we were pondering our ‘maybes’ from the above, I realised that the ten destinations we were most interested in fit neatly with this plan, with six flights for each wave. So that saved any further deliberation, and we had our shortlist!

Wave 1 Wave 2
CPH Copenhagen, Denmark STR Stuttgart, Germany
LCA Larnaca, Cyprus BLQ Bologna, Italy
MAD Madrid, Spain LUX Luxembourg
ARN Stockholm, Sweden BIO Bilbao, Spain
WAW Warsaw, Poland MAD Madrid, Spain
NCE Nice, France NCE Nice, France

Those established, the last challenge for the evening was packing. I collected up every potentially relevant currency I had to hand (Euros, Kroner, and Kronor), selected a single lens for the camera, threw together an assortment of snacks, and placed my faith in layered clothing and the holy trinity of passport, smartphone and credit card to cover anything else. With the first possible flight being at 07:05, it would be an early start – so, thus prepared, the smart plan was to get an early night.

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After a late night of food, games and general catch-up, a 5AM alarm called us to action. Neither Luke nor I are morning people, and thanks to the jump forward to British summer time we were operating on less than four hours sleep. Nonetheless we were functional enough to make it into the taxi a half hour later, although our answer of “we don’t know” to the driver’s enquiry as to where were flying might have implied otherwise! At this (otherwise intolerable) time of day the 6 miles from home to Terminal 5 can be covered in a fraction of the time it takes for my commute, so by 5:45 we were standing under the departures board, ready to pick our destination.

I attempted to film the decisive throw of a D20, but cheerfully rolled it completely out of shot. So you’ll have to take my word for it that we hit a six, which from our wave 1 chart corresponded to… Larnaca! This was a pretty exciting outcome, and one that Luke had been secretly rooting for, as both the furthest and warmest destination from our original longlist. For me Cyprus was a new country, whilst he had only dim childhood memories of a trip to elsewhere on the island. But we weren’t necessarily going yet, since of all our outbound options, the 07:15 to Larnaca had the fewest empty seats…

The staff travel process used to involve ‘listing’ for flights, then proceeding to a special room in the terminal – fittingly, next to the prayer room – to watch your booking on a giant screen until it turned green or red. These days, of course, there’s an app; ten minutes of wrangling with that, and we apparently had confirmed tickets. Better still, as we checked in (on the regular machines) we discovered there was not just a pair of adjacent seats still available, but that we could potentially have a block of three to ourselves. Presumably these had been freed up by a late cancellation, and although the odds of anyone checking in later than us were slim, we picked the window and middle seat just to ensure we didn’t get stuck with a stranger between us.

Security took a full thirty minutes, as despite decanting everything correctly, my toothpaste was deemed sufficiently mysterious as to warrant a secondary liquids check, which was delayed until four less savvy passengers had had their luggage picked over in detail. Fortunately Luke was able to pick up bottled water as I waited, and we still had enough time before boarding to hit Starbucks (the Aspire lounge was unsure whether I could guest for free, and it didn’t seem worth gambling for a ten minute raid of the breakfast buffet).

Early morning, LHR

We were amongst the last passengers to board; doors closed at 07:10, confirming that we had scored seats 20D/E/F – who needs Club Europe? We were ready to depart on time, always welcome with over two thousand miles / near five hours of flying stretched out ahead of us. Of course, being Heathrow, the first twenty minutes took place on the ground, with a jaunt around the airport followed by some queuing. But at 07:35, we were aloft!

I have little to report from the flight itself – there’s nothing too exciting to discuss about an A320 in economy, and although this was my first flight to offer buy-on-board, nothing from the menu convinced me. From the moving map, we soon realised just how far we had to go, as other potential destinations from the longlist passed by. Luke and I therefore both tried to work on the sleep deficit by claiming a couple of hours of shut eye. These were immediately stolen back from us as the pilots began their descent and informed us of local time. Cyprus had also moved forward an hour that morning, to EEST, maintaining their two hour advance on the UK. This also brought official time back into sync with that used in the north, who had followed Turkey in not introducing daylight savings last October; my first introduction to the complexities of this, Europe’s only divided country.

We had a long approach to Cyprus which afforded great views from above – it’s far more geographically diverse than I imagined, with both more greenery and mountainous terrain. Particularly surprising was the dusting of snow, but apparently the island’s Mount Olympus has Europe’s southernmost ski slopes, allowing a ‘beach and ski’ holiday at some times of the year! More in line with my assumptions was the sun-soaked coastline and beautiful green-blue sea, which we looped out and over for our final run into LCA, touching down just before 2PM local. Clearly my arctic-proof clothing layers would not be necessary…

A post shared by Graeme Taylor (@euler_tourist) on

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From wheels down to landside took less than fifteen minutes, since (for now) we could breeze through the EU lane, and had no luggage to collect. Although I’d loaded up on roaming credit, the airport had serviceable free wifi, so I took the opportunity to book us a place to stay whilst Luke figured out transport to town. Only once have I arrived somewhere without accommodation already arranged – taking a side trip to Gothenburg during a Stockholm-based trip almost a decade ago. Back then, we had only a paper guide book, and started our visit with a traipse around potential lodgings before realising that the guide prices were per person, not per room… Now, though, smartphones exist, and a quick flick through the booking.com app revealed dozens of options; fearing western European hotel rates, I’d budgeted £100 for a twin room, but here we had options for a third of that. I quickly settled on a two bedroom apartment that seemed fairly central, and £80 or so secured it for arrival in a hour’s time. Easy!

Escaping the airport was harder, although mostly due to mistakes on our part. Luke had established which buses we could use, and after some milling around, we were even reasonably certain we knew where the bus stop was- just not how to reach it! The trick is to ignore the signs for buses and taxis (which lead you only to the taxis) and instead head up to departures before exiting the terminal. Sadly, we would continue to struggle with this building…

I’m still not entirely sure that we what we caught was actually a bus service rather than an enterprising chap in a transit van, but for €1.50 each we were conveyed to central Larnaca in half an hour or so, which beats any airport transfer I’ve used recently. We definitely lucked out with the apartment: it turned out to be located on the coastline at Finikoudes beach, and the ‘side sea view’ translated to a pair of balconies facing the bay. It was also substantially larger than my flat back in the UK!

A room with a view – Larnaca, Cyprus

Once we’d settled in – that is, discarded wet weather gear and Scandinavian currencies – it was off to discover more of the town. In the limited time available, we stuck to Larnaca rather than hiring a car and venturing further afield. Much of the time was spent just enjoying the coastal setting – although it was starting to look like Spring back in the UK, the weather here was already clearing mid-20s, with the edge taken off by the sea breeze. Most beach-facing establishments had set up open air seating, and even on a Sunday they stayed open until 11pm, creating an evening scene that was ‘cafe culture’ rather than ‘pub crawl’. Sitting out on the balcony in the fading heat, our own conversations mingling with those below and the sounds of the sea, made for a very pleasant evening.

We took in a few of the cultural sites – the main one is the 9th century Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Lazarus, which was closed for a service when we wandered past on Sunday, but rewarded a second attempt on Monday (although the remains of Lazarus have long since left this second tomb, although less dramatically than his first). Also on our itinerary was a pair of small but bargain-priced archaeological sites – the museum, and the Kition ruins. The town itself was architecturally interesting, both for its unfamiliarity (of places I’ve been before, only Malta felt similar) and the disconnect between the seafront tourist polish and the dereliction that could be found if you drifted just a few streets in the wrong direction.

A final highlight was the food. Everywhere seemed to have an array of reasonably-priced options, all the more so given the portion sizes: try as I might, I never finished a meal, much to the consternation of staff. Sadly, this meant I never made it as far as any of the tasty-looking desserts, but I can definitely vouch for the savouries… Apart from Sunday’s dinner, we took all our meals in the aforementioned sea front cafes / restaurants, which seem to be competing with each other for who can give away the biggest meal with a morning coffee.

The first of many satisfying meals

Given the unprepared nature of the trip, we certainly landed on our feet, as Larnaca turned out to be very easy-going for a British tourist. I’m not sure what influence the UK has had here historically, but the result is driving on the left, infrastructural items such as road crossings identical to those from home, and a complete lack of language barrier. Street signs, menus, and information boards at the museums were generally dual greek / english, and everyone from restaurant staff to the fishing pensioner we got talking to on the sea wall had no problems understanding the double-whammy of our estuary and brummie accents!

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Alas, it was time all too soon for us to head back to the UK. I had no concerns about getting on the flight, as on Mondays Larnaca gets uprated to a 767 – although it’s not entirely clear why, as I was forecasting almost a hundred empty seats. However, what I should have worried more about was getting to the aiport… since we had already drifted twenty minutes or so along the coast, and with plenty of time until check-in, I wondered how much further it would be to walk rather than backtracking to the bus station. Google claimed less than an hour, with a route past the salt lakes and the potential to detour to the Hala Sultan Tekke mosque if we made better progress.

Unfortunately, I had not checked what google had decided “Larnaca International Airport” meant! It’s estimate was based on an endpoint in the middle of the runway – via a service road I seriously doubt my BA pass would entitle me to access – rather than something more useful like the terminal (located at aiport loop):

How not to walk to LCA

Unsurprisingly, we never made it as far as the service road- as google led us first to what may once have been Larnaca International Airport, but now seemed firmly abandoned, and more to the point was clearly not the building we’d arrived at. We pressed on anyway, until the winning combination of high gates and barbed wire confirmed our suspicion that this was not the correct path.

Not LCA

We therefore backtracked to the main road, hoping to find our way through the rental car facilities rather than having to follow the wide arc of the B4. Fences continued to be our nemesis, along with the lack of a rental car to return, but we could see the terminal so stuck to our chosen approach. A short distance from the building we encountered a car barrier that could easily be skirted on foot… except there seemed to be a flurry of activity from a nearby guard building, so we figured it best to go introduce ourselves as idiot tourists. Fortunately their activity had more to do with break schedules than our presence, and they reassured us that we could, technically, get to departures this way: we’d just managed to get onto the access road for the staff canteen! From there, an obscure staircase lead up to precisely the taxi area we’d got stuck at the previous day when searching for the bus stop. Playing it as cool as we could for two sunburnt Brits finishing a five mile hike, we sauntered past the drivers and in to the air conditioned relief of the terminal.

Despite all that, we had plenty of time to check in as the flight had picked up delays of twenty minutes or so. We had to check in at a desk, which meant no seat selection, although thanks to the light load we’d been sat together anyway. Security was swift, so once we’d escaped the duty free hall we were able to check out the Swissport lounge. This turned out to be a bizarrely shaped maze with fishtanks built into the mid-height walls, but we located light snacks, drinks, power sockets and comfortable seats to fill the extra time to boarding.

Scheduled departure was 19:35, but we weren’t actually in the air until 8pm. Surprisingly for a shorthaul service, there was in-flight entertainment – albeit from overhead screens with a fixed programme of BBC news followed by La La Land. Apaprently many seats had no sound, which would make enjoying a musical particularly difficult, but with half the plane empty anyone affected was welcome to move. However, musicals confuse me, so Luke and I passed the time with conversation and a variety of app games. The return was swifter than the outbound, although I don’t know if that’s down to the larger aircraft, lighter load, or favourable weather conditions. Whatever the cause, four hours along we got the “fifteen minutes to landing” announcement from the flight deck.

That turned out to be accurate, and finding a gate was only another five minutes. Somehow we then went from jetbridge to bus ride in 16 minutes, thanks to the e-gates at immigration and being lucky enough to reach the bus stop just before departure of the penultimate service of the night. That got us home at 23:15, meaning door-to-door was under 42 hours, and adding one more fun fact to our adventure: it had an average speed of almost 100mph!

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After this succesful sampler, I’m definitely keen to return to Cyprus for a longer stay that allows for more extensive exploration of the island. It turns out I know a couple of locals who would have been happy to suggest places to see, if only they – or we! – had known we were visiting. I’ll just have to fast first…

(A few more photos from the trip can be found in the next post)