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Why Jet Lag is No Joke (Or, How I Accidentally Ended Up in Riga, Latvia)

“Good morning and welcome aboard to flight 283 to Riga,” came the flight attendant’s cheerful announcement over the airplane loudspeaker. While under normal circumstances, this might have been the start to a predictable and boring story about my vacation to the capital of a former soviet country in Northern Europe, the fact that up until that moment I’d I thought I’d been on a flight to Helsinki, Finland, makes this story well, a little different.

“RIGA!” I thought, suddenly afraid. “Where the hell is Riga?!” I glanced at the passengers sitting around me, looking for signs that that they too, were shocked by this sudden change of plans. But they all appeared bored or half asleep; not at all like passengers who’d just been informed of a change to their flight itinerary. Which could only mean one thing:

I’d gotten on the wrong flight.
jet lag is for amateurs

I blame it on the jet lag.

Seriously. If I hadn’t been so jet lagged when I was booking my flight 40 minutes earlier, I may have noticed that Riga and Helsinki weren’t the same city. I may also have noticed that they weren’t even in the same country. ‘Course, if I hadn’t been so jet lagged, I probably wouldn’t have booked a last-second plane ticket to begin with, but let me back up a little and explain.

My mom works for an airline, which means that although I can fly for free (yeah-uh!), I can only fly for free if the flight has an empty seat available (and seats are assigned to employees and their families based on seniority). This makes traveling anywhere long distance a somewhat stressful juggling act of split-second decisions and terminal changes and sleeping in airports because the flight you were hoping to get on was full and the next one doesn’t leave until the following morning.

I tried to explain this to the friends I was planning on seeing in Finland, but as it is with anyone who isn’t familiar with how the airline world operates, phrases like “standby”, “open seat” and “I have no idea how I’m getting to Europe, but trust me, I’ll get there…eventually,” aren’t always understood.

“You mean, you don’t know when you’re arriving?” My friend asked me on Facebook. Her wedding was the reason I was flying to Finland to begin with and I think she thought I wasn’t going to make it.

“Not exactly…”, I wrote, “I think I’ll be arriving sometime on Friday morning…or afternoon. It really depends on which country in Europe I end up in first.”

My mom’s airline didn’t fly to Finland, which meant that my plan was to get as close to Finland as I could (by flying into Stockholm or Oslo) or if Scandinavia didn’t pan out, I’d try Frankfurt or Paris. Basically, my only real concrete goal was to get to the European continent. Fly to a country in Europe – any country in Europe –  and then buy a plane/bus or ferry ticket once I landed. Though I didn’t tell my friends in Finland this, not only did I not know WHEN I’d be arriving, I wasn’t even sure HOW. If airfare proved too costly, my plan B was to take a boat.

While this may seem like a crazy way to travel, when I’d been planning this trip a few weeks ago, I’d been fairly optimistic it would all work out. And it might have too…if it weren’t for the jet lag.

Because by the time I finally landed in Stockholm (I’d gotten the last available seat on that flight), I had spent seven hours at the airport in Las Vegas, four hours in the airport in New Jersey and 13 hours on two different planes. I hadn’t slept more than 30 minutes in 30 hours and I’d reached that point in my sleep deprivation where part of my brain – the part responsible for rational thought – had crashed and I was operating in a spacey, brain-fogged stupor.

I was so exhausted, for example, I spent the first 20 minutes after I got out of customs in Stockholm wandering around in a daze. I had to repeatedly remind myself that I was in Sweden and not in Norway or France or Germany or one of the many other Plan B, C, D and E destinations I’d had almost ended up in.

I eventually found a cafe that had free WiFi and ordered a cup of coffee, thinking that a little caffeine might help jump-start my malfunctioning brain. I handed the cashier a wad of purple paper bills.

“Latte,” I said, pointing at the photo above the cashier’s head.

“akhkdhskhsd?” the cashier asked in Swedish. I nodded, too brain dead to do much else.

“akhkhskhsk?” She asked again. Clearly her question hadn’t been of the ‘yes or no’ variety. Thinking that I’d miscalculated the exchange rate, I handed her some more purple bills but she just laughed and handed them back to me. She then gave me a cup of espresso and a bottle of milky-looking lemon soda; neither of which I’d ordered, but I took them and sat down anyway.

It was in this dazed state of mind, as I sipped my bottle of weird milk lemonade and rubbed my dry, bloodshot eyes, that I opened my laptop and began to search for a cheap plane ticket to Helsinki. And it is in this dazed state of mind that I apparently bought a flight to Riga…a flight to Riga which, by the time I’d finally finished purchasing, was due to depart in 40 minutes.

WHAT. I stared at my cell phone in disbelief. How could it be 9:15 am already? Had I really been sitting in that cafe for a whole hour?

The next 30 minutes was a blur of rushed conversations with ticket agents and a sprint across two different terminals. By the time I reached the gate, I was breathless and sweaty, and had at some point in my rush to get through security, lost my jacket. But I made it on the plane just before the doors closed.

HALLELUJAH.

Now, as I glanced at the man seated across the aisle from me, I briefly considered asking him where Riga was but then dismissed the idea. That would have been far too embarrassing and besides, it was too late to do anything about it anyway. We were backing away from the gate. I was now flying to Riga – wherever that was – whether I wanted to or not. I just hoped that it was somewhere in Europe and that I wasn’t flying to say, Indonesia, because I had a wedding to attend in 24 hours.

Luckily, I had an idea. Pulling out the in-flight magazine, I flipped to the world map at the back, grateful to see that all the cities were in English. I scanned the map, running my finger along Iceland and Estonia and Lithuania before spotting it. Of course! Riga was in Latvia! DUH. I was flying to Latvia.

The route I should have taken:

flight route map

The route I actually took:

flight itinary baltic

It’s funny because when I worked for an airline, I would sometimes meet a passenger who’d gotten on the wrong flight and wound up in San Francisco by accident and I would think to myself “HOW? How did you buy a ticket, print a boarding pass, find your gate and board a plane without once checking to see where you were headed?” Usually it was someone who didn’t speak English very well. Or someone who’d thought they were flying to San Jose, Costa Rica but had booked a ticket to San Jose, California instead (an easy enough mistake, I suppose). But every once in a while there’d be a passenger who would collapse at the ticket counter, her hair messy and her clothes wrinkled. “I’m just so tired, “she’d confess. “‘I’ve been up for 30 hours now”.  And then she’d hand me her plane ticket and I’d have to give her the bad news.

“I’m sorry, but you’re at the wrong airport.”

or

“I’m sorry but your ticket was for yesterday’s flight. You booked the wrong day.”

or

“I’m sorry but you bought a ticket to the wrong destination.”

And although at the time, I judged them (just a little), I now totally understand. Jet lag is no joke. It doesn’t matter how often you travel: stress, lack of sleep and multiple time zone changes are a dangerous cocktail. Add a few sips of of weird Swedish lemonade and you’re toast.

Luckily for me though, this story has a happy ending. I eventually made it to Helsinki and in plenty of time for the wedding, too. And although I would have loved to have seen more of Riga, the next flight to Helsinki left right away, so I was only there for an hour. I never even left the airport.

I just hope that the next time I find myself in Riga, Latvia, it’ll be on purpose. I also hope that this whole ‘I accidentally booked and then boarded the wrong flight’ thing was a one time deal. But knowing me though? I highly doubt it.

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