Update: Turkish Airlines & CS Travel got in touch with me quite soon after my post. Some details in the original post have been included/removed/edited to reflect information passed on to me by them, as well as removing parts that are still “under investigations”. None of these changes have been approved even though I’ve been waiting for 2 weeks, so expect more changes when I get an update for the update.. when I have time. Am dying here, worked has bottle-necked so much its not even funny anymore. New post incoming.
Note: I started writing the first half of this post in Istanbul. I’ve published it now that I’m back in Singapore. And this is a very long post filled with angst and probably more vulgarity than one would care for. Not much about the trip in here as this is purely a complain post. Scroll all the way to the bottom for a point form summary.
A very happy 2016 to all of you! I hope the year has been treating you well so far. Unfortunately, 2016 has been nothing less than a cornucopia of exhaustion, worry and frustration for myself, my family and all 21 tour mates on my winter vacation.
For those of you who don’t love me enough to frequently see my content on your Facebook feed or follow my blog posts, I’ve been in Eastern Europe on a tour package with CS Travel since 17 December 2015. The first fortnight was rather enjoyable; our Singaporean guide Alex Fong made sure we visited, ate and experienced the necessary. He even squeezed in several unplanned stops at our adhoc requests – Allianz Arena, Wattens, a weird ass road side stop in the middle of nowhere to look at some crazy fuckers surfing in negative degree weather in a longkang. But from the start, Uncle Murphy came along for the ride.
My mother’s luggage with her winter wear was rerouted to God knows where by the ground crew in Istanbul and didn’t arrive with us in Prague. There’s a happy ending in here (but it’s the only one) – her luggage was delivered to our hotel some 8 hours later so she’s been able to keep warm during our sightseeing. I’ve been keeping extremely warm too. The ground crew also managed to completely break off the top handle of my Samsonite and I’ve been waddling around with a case that looks like it had too much vodka and refuses to go straight ever since. What a workout for my arms and back. My little brother also got his bag stolen from one of the hotels. Super painful cos some valuable belongings like a camera, laptop, some of my luxury shopping that I carted around like my precious was in there. Cover ass first – it wasn’t neglect. All our bags were waiting to load onto our bus so they were in the hotel lobby near the concierge. I haven’t claimed insurance yet, but I will attempt to.
And now we get to the crux of my long and going to get even longer rant: I am currently writing this with my ass planted on a very cold and very dirty tiled floor right here in Istanbul Airport.
Though Istanbul is a beautiful city, it was never on my visit list. We had booked a 15 day tour with CS Travel in August with the promise of flight by Emirates and a free 2 day Dubai stay. Dubai was what made us sign up with them in the first place. More than a month later, one of the super nice guys we booked through called to say that they couldn’t secure any Emirates seats, so we had to fly by Turkish Airlines and one day before our initially scheduled flight. Daddy was not happy… I had promised to bring him to Cut for his birthday but now he would be spending his 67th on a plane. (But actually that helped me save money.. to fund my shopping hahaha.) We ended up confirming 2 days later but didn’t get any response so Mrs Kiasu Mother visited the agency after waiting for 3 days for a confirmation on our confirmation.
Less than a week before the briefing, we finally squeezed out a confirmation that Emirates had no more available seats so we either cancelled our first family vacation in a decade, or top up the difference and fly TK via Istanbul on 17 December instead. We were assured by CS Travel that TK is a 5-star reputable carrier even though our booking form states Emirates. Having heard assurances from what we thought were experts in their industries and pretty much not having time to change all our plans or stop our purchases of $300+ worth of winter clothes, we gave the green light to fly by TK. A notable mention here: we were also repeatedly told quite early on that our group was confirmed ready to go. After chatting with my tour mates, it became obvious that some of them only booked a month before departure. My mom, who is well versed in travel bookings, reckons that the Emirates tickets were not paid up thus were released so CS Travel had to fly us by TK.
I think I’m more used to Asia’s service standards where a single complain could cost a person’s job so most service crew are all forced smiles and false cheer. Can’t say the same about the rest of the world though.
Trouble first arrived on 31st December, the day of our departure. We were booked to leave Munich to Singapore via Istanbul at Flughafen München, the international airport of Munich, capital of Bavaria. Most of us already knew that Ataturk Airport had cancelled all flights due to a snowstorm so we were mentally prepared to spend the night at the airport hoping for a flight out. Of course nobody wanted to. It was New Year’s Eve for God’s sake. There was nothing around the airport, nor were any shops or eateries open.
The queue at TK’s counter at the airport rivaled a free Hello Kitty giveaway. There were hordes of angry customers that weren’t part of our group demanding explanations from very unresponsive staff. Accountability seemed to have been on holiday somewhere far away from us.
While I understand that there are certain protocols to follow when there are cancelled/delayed flights, I don’t think its any excuse for rudeness or neglect. It got to the point where counter staff ran away when they saw one of my tour mates (let’s call him Dr. O) approach to ask questions. Its not that any of us were deliberately hounding them, we weren’t getting any updates unless we queued for hours to ask.
Alex ran around like a headless chicken trying to help us but got false information from all over the place. He went to the information counter which literally told him they had no information and to call the embassy instead… and the embassy was closed. So there we were, all doomed to spend NYE in an airport but where there is me, there is fun. The place was empty as fuck so we had great time doing stupid things and taking dumb pictures while waiting for confirmation that our delayed flight was in reality a cancelled one.
We played trolley races (yes, I fell down), sat on all the kiddie rides, poked at game stations and generally treated the airport like our private palace. Wifi was good too, so I did quite a bit of Youtubing and catching up on Running Man. We did sleep over on hard chairs or various surfaces one had to be fast enough to claim but since it was all our first times, it was a novel experience and rather interesting.
The next day, 1st January, we were handed €10 meal vouchers per person as airline compensation for cancelled flight. Surprisingly, nobody complained about being uncomfortable sleeping in an obviously not-bed surface but all of us didn’t like the noisy atmosphere during our rest. Again, we had to wait to know if we could get to Istanbul for our connecting flight.
I chose tori karaage ramen with my allotment! Not that I Asian always want to eat Asian food but there were really limited choices since it was a public holiday, and most places were pricey. This ramen alone cost €15* and my bottled water was €3.40. Not bad tasting but definitely not ramen noodles. The soup felt nice in my tummy on a cold day too.
* €15 is approx SGD 24. For easier calculations just take the exchange rate as 1.5 then add a bit more cos I will be putting prices in Euro from here on.
Then we got something clarified to us.
€10 was meant for a day’s worth of meals. So… buying 1 litre of much needed water which doesn’t even come close to a daily 8 litre would mean that I could choose to starve or dehydrate. Okay fine, TK doesn’t have to give accommodation because “act of God” but €10 for one day……? Maybe I could have gone somewhere cheaper (and I did the next day) but the compensation value did flummox most of us. After much queuing and further non-responsiveness and some forceful prodding from Alex, we were told that no flights would be available BUT if they were we had to be on standby or lose the seats, and that the best solution would be to check in to a hotel.
So we had to spring close to €250 to check in to Hilton Munich Airport.
Cool signage I found at the lobby, they name their conference rooms after countries!
The next day, we had confirmed seats on TK to Istanbul so all of us bleary eyed pandas crawled our way to the airport for a 7.20am flight.
Yet again we met with disinterested counter staff who decided to take the easy way out and group check in half of us when they realised how many luggages our tour had. 15 pieces were checked in together with no identifiers to which piece belonged to which pax. This proved to be a big problem later.
Weirdly, we weren’t issued our boarding passes for Istanbul to Singapore but TK told us that those could be picked up at the airport when we arrived. They are all under Star Alliance so we wondered why they didn’t issue any code share passes. A few of us were worried because we knew from the news that Istanbul was still clearing backlog passengers from Wednesday (we flew on Saturday) and that we wouldn’t get to go home. Plus, news of a blizzard approaching meant that we could potentially be stranded much longer in Munich.
Boy, were we prophetic or what.
Istanbul Ataturk Airport: Much snow. No Yeti.
Hello Istanbul! As previously mentioned, the service crew onboard were no different from our SIN – PRG flight. Sullen faces all around, ignoring of pax when it was clear they saw us calling them but something happened that took the cake, digested it and spat it out.
Dr. O had some soup/coffee (I forgot which) spilled on him by an FSS. Mind you he was a business class passenger and this accident happened when there was no turbulence. Supposedly the FSS somehow dipped his entire finger into the soup/coffee, got burned and upturned the bowl/cup when startled. There was no acknowledgement of the spill before he turned away. Dr. O of course asked for an apology but was rewarded with this gem of a phrase instead:
“What can I do?”
He meant that he could do nothing incase you interpreted that as assistance. Bugger also added on that he’s also injured and in pain as well. Dr. O was left speechless but fortunately, he was wearing thick jeans so he wasn’t hurt much. Whoever that was, you have a mighty long feedback letter coming in.
And yup, of course our boarding passes for IST – SIN never materialised. Both Alex and I had checked through our own means in SQ to confirm that we would be able to fly. Apparently TK booked the seats but didn’t confirm them so SQ put their own paying customers as priority. Things were beginning to look terrible.
The transfer area in Ataturk Airport looked like what I imagined a luxury building in a 3rd world country would look like. Trash everywhere, sporadic splotches of various liquids, food/dirt smears all over the floor and countless passengers sitting or lying around. Little did I know that I was soon to become one of them.
As a whole, we staked out an area to rest while once again waiting for somebody, anybody to give us answers that Alex was trying his best to get. I have to give that man props, he stayed calm, polite and patient no matter how much bull or disrespect was thrown in his face.
We had 2 hours transit and the queues to collect tickets or ask questions easily surpassed the 2 hours mark. Nobody was willing to help so the only avenue was the TK counter where all staff studiously avoided us and pretended not to hear us. Or maybe we had become invisible. Time ticked down and it was getting dangerously near to missing the flight so everyone was in mild panic. A plea for help after countless questioning attempts and being treated like a stray dog got us only this –
We spent hour after hour approaching anyone we could to the same avail. The nicer ones would tell us that they’ve clocked out and redirect us to yet another location for answers. Some very smart dude also told us how “fortunate” we were that we weren’t getting charged $400 to rebook tickets. He insinuated that he was doing us a “favor” for free. It was exhausting and frustrating to keep our cool in the face of all these rejections.
The transit area at this godforsaken airport had nothing. By nothing, I mean they had no places to buy food or drinks. And I easily spent 5 hours with no food, no water, no money, no credit cards, no ciggies and no luggage because TK forced us to check in all our luggage as a group and now they have no idea whose is whose and it would be too much of a hassle to pull them out. We huddled together for warmth in a place that was snowing since everybody thought we could go home and had packed our winter wear in our inaccessible check ins.
More likely they didn’t know where our luggages were. We spent a lot of time looking out the window there were wagons full of bags in strange places parked haphazardly like they were nuisances. We saw lots of ground staff checking bag after bag for some type of identification so they would know where to send them to. I personally saw at least 6 wagons get checked and repeatedly being pushed further and further away.
Alex knew there would be no chance of getting any meal voucher compensation or accommodation from TK so one of his top priorities was getting water/food for us. There were a good number of senior citizens in our group who were suffering effects of stress and exhaustion from sleeping in Munich Airport, and now they had to deal with dehydration and hunger. My father himself who is pushing 70 gradually grew quieter and quieter, a far cry from his usual robust self. If you’ve been a victim of my hyperactiveness, he’s exactly the same. You’ll know I was falling sick if I started being lackluster.
We were really trapped in transit. My brother and I covered every single inch of the area looking for a way out to go buy everybody some food and drinks but other than illegally sneaking out, there was totally no avenue. We didn’t want to take the risk because we didn’t know how/if could we come back in after. Plus we didn’t speak their language and miming could only go so far. I seriously was scared of being deported somewhere far away from the rest of the group and getting sold off.
Crestfallen, we returned to our stake out site as bearers of bad news. Some of my tour mates were desperate enough to start drinking from the tap but I had forbidden my family from doing so unless that was the only liquid we could get our hands on. Alex found an airport staff to help with getting us something to eat or drink. This man came back with complimentary sandwiches & cans of soft drinks that were supposed to be handed out in times of delay. He asked for money in exchange for this favour. I’m not sure how much was paid up but many of us saw Alex pay him in Euro.
Meanwhile, my more daring parents found a way to slip past immigration and gained access to the actual airport with shops and all. Accordingly, they had several close shaves where security asked for boarding passes (which none of us had) but they escaped by running off. No chase was given. Mom & dad returned with 4 drinks and a 20 piece chicken tenders box complete with fries from Popeyes. We didn’t have any Turkish Lira but Euro was accepted so they used Euro to pay. They paid €24 (or close to SGD 40) for that simple meal. I had wondered why they didn’t get more sustenance to share with our group but €24 was not something we could afford when our money was running out and bribes were needed to pay our way.
Some 2 hours after that, TK & the airport started handing out food and drinks to all stranded passengers. There were easily hundreds of people just like us sitting or lying around waiting for incompetent staff to give us answers. Everybody in our group joked about how we had turned into refugees. The bread was hard and dry and the only thing we had to drink was Coke or Fanta. And we were still sitting on cold and extremely dirty floors. Alex was still somewhere getting treated like a dog as he asked for flights for us. He was redirected from counter to counter with no end in sight.
Somewhere along the way, my dad made a visit to the washroom but had chosen to use the less unhygienic handicap toilet instead. The general washrooms had so much pee on the floor that a dwarf hamster could have happily taken a swim in. Both male and female lavatories were in the same condition. 3 airport staff pounded on his door demanding that he come out immediately but one does not stop the call of mother nature just like that. When he exited, they started shouting in a very menacing manner. I could see the scenario from where I sat so I pulled my brother along with me and we ran over. It seemed we weren’t supposed to use the handicap toilet even though there were no signs saying so. My dad was pretending to not understand what they were saying and we all saw the 3 men rub their fingers together in the international hand sign for money. They wanted to be paid before letting dad out of the toilet.
We saw a chance and ran. They didn’t chase so all was good. But later that night when I was on voluntary watch duty (there were many people who kept coming sneakily up to all our hand carries), I had to pee too. That was the first pee of the day. I hadn’t drank enough water to need to go. I poked one of my sleeping tour mates to cover me for awhile and ran off to the toilet.
Having done my business, I opened my cubicle door only to see one of the 3 men from before standing at the only exit. He wore a cleaner uniform so I thought he was doing his job. I went about washing my hands, splashing a little water on my face and turned to leave. He was still there blocking my only way out, one hand doing the money sign and the other hand fondling his crotch.
I felt my blood turn cold. Fucker wanted intimacies or money before I could leave. I was so scared and I didn’t know what to do. I had no money on me and no way was I touching him. I was close to surrendering my diamond ring as bribe when another man from the afternoon’s toilet adventure approached. Mr Cleaner turned just for that split second to talk to his partner in crime and I put all my hurdling training to good use. I bowling balled past the two of them and ran for my life. I escaped; they didn’t chase. I started telling the girls to be careful and we agreed that we should keep toilet breaks to a minimum and go in a flock if needed. That night, we were thankful that we had nothing to drink so we didn’t have to go pee.
These are three of the oldest tour members in my group. Everyone had to sleep with their valuables clutched tightly in their hands or stay awake like we did. The floor was so cold that even the younger folks started complaining. The was a TK lounge with chairs and bedding in there that we could have made use but it was “fully booked”. We were also told that we could ask for small pillows and blankets from the same place so we went to get some but were told they have “none left” by the receptionist who was standing directly infront of bags and bags of brand new bedding.
A few hours later, the airport finally deigned to release some pillows to us. By release, I mean a pile of pillows just thrown in the middle of nowhere that we had to walk a good distance away to pick up. And they were saturated with urine. Other stranded passengers alongside us started grabbing them. We managed to get a few, but some were lost during the night as they were sneakily stolen or given away to people who needed them more than we did.
And finally, we were issued temporary boarding passes to go into the area where my parents had slipped into earlier that day.
Leaving to go to the main airport meant that we had to go through a very long queue to get our belongings scanned and ourselves patted down, up a flight of stairs and what felt like a route march from one end of the airport to the other just to get weak and sporadic Wifi. Each trip there would take us a good 20 minutes but we didn’t have a choice. All our friends and family in Singapore were worried sick about us and we had to give them updates somehow.
Remember the baguette from earlier on in this post? My mom had secreted one in her bag just incase we got locked up again and when we were passing though security, one of the officers stopped her, took the bread out and starting investigating it. HELLO, IT CAME FROM YOU GUYS. I didn’t like the pat down too. It was a lot more invasive than I was used to. I swear the tip of the female officer’s finger went inside me a few times.
Tempers were at an all time high and poor Alex got shouted at a few times because while CS Travel was following protocol, not enough was done to make the elderly in our group more comfortable. Imagine, there was a 75 year old diabetic uncle whose sugar level was climbing into the 7s & approaching 8, Dr. O had some health problems that I didn’t deem polite to ask about but I could see he was in pain, my own father was having a lot of problems walking because he has had both kneecaps reconstructed and he could literally feel the steel bars in them freezing cold.
Then the impasse happened.
We were told that only 20 seats would be available on SQ the following day. We had 26 pax in our group, including Alex. I was expecting chaos and quarrels over who would get to leave but everybody was very calm and reasonable when it came to allocating family members who could leave first. We all agreed to let half of each family fly home to Singapore.
Harsh words were thrown at Alex and demands were made to CS Travel to find a bloody hotel to stay in for those remaining behind. No accommodation was provided from the beginning because it wasn’t guaranteed that we could pass immigration and return into the airport if we exited. The atmosphere was very toxic and my tour mates all felt that our travel agency wasn’t doing enough to help when we were the ones who got coerced into changing our Emirates flight to TK.
It was a very painful decision that my brother and I still feel guilty about this but we were the ones who came back first. We were the only Singaporeans left there and our embassy was not able to help us at all. We knowingly left our aged parents back in Istanbul with no fresh clothes, no luggage, no confirmation of any flights out or accommodation.
You see, TK promised us that our luggage was in the airport, and would be on the same SQ flight as us. There was no way my parents – who has a combined age of over a century – would be able to handle 150kg of luggage by themselves when they arrived in Changi Airport.
In the end, only 15 of us were able to successfully board the flight home so here I am in Singapore finishing up this post. Last I’ve heard, my parents and the rest of my tour mates enjoyed an all expense paid stay in a 5 star hotel, fine dining and even Turkish baths to boot. Alex told me earlier today that all of them are more than willing to stay on for several more days. A free city tour has also been planned for them tomorrow if they can’t get on any flights too. My parents have been too busy having fun the whole of today to even talk to us -_-”
The story doesn’t end here. There was no luggage at all when I touched down today. According to the staff at Changi Airport, the luggage tags that we were holding on to doesn’t even exist in Istanbul. We abandoned our parents for nothing. We had just spent 9 very happy hours on an SQ flight with beautiful FSS, comfortable seats, delicious food and bingeing on cocktails to have our world crashing down on us again. Suddenly, we could feel every germ particle on our 48 hour old clothes once more. But then we were now on local soil. There were plenty of airport staff willing to go the extra mile to help us sort out this issue. We lodged reports for lost luggage and were told that they would be delivered to our homes if/when they arrived. There was nothing more we could do but go home and pray.
The last communication I had with my mother was that they had problems checking in at Istanbul Airport for their SQ flight home to Singapore. They were also told that our luggage would not be able to fly with them. I haven’t had any new updates in the last 6 hours and everybody is uncontactable so all I can do it pray that my parents and the remaining tour mates are right now flying home to us in comfort.
Lastly, I want to say how humbled and awed I am by the amount of support that I have received over the last 96 hours. It was uncomfortable wearing the same socks and underwear (mostly men in the group complaining about wearing dirty underwear) while waiting aimlessly for promises to be broken but something kept me going. So many of you sent me messages via different channels offering addresses of your friends in Istanbul, support hotlines, transfers of money to my bank account and even purchases of air tickets to fly me home. I could have flown my entire tour group home for free had I taken up all those kind offers. (I now know which of my friends are filthy rich!) None of us in the tour group chose to break away and rebook our own tickets for it would mean giving up our insurance claims. Given that our checked in bags were still AWOL, nobody dared to take the risk because Europe equals luxury items shopping. I personally have about $3000 worth of leather goods in my lost luggage.
I wrote this very long post as a chronicle of my once in a lifetime (I hope!) adventure and what to expect/do if one is ever stranded at Ataturk Airport. When I have said here is nowhere close to the despair we felt, nor is it the full story. The next step after getting all our loved ones and belongings back would be to seek compensation from our travel agency but they seem to have woken up and actually called me awhile ago to assure me that compensation will be discussed.
The nightmare is still not over as all of our insurance policies expired on 1st January when we were supposed to return so we have to see if it can be extended as there was no way for us to call AIG while stuck in Istanbul. We also have to wait and see if our left behind comrades appear in Singapore tomorrow, together with our bags.
- Delayed luggage upon arrival with winter clothes inside, damaged Samsonite case and 15 pieces of lost luggage thanks to Turkish Airlines (TK).
- Spent hour after hour running around like headless chickens begging someone to get us new flights out of Istanbul.
- Stranded at Munich & Istanbul Airport for more than 48 hours. Elderly and young children had to sleep on cold hard floors in winter with no access to food, water, or our own luggages as we were forced to check them in by TK.
- Kept getting bumped off flights or mistakenly put onto overbooked planes and Singapore embassy unable to help us.
- Learned that greasing palms is rampant overseas.
- Forced to abandon our parents in Istanbul with no personal belongings as TK promised to send luggages to Singapore with only 15 of our 26 member tour group.
- No sign of any luggage when we touched down.
- Moral of the story: Fly during winter + peak periods at your own risk, and insurance is your best friend.
Update: My parents and rest of the tour group have arrived in Singapore as of this morning. Not surprisingly, our luggage didn’t appear.
I’ve been told there were issues when they were trying to board but fortunately, there was an Istanbul-based Singaporean at the SQ counter today who went beyond his duties when he discovered that my left behind group was having trouble. He manually keyed in every single one of the 11 pax’s details to book their seats, personally escorted them to the plane, and found out where our luggages were. He refused to put them on the first available flight which was TK, and promised to send them out to us by SQ tomorrow. He left his contact number with my tour guide and told him to inform him anytime we would need any help for the luggages. Thank you Mr Lim, and Singapore Airlines should be proud to have you onboard with them.