It was 4:45 a.m. on a warm, dry morning in the Southern Arizona desert. The fact that I had only gotten 4 hours of sleep had not yet caught up with me, because my mind was racing with what I would be doing for the next 24 hours.
As of that moment, the plan I had was to fly to Atlanta, and then use my friend's buddy pass to catch a flight to LaGuardia in New York, and then catch a flight to Barcelona out of JFK airport (having friends in the airline industry can be both a blessing and a curse). I would be flying standby for all the flights once I got to Atlanta, so nothing was certain after that point. My friend had told me that flights to LaGuardia looked good, and flights to Barcelona out of JFK also looked good, so all I really had to worry about was getting from LaGuardia to JFK.
Of course it didn't help that my cab driver was late to pick me up, and if I didn't catch my flight out of Tucson then everything afterwards would pretty much be a lost cause. But he eventually showed up, and I arrived at the bustling Tucson International Airport about when my flight started to board. Security is usually a breeze, which has so far left me with little motivation to get TSA precheck because, well, it's usually no faster than the regular security line (in fact, one time the TSA precheck line was indeed longer). Of course, the TSA people picked a hell of a time to decide to give me the ole "bag search", and it didn't help my mild anxiety that there were 3 agents looking at the monitor and no one came over to search my bag for a solid 5 minutes while I patiently stood there trying not to yell "Hey! Would one of you chumps do your job so I don't miss my flight?!" But I didn't yell that, which was probably for the better. As it turns out, my contact solution (which I always fly with) decided to trip their 100% terrorist-proof scanners, and they did some pseudo-science to ensure it was indeed contact solution and not a bomb, and sent me on my merry way.
Luckily, I still had sufficient time to get on my flight, and I don't really care when I get on the plane. Why exactly is it that people are in such a rush to get on the plane? You have a reserved seat (unless they give you the ole United treatment), so why would you rather sit in the confined environment of the plane instead of the spacious environment of the terminal? I think airlines have just brainwashed us into thinking that boarding the plane earlier is better so that we pay more for priority boarding.
In any case, I got an hour or so of sleep en route to Atlanta, which would prove to be beneficial. Upon landing in Atlanta, I called my friend to see how things were looking for the flight to LaGuardia. To my delight, he informed me that things were not looking good at all. Apparently everyone on the earlier flights to LaGuardia missed their flights, so they were all put on the later flights. How the hell do so many people miss their flights? Did you not know Atlanta traffic was a thing? Because it is. It's a real thing and it affects 100% of the people trying to get anywhere in Atlanta between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m.
So LaGuardia was out, as was JFK, since we already knew those flights would be full. The last (and least) option was to fly to Newark, and get from Newark to JFK...a somewhat non-trivial voyage...in New York City...at 4 p.m...on a Thursday. There was a flight to Newark departing in 30 minutes, but my friend said he wouldn't be able to get me on it in time, so I would have to wait for the one in 2 hours, which would make my Newark-JFK connection somewhat dicey.
Not really knowing what to do once I got off the plane, I sauntered in the direction of the gate that my later Newark flight would depart from, thinking that I had lots of time to kill. On the way to the gate, I found myself aimlessly looking around (as I do), and just happened to see a gate that had "Newark" as the destination, with the plane departing at 1 p.m. I looked at my watch, and it said 12:52. The gate was empty except for the gate attendants, so I decided to just walk over and see if there was any chance I could get on the plane. I wasn't expecting much, and the gate agents started to tell me that it was a long shot, but then something changed, and all of the sudden there was a flurry of activity behind the counter. I'm not exactly sure why people always seem so willing to help me, as they could have easily said "sorry, but there is no way you are getting on this plane" and that would have been that. Perhaps it is my combination of looking both cute and perpetually confused, so maybe I remind people of a lost puppy and they just feel the need to help me.
Whatever the case, a few minutes passed as they frantically tried to get my information situated and print off my boarding pass. He scanned it at 12:57, gave it to me, and said "run!" At that moment a flood of adrenaline came over me as I sprinted down the jetway, suitcase in tow, summoning my inner Lloyd Christmas saying "hold that plane!" and hoping I didn't fall off the jetway..again.
But I didn't fall off the jetway, I got on the plane, took my seat, and couldn't help but laugh. "This is what it is all about, this is where the real memories happen," I thought to myself. No one wants to hear your story about how everything was great and you had such a great time, people want a struggle.
Once I got on the plane I called my friend and said "you're not going to believe it, I got on the plane!" "What?!" he said. "That's impossible!" Apparently the plane I got on had been delayed until 1, and did not show up on his reports. "You're really lucky, because all the next flights to Newark got booked up really quick, so you wouldn't have made it in time to catch your flight out of JFK." I laughed to myself even more, as beating the odds is something of a talent of mine.
At this point I breathed a big sigh of relief. I knew that I still had a lot of work to do to get to Barcelona (and once in Barcelona, find a place to stay), but I couldn't worry about any of that now. Worrying about something at a time when you can't do anything about it only hurts you. You have to relax and rest, so that you have all your mental and physical resources available when it counts.
When I landed in Newark I had about 4 hours to get to JFK, which seems like a long time but it evaporated rather quickly due to NYC rush hour traffic combined with a girl on our shuttle needing to take a potty break halfway through our voyage. All in all it took over two and a half hours to get to JFK, but luckily security wasn't too big of a deal and I made it to my gate with an hour to spare. I was 30th on the standby list but there were 60 empty seats on the plane, so I eventually got on board, and, because luck was apparently on my side, got an entire aisle to myself! Take that, paying customers!
Once on the plane I realized that I had gone the entire day only eating a Clif bar and some cookies from my two flights, so needless to say I devoured the in-flight meal. Now, I've flown in business class before (on standby, of course) and it was a bit of a hard realization for me that I actually prefer the food in coach, so perhaps I'm not as sophisticated as I would like to be. They try to make the food up front all fancy by serving it on plates and offering things like "roast chicken with asparagus", but I guess deep down you know that it's just some pre-prepared food that they nuked and threw on a nice plate, so that kinda kills the illusion. I know there isn't a chef sitting up next to the pilot artfully preparing a beautiful pan-seared chicken breast with a white wine reduction, so who are they really kidding? The food in coach, however, is hearty and filling, which was just what I needed that night.
We made it to Barcelona at 11 a.m. the next morning, after I got maybe an hour of sleep. Nonetheless I felt ready to take on the world, which was good because as soon as I got off the plane I was technically homeless. I guess I opted not to book a hotel for the first night because I wasn't sure if I would get on the plane, which seemed like a smart thing to do at the time.
I got off the bus from the airport in the downtown sector and wandered around the Gothic quarter for a few hours looking for a place before I finally gave up and went inside a restaurant with free Wi-Fi, and, for the first time in my life, ate some actual Spanish Paella! I have never actually had any sort of Paella claiming to be authentic, my only exposure to the dish is the simple recipe that I have made for years. To my amazement, the Paella that I ate in Spain was...not as good. It didn't have a whole lot of flavor and you had to peel the shrimp yourself, so it was all in all rather annoying.
Now, maybe I just didn't go to the right place, but I did get Paella again at a restaurant that seemed pretty legit, and it was about the same. So basically I traveled 5,800 miles to discover that the fake "Paella" I had been making for years was indeed better than the real stuff, a somewhat expensive revelation but at least I won't ever think "dang, I really wish I was in Spain right now so I could get some awesome Paella." Lo siento, España.
After I finished the somewhat disappointing Paella I fired up my cellular phone and eventually found a hotel. After a brief ~45 minute walk with no map or GPS (this was before I learned you could use pre-downloaded maps offline, which was a very life-changing discovery), I eventually found my way to the hotel, with no thanks to Barcelona street signs, which are discrete and unreadable from a distance. Seriously, Barcelona, what's up with your signage? It looks nice, but street signs are not supposed to be artistic and tasteful, you are supposed to be able to see and understand them from hundreds of feet away (or...tens of meters?). Once in my hotel room I took a much needed shower and did everything I could to not fall asleep, for doing so would have made my sleep schedule fairly screwed up for days to come. I persevered, went to get an early dinner at 7:00 (early by Barcelona standards), and got an absolutely wonderful night of sleep afterwards.
The next day I met up with my friends and the fun began. We were introduced to the Barcelona club scene, Barcelona cab drivers and their fast and furious driving techniques (there was no "slowing down" before a turn), and some pretty neat sights (Sagrada Família was truly breathtaking). A few days later we flew to Italy (Italian food did not disappoint), got lost in Venice, hiked through Cinque Terre, drank beers on a beach after dark, waited until 1 a.m. for a train that was supposed to arrive at 11:30, and were introduced to Italian driving tactics. It was all in all one of the most fun travel experiences I've ever had. Nothing was planned, everything was spur of the moment, possibilities were endless, and sleep was for the weak.
So, if you're the kind of person that gets anxious if you don't really know how you're going to get somewhere or what you will do there once you arrive, then this sort of travel may not be for you. While I do enjoy a nicely planned trip, I hate the process of planning things, so this approach worked fairly well. If you have a smartphone and can find Wi-Fi, then the world is at your fingertips. Do yourself a favor, though, and download maps for where you are going beforehand, as well as coordinate with your Airbnb host when and how you will meet up with them, as that exchange is harder without cell service. Other than that, Europe sets up pretty well for no-plan trips, if you stay in the bigger cities then there will always be places to stay (probably). It helps to know the local language, and my limited Spanish knowledge helped me out a bit in Spain, but none of us spoke any Italian and got around relatively well.
Also, it's good to have cash on you. Europeans seem to hate credit cards because Europe isn't quite on-par with America yet. It's time to get on board with that, Europe, no one carries cash around anymore.
Here are some pictures: