You’re at the airport – maybe even at the Kathmandu Airport in Nepal, like I was – and the check-in counter clerk says you can’t board the plane. The airline staff refuses to let you on the flight! It’s a shocking, crazy feeling. What do you do when they don’t let you on the plane? Whether you’re trying to get home or prepared to fly somewhere you’re scared-to-go-but-desperate-to-see (I thought I was on my way to Varanasi, India), you may feel lost, alone, and scared.
“Humans make plans, and God chuckles,” is what I wrote in Greetings From Asia! Echoing Across the Miles – and I’m not the first to say it! It’s not just true when you’re planning a 50th birthday trip to India, or trying to board a flight you booked months ago, or even just driving to work. Plans get derailed all the time, even when you’re not trying to get on a plane or train. The secret is to chuckle along with God.
I spent months planning my 50th birthday trip to Nepal and India: a solo trip, a spiritual pilgrimage into the second half of my life. A hero’s journey alone to Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur, and Delhi. But when I wasn’t allowed to board my flight to Varanasi, poof! My birthday trip and spiritual pilgrimage to India vanished.
Good-bye Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur, and Delhi. Hello…wait a minute…where in the world do you go when you’re not allowed to get on the plane in an airport halfway around the world from home? I ended up in Dubai and Hong Kong…and that was exactly where I needed to be.
5 Tips for Last Minute Flight Decisions at the Airport
“We can’t let you board this flight,” said the Buddha Air clerk at the Kathmandu airport. “You don’t have a visa to enter India.”
How could I not have a visa? I paid for it weeks ago! My 50th birthday trip to Nepal and India took months to plan; I’d meticulously mapped out my route, earmarked hotels, researched each destination, checked the long-term weather forecast. I marked my itinerary on each of the three maps my husband printed. One for him, one for me, and a spare nestled between extra copies of my passport, plane tickets, and visa receipts.
“You can’t fly into Varanasi without an Indian stamp your passport,” said the Buddha Air clerk. “You were supposed to enter India within 14 days of receiving approval. Today is the 15th day, which means your approval expired today.”
And poof! My 50th birthday gift to India vanished. I was supposed to be fulfilling my lifelong dream of seeing Varanasi, Jaipur, Agra, Delhi. It was my symbolic journey — a pilgrimage — into the second half of my life. Father Richard Rohr would be so proud! Instead, I found myself staring into the eyes of a compassionate but firm Buddha Air representative. No passport stamp, no flight to Varanasi.
And no 50th birthday trip to India for me. So much for spending hours researching how to sleep when you’re jet lagged and can’t take sleeping pills.
1. Remember these words: “You do have options, you know”
“I guess I’ll just go home then,” I said sadly. “How do I get a flight to Vancouver?”
“You do have options, you know,” she said. “Why don’t you stay in Kathmandu and apply for another Indian visa? It only takes a few days.”
“My Nepal visa expires tomorrow,” I said. “I’d have to extend this visa to get that visa. I only have two weeks of vacation left and it could take a week to get approvals.” Plus I’d heard that visa extensions were frowned upon by Nepali officials. They may not be as calm, loving or peaceful as the Buddha Air representative.
Her words echoed in my mind. You do have options, you know. India may be unreachable, but what about … somewhere else? I didn’t know where, but I knew I couldn’t sink into dismay, disappointment, or regret. I had to act quickly or I’d be overnighting on the floor of the Kathmandu airport with my backpack as a pillow.
2. Accept this moment as if you’d chosen it
Someone else’s words popped into my mind: “Accept this moment as if you’d chosen it.” Could it be from Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now, which I found a few days ago on the free bookcase at my hotel in Pokhara? Possibly. No time to check, though.
Then I remembered another lifelong dream: to go to the airport without a ticket and fly to some random destination. I never imagined I wouldn’t be allowed to get on a plane even though I had a ticket, but this could be an adventure! I’d done something similar before; I tagged along when my husband went to a work conference in Germany. I figured there must be worse places to spend a week. I ended up loving Munich so much I stayed for an extra week after my husband went home.
Maybe this was another Munich in the making. They wouldn’t let me board the flight to Varanasi, but there were other planes taking off all the time.
3. Go to the Departures screen at the airport
I pushed my luggage cart over to the Departures screen. Where in the world was Dhaka? No idea. Sharja? Never heard of it. Kuwait City? I’d heard of it, but didn’t feel compelled to visit. Dubai? Not my dream destination, but it was an international hub without an entry visa requirement. A flight was leaving in two hours!
I found the line for the Dubai Air check in/baggage drop and pulled out my phone. It took less than five minutes to book a seat online. Ten minutes later, I was handing my passport to the Dubai Air clerk and tagging my baggage. That’s what you do when they won’t let you board the plane to India: you get on a different flight.
A pit stop in Dubai would give me time to catch my breath, surrender my plans to spend my 50th birthday with a trip India, and let my brain catch up with my body. Decide when in the world I’d go next. Who knows, maybe I’d even love and stay in the UAE until it was time to go home.
Three nights in Dubai was long enough for me — a Vancouver-born non-shopping, non-beach-going, non-Muslim female — to decide it was time to move on. But first, I had to write How Do Solo Female Travelers Buy Wine in Dubai? That experience was even scarier than not being able to get on the plane to Varanasi.
4. Pick a destination to a country that will let you board the plane
Where to next? This 50th birthday trip to India was turning out way more fun than I could’ve planned! Hong Kong popped in my mind but I immediately discarded it. Too crowded, too expensive, too polluted.
After four hours analyzing different destinations, flight paths, visa requirements and prices, I booked a flight to Hong Kong for the following day. It was the most logical choice despite the political protests and coronavirus from Wuhan, China. Those hazards actually worked in my favor: the Hong Kong streets were practically deserted (they as crowded as downtown Vancouver streets, in other words), the hotels were inexpensive, the air was clean and crisp. Plus it was the Lunar New Year!
Today, Hong Kong Island is one of my favourite places in the world. It’s exotic yet easy to navigate, urban yet filled with beautiful parks and gardens, contemporary yet crammed with ancient culture, customs, and traditions. The surrounding islands are gorgeous, the cities safe, the activities varied, the food delicious.
5. Start planning your next flight – and triple check to make sure they’ll let you board it!
I never dreamed I’d be happily starting the second half of my life with a pilgrimage to Dubai and Hong Kong. My destination chose me, and I am grateful.
And the best part is that I’ve already started planning another 50th birthday trip to Varanasi, India! The first thing I’ll do is make sure my India visa is approved and my passport is properly stamped. As interesting as it was to not be allowed to get on a plane, I’m not eager to repeat the experience.
Have you had the experience of not being able to board a flight? What did you do, where did you go? Feel free to share your story below.
If you’re planning a trip to India for your 50th birthday, apply for your India e-visa 30 days before you go! And make sure your flight lands in India within the allowed 14 days. The instructions on India’s e-Visa website are actually very clear about how to get a visa stamp in your passport in the allotted time.
A long – or even a short – volunteer or work stint in India might have you longing for home in surprisingly quickly. Read What If I Get Homesick While Volunteering in India?
Travel in faith, and be transformed.