The thought of getting stranded in London was an experience I’ll never forget. Here’s my story…
It was March of 2016. I remember boarding the airline to what would be my first flight to London on my very first voyage alone overseas. I thirsted for adventure and I had never traveled out of the country, let alone by myself. I knew this was something I had to try at least once.
My plan was to visit London for several days, fly to Iceland for the first time, then maybe travel to Spain after that. I didn’t have a clear plan, but I did have the ambition for adventure. I knew visiting these places would be amazing for a landscape photographer & cinematographer like myself.
Upon my arrival to London’s Heathrow Airport, I decided once I got to the train station, that I should probably to head over to the ATM so I’d have some money on me. As I insert my card at the ATM, the prompt displays and asks me how much I’d like to take out. As I sit there pondering for 10 seconds, out of nowhere, the ATM sucks up my card.
I’m left in a state of panic, realizing this was my only credit card I had on hand. I came so underprepared for this trip, anxiety began to ensue.
“Don’t panic… there’s a phone number on this ATM to Raphaels Bank. Maybe they can come and take it out for me?”
Sadly, that wasn’t the case. When I called, they had explained that it would be 2 weeks before they could even make it out to the ATM that sucked up my credit card. This was defining moment I knew I was in for some trouble. My trip went from enjoyment, to survival mode, only to obsess about how I was going to get back home to the US.
I sat there staring into the sky and all of the people going about their lives. Everything felt like it was in slow-motion, but sitting just made the feeling worse.
I approached the customer service desk they had there and I explained that my card got sucked up at the ATM. The woman at the desk knew I was in a state of despair, not knowing at that moment how to help me. She said, “Give me a few moments”. I let her take the next person in line.
As I stand aside, an Asian girl (probably in her mid-20’s) who was behind me had overheard my conversation with customer service. She gave me some cash she had on hand to help get me to the Victoria Train station where I needed to go. (I wish I had memorized her name, I would have gladly returned her the favor 2x as much later on for saving my ass).
I had an AirBnb that was already booked way in advance, so I figured the best thing I could do was just to keep on with the little money I had, make it to my AirBnb to relax and figure out my next game plan.
As I make it to my AirBnb, I bust out my laptop and begin messaging & calling my friends through Skype to see if they can pay for a flight to get me back home. After all, I always payback and I’ve always been reliable in that sense. Unfortunately, the few I could rely on were strapped and tight on cash themselves. I called Ally Bank (to see if they could ship a credit card as fast as possible to the location I was at).
Long story short, Ally Bank was a failure in this scenario. They did indeed ship me a new credit card, but lied about shipping it to my AirBnb address. Instead, they shipped it to my residence in the U.S. (which is rendering it to be useless in this scenario). Most banks in the US don’t have a great protocol for this scenario I find.
Without having a credit card on hand and the minimal amount of cash in my pocket, I made the best of that day and went strolling around the neighborhood. Besides, sitting in an AirBnb flat riddled with anxiety wasn’t going to help my situation. I decided I’d make the best of my only time in London and take a few photographs and have some coffee at the local shop around the corner.
I knew my last defining resort would be to go to the US Embassy that was 25 minutes away by foot. However, it was 5pm on a Sunday, so I knew my best option was to just enjoy the moment and make the best of what I had with the time I had. In situations like this, you have to stay calm and think logically. I’d make my plan to set out for the Embassy the following day, taking the current day to go around and take some photographs.
As odd as it may seem, since I was new to the area, I made it a habit to snap photos with geo-location enabled on my phone, snapping photos of the signs or landmarks as I went along, just in case something crazy went down such as being mugged, jumped or worse. I had a bit of an unsettling feeling roaming around at times.
After a few hours out and about, I went back to my AirBnb to rest and commenced on my journey to the US Embassy the next morning. I walked with my heavy luggage for what must have been 5 miles. I was greeted at the gates by soldiers with guns, asking me, “Can I help you?”
It was the best question I had heard all day… or all week for that matter.
I explained to them my short story that I was stranded, and that I needed to find my way back home to the US. The guards asked for ID and they said, “Wait here”. (They likely went to run a background & verification check before letting me in).
10 minutes later the guard has me go into a small room where you set your luggage on a conveyor belt system, same one they use at the airports. All checked out great and was good to go. They directed me into the Embassy and I was inside of a room with alot of seats, looked much like a waiting room. There were these glass-teller windows (much like the one’s you see at cash-checking places). They call you up and you state whatever issue it is you’re having.
To my relief, after 7 hours of waiting for my turn, the Consular officer there named Pamela told me she will book flights for me, give me some extra cash for food and for my hostel where i’d be staying that night before I fly out the next morning.
She had me sign some documents, primarily for what’s called a ‘Repatriation Loan’. It’s a loan (Federal Loan) that would cover the costs of my airfare to get back to the US. It’ll be titled “Repatriation/Emergency Medical and Dietary Assistance Loan Application”.
On this application, you’ll fill your first/last name, social security number, phone number, home address,
They also stamped my passport with:
“THIS PASSPORT IS ONLY VALID FOR RETURN/TRANSIT TO UNITED STATES BEFORE (03/17/2016) UNDER 22 CFR 51.60(C)(2)”
I would not be able to use that passport again, just for my return back home. Rest assured, my intention was to pay this entire thing off so I can reapply for a new passport later on.
The cost to get back home was a staggering price of $1,853.34* (USD). Once I had left the embassy, I walked several miles, got on the tube, to the hostel they had booked for me. I had never stayed at a hostel in my life, but I knew it was basically sharing a room with many others, filled with bunk beds. I slept with at The White Bear hostel (aka Heathrow Hostel) with my luggage in my arms the entire night. Did not feel safe or comfortable there i’ll admit, but I just wanted to make it through the night so I can ride the rail back to Heathrow the next morning.
I woke up at 5:30am, checked out and walked my way to the tube.
I rode the tube to Heathrow airport from the hostel, which thankfully was only a 9 minute trip. I was there super early. I sat at the airport with a sigh of relief and adrenaline rushing through me, knowing and relieved that I wasn’t stranded in London.
I flew from Heathrow into Boston, then from Boston into Atlanta, then from Atlanta into Sarasota airport, to then take a taxi back to my residence, where I must have slept for 12 straight hours. My journey was definitely all about Planes, Trains & Taxicabs, a movie of it’s own.
If not for the US Embassy, I’d be screwed. Seeing the amount of homeless people on the streets of London served as a reminder for how grateful I was to be an American.
My tips for preventing for being better prepared for worst-case travel scenarios are:
- Always take more than one bank debit/credit card with you. If anything, you’re better off using a credit card (not your bank debit card).
- As an added precaution/suggestion: Apply for a PayPal or Venmo credit card. You can then link it to your bank’s checking account. These cards act as a secondary “back up card” that’s tied directly to your bank account, incase you were to lose your primary bank debit card. But again, a Visa/Mastercard credit card is a better choice. It’s not tied to your primary bank and if you run into any credit card skimmers, at least they didn’t wipe out your primary bank account.
- Invest in an smartwatch such as Apple Watch or Android Smartwatch. Why? Because contactless payments are being used in many areas, and if you don’t have your credit card on you, you can use your watch to pay for food or even ride on the London Underground, New York subway, etc.
- Install money-transfer apps on your phone such as Venmo, Xoom, Cash app, etc. These apps serve as a great backup incase a friend or family member overseas needs to send you money to get by. These apps have gotten quick at transfers. Using Xoom, I would receive money in just seconds. Must have these on your phone! They’re a life saver.
- Install Apple Pay, Google Pay, or Samsung Pay on your smartphone. These apps will help you use your smartphone as a payment method in alot of convenience stores.
- Enable geo-location on your smartphone.
- Allow your friends/family to track you on your smartphone. I know this may feel a bit invasive, but if you’re in a foreign country, you never know what can happen. Having this vital information can be crucial in a worst-case scenario.
- On iPhones, setup your Medical ID. This will help provide some insight to anyone who finds you passed or zoned out somewhere. Not saying that would happen, but if you have diabetes or a medical condition, this little info helps emergency responders.
- Save Emergency contact numbers on a notepad app or Evernote app on your phone (cloud backup is a big plus).
- Share your itinerary with someone you trust. Family, best friend, etc. This way, if anything goes south, the people I love will know where I’m at and when I should be expected back. They can also track me on Flightradar 24, a real-time Live Flight Tracker they can check at any time.
- Lastly, enroll in the US Embassy’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. It lets the embassy aware of your arrival and it keeps you up to date on any travel alerts and safety information.