It was a foolproof plan. I knew it should take about 10 minutes to get out of Orlando Airport once cases have been salvaged. I’d just done exactly that, and given instructions to my wife who was due to arrive later: “Phone me when you’ve got your bags, and I’ll come and pick you up.”
While waiting, I went for dinner in a Cuban restaurant that the sat vav told me was a mere eight minutes away from the airport. What could possibly go wrong? The call came; I hurtled to the hire car and set off to rescue my fair maiden after her economy transatlantic flight ordeal.
Alas, there is one major flaw with sat navs when it comes to multi-direction junctions — it takes careful study to work out which road is yours. It quickly became obvious I’d followed the wrong strand of spaghetti and was trundling five miles in the wrong direction.
An hour after setting off, cursing and reduced to primeval howling, I drove past the Cuban restaurant I’d been waiting in. My phone taunted me from my pocket, every vibration saying: “You should have just gone to the short-term car park.”
As a general rule, the combination of rental cars and meeting at the airport tends to be a disaster. Our first time was in Melbourne, when she emerged with a confession: “You’re probably going to kill me — but I’ve left my driving licence at home.” We spent the next three weeks driving 3,500 miles across the Australian outback to Darwin, terrified of encountering a police car during her stints behind the wheel.
Hiring a car undoubtedly introduces levels of freedom that you can’t get with public transport. There’s the freedom to go round in circles trying to find a parking space; the freedom to be gouged by American hotels for their valet parking ‘service’; and of course the freedom to get increasingly worked up about just what that rattling noise might be.
It also brings hitherto unknown talents to the fore. From the first cry of “oh this is bloody ridiculous!” a certain creativity in inventing new swear words emerges.
Then there’s the fun of working out where everything is because you never thought to ask where the full beam, wipers and windscreen heater are hidden. These are things to frantically scramble for as you accidentally indicate in all directions, change radio station and honk the horn. It’s a panic only matched by realising you don’t know whether you’re driving a petrol or diesel vehicle when you go to fill up.
Finally, I make it to the elusive Orlando Airport and encounter a barrier by the express pick up area. “Do you have an e-tag?” the guard asks. I do. “No. Not a toll road e-tag. It’s a special kind of e-tag.”
I opt for begging: “I’m an hour and 10 minutes late; I told my wife to wait at express pick-up. Pleeeeeeeeeease.” No joy.
Ever tried directing someone through an unfamiliar airport, from the outside, without having a map of said airport or any idea where the person inside it is? It’s no fun.
I blather helplessly into the phone: “Head downstairs to the bit where…” There’s a tap on the window, and a stern looking woman in a fluorescent jacket tells me to sling my hook. I’m not allowed to wait here; just to pick up someone who’s already at the kerbside.
I’m thus reduced to doing laps of the airport, stopping for snatched 30-second phone conversations in various non-parking bays, before being told to move on again. I invent whole new categories of swearing, practice a bit more howling and finally spot my wife stomping out of the doors a full two hours after I was supposed to have collected her.
All that driving around has left us dangerously low on petrol. We pull over at the first pump we see. The cap, of course, is on the wrong side of the car. “Oh this is bloody ridiculous” we bellow simultaneously.
Published in the May/June 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)