This is the story of one of the most challenging trips I ever took…
So let’s start at the beginning! The company I’m working for has this amazing perk that allows employees, who’ve been with the company for over 5 years, to take an extra two weeks, paid sabbatical if they take it in a combination with two weeks of annual leave. Amazing, a full month off work!
I’ve been with this company for over 11 years now and I never took advantage of this, but recently I felt that stress is getting to me, so it was time for a longer hiatus.
The plan was simple: since my girlfriend could only take two weeks off of work, we will travel across Europe for 13 days and I will spend the rest of my sabbatical in London… mostly watching Netflix. Due to the time constraint we had a basic itinerary:
- Fly to Budapest [thats where I’m from] and spend a week or so there
- Take a train to Prague and spend a day or two there
- Either fly or take a train to Berlin and spend a day or two there
- Fly to Amsterdam and spend a day or two there
- Back to the UK
Now, I consider myself a pretty chill traveller. As long as I have my credit cards, my phone and my passport with me I’m not worried. I’m fairly capable of booking an AirBnb after I landed in the destination country. This trip however was a bit different.
In March we bought a Yorkshire puppy and we decided that this time we are not going to leave him with the sitter, he needs to see Europe. Since I never travelled internationally with a puppy, the situation made me nervous. When I’m nervous I usually set up A-B-C-D plans covering complications that might arise. Spoiler alert: 4 plans wasn’t enough.
Leaving the UK
In order to travel internationally, your puppy obviously needs a Pet Passport. The process here is pretty simple: you go to a vet, who will administer the mandatory Rabies vaccination. The vaccination needs 21 days to take effect so after the waiting period your pet will receive their travel documents. We had 23 days until the trip so we were fine… and this part of the trip was the one that actually went as planned. Batman ended up with a British passport before me.
That left us with the problem of booking all sorts of plane tickets. One strict rule we set for ourself was to NOT allow Batman to travel in the cargo, no matter what. In my opinion that experience could mess up a dog majorly so he must travel with us in the cabin.
Leaving the UK on a plane, with a doggy in a cabin is actually pretty simple. There are a handful of airlines that are proudly advertising they will carry a puppy (as long as the animal is reasonably sized). We decided to go with LOT Polish Airlines. I flew with them to Budapest before and had great experience. According to their website, if you want to fly with a pet, you must complete the ticket purchase process up until the payment screen, then give them a call. We did just that and after about 30 minutes of discussion and 50 euros later, “Dog” appeared in my online account as a ticket holder. Ok, it didn’t go 100% smooth, considering they triple charged my card, but I received a refund in “6–25 days” so all is well [imagine being a family who saved up for a year or so for travel expenses and being triple charged, that would be fun].
Batman was ready to leave the UK.
It was time to book the plane / train tickets for the journey inside Europe. As stated above initially we wanted to visit Prague and Berlin but later we decided against it. The cost would have been pretty astronomical and it’s just not worth it for 1–2 days at each place.
Budapest to Amsterdam
While still in London we decided to fly directly from Budapest to Amsterdam. Looked up doggy friendly airlines and turns out the only company that flies direct is KLM. They also have a dedicated page explaining how to book tickets:
- Actually book the ticket
- Call them up about the doggy
We did just that! After booking the tickets I gave them a call. A nice lady asked generic questions about my pupper, to ensure he meets the size regulations. She was really interested about the exact measurements of Batman. She did not take 40cm length as an answer so I had to go with 39cm. Whatever, I just found this odd a bit. Anyway, after about 30 minutes she told me that the decision will take about 48 hours and they will email us about the results.
This was the day before we flew to Budapest, so we considered the ticket booked, but we decided against booking an AirBnb in Amsterdam just yet.
The flight to Budapest went all right. Batman was a bit shaky but the crew was extremely helpful and in no time we landed in Budapest.
The day after arriving to Budapest KLM sent us an email: We regret to inform you… #FML, Batman is not flying and without Batman we are not flying either.
Keep in mind we already spent about £900 on those tickets and we did exactly what their website said to do, I felt we are entitled for a refund. After giving KLM support a call, they let me know that I’m not getting a refund because I was asking for it more than 24 hours after booking… Hmm… 48 hours decision time vs. 24 hours refund window. I see what you did there. Anyway, it’s annoying, but money is just money (don’t worry I still fully intend to get this money back)
Anyway, we decided to stop worrying about our way back to London for a couple of days and enjoy Budapest. Budapest is amazing during the summer and it’s absolutely dog friendly so we had a great time. Batman enjoyed the city and also had a great time with my mother’s ~20 [no one knows the real number] other Yorkies.
Onto Plan B
After a couple of days of fun it was time to figure out our way back. Since KLM is the only direct flight from Budapest to Amsterdam, we decided to scrap the whole Euro-trip and extend our days in Hungary.
Before I get to the great escape plan you have to know about certain regulations regarding pets arriving to the UK
- Pets can NOT fly to the UK in the cabin, only in the cargo
- Pets can NOT travel on Eurostar, only if they are service dogs
- Pets can NOT arrive in the UK on a coach
- Pets CAN arrive to the UK on a ferry, but only on certain ferries.
That kind of limits our options, doesn’t it? When I say certain ferries I actually mean two companies
There might be other options if you drive [we don’t] but to my knowledge these are the two which takes foot passengers with a pet [or so we thought, but more on that later]
Calais to Dover is of course significantly quicker as it only takes about 2 hours, vs 8.5 hours on the Hook of Holland to Harwich line, so we decided to go to France.
So we ended up with the following plan
- Since direct flights to anywhere in France on the day were priced ridiculously we decided to fly to Brussels with Brussels Airlines. The booking process here was straight forward. Temporary booking number + a phone call = instant decision on Batman’s faith
- From Brussels Midi train station a train to Tournai [BE]
- From Tournai train to Lille [FR]
- From Lille train to Calais
- From Calais ferry to Dover [UK]
Doesn’t sound like the most fun day (Flight were leaving at 5:30 in the morning, sigh), but this plan was more or less our only option.
I started booking the tickets top to bottom on the list and up until the ferry booking it went suspiciously easily. Then I hit a brick wall
So turns out P&O do not take foot passengers with a dog. Ok, fair enough, although horrible UX. We need a new plan. We can either:
- Take a (couple of) train(s) to Hook of Holland and do an overnight journey to Harwich
- Ask a friend / family to pick us up in Calais and hope we can ever repay the favour.
Luckily my girlfriend has a family who actually like each other, so she made a call and she convinced Lukas, her brother in law to use his day off for a journey to France. I will forever be grateful for his kindness.
On the road again
Overall the trip to Calais went all right. I mean it didn’t go perfect of course but considering our luck lately it was OK.
We arrived to Brussels on time and Batman took the flight as a champ. We had a built in buffer of two hours to get from the airport to the train station, which is about 40 minutes away. There was an issue with the luggage carousels at the airport so we were waiting for our luggage for about an hour an a half so we missed our train by ~10 minutes.
No problem, rebook and there is the next one in an hour to Tournai and due to the built in buffer we had in Lille we might actually be on time. Right? Nope
Someone jumped on the rails in Tournai so the next train to Lille got cancelled. Next on is in an hour, so we will miss the connection to Calais. Rebook. With the new booking we had 5 minutes buffer for change and the next train to Calais after that was 3 hours later. We can’t miss this one… except the train was late, not too much but about 8 minutes late. If the by some miracle the Calais train will leave a couple of minutes late and the two platforms are kind of close together we stand a chance… otherwise I give up.
I started manically googling the architecture of Lille-Flandres to figure out the optimal route to run. Train arrives to the station, girlfriend, Batman, two large luggage and myself jumps off and starts sprinting. The train is still at it’s platform. We made it.
Keep in mind that at this point we were on the road for over 16 hours and we had a very long way to go still. When we took our seat on the train to Calais my girlfriend actually started to cry due to a mix of happiness and exhaustion.
The secret industry of Calais
We were finally in Calais. Took a taxi to the meeting point with Lukas and we were full of hopes and dreams. We decided that while in France we should definitely do some souvenir shopping, so we loaded the car with wine and french beer [sooo cheap]. We were on our way to the dock.
I handed our and Batman’s passports to the gatekeeper lady:
- <french_accent>We have a problem!</french_accent>
- No we don’t
- <french_accent>Yep, he is missing his tapeworm treatment</french_accent>
- No, we definitely did tapeworm before we left the UK
- <french_accent>That is all good and well, but if you are coming from Europe, you also have to do the tapeworm there. At least 24 hours before entering the UK. </french_accent>
- That can’t be right, our vet would surely let us know about such regulations
She turns her monitor towards me and shows the government website about pet regulations. The only link that is visited is the one titled “Tapeworm treatment” so I can tell we are not the only one. She prints me a list of vets in town and waves us good bye. Back to Calais.
At this point I really just want to cry.
We need a new plan:
- Go to the nearest vet and get the treatment
- Try to get the vet to backdate the treatment as much as possible so we don’t have to stay in town overnight (it’s already 7pm)
- Failing that get a [pet friendly] hotel room and drink large portion of the wine stacked in the car
Entering the vet we thought we have a special use case. We quickly realised that it’s not at all unique. The vet was packed with people and most of them were holding a pet passport. We were looking at a waiting time of at least an hour. There was no way we can leave France that day so I started looking for hotels. What a surprise, about 500 meters from the vet there was a B&B, proudly promoting the fact on their website that it’s a pet friendly one. Of course with extra charge for pets. That’s when we figured that our problem is the secret industry of the town.
After Batman received his treatment as a good Eastern European I of course tried to bribe the vet to backdate the stamp, but she seemingly ignored me. That being said she actually wrote a two hours earlier timestamp in the document, free of charge. “Not good, but not terrible”.
The B&B wasn’t exactly a Hilton but it was ok for one night. It had a nice little garden where all the “tapewormers” gathered together at night to have a couple of drinks. Looking back it was actually fun, although if I have a choice I won’t do it again.
Next day we had a full day to waste in a town that doesn’t have too much going on. We went to the beach but we been told off by the police, because turns out dogs are not allowed. Market gap if you ask me, considering a large chunk of Calais population is wondering “tapewormers”.
Basically spent most of the day sitting in restaurants and looking at the clock manically. The timestamp on the treatment said 18:00 but we decided to take our chances and try the 17:55 ferry back to the UK. That 5 minutes shouldn’t matter.
In the car we decided that my girlfriend should sit in the front as she has actual people skills. It turned out to be a great decision considering we got the same gatekeeper lady, who I may or may not spoke professionally to a day before. She recognised us, and by the look on her face she also realised the timestamp was 5 minutes too late for this ferry but she let us in. At this point we were technically on UK grounds.
Of course the ferry was an hour delayed but eventually we got moving. 3 hours later we were actually in our flat, could use our own shower and lay on our own couch. Never felt more tired
What did we learn?
- Travelling with a dog requires much more forethought than I anticipated
- UK has some weirdo (and in my opinion over the top) regulations, that one should familiarise with before travelling
- Things will go wrong and it is going to be expensive
- KLM sucks
- We need a driving license