Opinion: Stranded Studying Abroad, My Night at the JFK Airport

The author, Berkley junior, Bella Bakeman, sits in a coffee shop, "The Garden Cafe," in Brighton, England. Bakeman studied abroad this summer through USAC’s London Imperial Summer program, while abroad she embarked on various solo-excursions (Photo illustration by Bella Bakeman).

As the flight began its descent and my ears started clogging, I watched the minutes go by. One minute, two minutes, until 20 minutes had passed and we were still sitting on the tarmac at the JFK airport. As I watched my phone hit 8:59 p.m. – I got a notification from JetBlue that my connecting flight had closed. 

The captain announced that three passengers and I had to get off the airplane first – so we could attempt to make our connections. I grabbed my luggage and bolted. I ran through the airport as fast as humanly possible, only to watch the flight attendants close the door.

Out of breath and sweating, I headed to the help desk, hoping to catch the next flight to London. Unfortunately for me, that flight wouldn’t leave until 8:20 a.m. the next day. 

So there I was, in New York, at the JFK airport at 9:15 p.m., completely and utterly alone. Naturally, I freaked out. I found the closest bathroom, locked myself in a stall and started sobbing. 

As I sat on the toilet that kept flushing automatically, (I hate that by the way – can’t it tell I’m still sitting there?) I reverted back to the scared little girl who refused to go on field trips without her mom. I couldn’t help but think I’d made a huge mistake in deciding to leave my home country and travel alone. 

But, something inside of me told me not to give up.

After a good cry, some hyperventilating and nausea, I called my Dad. He begged me to get a hotel, but the only room available at the airport was $800. I couldn’t justify spending that kind of money for a few hours of restless sleep. 

And so, I found a little corner of the horrendous, unvacuumed carpet and set up camp to keep myself awake until my standby flight the next morning.

Being alone in an airport in the middle of the night is a unique experience. Everything closes by 10:00 p.m., aside from a few 24-hour restaurants (none of which were in my terminal) and there isn’t much to do but distract yourself with electronic devices, read or people-watch.

People-watching at an airport is really like no other; there are so many different walks of life in one place. I watched as children dragged their feet, exhausted from traveling. I saw couples boarding their honeymoon flights and families taking their first big vacation together. I was conflicted as I watched, missing my family, but glad they weren’t stuck here with me. I noted the various style choices of travelers, some choosing to opt for comfort, others dressing to impress. 

In my time sitting on that disgusting floor, I realized that much like New York City, the JFK airport doesn’t sleep. The latest flights leave at 12:00 a.m. and the earliest around 4:00 a.m. As quiet as things might have been between the brief hours of 12:30 a.m. and 2:30 a.m., I never found myself truly alone. I had companionship in the cleaning crew, security and other weary travelers like me. 

One perk to being at the airport at 4:30 a.m. is that you can be first in line when coffee shops open, right before the 5:00 a.m. rush. I was also lucky enough to be first in line to talk to the flight attendants, securing my spot as first in line on standby. 

Thankfully, my name was called and I got on that flight. As exhausting as it all was, I learned a lot about myself. I didn’t know prior to this unfortunate event how comfortable I am being alone. Of course, there were times when I would’ve liked to have a travel companion, like when I had to use the bathroom for example, but ultimately I really enjoyed the company of my own thoughts.

This became a common theme throughout my time abroad. I spent a lot of time alone and with my own thoughts. I’d wake up at 8:00 a.m. and walk to get breakfast. While I read or did homework, I’d listen to music and just think – all alone. I couldn’t call anyone back home, it was only 3:00 a.m. there. 

I was alone and that was okay. 

If anything, my horrific travel experience helped prepare me for the time I’d spend alone in London. 

While I was often surrounded by my fellow program participants, there were times when I wanted to do things that they didn’t. So, I figured out how to navigate the public transit system by myself. I learned to be comfortable with eating meals alone and going on solo-tours. Honestly, when I think back to my time abroad, my favorite memories are excursions I went on alone. 

Don’t get me wrong, I have some wonderful memories that involve actual human interaction too; I met some of the best people when I was abroad. Among them, traveling to Brighton, Stonehenge, Bath, Oxford, the Jane Austen Museum and Hampton Court Palace. There was Bronwyn, my favorite diet-coke loving Southern grandma, Dani, my shorter-than-me, theater-kid, goofball and Jacklyn, who was completely obsessed with birds and rocks.

But, some of my favorite memories were of my own creation. I traveled to Brighton, Richmond, went to see plays, toured the Buckingham Palace State Rooms and Parliament, all by myself. 

When I arrived in London that first night, I had to figure out how to get my luggage from JFK. I then navigated a foreign tube system by myself and arrived safely by 11:00 p.m. While I do not recommend staying up all night in an airport of your own volition, I encourage you, dear reader, to challenge yourself to do things you don’t think you can do. You might just surprise yourself. 

And, if you’re even slightly considering studying abroad, do it.

If not now, when?

About Bella Bakeman 52 Articles
Bella Bakeman is a junior from Berkley, Michigan. She is majoring in English with a Secondary Education Concentration and minoring in Political Science. Bella seeks to bring both joy and justice to her readers. She can be found with a camera around her neck, notebook in hand and pen in her pocket. Contact Bella via email at INB10@albion.edu.

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