How Missing Your Flight Could be the Best Thing That Ever Happened to You

Ryan Prior
January 16, 2024

When you're solo traveling, it's often the totally unplanned things that end up making the most interesting, empowering, and memorable experiences.

I had planned my entire trip around Italy, specifically Rome. Since I was 14, while taking Latin in high school, I'd dreamed of seeing the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. After college, I felt that if I were to go to one country on earth, Italy would be that country. And if I could visit one city there, it had to be Rome. For the past two summers, I'd tried to make the trip, but certain circumstances intervened both times. But this year I'd finally made it to Europe, and I'd planned this two-week trip through six countries, around one day, and one city: Rome.

But before Rome, one of my stops was Paris. I was going all over that city exploring everything, talking to refugees on the Canal St. Martin, barnstorming the Louvre, and then getting lost on the subway on the way back to grab my bags and take a bus to the airport.

But as I trotted into the Alitalia check-in line at the Paris airport, the whole plan came to a screeching halt.

"You can't pass," the clerk said.

I was too late. The plane was set to take off in 25 minutes, and there was no way to convince him I could make it past security in time to get there. I asked at every airline, and there were no flights out that night, and nothing the next morning that could get me to meet with our group in Rome. I sat in a little cafe, racking my mind. Rome was the one thing I swore I couldn't miss. I found a train leaving in ninety minutes from a station somewhere in Paris. It had a 14-hour overnight itinerary, and would put me in the center of Rome about 9:30am in time to meet my group.

I booked it.

Out on the street, there was a massive line to get a taxi, and the train station was nearly an hour away. A man approached me, asking questions, trying to "help." He told me the only way I could make my train was by taking a ride on his motorcycle. I didn't have time to do the math. I went for it. He started guiding me down to a dark parking garage. I'm trying to follow, and make conversation with him, all the while Googling "motorcycle scam," and "Am I going to die?"

Screw it.

He strapped my backpack on the back of the motorcycle. He gave me a helmet and some gloves. And thus began my first-ever motorcycle ride. We're cruising out of the parking garage and I'm white-knuckling the hand rails, and he's weaving in between traffic down the center road stripes, gunning it four times faster than all the chumps in automobiles around us. We pulled up to stop next to another motorcycle taxi and there's this lady, totally relaxed on the back, smoking a cigarette in the highest style as only the Parisians can do. Completely living her best life. It was then I realized I might not die and this might just be the best possible thing that could be happening to me.

(The gloves came off to snap this one)

We cruised through the streets and I had an enormous grin, and I wished it would last forever.

We got to the train station and I pulled some cash out of the ATM. It was about a hundred euros, probably double the cost of what a regular taxi might have been, but it got me there four times faster than a car would have, and I think that's just the price you pay for dreams.

But at the moment I was pissed. I felt like I had gotten ripped off.

Outside Gare de Lyon, where I would board the overnight train

So I got on the train in this six-person sleeper car, which I'd share with six other strangers. Never done that before.

Once I caught my breath and realized the dream of Rome might still survive, I went down to the restaurant car. I ordered something, who even cares what now. I told the guy it was “to go” and I’d eat back in the sleeper car. He seemed offended.

"Well I don't know anybody and every table is taken," I said.

He motions to come with him, finds three women with an extra seat available and asks if I can join. They motion me over.

So they're from America and they're ordering me wine and at first I refuse, but they refuse to let me refuse, and soon we're three glasses in, four glasses in, and pretty soon it's 11 at night, and the entire restaurant is all drunk because there's really nothing else to do and we're on an overnight joyride through the heart of Europe.

Soon the train stops, at some random place in the dead of night. This is Switzerland, I'm told.

And they're not part of the EU customs arrangements, so we're stopping for some indeterminate amount of time for everyone's passports to be checked. What a joy, I'm thinking. I'd planned on visiting five countries on my two-week jaunt in the old country, and here's an unexpected sixth. I bounced off the train to set foot on some new foreign soil.

There are five guys standing there smoking cigarettes.

These are Argentinians, they’re all economists. They’re all studying international development working on dissertations. What luck! I ramble for a bit about the IMF and all kinds of economic theories I barely understand, especially after five glasses of wine, and welp, my feet have touched Swiss ground, so back up on the train.

I get to talking to the guy selling snacks and he tells me all about his days playing pro soccer in the Italian second division. I’m trying to think of any players we may both know. But alas.

So I’m back to my Floridian ladies and they’re ready to finish off the last bottle before we stumble back.

I creep into my sleeper car and everyone’s asleep so I go to sleep too, but it’s bumpy and there’s a lot of wine in me and wow, everyone and everything is so great, so after a few hours I’m back awake admiring the pre-dawn Swiss landscape as the sun rises into Italy. I was in a train car in the middle of the night with five strangers in a country I'd never planned to go to, and more than anything, I felt content. And my oh my, isn’t the still, slumbering world a mystical place?

So we disembark in Milan (Milano, everyone keeps saying). And we’re off on another train to Roma Termini.

Train #2 in Milan

A few hours later, I come out of Terminal and I’m tired, though not too tired, but I’d love a coffee. I don’t understand anything going on around me but there are some Golden Arches across the way. I swore long ago I’d never eat McDonald’s in a foreign country, but at least I understand this. It’s OK just this once.

I’ve gotten my coffee and get into a taxi and I’m snapping photos and just about jumping out the window with glee as we’re passing the Colosseum.

Life goal accomplished: the first time you see it is just breathtaking.

My God, it’s massive.

And we pull into the hotel where I’m to meet the group, and I’m casual as can be, legs crossed on a sofa in the lobby sipping my little McDonald’s coffee.

U30X crew: Brand new best friends in Rome

And nobody has any idea how I’ve gotten there, or how much it means to me to be in Rome, or who I am at all.

It’s time to start the day.

And six months later, I’m so glad I missed that flight.

Ryan Prior
Ryan Prior is a writer and producer in Atlanta, GA. He has written for CNN, USA Today, and the Daily Beast, and co-directed the feature-length documentary Forgotten Plague, available on Amazon Prime.


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