This is the story of my darkest travel hour.
I’ve always wanted to share this story because there is so much to be learned from the experience but it has taken me several years to feel comfortable with opening up about this series of unfortunate events.
Mostly because it just makes me look like an idiot but also it was just a painful experience to re-live.
But with the hopes others can learn from my mistakes, here goes….
In August 2014, Brad and I were moving to the UK where I was set to earn a master’s degree in law over the next 12 months.
Moving abroad had been a dream we’d constantly talked about for over a year but things just always seemed to fall through and I don’t think anybody — friends or family — really took us seriously each time we brought up this aspirational move.
But this time, we were for real.
In the months leading up to the move, I’d been working insane hours at a legal internship, trying to prepare for the move and any travels that would go along with it.
To help me power through the long days at the law firm, I set my phone’s screensaver to a brilliant photo of Big Ben lighting up the London sky at night.
Throughout each day, I’d look at that photo for a little travel inspiration. And surprisingly, it really did help, as I looked forward to the dream of soon living across the pond.
But all these long hours led to us taking care of some things for the move last minute.
For example, (with the help of family) we secured Brad’s dependent travel visa on August 15th – less than two weeks before our departure date and we still didn’t have housing in London.
For such a big move, we were cutting things extremely close.
But once we got Brad’s travel visa, we said our goodbyes to our families and were ready to head out to Europe and begin this exciting new chapter of our lives.
Instead of flying directly to the United Kingdom, we decided to make a stopover in Iceland along the way for a few days. Iceland seemed like such a fascinating destination and we really wanted to see the national parks and hopefully the northern lights.
Unfortunately, the trip was pretty much an unmitigated disaster.
We did see the northern lights on our way flying into the country but after that little surprise light show everything pretty much just went downhill.
Within 12 hours of arriving in Iceland I came down with the worst virus I’ve ever had.
The symptoms were rough: nonstop dry heaving, the chills, delirium, inability to stomach any food or liquids — and then don’t forget to throw in a large dose of jet lag.
I remember waking up several times throughout the week and not having any recollection of where I was or how I got there.
We called it “Viking Flu” and it was just a very bad time.
To make matters worse the weather was insanely crappy and intense.
In fact, a dying hurricane was blowing through Iceland the same time that earthquakes were rattling the country and a volcano was erupting and we were caught right in the middle.
So I feel like I’m dying, it looks like the apocalypse outside, and then to make matters worse — Brad then came down with the Viking flu…
Knowing first-hand what could be in store for Brad, I decided to drive to a nearby pharmacy to find some medicine.
I darted outside in the cold rain to find the rental car.
It was my first time driving in Iceland but I’m a pretty good driver and wasn’t worried. I started the car, blasted the heat on high, pulled out the parking lot, and right after turning down a street – boom!
My first 30 seconds ever driving outside the US and I’d been in a car accident.
The next thing I knew, I was in the back seat of a police car and praying that whatever the police were saying in their native Icelandic tongue was in my favor.
Turns out it was an underage girl driving without a license that hit me and I’d be off the hook.
But as you could probably tell, I could not wait to get out of the country and onward to the UK where we could finally escape the chaos and settle down into our new place in London.
When we left Iceland, we still didn’t know where we were going to live in the UK but that wasn’t really an issue.
During my law school years, I moved around a lot. There were several occasions where I would show up to Berkeley, California and within 12 to 24 hours I would be relaxing on a couch in a fully furnished apartment sipping Napa Valley’s finest merlot.
Ok, so more like sipping a Four Loko but the point being: moving to a new country without having a designated place to live just wasn’t a big deal to me.
So we arrived in the UK and decided to get a hotel room in London while we tried to find a place.
We were still feeling pretty bad from being sick so the first few days were extremely unproductive when it came to apartment hunting.
In fact, I remember barely even leaving the hotel room, which by the way was just a little 3-star hotel with rooms that one reviewer aptly described as “dingy and small and looked somewhat dirty.”
But after a few days, we started to spend a lot of time searching for housing options online.
With so many different neighborhoods in London the searching was a little difficult but we were able to narrow down our preference to Islington – a trendy borough in Central London known for its creative scene.
We’d found several listings and followed up on them but when we called about them, they were either already taken or we ran into a catch 22.
The landlords wanted us to have a bank account, but the banks stated we needed to have an address to have a bank account.
The hotel bills were starting to seriously rack up and our limited cash was getting burned up every day.
Luckily, Brad had a high school friend who was in a military family stationed in the UK, about an hour outside London. She was a veteran and with her husband they had two little kids.
We realized that it would probably be a good idea to connect with them and continue our apartment hunt from their residence.
They were great and very gracious to take us in. Brad and I even tossed around the idea of living there.
But, I knew it would never work.
Their place was a good hour outside London and moving into a house with a family I’d never met just seemed intrusive and like we’d be giving up all our privacy.
I also really liked silence and little kids are obviously not the quietest roomies.
So while I was happy we connected, I knew we still needed to find another place for us to live.
Eventually, we found an option in Islington on Popham Street.
I loved the location. It was in one of the neighborhoods I wanted to live in and the prices were pretty reasonable. But the biggest draw was that it was not going to require us to have a bank account. Instead, they would accept a cash transaction.
Finally, a way around this catch 22.
Brad and I went down and visited the unit with the landlord, Mustafa. He was a skinny guy who didn’t smile much but seemed like he had a good grasp of the real estate market and local area.
During the visit, he showed us how the gates work, gave us a tour of the unit, and went through some of the paperwork and income verification process.
We then said we’d think about it and let them know but it didn’t take long. Within a day or so we decided it was the right fit and arranged a meeting so I could sign the contract and put down our payment.
So the next morning, I packed a large zip-lock bag full with $5,000 worth of purple £20 notes and stuffed it in my backpack.
It looked like I was set for the ultimate drug deal and it sort of felt that way.
So later on, I met up with Mustafa at a Costa Coffee shop, one of the coffee shops I saw myself frequenting in the future.
We went over several pamphlets, reviewed the lease terms and my income verification, and he answered all my questions while making a little small talk.
Mustafa asked me what I did and I told him, “law.”
His eyes perked up a little bit and he asked, “What kind of law?”
I told him I dealt with things like fraud and white-collar crime and then he sort of just nodded away.
After about 15 or 20 minutes the contract was signed and he gave me our keys.
Then, I casually unzipped my backpack, pulled the heavy zip lock bag full of £20 notes out of my backpack and pushed it across the table.
I then stood up, thanked Mustafa for his time, and reached out for a handshake at which point Mustafa offered me his rubbery hand.
Two days later, September 11, 2014, was move-in day.
I was ecstatic to finally have a place to call home!
I’d already mapped out my train routes to school, found a local gym, and a few other local coffee shops where I envisioned myself working for hours on end like a true Londoner.
Brad and I packed our heavy suitcases and hopped on a train that afternoon and then made our way into Central London to the “Angel” Tube Station.
After hauling our heavy luggage through the bumpy sidewalks and streets we made our way to our new apartment.
Our keys got us through the gate and then we went up the stairs to our unit with anticipation. I put in the key, turned it, and the door swung open.
To my amazement, I saw a fully furnished apartment. Except that it was a little bit “too furnished.”
That is to say that the prior tenants had still not moved out!
They were still in the process of packing up and had left clothes all over the place as well as a MacBook and passports — even the fridge was still full.
It really bothered me when people botched these things.
I pulled out my cell phone to call the landlord but my throw-a-way UK cell phone didn’t have good reception and I couldn’t get through.
This was very frustrating and we decided to get a bite to eat and then come back. Perhaps the tenants would be back then.
When we came back, we unlocked the door but then found it was now dead-bolted and we could no longer open the door….
A startled woman then popped her head out the door.
Who the heck was this lady? Was she the tenant taking her sweet time to move out?
After a little exchange, we learned she was the cleaner.
Again, I was frustrated by the poor management but now at least I understood what was happening.
The cleaner thought the old tenants would already be moved out and she was trying to get the apartment ready for us.
But some things still didn’t line up.
This cleaner didn’t know of Mustafa and she looked confused, even a bit worried. An unnamed landlord was now heading over to the unit in a hurry. My phone calls to Mustafa were still not going through.
Then a young, innocent-looking and soft-spoken blonde girl showed up to the apartment.
Just like us, she had a few bags on her.
And just like us, she was trying to move in.
Intrigued by this coincidence, I asked what unit she was moving into and she said, “Flat 7”
“Flat 7?” I thought, as a pit in my stomach grew.
I then looked up slowly to the room number posted on our second-floor apartment door: “Flat 7.”
And that’s when it clicked.
Those weren’t the belongings to the prior tenants inside the apartment – they were the belongings to other people who had just moved in and hadn’t finished unpacking.
My phone calls weren’t failing because my service was shoddy – they weren’t going through because Mustafa had deactivated his phone.
Mustafa wasn’t the landlord and that wasn’t his real name. He was a professional con-artist who had rented this unit out from the real landlord, appropriated their contracts and literature, made duplicate keys, and then “rented” it out to unsuspecting victims.
This had all been an elaborate scam, and now I really wanted to hurt this Mustafa guy.
Some drama ensued after this that involved the owner of the units arriving to the scene, his TV missing, him lying to the police, and me shouting and banging on a door threatening to see the “coward landlord” in court and then getting offered hot tea by a sweet, elderly neighbor.
Those details, while funny and full of many additional layers of drama, are largely irrelevant but what I recall the most is sitting outside of the apartment as the police were wrapping things up.
The sun was setting and the crisp September air was getting chillier with every breeze.
My gaze was frozen on our five luggage bags lined up along the curb and all I could think about was how I would do anything to rewind the last 48 hours and do everything different.
Getting scammed for $5,000 dollars now would still feel very bad. Heck, getting scammed for $5 would not feel good.
But getting scammed for your hard-earned $5,000 when you don’t have much money and you are trying to establish yourself in a country after a week-long disaster of a trip avoiding hurricanes and volcanoes is an altogether different beast.
I felt defeated. Mentally, physically, spiritually — you get the drift.
Brad voiced that maybe we should just say screw it and fly back to the US.
I insisted to him we should stick it out but on the inside I agreed with him 100%. Our trip to that point had been nothing short of a disaster. We were already in way over our heads and we still had 12 months to go (but now with a lot less money).
But throwing in the towel seemed like the wrong move.
I looked at my phone’s screen saver and thought about all those early mornings and late evenings at the firm when just the sight of Big Ben motivated me to keep pushing.
I thought about the countless hours I spent imagining the sights we’d explore, the food we’d try, the people we’d meet, the photos we’d take, and the unforgettable memories we’d make.
I realized giving up on this would mean giving up on a dream – something that just wasn’t in my DNA.
Plus, if we stayed, maybe one day I’d spot Mustafa on a London street corner, chase him down, pimp slap the ever livin’ out of him, and hurl his skinny ass right into the murky brown River Thames.
It was tempting to call it quits but I’m beyond grateful that we didn’t as our luck was going to soon turn around.
First, Brad’s parents were able to bail us out and get us back on our feet while we waited for my financial aid to arrive.
This gave us security when we needed it most.
But we still faced some major issues.
Our travel funds had vanished. We still did not have a bank account. We still did not have an address. And school was going to start very soon.
But remember the military family?
We had the option to move to Banbury with them and arranged a situation where Brad could lend a helping hand with the kids and in exchange we’d be able to avoid the high rent in London.
This would allow us to save over $15,000 on rent over the next year.
But this would also mean facing a few challenges.
The first was living in a house with a family.
I’d already felt like it would be difficult to give up our privacy, but this ended up not being a major issue since we were up on the third floor and while we did give up some privacy, we forged new friendships and it worked out way better than I ever expected.
Another challenge involved distance.
Living in Banbury would mean I’d need to commute into London for school, which would add up in time and costs. But this challenge led me to engineer my class schedule to where I only went to campus one day out of the week.
Yes, it meant one long hellish day a week. But with the savings and the flexible class schedule, our travels opened up, allowing us to explore places like Paris, Amsterdam, Portugal, and Spain – not to mention many weekends venturing into London.
The extra time and savings also allowed me to fulfill another dream: writing and publishing my first travel book, Hidden Gems of the Western US (and not to mention starting this blog a month later).
So we not only miraculously ended up in a better position financially, but we had more opportunities to do what we loved: travel the world and create tons of valuable content.
It had been a wild couple of weeks and I’d learned some seriously painful lessons while being on the brink of giving up on something I’d dreamed about for a long time.
But at the end of all the chaos — the Viking flu, hurricanes, volcanoes, and one God-awful scam — we were still standing and our world travels had just began.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time credit card rewards/travel expert and has earned and redeemed millions of miles to travel the globe. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.
Yikes! I had something like this happen to me before and it is such a AWFUL feeling. I’m glad it worked out for you two in the end. 🙂
Thanks, yes an awful feeling indeed!
Ok, that takes the cake for darkest hour (or 50) of travel! I reckon Mustafa or Simba or whatever character disappeared completely so you weren’t able to pursue a case? Did you report it to authorities nonetheless? My darkest hour of getting kicked off a RZD Russian train (they claimed I didn’t have correct documents. I did, and my claim with Chase was successful for hundreds of dollars) seems like nothing compared to this! Thanks for sharing, very enlightening!
Yeah, we reported it but nothing came of it (they never seemed to care that much). The Mustafa character disappeared without a trace but I’m sure karma has come his way.
Absolutely agree! He won’t be king of any mountain for very long (ok I’ll stop with the bad Lion King references;)
Haha! I still shutter when I hear the name. *Mustafa,Mustafa,Mustafa!*
LOL!! Once a Mustafa, always a shady charater
Wow what a whirlwind of a start. Glad you chose to stick it out!
Thanks, yeah it was a whirlwind in very sense!
I can fully relate to the bank account/address issue. Similar thing happened to be years ago. Ended up living in a 5 by 7 room with chicken wire over the top…and having to mail myself a letter…thereby establishing proof of residence. Just an absurd situation/loop. Tough times don’t last — tough people *DO*.
Totally agree with you! Thanks for reading!
Really glad you stuck it out- well done!! Thanks for sharing
Thank you for reading!
Wow, that’s a pretty amazing story Daniel, thanks for sharing.
Thanks for reading, Mike!