Tuesday, January 1, 2019

New Year's Nightmare in Prague

New Year's Nightmare in Prague

What do you do when you and a loved one are traveling internationally and require serious medical attention? How do you begin to find a hospital with limited wi-fi in the middle of the night? How do you communicate your ailments with a seemingly insurmountable language barrier? Can you contact your airline in time to reschedule your return plans the day of your departure without penalty?

These are all questions that no traveler ever wants to deal with, but as we learned on our trip to Prague, knowing how to handle medical emergencies while out of your home country is incredibly important. Unfortunately, we needed to figure it all out as we went, which was not ideal. But now we can share our knowledge with others. Always remember: what matters at the end of the day is getting home safely!

Our journey begins the day after Christmas. We had been looking forward to visiting Prague since the trip had been booked back in February 2018. Devon is of Czech descent and I (Lenni) had gifted him the 4-day holiday for his birthday.

We booked our package through CheapOair (more on their BRILLIANT customer service later), which I was initially a little skeptical about. But the pricing was too good to pass up (RT airfare for two, plus hotel with breakfast in an ideal location for $1428.96).

Our trip over was on British Airways (this was already our favorite airline, but they were active in creating a convenient alternative to getting us home). Devon was feeling fine on the trip to Heathrow, but as we waited for our connecting flight from London to Prague nausea set in....and continued for the duration of the 90-minute flight to Prague. We initially believed it was motion sickness because this is something that is not uncommon for Devon. The in-cabin crew was EXCEPTIONAL and so kind. They moved a woman in our row so that Devon could lay down, provided him hot water bottles for the acid reflux in his esophagus, and were incredibly tolerant of his wretching and heaving for the entirety of the flight.

But the greatest concern came when we stepped off the plane. A flight attendant had called a wheelchair to a meeting point for us. We waited for the wheelchair to find us, but it never came. I tried to ask around, but with my very very limited Czech conversation skills, I ended up in a puddle at the information desk in the middle of the airport. Immediately, I realized how alone we were. 

Devon spent the evening trying to recover in our awesome soaker tub at  Hotel Donatello, and I found myself wandering the streets looking for the closest burger joint.

The next morning was rocky for Devon, but he had stopped throwing up...or so we thought. He insisted that I go on the Free Discover Prague Royal Walk Tour that we booked while he stayed in and slept. 

Let me say how excellent Tony, the tour guide was at keeping a 2.5 hour tour engaging and fast-paced. He was brutally honest about tourist traps, restaurant service, and the Czech disposition. I would highly recommend a free tour with Discover Prague (yes, the tour is free, but you ABSOLUTELY should tip!). It gave me a perfect understanding of the city on my first day out and I was able to share everything I learned with Devon when he was ready to explore. If you are interested in a Beer Tour or Castle District Tour you can pay for those and receive a 10% discount with a voucher from your free tour!

By the time I came home, Devon was feeling much better and was ready to take a walk. We made it from our hotel in Nove Mesto (New Town) to the Old Town Square (Stare Mesto). As mentioned, my new knowledge of the city put me in the position of tour guide. We had pre-purchased tickets to see a string quartet play holiday songs at Klementinum Mirror Chapel and were, fortunately, able to make the concert! 

Music is EVERYWHERE in Prague. Take the opportunity to sit and listen. You will always be able to find an affordable concert in a unique setting in Old Town, but there are even more to choose from around the holiday season which runs past the New Year. This particular concert featured string musicians from the Dvorak Symphony Orchestra and Soprano, Anna Dolejsi. Everything about this was picturesque and soothing for someone who isn't feeling 100%.

That evening disaster struck on the walk back to our hotel. After 10-hours with no indigestion, Devon's vomiting started again and was so intense that there was blood. I insisted we go to the hospital, not really understanding what this adventure really meant. One of the two amazing desk attendants left his post to personally drive us to the closest hospital, which was only 4-minutes away. 

The rest of the night was a bit of a blur. Devon was transferred between three branches of the same hospital (General University). We felt so humbled that each doctor we met with spoke English (seriously, America...we need to get on top of the importance of being multi-lingual).

Hospitals in Prague are deceiving. The exteriors have a post-communist era look and at a glance, I was terrified of what the competence on the inside of these buildings would be like. But Devon's healthcare was very good!

A few tips here:

HAND BAGGAGE ONLY FOR SHORT TRIPS: After losing our bags on our return trip from Greece, we only brought hand baggage. BA will insist you check carry-on sized suitcases on smaller connecting flights with less storage space. For that reason, we each packed a backpack plus one medium Vera Bradley bag and a gym bag-sized duffle. The only positive side of getting out of the airport with a puking partner was that we had only brought hand baggage, so we avoided an extra stop to baggage claim. Once the wheelchair came, we were straight through customs and into a cab. Also, it avoided any potential baggage mishaps...and you don't want to lose your bags in this type of situation!

PURCHASE TRAVEL INSURANCE: The one BIG mistake I made was purchasing what I thought was Travel Insurance. I had actually purchased Travel Protection, (which was incredibly important for refunding our ticket home...so purchase this as well!!) but these two things are not the same. Travel Insurance can be purchased independently of any vacation package or booking and you should ALWAYS purchase it. That extra $20/per day could save you hundreds or thousands of dollars on emergency medical help while traveling.

I had called the American Embassy in Prague prior to Devon's release to find out if we were eligible for any services. While they do not handle short-term illness of American Tourists, they were able to answer many questions and concerns I had. I learned that I would need to pay Devon's medical bill in cash, but that fortunately, the healthcare system in the Czech Republic is very affordable. 3-nights in a hospital with round the clock care, IV, pain and nausea fluids, ultra-sound, X-ray, EKG and blood tests came to about $600. Please keep in mind that about 6 years ago, when Devon was uninsured and hospitalized for pancreatitis in Boston his medical bill came to $32,000....so...way to go Prague and General Public Healthcare!
While the doctor was most kind in letting me stay in the second bed in Devon's room on the first night, I knew I could not continue to take up a patient space and would have to return to our hotel and potentially book a new hotel if we could not make our return flight. 

In an over-tired state, I made a huge mistake of not getting the full address of Devon's room before I left. I knew the name of the hospital, but there were over six locations across Prague. 

We have never seen the need for one because of FB chat and wi-fi, but after this experience, I will be purchasing one for my month stay in Greece this summer. Unfortunately, Devon had limited access to wi-fi at the hospital so I was unable to get in touch with him to find the address. This lead to a near nervous breakdown.

There was an ANGEL at the Hotel Donatello front desk who immediately took on finding Devon's hospital for me (I can not speak more highly of the staff at Hotel Donatello, I have never met more compassionate people!). With a short description of landmarks I described from my ride back from the hospital, she was able to make a few calls in Czech and put me in direct touch with Devon's doctor. She actually saved me from hopping in an Uber and going from location to location all night.

Upon the doctor's reassurance that Devon was fine and would be sleeping through the night, I stayed at the hotel. The young lady from the front desk offered to take me out after her shift so that I wouldn't be worrying alone. We hit it off and had a lovely walk to get coffee and to see some of her favorite spots in the city. She truly was a guardian angel that night and I feel a forever bond with her now.

The next day was a turning point for Devon. He had still vomited a bit in the morning, but after a long nap, he was seriously starting to do a bit better. Unfortunately, I knew that we would miss our flight that evening and needed to start figuring out what to do.

I started with emailing our places of work to let them know what was going on and that we would likely be away for a few days after the New Year. The assistant head-of-school where I teach took a huge load off my back by taking all of my travel booking info and getting in direct contact with CheapOair. At that point, I did need to book a new hotel as Hotel Donatello was full. I took a few hours to transport myself from visiting Devon, settled into the beautiful Hotel Cerny Slon (The Black Elephant), and forced myself to get something to eat in the Castle Area of Mala Strana.

When  I returned, my hotel room phone rang and it was my assistant head-of-school conferencing me into a phone call with CheapOair in which they had already resolved a plan for my return. Keep in mind that I could not call this 800 number from my room phone or cell phone without a charge, so this was ideal!

BUY TRAVEL PROTECTION: I mentioned my faux-pas with the Travel Insurance debacle, BUT even though I thought travel protection was travel insurance, I sure am glad that I purchased it anyway! This was the ONLY reason that we were able to have our package agent (CheapOair) negotiate a ticket exchange for a new date for a return for free. The flights around the New Year were OBSCENELY high....like $2,000/person one-way at best. My agent at CheapOair (via my head-of-school who dealt with all of the initial logistics) went above and beyond. He held us a discounted flight for 24-hours at $800/person leaving Jan 4th before facilitating a 3-way call between himself, British Airways, and myself. He advocated for my situation and confirmed a ticket exchange just hours before the original flight was supposed to depart. The customer service at British Airways was equally impressive. While still on the phone with both of them, I was able to email photos of Devon's medical papers directly from my phone for medical emergency confirmation. I was approved for flight exchange within 5-minutes and could rebook my return flight at no additional cost as long as I could provide a doctor signed "Fit to Fly" statement.

Once off the phone with British Airways, my CheapOair agent remained on the line. He explained that if I can confirm Devon is fit to fly within the next 24 hours, I should immediately contact him and cancel the flight he had held, as I would be charged within 24 hours of his hold on the seats.

Needless to say, Devon was released early the next morning and I was able to follow up as he suggested before the 24 hour time period was up! I can not tell you how grateful I was for this type of service, as well as the helpful work friend who got the ball rolling on my behalf. If I have learned anything through this, it is that people can be really helpful and attentive in situations where they just as easily could not look into every possible option.

The next task at hand was figuring out how the heck to find an affordable room for the next night- New Year's Eve. Everything was booked or $400-$600. I spent about 2-hours searching on Hotels.com and ran into EVERY possible issue. I lost rooms as I was typing my reservation information, suspected fraud caused my card to be denied (I forget to extend my Travel Alert with my bank in all of this), and faulty links made this an agonizing process. My mother came to the rescue and told me to book whatever we needed- on her! Ultimately, I figured it was safest to stay out of the city of NYE and closer to Devon's hospital in case anything happened on his first night away. For a decent price for the date, we stayed Hotel Praga 1885, a beautiful 4-star converted palace in a residential area. The room was enormous and we ended up being able to see fireworks from our window. Thanks, mom!

After a few walks around the neighborhood and a relaxing New Year's Eve together, we decided to spend our remaining two days in the Old Town (Stare Mesto) so that Devon could hopefully catch glimpses of this beautiful city as he regained strength while we waited for our flight home on Jan 3.

We used Hotels.com to book our last two nights (everyone should use this- after all of these hotel additions we are VERY close to a free night). Prices dropped for New Year's Day and we were able to stay in a basic but comfortable hotel for 2-nights in Old Town right near the beautiful Jewish Quarter

We learned A LOT during this unfortunate adventure, but it could have been worse. We will be updating on the non-sick fun-stuff that we experienced while in Prague in a second post soon, but figured this would be a useful forewarning to any frequent travelers out there. You think it will never happen...but it does!

Happy New Year to all and here's to better & healthier travels in 2019!


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