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Locked up in a Russian hotel prison – because of my iPhone…

Driving over the tarmac at Moscow airport

If someone would tell me a story like this, I probably would not believe it. But what follows really happened to me today.

I landed early this morning in Moscow on an overnight flight from Shanghai. I had a lay-over of a couple of hours for a flight to Larnaca, so I sat in the lounge and wrote some emails and worked on a blog post about online games for the Business Insider. My flight would be boarding at 11:15, so at 10:50 I decided to pack my stuff and walk to the gate.

When I left the lounge I looked on the board to verify the gate number and to my astonishment it said that the gate had closed already. I thought I was looking at the wrong flight, but I double checked and then realized that the time on the board was one hour later than the time on my watch, my iPhone and my MacBook Pro. I didn’t understand this, both my iPhone and my laptop automatically switch to the right time when I land in a different time zone, so I never have to think about manually changing the time. I changed my watch on the plane with the official time on the flight tracking system, so that should be correct as well. I was flabbergasted, but decided to run to the gate anyway to see what was going on and if I could still board.

Well, bad luck. The plane had just left the gate and I was left stranded in Moscow Sheremetyevo airport. I asked the lady at the gate if there would be another plane to Larnaca, but she first tried to ignore me and then told me rudely that looking that up was not her job. Welcome to Russia…

So I went to look for the Aeroflot transfer desk. For the whole international terminal F there was only one transfer desk and at that desk there was only 1 computer with a seat, but there was nobody sitting there. Some other people were waiting in line, so I decided to wait as well. I guess waiting is part of life in Russia, because nobody complained when a girl appeared 10 minutes later from the back room.

Aeroflot Transfer Desk at Moscow Sheremetyevo airport

After waiting another 15 minutes it was my turn, I explained my situation, but the girl did not believe me. She told me it was an hour later than I thought. Yes, I had figured that out as well, but my phone and laptop told me differently. She had no idea of course how that could be (neither did I yet at that point), but she went to talk to her manager. I was lucky, probably because I flew business class her manager (sitting in the back drinking a coffee) was willing to help and rebook me on a different flight. I just had to wait 20 minutes for the rebooking.

Okay, seemed reasonable, so I started to change my scheduled meetings and then did a quick online search about what may have happened. Well, it only took me 2 minutes until I found this article in Pravda: Putin had decided to abolish winter time earlier this year, but Apple and many other computer makers did not get that message. Everybody who owns an iPhone or Apple computer suddenly had the wrong time on the screen. And apparently Apple did nothing to solve the issue over the past 2 weeks! I am sure I am not the only one with this problem, and I am almost 100% sure that the inflight tracking system of Aeroflot also still showed the wrong time.

Of course this did not help me in any way, but at least I now understood what the problem was. After 30 minutes the girl came back and told me there were no other flights to Cyprus anymore today, but she could book me on the flight for tomorrow. I didn’t have much choice of course so I agreed. At least I would be able to leave tomorrow. But then there was another problem, I could not leave the airport because I didn’t have a Russian visa. And there is no airport hotel on Moscow Sheremetyevo…

I asked if I could get a transit visa, but the girl told me that’s not possible. However, she then asked me how much money I had on me, and I told her no cash but that I have a credit card. She told me she may have another solution, she had to make a phone call and I had to wait another 20 minutes. Sure, I had nothing else to do anyway. After 20 minutes she told me she had a hotel room for me if I was willing to pay USD 170. Great, I thought, a bit expensive but better than a chair in the terminal for the night. Then a big lady who spoke no English told me to follow her. I did so and we went to a side door to the empty transit area. We waited for a while and then a custom person came out of another door to inspect my passport. After that the big lady took me down the stairs to passport control, but instead of going through there we took a side door and we were suddenly outside on the tarmac of Moscow aiport!

In the bus on Moscow airport

A large bus pulled up and I was asked to board it. I had no clue what was happening, but I found it interesting so boarded of course. The big bus was completely empty except for the driver, the big lady and me. We drove all around the airport to a side entrance where security opened the gate for us without asking.

In the bus - tired and no idea where we were going...

We then drove for a couple of minutes until we came to a Novotel. The hotel looked nice and I was quite happy. But we did not drive to the main entrance, but to the side. The big lady went in first and came over with a security guy that escorted me to check in. I found this a bit strange, but hey, this is Russia. So I checked in and then was told that I would be escorted to a special room and that I was to remain in the room until 9 AM tomorrow, when someone would come to get me!

At first I thought, fine. But when I was escorted through the personnel lift to my room and I saw that a big guard was sitting in front of it with a TV I felt less happy about the whole situation. But not much you can do I guess. I am now in my room, which is quite spartan. The window can’t be opened and there is a second glass window on the inside. I can see people walking outside, but I can’t go outside myself. This feels very very strange. I am basically a prisoner here and have to wait until 9 AM tomorrow to leave this hotel room.

View from my Russian prison hotel room

Luckiy I have Internet (although that disconnects every 30 minutes or so), so I can work and make calls over Skype. But it feels very awkward. I guess I am lucky, but I now understand a little bit how it must feel to be in a real prison. This is a luxury prison for sure, but the fact that you can’t leave makes me feel uncomfortable. I can’t even go down to the lobby to eat something or work out in the gym (I don’t have my suitcase with my running gear here anyway). I just have to stay in the room and call if I want to eat something.

I am not sure if this is standard procedure, or whether the USD 170 went into several pockets to get this arranged. Why would they let me out through a side door and then have a big bus transport me to the side entrance of the hotel? I don’t really want to know. It’s at least better than spending the night on a chair in the departure lounge of Moscow airport and it makes for a nice story. But I will be happy when it’s 9 AM tomorrow morning. And Apple, if someone reads this please solve this bug!


Update next morning 10:30 AM: I made it out without any real problems. No knock on the door in the middle of the night to check my visa in order to obtain some bribes. They let me wait another 10 minutes before they let me out at 9:10 AM (“Come go, quick quick!”), then a security guard led me through the hotel lobby to the emergency exit where a bus was waiting (Why the emergency exit? I still think the whole thing was illegal, otherwise they could let me use the main entrance, right?)

The drive back to the airport took a bit longer than planned. First we ended up in a traffic jam and then the driver drove the wrong way and we had to drive back again. Eventually we ended up at the side gate of the airport where they let us in without inspecting my bags or passport. Another tour of the airport followed and 10 minutes later I was at another side entrance where someone was waiting for me to open the door. Two minutes later I was back in the terminal, without anybody checking my passport. 

Entering Moscow airport through a side gate

I am now in the lounge having a coffee and apple cake. Getting into the lounge was a small problem, they refused to let me in without an invitation (despite flying business class and having all kinds of frequent flyer cards). They were extremely rude, first sending me to the wrong place to get an invitation and then telling me to go back to my “friends” at the transfer desk. I don’t give up easily and I eventually managed to get the invitation, but not after another lesson in Russian arrogance and rudeness. China may not be perfect, but this is 10 times worse. I look forward to being in the air in 1 hour. Too bad I will be flying through Moscow again on Sunday…

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  1. Great story Mark… if you are really bored.. more than happy to play of game of wordfreud with you… 😉

  2. Nice story telling… this one will go down in the books for your business travel experiences, I presume?

    Well, it sounds like you are at least safe, so hang in there, and you’ll be out of this make-shift prison in no time.

  3. Wow, quite a story Marc! Hope the’ll have some food and drinks for you?

  4. You are a lot calmer than me I would be worried to death, plus, I would have snook out of the room to find some much needed beer to calm my nerves. Good luck anyway.

  5. How did you get back to the airport? Same bus and nice girl? Did your suitcase arrive in Larnaca on time?

  6. Thanks Ron, I have enough to do. It’s a good reason to catch up on overdue emails!

  7. Yes, should be fine Thomas, just a bit awkward that I can’t leave my room. Luckily there is Internet and the Steve Jobs biography to read.

  8. Yes, luckily there is food Marc, just ordered a Russian hamburger and a big bottle of water. I will survive.

  9. Another story for the book Nico, later I can use my blog to make sure I don’t forget any!

  10. When I get out I will update this blog post or write another one. Should be fine.

  11. Sneaking out of the hotel room is impossible Alan, there is a huge guard in front of my door. I thought I could observe him through the peeping hole in the door but they covered that. Now it really feels like a prison!

  12. Oh, you’re still there Marc. Jee, sorry. Thought it was a recap of what happened yesterday.

    We’ll good luck and if I can do anything for you. Just let me know …

  13. Well, I am still in the hotel right now, so I assume they will pick me up tomorrow morning and sneak me back in. If not I have no idea, but then at least I have this blog post to prove that I did not sneak out into Russia myself without a visa. Not sure how helpful that will be though 🙂

  14. Please put your chair in front of the door blocking it…just in vase some one wants to enter at night when guard is sleeping.

  15. Hope you can have a morning run tomorrow in Moscow, maybe under heavy guard 🙂
    Anyway, stay in a hotel is much better then sleep on airport chair, plus you have Internet.

  16. Marc,

    Seems that’s all standard procedure. One of our team members was stuck in Moscow as well and got put in the same Novotel with the same process with the bus and side gates and about the same price. So, you are getting the normal tour. You can take advantage of the same on the way back I suppose. ;-p


  17. Marc, hang in there (see my other comments on FB). on the humorous side, it is maybe that you ran the marathon faster than Putine hence people got upset reading your blog while you were waiting for help at the airport. that could well be a valid explanation. In any case, the guard at your door will only move if “motivated” (is there an ATM in the lobby of the hotel, you could go with him :-). Hang in there buddy, and btw this could well be the first chapter of your book…

  18. Thanks for letting me know Mike! That makes me feel a bit better, although it’s still awkward not to be able to leave the room. I guess tomorrow morning should be fine, would be nice if I can get another big bus for myself.

  19. what a story… No Aeroflot in the future… Bad service and bad air in Moscow airport… I wish you a smooth and pleasant trip tomorrow!!! And Apple please be quicker in fixing these bugs!!! I still remember there was an alarm clock bug in an earlier version of iOS that almost drove me crazy..

  20. Oh, this sounds really weird with interesting story points all around. I have experienced some (not as heavy sounding as this one) stories on customer non-service myself.

    Maybe Apple would even pay for the stay in the hotel – it would be worth a try!

  21. Post updated with the latest developments. Ready to board next Aeroflot flight now.

  22. I would consinder the 170 USD adVENTURE CAPITAL! 😉 (Did you actually end up paying the money?)

  23. @Jan Yes, I paid the USD 170. That was an upfront payment!

  24. Sounds like a nice experience in a different way be happy they took you to a hotel and not a bar… Where they expect you to buy many drinks.

  25. Mike, I just came across your blog. Novotel SVO has a special agreement where they have a block of their rooms for passengers without visas, hence the tight security and ‘special’ treatment. If you look at the TripAdvisor page for the hotel, you’ll find a number of people complaining like you that they were like prisoners.

  26. Sorry to be a downer but you sound like a first time traveller. As always you should have checked the local time upon arrival on local clocks. There are many at Shemetevo as well as at the bottom of the departures schedule monitor. Secondly you missed your flight because you were not at the gate in time. As all good airlines including Aeroflot tell you many times on those annoying advertisements (now we know who these messages are for) say, be at the GATE 45 minutes before departure. This would not have happened if you had followed those stupid ads. And third you did not have a transit visa before arriving. Three failures on your part. You are VERY lucky you were in Russia and not in the USA or UK where you would have been left to rot for three failures. The Russians very generously (for 170$ yes my friend that is generous) gave you a private hotel room with wifi and transport. You stayed in a French hotel (and you complain!) and were safely transported back to your gate. And your baggaged arrived with you in Cyprus!! Why are you calling thus a prison when you had no visa!! Imagine what the Americans or Brits woukd have done to you! Instead of whining why not thank the Russians for helping you when you made so many mistakes? Just saying. Geez.

  27. @Marc It looks like you are not only a troll but also a first time traveller yourself my friend. Normally I don’t discuss with trolls, but you spent so much time on your comment that I’ll give a quick response. First of all you should read better, because I would have been at the gate 45 min before departure (boarding was at 11:15, departure 11:45). Second of all I set my watch based on Aeroflot’s official Moscow time, which was the same as the automatic time on my phone & laptop. A sudden change in time was an outlier that probably only happens once in your life, so not related to ‘not checking the clocks’ or being a rookie traveler. And third, no frequent travelers would get a transit visa when they just change planes. You seem to be aware of Russia, so you know how much of a hassle it is to get a visa and most likely you can’t even get it for just changing flights. If you would travel more you would know that many international airports have airport hotels within the departure area, so you would not have this problem. Also non-Russian airports have better heating in winter!