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Andrea Rubakovic was stranded at London Heathrow Airport and feeling increasingly panicked by the prospect.
It was early January 2010 and a sprinkling of snowfall had ground the UK capital to a halt.
Andrea’s flight home to Toronto, Canada was canceled, as was pretty much every flight on the Heathrow departures board.
“Just complete system breakdown, absolute mayhem at the airport,” is how Andrea remembers Heathrow that day. As a Canadian, Andrea was baffled by the idea that the UK edition of a “huge blizzard” amounted to around “one millimeter of snow.”
Andrea wanted to get back to Toronto to see her Serbian family in time for their traditional January 6 Christmas celebrations. If she didn’t depart the UK ASAP, she’d never make it, and the thought of missing the festivities was heartbreaking.
“It was really, really, really important for me to be back home in time,” recalls Andrea, who was in her early 20s at the time.
But the hours rolled on, and there was no sign of any flights departing that day, and Heathrow Airport’s departures area was filled with throngs of similarly stranded, would-be fliers.
Among them was an American traveler called Hollie Savitt, from Chicago. In January 2010, Hollie was also in her early 20s and was in the midst of a post-college trip around the world.
“I had taken off overseas and was supposed to be gone for two months,” Hollie tells CNN Travel today. “I think at this point I was going on month nine or 10.”
Hollie’s flight was also canceled. She was milling around the departure area wondering what to do when she spotted Andrea. Hollie’s heart immediately went out to the stranger, who looked overwhelmed and exhausted.
“I see this adorably frantic, upset girl – she’s tough, let’s not ruin her street cred – but she was crying,” says Hollie.
“I think I came up to her and was like, ‘Are you okay?’”
In response, Andrea told Hollie about her canceled flight and the likely soon-to-be-missed Christmas celebrations.
“I was like, ‘Alright, we’ll divide and conquer. We’re going to sort this out – two heads are better than one,’” recalls Hollie.
“Hollie was just very, very helpful,” says Andrea. “She was like, ‘We’ve got this. Let’s get stuff done.’ And we hit it off right away. We became a little team right away, in this chaos around us.”
Hollie marched Andrea back to the help desk, and they spent the next hour or so exploring options – were any flights likely to leave that day? What was the procedure for getting onto a flight the next day? What could the airline and airport offer in the meantime?
Andrea felt the cloud she was under lift a little. She was still anxious about getting home to her family. But she trusted Hollie, who was bright and cheerful, even amid the chaos, and made her laugh.
As for Hollie, she empathized with Andrea’s predicament, recognizing she was emotionally spent and in need of a friendly face and a bit of moral support.
“I didn’t want her to feel alone,” says Hollie.
Both women also felt comfortable around one another. It was hard to explain, but once they started chatting, it was kind of like they’d known each other for years.
So when Andrea was finally handed a coveted hotel voucher by airport staff, she and Hollie decided they’d share the room for the night.
“We both had hesitations for 30 seconds. And then it was like, ‘What is our other option?’” recalls Hollie.
A night in London
Hollie and Andrea expected they’d be put up at a hotel near Heathrow, but it turned out the voucher was for a hotel in the center of London, near the city’s famed Tower Bridge.
Hollie reckons that due to the scale of the disruption and the number of stranded passengers, the airport had already maxed out local hotels. But whatever the reason, when Hollie and Andrea saw their home for the night, overlooking the River Thames and London’s historic skyline, the evening officially turned from a disaster into an adventure.
“We get to the hotel and we’re like, ‘This is insane,’” recalls Hollie.
“It was the sweetest pad,” says Andrea. “It was pretty unreal for us in our early 20s staying in a hotel that nice.”
After they’d checked in, they met a few other stranded travelers, and agreed to all join forces the next morning to recommence the quest to get booked on a plane.
But in the meantime, Hollie and Andrea hung out together, making the most of the unexpected situation. When they arrived in their room, the two women, giddy and gleeful, took a selfie in the room’s mirror. In the photo, they’re both wrapped up in giant coats against the frosty London chill, pulling faces to indicate “Somehow I’m stranded in a swanky hotel room with a stranger. Somehow it’s actually kind of fun.”
That night, they stayed up into the early hours of the morning talking and sharing stories.
“We touched upon everything,” says Andrea of those conversations.
They realized, Andrea recalls, that they both shared “similar core values of family and friends and education.”
And both Hollie and Andrea love traveling – at least they usually love traveling, when flights aren’t canceled.
Andrea and Hollie were also on the same wavelength, making each other laugh and bonding despite the unusual circumstances. Andrea says they both share a “super outgoing, super fun, ‘get stuff done’ mindset.”
“It was really fun,” she says of the evening. “Even though it was really stressful. It was one of the more memorable nights of traveling ever.
“Right away we were making plans of – ‘When are we going to meet up again?’”
“That was the coolest,” says Hollie.
Back at the airport the next day, Hollie, Andrea and their fellow stranded travelers set about trying to get onto new flights.
“We were all on a mission to get Andrea home for Serbian Christmas,” says Hollie. “Everyone at the airport was kind of working together. If one person got through on their phone, they would pass it back in line so that the customer service agent would just help everyone in line.”
This all-hands-on-deck approach paid off and Andrea was among the first to get a new ticket.
Before Andrea rushed to her gate, she swapped Facebook details with Hollie. The two women planned to stay in touch.
“Both of us were quite adventurous, really open to traveling, so I think we had already made plans to see each other in the near future,” says Andrea. “So it wasn’t a goodbye, it was an ‘I’ll see you in a bit.’”
Andrea made it back just in time for her family Christmas celebrations. Meanwhile, Hollie made it onto a flight to the US, before continuing her travels.
The two started regularly messaging back and forth, plotting future travels together – maybe they’d meet in Istanbul, Turkey? Made they’d hang out back in the US?
In the end, Hollie visited Andrea in Toronto that summer 2010.
“Hollie met all my friends, and we had a blast,” recalls Andrea. “And then I went to Chicago after that.”
“It was great,” says Hollie. “We took turns to visit for ages.”
It was quickly clear that the night stranded in snowy London had fast-tracked their friendship. When they met up in Toronto, it wasn’t like reuniting with a stranger – seeing one another again felt like seeing an old friend.
“You meet someone traveling, they see you as your most authentic self,” says Hollie. “You’re in such a vulnerable/authentic state that when someone actually is let in at that state, a lot of times they know me better than people I’ve known for a long time.”
Both Andrea and Hollie have great memories of those early visits. One time Andrea was with Hollie in the US for the Fourth of July holiday.
“We went to her friend’s house for a barbecue. They were playing so much country music, which I never would have expected to like, but it really got under my skin, and it gave me such warm, fuzzy feelings, and I listen to it to this day,” says Andrea.
On another occasion, Hollie visited Andrea for New Year’s Eve.
Andrea wanted Hollie to have a great time, for the two of them to go out in Toronto and ring in the new year in style. But when it came to it, Andrea wasn’t feeling up to it.
“I just need to chill,” she admitted.
“Dude, it’s okay. I came to see you,” Hollie said in response.
“We hung out on the couch and talked about absolutely everything and supported each other and just had a lovely time. That was really memorable for me, and that really meant a lot,” says Andrea.
Friends for life
Some 13 years after they met at Heathrow, Hollie and Andrea are closer than ever.
Hollie recently visited Andrea in London, where she now lives with her husband and two children.
“You always made me feel like I was one of your crew, forever,” says Hollie to Andrea.
“You are,” says Andrea in response. “Hollie’s like a rock, she’s very solid. Anything I need emotionally, she’s there.”
Still, when Andrea got married and had children, Hollie, although delighted for her friend, did wonder if their relationship would change.
“I was nervous,” says Hollie.
But her fears never materialized.
“I think we actually got closer since that point,” says Andrea. “Significantly closer, because things just became more real. And we’re there for each other.”
This was especially true during the pandemic. Andrea was in the UK with her young family and unable to visit loved ones abroad. Through all the ups and downs, Hollie supported and lifted her up from afar.
Hollie says the support was always reciprocated.
“She’s such a cheerleader,” she says of Andrea. “When I’m down and she shakes me a little bit back to myself, because we’re really similar and she knows me really well.”
Last year, when post-pandemic travel restrictions finally allowed, Hollie came to London to visit Andrea and meet her children. Andrea says this “meant a lot.”
“It meant a lot to me too,” says Hollie, adding how special it was to be introduced to Andrea’s children.
“That’s the ultimate compliment of being welcomed into your family,” she says.
Plus, Andrea’s daughter absolutely loved Hollie.
“They became best friends,” says Andrea. “Hol bought her this bunny, this stuffed animal, and she still sleeps with it.”
When they’re not together, Andrea and Hollie message regularly back and forth. Their conversations range from the deep and meaningful, to the “silliest things,” as Hollie puts it. Sometimes the conversation lapses for a while, but they both know they’re there for each from afar.
Today, Hollie and Andrea are plotting future adventures. Hollie says she’d love to travel to Serbia with Andrea, and hopes that might be on the horizon this summer.
The two friends have also always joked that they should return to the swanky Tower Bridge hotel where it began. But now that Andrea lives in London, she’s starting to wonder if the hotel wasn’t quite as fancy as they remember.
She recently found herself in the Tower Bridge area with her family and decided to try and hunt down the hotel. As they walked around, Andrea relayed the story of how she and Hollie met – even though it’s one her husband and kids now know as well as she does.
Eventually, the family stumbled across what Andrea figured must have been the hotel. They all surveyed it for a moment. It didn’t quite live up to Andrea’s memory.
“In my head, it was the nicest, grandest, poshest hotel,” says Andrea. “Now looking at it, it looked kind of decrepit, it didn’t look that nice. Or maybe I just couldn’t find it.”
Maybe it’s better not to know, she admits, and leave the hotel memory untarnished.
Years of friendship later, Andrea and Hollie have long stopped introducing one another as their “friend I met when I was stranded at the airport.” The memories they’ve made together since have somewhat overtaken their origin story.
Plus, they now see one another as best friends for life, so it’s to surreal to think they only met thanks to an unexpected sprinkling of snow.
“I knew I’d met somebody fun,” says Andrea, looking back on that evening. “Somebody cool, that we’d see each other again, we’d hang.”
But she never would have predicted “it actually becoming a core, meaningful friendship that you actually rely on, that’s supportive.”
“There would be a void without you, for sure,” says Hollie, who sees their airport meeting as “life-changing.”
“It was meant to be,” says Andrea.