"Was it a bad dream?" Alice Jones, The Independent's deputy arts editor, was asking herself yesterday as she was turned away from a flight from Gatwick airport. "A 4am alarm call meant I only half-listened to the improbable news reports of travel chaos caused by an erupting volcano in Iceland and I set off for Gatwick airport, blissfully unaware of the clouds gathering to wreck my holiday," she said. "Arriving at the North Terminal for a 7.30am flight to Funchal, Madeira, I was greeted by scenes of rather docile chaos as travellers waited quietly in haphazard queues to be told their fate.

"The screen said 'Enquire at desk', but I never got that far. Within five minutes of my joining the back of a snaking, bemused line, easyJet had shut up shop. Passengers were told the sales desk was now closed as there were too many people for them to process; those passengers looking to transfer or rebook flights were advised to go straight home and log on to the airline's website. The helpline was not due to open until 8am. I asked an easyJet representative why we couldn't fly. "Volcanic ash. Gets in the engine. Plane goes down. Simple as that," she explained, warmly.

"And that was that. Huddles formed around the three measly computer terminals outside Caffè Nero as holiday-makers tried to rebuild their plans without the help of airline staff.

"I caught the train back to London and rebooked a new set of flights, departing two days late on Saturday, online. As we pulled into East Croydon, 20 minutes after my plane had been due to take off, my mobile beeped: 'Your easyJet flight is cancelled due to volcanic ash in the atmosphere. Please check www.easyjet.com for details'. Timing is everything."

As frustrating as her predicament was, at least Ms Jones was in the UK. Others were stuck abroad with not much information about how long their wait would be.

Florence Roberts, 18, from Tunbridge Wells, was stranded in Lyon after spending a week staying with a French friend to improve her French in the run-up to her A-level exams.

Ms Roberts was due to fly to Gatwick at 9.30pm on Thursday but woke up to find all flights cancelled.

"I don't really know what to do as the friend I have been staying with is going on holiday," she said. "But she doesn't want to leave me on my own so she's probably going to have to delay her holiday. All I can do is wait. The staff at Lyon airport told me it might all open up again. I have to be back at school on Monday. My exams start in June and I really need to get back as soon as I can."

Jonathan Ames, 48, a journalist from central London, was facing a long overland journey from Madrid to London after his flight was cancelled.

Mr Ames had been planning to catch a 4.45pm flight from Madrid to City airport in London. But his office arranged for him to take a sleeper train to Paris, where he will either catch the Eurostar back to London or take a ferry from Calais.

He said: "I kept seeing graphic images of the volcano on Spanish TV but my Spanish isn't that good so I hadn't realised it was going to affect me until my office phoned me to say there was no way I was going to be flying home today. They've booked me on to a sleeper train to Paris but the Eurostar is hugely busy so I'm not sure yet what I am going to do from there. If I can't get on the Eurostar it'll mean putting me on a train to Calais and getting the ferry.

"It'll probably take me 24 hours to get home, if I'm lucky – leaving Thursday on the sleeper I hope I'll get home by Friday evening. I'm fairly relaxed about it, to be honest."