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9 Tips for Dealing with the Most Stressful Travel Disasters


It seems nowadays that travel is nothing but stress. As a person who usually travels by choice rather than necessity, I can say that I for one am traveling less. It’s such a hassle to buy a ticket, to get through the airport, to get on the plane, and to get through the flight, that I can hardly relax on a short vacation trip. It’s enough to make you want to take up yoga, which might not be such a bad idea. But there are particular situations that will try the patience of the best of us. Here are some simple tips to help you get through those stressful times.

1. You make a mistake in booking your ticket.

So you have just pressed “OK” and charged your credit card for that flight to Portland, only you realize you booked a flight to Portland, OR instead of Portland, ME. Or you booked a return flight at 12 midnight instead of 12 noon. Or you booked an international ticket in the name of “Harry” instead of “Henry” (which is your legal name on your passport). This happens more often than you might think, and while airlines are not as helpful as they might be in correcting simple and obvious errors.

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What do you do? Ideally, carefully review the details of any booking before pressing “OK” or “SUBMIT”. But if you forget to do that, then certainly read over your official receipt immediately after completing any booking. If you can catch an error immediately, the airline or travel agency will often process a correction without charge, sometimes up to 24 hours after booking. Others will make no changes without your paying a service fee (which might be significant).

2. You get to the airport late

Airlines have historically had what is called a “flat tire rule” to help people who miss their flights but who have made an actual effort to get to the airport. That’s not always the case anymore. If you arrive at the airport too late to check in for your flight or if you are delayed somewhere along the line, the airline may no longer rebook you on the next available flight, the very recipe for a stressful airport confrontation.

What do you do? Print out your boarding pass at home (when you can); this way you can proceed directly to security, even if your bag is too large to carry on. Sometimes the airline will gate-check a larger-than-allowed bag, and this extra time can allow you to make your flight. If you think that you will arrive at the airport too late to make your flight, it’s wise to contact the airline in advance on your cell phone. This will help prove that you are making an effort to get to the airport on time.

3. The airline cancels your flight

Since many airlines are preemptively cancelling flights in greater numbers than ever before, especially in times of bad weather, it’s more likely that this will happen to you. Sometimes an airline will simply rebook you on the next available flight, but if all flights for the day are cancelled or if there are no more available seats on your day of travel, then you’ll have to get involved.

What do you do? The airline’s obligation to get you to your destination doesn’t end just because your flight has been cancelled, but if an airport has a large number of cancellations due to weather, the airline is much less likely to book you on a competing flight, and even when they do the timing may not be acceptable to you. If your flight is cancelled, don’t leave the airport until you have a replacement and written confirmation. Sometimes when there are multiple cancellations, you can come out ahead by calling the airline directly on your cell phone to plead your case. They won’t always book you on a competitor’s flight, but it doesn’t hurt to ask (and asking nicely is much more likely to be effective than demanding harshly).

4. You have a confrontation with the TSA

It’s not only travelers who are stressed at the airport. The TSA agents who process your bags and review your travel documents are also under a great deal of pressure. And it’s not uncommon to have a disagreement with an agent. Perhaps you feel the agent has been rude, perhaps you’re miffed that the TSA is imposing an arbitrary and confusing rule, perhaps the TSA agent wants to confiscate a valuable keepsake or memento.

What do you do? When dealing with the TSA, it’s always a wise choice to try to be pleasant and polite, even if you don’t mean it. These agents do have a lot of power over you, and if you become confrontational or rude, they can detain you for questioning and force you to miss your flight; they can even call the police. This is a confrontation you do not want to have. If you feel an agent has treated you poorly or is administering a government rule incorrectly, you should politely ask to speak to a supervisor, but if the supervisor doesn’t see things your way you really don’t have much recourse. To avoid having an item confiscated, you can sometimes put it in a checked bag, or you can mail it home to yourself (some airports offer this service, usually for a price). But whatever you do—even if you know you are right—do not under any circumstances lose your temper. This is a fight you are bound to lose.

5. You have to check your carry-on bag unexpectedly

Now that more people are carrying on their bags to avoid excessive bag-check fees, it’s not unusual for the airplane to run out of space for carry-ons. Sometimes airlines will preemptively ask passengers to gate-check larger wheeled bags (even if they meet the airline’s own carry-on requirements).

What do you do? Make sure you carry valuables and important medicines in a personal item that is small enough to be carried onto any plane, even a small regional jet. Move your belongings if necessary to avoid checking valuable and delicate electronic gear. And make sure your bag is tagged properly for your final destination (verify whether your gate-checked bag will be sent to baggage claim or available in the jetway after landing). The latter is quite common for gate-checked bags on small regional jets.

6. The airline loses your luggage

So you’ve paid your ever-increasing checked-bag fee and your luggage still doesn’t make it to the destination. Sadly, this is not uncommon, even though the volume of baggage being processed by airlines has shrunk dramatically. While the vast majority of bags are finally reconnected to their owners, this is little comfort for those on vacation who don’t have what they packed.

What do you do? Report your bag as missing while you are still at the airport. Chances are it will catch up to you at your hotel (or at home) by the next day. If it doesn’t, some airlines will reimburse you for modest expenditures for necessities (however, don’t assume anything and ask the airline about the specifics of the procedures); travel insurance policies will also reimburse you for expenses that are a direct result of lost or delayed luggage, but make sure you read the fine print. To help ensure that your bag finds you, make sure you have included inside your checked bag your complete home address as well as the address of where you are going on vacation (including telephone numbers). Few people do this, but it can help your bag find you.

7. There are no more cars to rent

How often have you arrived at the car-rental desk only to find that the car you reserved is not available? To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, car rental companies don’t usually have a problem taking the reservation, but they sometimes have a problem keeping the reservation. This problem is often remedied with an “upgrade” to a more expensive vehicle. But what if there are no vehicles available? This happens more often than you might think in busy vacation areas where car-rentals are popular, especially now that car-rental agencies are cutting back on the size of their fleets.

What do you do? Unless you have a pre-paid, nonrefundable reservation, the easiest thing to do is to simply walk over to another car-rental counter and see what might be available there; assuming there’s a car you can afford, just cancel your original reservation and walk away. If you have your cell phone, you could even call companies to find the best rates. If you can’t find a car that you can afford (or if no one else has a car available), you might have to wait until a car is returned and processed (yes, this can happen on occasion). If the wait becomes outrageous (i.e., more than an hour), ask if the agency will pay for a taxi to your destination and drop off your car later.

8. Your rental car breaks down

Since car-rental companies hold onto their fleets of cars longer than they used to, it’s not impossible that you’ll experience some kind of breakdown or malfunction in a rental car at some point in your traveling life. If your car breaks down, you may be subject to a minor inconvenience or a major headache.

What do you do? Make sure you know your car-rental company’s emergency assistance number so you can call it from your cell phone. If you are a member of an automobile club like AAA, you’re covered for roadside assistance even if you’re driving a rental car, so this may be your best bet if you have simply run out of gas or locked yourself out of the car. If your car is damaged or malfunctions and can no longer operate, make sure the car-rental company gives you a replacement vehicle as soon as possible; obviously, if you have a breakdown after hours, there may be no way the company can provide a replacement vehicle until the next business day.

9. You lose your cell phone

I know some people who are more attached to their cell phones than they are to their right hands—and who would almost gladly give up their right hand instead of the phone. If you’re that kind of person, then read on.

What do you do? You can buy a replacement cell phone and have your number transferred in a matter of a few hours, so that’s not really the problem. The problem is that you will lose your contacts that have been programmed into your phone; you might even lose other valuable information, music, and programs if your phone is a smart phone. Most smart phones allow you to sync your contacts with your computer; so in many cases the information is not totally lost (of course, if you aren’t traveling with your laptop, you’re in trouble). It’s always a good idea to travel with a print-out of all your important contacts, even if you just tuck that into one of the pockets on your suitcase. If you have an iphone, subscribers to Apple’s MobileMe service can find the approximate location of their lost or stolen phone and remotely disable and even erase their phone’s contents.

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