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Our Readers' Worst Travel Horror Stories

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Man clinging to airplane seat (Photo: Index Open)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on October 30, 2008. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, cruise, hotel, Sarah Pascarella.

Just in time for Halloween, we asked you to share your worst travel horror stories, and you didn't disappoint. We've culled the most representative of the lot, including tales of missed airport connections, unhelpful customer service, and sudden illnesses. Here are some of the more groan-inducing stories, as well as tips on how to avoid similar travel woes on your next trip.

A Changed Itinerary—While You're Left in the Dark

Reader bayerdis shared the following story:

[My family and I] booked a Thanksgiving flight on [[ United Airlines | United ]] from Anchorage to New Jersey. The tickets were bought and paid for in May. We got to the airport two hours ahead of time on the day of departure only to find out that United had cancelled our entire flight because they had booked us on an earlier flight that day, but had neglected to tell us and we had not shown up in time for the new flight. The gal at the counter was belligerent with me, so my husband had to take over cause I was about to start screaming. Fortunately, someone else at United was able to find us last-minute spots on later flights.

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What to Do

Whether you've planned months in advance or booked a last-minute flight, it's always a good idea to check a day or two ahead of your departure to see if the airline has changed your flight schedule or itinerary. Many airlines now offer email or text message alerts that will keep you up to date on any changes, even on the go. This takes on particular importance during high-volume travel times, such as major holidays, school vacations, and the like, when seat availability is already limited, or as capacity cuts result in fewer seats available on any given flight. By being informed, you won't be left stranded.

Always Have a Backup Plan

Reader MJ and her family experienced a chain of unfortunate events when they showed up for a recent cruise vacation:

[Our trip] was a New Year's Eve sailing to Nassau and an anniversary cruise for my parents. We had a flight into Ft. Lauderdale and no one was there to meet us. We called the cruise line and were told to get a taxi and go to the hotel [they indicated]. The hotel was the wrong one and had not been used by the cruise line for at least a year. We stopped the taxi and told him another hotel. We arrived at the second hotel and they did not have our name on the list. We went back to the taxi and called the cruise line again and [they] said it was the other hotel of the same name. We rode over there and were lucky to get a room.

We were told by the hotel what time to be in the lobby to catch the bus out to the pier. We waited a long time and talked to the hotel personnel; they called the cruise line and the cruise line finally sent a van to pick us up. We [were brought] back to the airport and picked up the bus to the pier. The cruise line bus people were not going to let us on. I told my parents to get on, as we had been messed up too much already. We did ride the bus to the pier. Well, that set the mood for the whole cruise ... The cruise line did pay our taxi and gave us a discount on another cruise ... The cruise line said we fell through the cracks. I have not given the cruise line another chance.

What to Do

MJ's case illustrates the importance of always having a backup plan. She had booked a pre-cruise package through a third-party supplier, which covered her transfers and hotel lodging, but clearly something got lost in the shuffle.

If you purchase a pre-cruise package:

  • As with flight or hotel arrangements, get in touch with your travel provider a few days in advance to confirm all bookings.

  • Once en route, keep all travel documents with you, including confirmation numbers and customer service contact information.

  • At the first sign of trouble, get in touch with a customer service representative to get the situation sorted out or to make alternate arrangements.

  • If you come across further difficulty, keep a record of all events, as well as whom you spoke with, so you can make a claim later.

Safety First

Regardless of where you're going, you always want to take safety and security into consideration. Take the case of reader Moose:

I was in Des Moines on business. I'd driven 350 miles for a seven a.m. meeting with my new boss. I checked into the Marriott and settled into my room. At 10 p.m., someone tried to get in. It woke me up; I told them to go away. They left. At 11 p.m., someone tried to get into my room. It woke me up. I told them to go away. They left. I called the front desk—they asked what I was doing in the room. I told them it was my room. They said OK. At midnight, unable to sleep, I went down the hall to get a drink. My key wouldn't let me back in. I went to the front desk—they told me it wasn't my room. They wanted ID—it was in the room. They called security; I was kept in the lobby until four a.m. before they let me back in my room. I woke up at nine—they'd cancelled my wake-up call when they reassigned the room. I met my boss at 10—three hours late—to learn that he'd given notice and was no longer my boss.

What to Do

In this case, the hotel staff may have double-booked our reader's hotel room or assigned her to the wrong room. Regardless of whether it's a mix-up regarding room assignments or something criminal (such as a burglar), if you suspect someone is trying to get into your hotel room, call the front desk immediately. If you reach an unhelpful staff person, ask to speak to a manager. By addressing a potential threat at its inception, you can prevent an unpleasant situation from becoming downright dangerous.

Do Your Research, Know What You're Getting Into

Reader kjobri recently took an extended trip to Ireland, yet it ended up being memorable for all the wrong reasons:

I was trapped on a bus for three weeks traveling through Ireland with a tour guide who thought he was so interesting. What should have been a wonderful trip was spoiled by this guide whom I refused to tip afterwards. Next time I'll bring along my iPod so I can tune out one of these bores if needed. A very expensive lesson learned.

What to Do

Before booking any trip, especially a packaged tour, check out online travel message boards and communities to see if others have shared similar experiences. By doing so, kjobri could have posted a question beforehand to see if any other travelers had taken this particular bus tour, what the guides were like, etc., to get a better picture of what type of trip was being booked. Several travel sites have active community boards and forums, such as Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree Travel Forum, igougo, and SmarterTravel.com's sister site TripAdvisor, among countless others.

Murphy's Law Sometimes Overrules All

Once in awhile, a story comes in showing that sometimes, despite advance planning or in-the-moment resourcefulness, things can go really wrong. This anonymous reader has one for the record books:

I had to travel from Omaha to Denver to San Francisco to Sydney with my 15-month-old son (sans wife). The [outgoing] trip to Omaha was horrific—he was awake for almost 30 hours—he finally went to sleep on the last leg in. The only reason I survived were angelic flight attendants who took pity on me at three a.m.

My wife suggested five ml of antihistamine (at our doctor's recommendation) to encourage sleep for the trip home. I made it out of Omaha to Denver fine. While I was packing the overhead, he rummaged in the backpack, opened the childproof top (which I had trouble with), and chugged 35 ml.

Mild panic. Grabbed kid like a football under one arm, trailing our three carry-ons behind while the flight attendant opened the door. Flight left with our luggage. After a short debate in which I wanted to opt for a taxi, the airport called an ambulance. We waited 45 minutes while I tried to keep my son awake. Had a 26-mile ride to hospital—I got the bill at $20 per mile. Son is thrilled by ambulance and now wide awake. Not so thrilled by tube down throat and huge liquid charcoal injection. Hospital requires observation for three hours ($1,800). Now we've missed all flights, our luggage is gone, and we can't get a cab as the hospital is out of town and it's rush hour.

Walk just over a mile (carrying son and dragging carry-on) to the hotel we can see in the distance. Son is hungry. Dinner at Denny's (we could walk there). Bad move. Only thing worse than liquid charcoal going in is coming out. Again. And again. And again. Unbelievable surface coverage by volume. Only had a few diapers. Towels were gray.

Next day, three hours to San Francisco, nine-hour layover waiting for the flight to Sydney. Clothes are disgusting. I've only got what I've been wearing for more than 48 hours. He's got tinges of gray everywhere. Bought him a lovely San Francisco outfit ($57 shirt and shorts—only one that fit) and every single individually shrink-wrapped diaper they had at the news stand (@$1.50 ea). Had a 14-hour flight home to Sydney with unhappy, squirming, diarrheic child and me with less than five hours sleep over a 60-hour period. Definitely a trip to remember—for all the wrong reasons.

What to Do

Despite the best-laid plans, this reader's story exhibits that some disasters just can't be prevented or controlled. Resourcefulness, keeping a level head, and maintaining a sense of humor are the best antidotes to a trip that's falling apart. While it may be little comfort in the moment, a practical attitude is the best advice—and will prevent any mistakes from repeating on the next vacation.

Do you have a nightmare travel story you'd like to share? Submit your comment below!

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