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Reader Horror Stories: Hair-Raising Tales From the Road

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Frustrated at the airport (Photo: Index Open)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on October 28, 2009. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, Christine Sarkis, holiday.

For me, the best part of Halloween isn't the costumes or the candy, it's the scary stories of travel woes we receive from our readers around this time each year. Whether you're dealing with lost mothers, stolen wheelchairs, or a mysterious "burnt Frito" smell, you get through the trials and travails of modern travel with a sense of humor and wisdom to share.

So without further ado, I present this year's selection of scary tales from travelers.

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The Sad Tale of the Forgotten Mother

Submitted by nadya troche

"A few years ago, my elderly mother was traveling alone on American Airlines. We were not allowed to go to the gate with her, but the wheelchair attendant said all will be fine, we will take care of her. Mom did not have a cell phone, so we relied on them to get her on the plane. We paid for first class to insure a comfy flight.

"We stayed in the airport until the plane took off, and when it did, we left for home, confident in the fact mom was on her way to California from New York. When we arrived home about two hours later we received a call from a stranger. The woman was a kind soul who found an elderly woman crying at the gate.

"Apparently what happened was the attendant parked mom at the designated gate and left. Mom fell asleep after a long wait to depart, and did not hear the call for boarding. I guess the sight of a woman in a wheelchair at the gate did not alarm the flight attendants! Well the plane took off without her and she sat alone at the gate. We managed to get her on a later coach flight after 15 exhausting hours."

What to Do

Nadya did so much right: she got her mother a first-class ticket, connected her to a wheelchair attendant, and waited until the flight took off before leaving the airport. According to American Airlines' website, it provides wheelchair assistance to and between gates, but boarding assistance is a separate matter, and must be requested at the gate. It's likely that Nadya's mother arrived at the gate before an agent was there to staff the desk, so there was no one to notify.

Because accompanying those who need extra assistance to the gate is no longer an option, a cell phone may be the next best thing. It allows you to check in and make sure they're in the right place, aware of their surroundings, and getting the assistance they need, even when you're not with them.

The Scary Story of the Lost Engine

Submitted by JAS

"Ever get the feeling that you're not supposed to leave a place? That there's a magic circle drawn around you that no amount of force will break? That was my firm belief on a recent trip home from Colorado on US Airways. The prop plane that was supposed to take 31 passengers from Grand Junction to Phoenix lost an engine en route and was diverted to Durango where we were met on the tarmac by fire engines and local paparazzi.

"Five hours later, after the frustrating exercise of dealing with airline staff who preferred to kid around with one another rather than provide support, and making our own reservations on next flights out, we were all housed in hotels for the night.

"On returning to the airport the next day, we learned that nearly all seats confirmed the previous evening were on overbooked flights and most people would not be flying for another day. I did get a seat on another prop plane to Phoenix and arrived there minutes before my connecting flight to the Bay Area left. Once on that plane, we sat on the tarmac for an hour before we were told that, due to a computer malfunction, we had to deplane and wait for another flight. I finally arrived in Oakland only to find that my luggage had been lost. 24 hours after leaving Grand Junction, I was home. Bagless, but home."

What to Do

There are few things scarier than having mechanical problems during a flight. And while there's nothing to do except remember to breathe in situations like this, once you're back on the ground, there are ways to increase the chances of getting a flight out as soon as possible.

JAS made the best of the situation by getting one of the first and only flights out the next day. It's always a good idea to have the airline's toll-free reservations number programmed into your phone, so in the case of a canceled flight, you can call to rebook instead of needing to stand in a long line. If you have a smart phone or Internet access, you can also look up available flights to better work with the rebooking agent.

The Saga of the Borrowed Wheelchair

Submitted by arkansas traveler

"While traveling with a group of six we landed in Dallas to change planes. With one heart patient and one amputee in our group we started the long walk, up and down stairs and past miles of gates. Finally we used the house phone to call for a cart, which never showed up. Faster travelers made it to the gate to ask the plane to please wait.

"Our heart patient could not go any further when a gate with wheel chairs was spotted. But when we asked could we use one we were told no, and if we took one, security would be called. We borrowed the wheel chair anyway, which we returned, and got to our gate on time just to be told we didn't have a pilot."

What to Do

Arkansas Traveler made the best of the situation at hand—sending people ahead and rounding up unofficial transport for those who needed it.

If you know members of your party will need transport between connecting flights, you can often call the airline ahead of time and arrange assistance. You can also enlist the help of the gate agent whose job it is to help passengers find connecting flight information.

The Mystery of the Burnt Frito Smell

Submitted by CA Traveler

"In July, I flew with my mother-in-law, wife, and six-month-old daughter from Paris where we vacationed. Our flights, in two segments, were from CDG connecting through Chicago and arriving in San Francisco. The first leg was smooth and easy. Somewhere over Colorado, however, the flight attendant nearest our row smelled something funny, "like burnt Fritos." We were sitting in the rear of the aircraft next to the galley.

"After a frantic search by several flight attendants and a co-pilot, the source of the smell could not be found. The co-pilot mentioned that new Wi-Fi service has just been installed but, since it hadn't yet been enabled, the router located in the overhead bin one row up couldn't be the source. In fact, as I mentioned to the crew, I had actually been surfing the internet not 10 minutes before the mysterious burning Fritos appeared. Shortly after the search the smell seemed to dissipate.

"Nonetheless, when a flight attendant stated, "I don't feel safe in this plane," the pilot made an immediate emergency landing in Grand Junction, Colorado. We dropped from 30,000 feet to ground in under 12 minutes. Our plane was met by several fire engines hosing us down and, then, boarded by a fully decked out fire fighting team to find the Fritos. No such luck.

"We all disembarked and spent the next four hours waiting in the terminal for a replacement plane flown in from nearby Denver. Once it arrived, we were ushered onto the new plane to a new smell: Pizza. The local airport had sprung for pizza for all the passengers. This was good because if the burning Fritos did recur it would be masked by pepperoni and sausage.

"Grand Junction has severe winds and a shortened runaway. As such, the plane could not be loaded with enough fuel to complete the trip to San Francisco. Instead, we had to make one more stop in Salt Lake City. We finally arrived at SFO about six hours late, tired, and ready to get on the ground; all except my infant daughter who managed to sleep from Paris and from Chicago, play in Grand Junction, and sleep again to San Francisco. She was ready for the next trip!"

What to Do

There are some situations, such as this one, where the only thing to do is, like CA Traveler, employ equal measures of level headedness, patience, and a sense of humor. Luckily for passengers, safety takes precedence over arrival times, and while that can lead to inconvenience, in the end it's a pretty good trade-off.

The (Almost) Never Ending Journey

Submitted by Dawn

"I planned a trip with my children to visit my husband who was working in Israel for the summer. An Egyptian tour company provided our arrangements, which included travel to Israel through Cairo for a week on our own, and then back to Egypt for a guided tour.

"I got nervous when two weeks before the departure our seats on Egypt Air from JFK were not confirmed. The travel agent assured me that the flights would be confirmed by departure. The day before departure he called apologizing profusely that he could not get the flights confirmed. If we delayed the trip we would lose out on precious time that my husband had taken off, including the weekend. I asked the agent if he thought we had a chance to get on that flight if we went anyway. He said we had a very good chance and told me to ask for his friend at Egypt Air to ensure it.

"We took the risk and flew from Cincinnati to New York the next day, Tuesday. To make a long story short, the fellow I was told to ask for never came to the desk. We did not get on the flight and I was then told (for the first time) that there was no departure the following day, so we had to wait until Thursday night to fly to Cairo. Sigh. We made the best of if, got a hotel close to the airport, took a tour and the kids swam in the hotel pool."

"Two days later we got on the plane to Cairo and were met Friday morning at the airport by a representative from the tour company who apologetically told us that there were no seats to Tel Aviv that day so we would have to go out the following day. He put us up in a hotel and I was afraid to leave it, being alone with my kids. Later he called and explained that there were no available flights the next day either, but he could get us on a bus at 5:00 in the morning. Exasperated, I agreed, just wanting to get there! He came back to me later, again profusely apologizing that the following day was the Sabbath in Israel and the border was closed. He took us on a tour of Cairo instead. Sunday, six days after we left Ohio we finally arrived by plane in Tel Aviv to a very relieved husband and father!"

What to Do

Dawn did as much as she could to move each leg of her trip along, and then made the best of each delay. When it comes to travel, so much is out of our control that sometimes patience and resourcefulness are our best tools.

This story also highlights the importance of finding a travel agent who can get the job done. If you're going to use a travel agent, make sure it's someone you have used successfully in the past or whose referrals you can check. Their job is to spare you from situations like this, not create them.

The Cruise Passenger Has No Clothes

Submitted by mrtraveler

"I flew from Los Angeles to Chicago to Rome to London. Upon arrival, my two suitcases did not arrive. I made a lost luggage report and was told that there would be a flight later in the day and my luggage would be onboard. I left for Dover for one night and then was boarding my 14-day cruise of the Baltic. Still no luggage.

"I boarded the ship and made another report and after the ship sailed I was told that one suitcase was still in Rome and the other one arrived in London but missed the ship. I did not have any luggage from the 14th until the 24th of June. Needless to say, I had to buy clothes onboard the ship.

"When we returned, I flew from London to Rome to Chicago. Arrived in Chicago and no luggage. I returned on a Monday and my luggage did not arrive until Thursday evening. I did get a new wardrobe at the tune of $980 and the airline paid for all of that and all expenses I had."

What to Do

Mrtravler ends the story by looking on the bright side: almost $1,000 in new clothes. But that certainly doesn't erase the stress of lost baggage, especially if you're on the move.

If your bags don't arrive when you do, report them missing before you leave the airport, and find out exactly what the airline's lost and delayed baggage policies are in regard to compensation. Travel insurance often covers baggage, so keep a copy of your policy in your carry-on.

Other key things to have in a carry-on in case of baggage trouble is a change of clothes, and any necessary medications and documents.

Do you have a frustrating, funny, or scary travel story? Share it with other readers below!

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