The Bright Side of a Bad Travel Experience

Emirates Airline's Terminal 3 at Dubai International Airport opened in 2008 and cost $4.5 billion. Peter Marlow / Magnum Photos (3)

Minutes after our red-eye flight from Maui to Los Angeles leveled off at cruising altitude, and I’d fallen into an uneasy slumber with my head pressed uncomfortably against the window, the cabin lights flickered on and the captain made a terse announcement.

“We’ve had a fire in the forward galley,” he said with the professional detachment you’d expect from an airline pilot. “It’s been put out. We’re diverting to Honolulu.”

I bolted upright while at the same time reaching for my 6-year-old son, Iden, who was flying with me. Like any respectable kindergartner staying up past his bedtime, he was locked in a heated session of Angry Birds. He turned away from his iPad just long enough to say, “What?”

Well, fires on planes are bad news, for starters. And then there was the weather—powerful wind gusts that ensured a nail-biting takeoff and promised a treacherous landing. And a barrage of unanswered questions about the condition of our plane. How much had burned? Could the plane still be controlled?

I’ve had a front-row seat to the worst trips in the world for the better part of two decades, as a reader-advocate for National Geographic Traveler magazine and a syndicated columnist specializing in solving consumer problems. When things go wrong—when you’re stuck in a remote Asian city because your travel agent accidentally canceled your airline ticket; when you’re left at the dock in Florida because of a paperwork problem; when you’re not offered a refund on an erroneous hotel booking—I get the call.

You’d think that this consumer advocate would be afflicted with a dark world view, and that I would never, ever, want to go anywhere. Not so. I still travel—although I try to avoid certain airlines, car-rental companies, and hotels when I do. But helping travelers has led me to an improbable belief that there really is no such thing as a bad trip. Even when getting from point A to B seems like an unqualified catastrophe, the experience often makes you a seasoned, smarter, and more interesting traveler.

One of my readers, Jack Vanesko, was stranded in Katmandu three days after his online travel agency accidentally canceled his airline tickets. It was supposed to cancel only those of his travel companion, as he’d requested in a phone call to his agent. He missed his tour of Tibet, which was a disappointment, and he ran up hotel bills of more than $450, which the agency initially refused to cover. That’s understandably frustrating, but he may have gained something even better.

Vanesko had three days in one of the most exotic destinations in Asia—a photogenic city with its share of gardens, museums, and temples. And he had quite a story to tell when he returned (“Did I tell you about the time I was stranded in Nepal?”). I also helped him recover his $450, plus he learned a valuable lesson: never cancel a plane ticket by phone—always in writing. What if everything had gone as planned? He’d have had the same pictures in his digital camera that thousands of other tourists on the same Tibet tour do, but perhaps fewer stories and takeaways that might make his next trip better.

Becky and David Hovis missed their honeymoon cruise because of a common paperwork problem. A Carnival representative assured the couple by phone they needed only a government-issued ID to board the ship, but when they arrived at the port, another employee said they’d been misinformed. Passports were required. And so a planned week in the Caribbean turned into a honeymoon in Tampa instead.

If you ask me, Carnival probably did the Hovises a favor. Instead of being stuck at sea, in a world of midnight buffets and shuffleboard, they found themselves within driving distance of pristine, white-sand beaches, the world’s best theme parks, and rich cultural experiences. (Oh, and if you think there’s nothing romantic about central Florida, make a dinner reservation at Victoria & Albert’s at Disney World’s Grand Floridian Resort. Tell me that’s not romantic.) Still, it’s understandable that the couple would want to cruise. I contacted Carnival, and it offered them a chance to redo their floating vacation.

Some wounds are self-inflicted, of course. Take Jorge Sanchez-Salazar, who booked a nonrefundable room at the Hampton Inn & Suites Reagan National Airport through Orbitz. His trip got off to a terrible start. Only an hour after he pushed the “buy” button, he discovered he’d keyed in the wrong dates. “Admittedly stupid on my part,” he told me. The online travel agency refunded his airfare, but the hotel initially refused to fix his dates, citing its strict non-refundability rules.

Sanchez-Salazar learned a valuable lesson that will help him avoid half the mistakes DIY bookers make, at least in my experience. Always, always, double-check the dates on your reservation before buying. He also discovered the benefit of booking through an online agency, and of being both polite and persistent when you feel you have a legitimate case. After he contacted Orbitz and me, asking us to intervene on his behalf, the travel agency pressured Hampton to refund his nonrefundable room, even though it wasn’t required to. It did.

These aren’t just random stories in which a traveler may or may not have seen a proverbial silver lining—a life lesson learned, or an even richer vacation experience. To me, these mistakes are what make travel great. And I speak from personal experience.

After being whipped around by heavy turbulence on our approach, American Airlines Flight 14 landed safely in Honolulu. Unlike a lot of the other passengers who immediately expressed their anger at being diverted, I was grateful. Not only were we alive—we were in Hawaii.

The airline shuttled us to an upscale hotel in Waikiki, paid for our room and breakfast, and we visited with friends the next day before heading back to the airport. We spent the next night in a hotel at the airport in Los Angeles before arriving back home in Orlando 48 hours late.

Here are some of the things I learned while stranded on Oahu: “Safety first” isn’t another meaningless Madison Avenue slogan. They really mean it at American Airlines, thank goodness. There’s no better way to teach a 6-year-old the value of patience and politeness than on a lengthy mechanical delay. And if you find yourself with an extra day on Waikiki, the only flavor of shave ice to order is rainbow.

“Mistakes are almost always of a sacred nature,” the late Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí once said. At no time is that truer than when you’re traveling. He would have made a great ombudsman, that Dalí.

Elliott is a consumer advocate and author of the upcoming book Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals (Wiley). He blogs about his own mistakes every day at