Tips on surviving travel disasters

Tuesday, January 15, 2002

Disasters come in all shapes and forms. The more you travel the more you realize it is not if disaster will strike, but when. Over the years I have experienced many small disasters that have certainly broadened my horizons and taught me many valuable lessons.

There was the time I was in Glasglow, Scotland, for four days without a change of clothes, no luggage and no coat. Lesson learned: Scotland can be really cold in the winter, and clothing to fit my frame is nowhere to be found.

Of course I can never forget the 30 feet of snow, OK more like 5 feet of snow, which, when snow-plowed became 30-foot mountains blocking every flight in Denver for four days when I was flying home for winter break. These mountains of snow gave me the luxury of sleeping in the Denver airport for four days with a zillion other stranded, tired, hungry, cranky and bored strandees. Literally there was not a hotel room to be found for 100 miles at any price. Lesson learned: Don't connect in Denver in the winter without a carry-on of food, water, sleeping bag and small electronic entertainment devices.

One of my personal favorites was when my son, Skyler, was 3 months old (his first flight) when my favorite airline began canceling flights and to "better assist me" routed me from Dallas to Houston where three flights were canceled and I ran out of formula. To "better accommodate me" they then flew me to Oklahoma City and Tulsa (16 hours later and still not home), we misconnected in Kansas City before getting to St. Louis. To make a long story short, I could have flown to India and back in the time I flew from Dallas to St. Louis. A three-hour trip ended up being an eternity.

I could go on and on about overbooked hotels, missed connections, shuttles and lost luggage. There was the time I got home from Mexico and someone in Puerto Vallarta had purchased a big-screen TV and other electronic items on my credit totaling thousands of dollars.

Getting the credit card to realize airlines don't allow big screen TVs as carry-on was the biggest challenge. The point being the more you travel the more life deals you cards you don't always want to take.

Such was my experience when I recently visited Mount Saint Helen's National Park.

After paying for our camping spot at the highest point of the mountain, we were rousted out of bed in the middle of the night by a police officer and intoxicated park attendant who had double-sold the same spot. After leaving we were in a small accident and life was not good.

From years of listening to airlines and hotels and even national parks doing bad things to good people, I realized that life is just not fair!

But there are steps you can take to protect yourself. When things don't go as planned here are some thoughts to help you:

1. Get a really good travel agent who will give you support if you have a problem.

2. Don't sweat the little stuff. Life is way too short, so pick your battles carefully.

3. Realize some things in life are just out of control. I recently had a client call me who had sat on the runway in Atlanta for nine hours because of bad weather. I guarantee you no one wanted to get that flight off the ground more than the pilot and ground crew. No matter how upset you may get, nothing is going to change, so sit back, chill out and make the best of a bad situation. Remember the saying when life gives you lemon make lemonade. Once you make it through the disaster you can then take steps for correction if needed.

4. Pack and prepare for the worst. Think of everything that could go wrong and be prepared.

5. Take good notes. As things unfold if it one of those life battles you can't let go, take good notes, and file a formal complaint with the companies corporate office within 30 days of the incident. Keep your letter to the point and factual. Also, you need to clearly explain what you expect the company to do for your satisfaction.

6. Be patient, most companies will do the right thing if given time. If you are not happy with the first response, reply and request a further investigation.

When everything else fails, laugh a little. Remember that at some point life's most awful moments become great material for a good laugh later.

Carolyn Kempf is president of Elite Travel Inc. in Cape Girardeau (1-800-999-6003, 334-1234, carolyn@elitetravelinc.com)

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