Travel mistakes and disasters can happen to anyone, even seasoned travelers. I recently went on a family vacation touring through central Europe and despite the fact that we’ve all logged countless miles and nights on the road, we made lots of travel mistakes. From flight delays to lost luggage to deceitful rental car companies, we had it all. Here are our biggest travel disasters and what you can do to avoid making them yourself (or recover from them).
Travel disaster: Lost luggage
Three members of my family had their luggage lost for the entire 10-day vacation. This included ski gear, Christmas presents, and almost all of their clothes. This was the biggest travel disaster I’ve ever encountered in four years of constant flying. Check out all of the awful details of our lost luggage saga with Air France and Lufthansa.
How to prevent lost luggage
- Unfortunately, aside from only packing a carry-on, there’s not much you can do to prevent your luggage from being lost. It’s one of those things that’s just out of your control. Deliberately booking direct flights or giving yourself lengthy layovers can help, but there are no guarantees that you won’t fall victim to this travel disaster.
- When checking a bag, make sure to keep everything important with you in your carry-on. That includes valuables, breakables, tickets, and anything that would be devastating if you never saw it again.
- Always, always, always pack a full change of clothes – shirt, pants, underwear, socks – in your carry-on. I don’t always follow this advice when I travel for business, but on vacation I’m at least guaranteed to have an outfit to hold me over for a day. Not doing this was one of the biggest travel mistakes that my family members made.
- Always keep your baggage claim tickets, too, as you never know when you’ll need them to file a claim.
What to do when your luggage is lost
- Once the luggage carousel stops turning and you don’t see your bag, head to your airline’s baggage claim office. You’ll have to file a lost luggage claim, so hopefully you listened to the advice above and kept your baggage claim ticket. You’ll need to be able to tell them the style and color of your suitcase and any other identifying characteristics. I try to buy uniquely-colored luggage and have a neon purple tag on mine. They may also ask for some identifying items inside the bag in case the tags are missing. Something specific like, “purple zip up hoodie that says ‘Lake Tahoe’ on the front and a husky stuffed animal” is going to be better for you than, “I had a toothbrush and a pair of jeans.” The baggage claim representative will get your address so they can deliver your bag to you wherever you live or are staying. As annoying as all of this is, try to remember that the person taking your information wasn’t the one who lost your bag.
- The airline should be able to provide you with a toiletry bag with basics like a toothbrush, toothpaste, and shampoo. You may have to ask for it if it’s not offered.
- If your baggage can’t be located, you may be asked to fill out an inventory listing everything that was in the suitcase. If the bag still can’t be found after a certain amount of time has passed, the airline is required to compensate you for your loss.
Travel mistake: Not pre-booking tickets to popular attractions
Nowadays, you can easily book tickets in advance for the biggest tourist attractions. You might have to spend a little bit extra for the convenience, but this is one area in which it is definitely worth it. We missed out on Auschwitz because we didn’t look for tickets until a couple of weeks before our trip. When I visited a couple of years ago, we were able to walk up on the day of our visit and get our free admission tickets. In the years since, they’ve added an online booking system and if you don’t look for tickets early, you might not find any on your dates. The same goes for other popular places.
How to avoid missing top attractions
- The easiest (and usually cheapest) way to avoid this travel mistake is to go to the attraction’s official website. Some offer pre-booking discounts, and some charge additional fees for this. Pay attention to your confirmations to see if you need to print out a paper ticket or if you’ll be able to use your phone for admission.
- Book as early as possible to ensure you get to visit on the dates you want. I never like having to commit to locking in a particular museum at a certain time, but I’d rather do that than wait in long lines or miss out entirely.
What to do if attraction tickets are sold out
- Many times, pre-sale tickets are limited so that there are some available to sell at the ticket office. This might mean waiting in long lines with no guarantee of getting a ticket, but if this is your only way of visiting somewhere that’s important to you, that’s what you’ll have to do.
- In some cases, private tour companies have tickets and skip the line passes as part of your tours. You’ll pay a premium for their booking and tour guide services, but this is another option if you’ve missed out on pre-booking an attraction. In my Auschwitz example above, though we’d missed out on individual tour tickets, we could’ve gotten guided tours with bus service from Krakow from numerous tour agencies in town.
Travel disaster: Rental car scams
My mom booked us a 10-passenger van that was comically large for the narrow European streets we were driving through. She got a discounted booking through AAA with Dollar Rental to be picked up at the Munich airport. It was supposed to cost about $730. When we got there, they wanted way more money than was stated on our reservation. According to the woman at the Hertz desk (they operate Dollar), the reservation rate was merely a suggestion and they could actually charge us whatever they wanted. In this case, the base amount for the rental was about 200 euros more than what we booked it for. She gave us a 100 euro discount and said that was the most she could do without a manager and that we’d have to talk to one when we brought the car back. They also insisted that we pay an extra 150 euros for insurance that was never disclosed on the rental reservation. On top of that, they had to put a hold for refueling the entire vehicle. The total came to almost $2000 when it hit my credit card.
My mom was ready to walk away, but we looked around the crowded Munich airport and knew there was no way we’d get a vehicle large enough to hold seven adults on short notice for anything less than what Dollar/Hertz wanted to charge us, and there was no way we could keep our vacation plans intact without a car. We decided to go ahead and make the rental.
After leaving, we started to research and found out that Dollar rental is operated by a third party in German airports. A quick Google search of “Dollar rental Germany” returns pages and pages of results of people complaining about getting scammed by them. Apparently their game is to charge customers for bogus damages a few weeks after the fact because they get commission off of their billings. Sure enough, a few weeks after the van was returned, my credit card got hit for $339 for damages we know weren’t there when we dropped it off.
How to avoid getting scammed on your rental car
- Do your research beforehand. Had I been the one who made the reservation, I never would’ve gone with Dollar rental. Any time you’re conducting an expensive transaction like a car rental with an unfamiliar company, take a few minutes to research their track record. One single Google search before booking could’ve saved us huge headaches and one of my most frustrating travel mistakes.
- Make sure you turn the car in and have it checked over and signed off on in person. Have an employee review the vehicle and sign paperwork before you hand the keys over. If you are unable to do so, take time-stamped pictures of every angle of the car, including all side panels, bumpers, wheels, and the interior. You can use these if you have to fight charges after the fact.
- Make sure that you have enough credit available to cover the full cost of the rental plus any extra holds that they might place.
What to do when your rental car company scams you
- If you have the option, walk away when you get the feeling that they’re shady. I regret not doing that in the first place with Dollar, but also don’t know what else we could’ve done late on the day before Christmas Eve. Not making a last-minute effort to shop around at the different rental car counters was one of my biggest travel mistakes ever (and since it took five more hours for our lost luggage saga to come to an end, I would’ve had time to visit every company).
- If you get billed for damage that you didn’t cause, file a complaint with the rental company. This is your chance to use those photos you took when you turned the car in. The damage photos they sent us were taken in a different location than the van was returned to, so who knows where the tiny scuff they claim necessitated replacing the wheel occurred.
- I also filed a dispute with my credit card company (that has yet to be resolved – I’ll update this post when I hear back about that).
Travel disaster: Flight delays, cancellations, and missed connections
If you fly often enough, you’ll eventually encounter a flight delay. Sometimes they’re minor and not much to worry about. Sometimes they mean you miss your connecting flight. Sometimes your entire flight get cancelled. None of them are fun, but there are ways to survive. Our family got to experience all of the above on our Christmas vacation.
On this trip, we experienced all three. I personally had two flight delays (one short and one two hours long), and my dad, brother, and brother’s girlfriend got to experience a flight delay, missed connection, and a cancelation all in one bizarre trip. These are the most disruptive and frustrating travel mishaps that you’re likely to encounter.
How to avoid flight delays and missed connections
Flight delays are out of your control, which is part of what makes them so frustrating. Sometimes they’re due to weather, sometimes they’re due to mechanical issues, sometimes it’s a staffing problem, and sometimes there’s no discernible reason for them. There are, however, a few things you can do to protect yourself from flight delays.
- Traveling early in the morning usually means fewer delays. Because planes (especially for domestic flights) make several trips per day, flight delays can cascade. If your inbound plane is delayed trying to get out of Chicago (fact: your inbound plane will always be delayed at Chicago O’Hare), your flight is likely to be delayed as well, and so will the flight that your plane operates afterward. I travel for business all the time throughout the US, and my Monday morning flights are almost always on time, whereas my Friday afternoon/evening flights frequently feature delays. It’s not a coincidence.
- Give yourself ample time to make your connection. For domestic flights, I prefer to have at least an hour. I’ve had work itineraries that connected in as little as 35 minutes, but I would definitely not recommend that. Any slight delay is going to become a huge problem for you in that situation. For international flights where you have to go through immigration before boarding your next flight, I prefer at least two hours. I cut it short with an hour and a half on my Christmas trip and while I made my flight, it was stressful and could easily have turned into a travel disaster if the airport had been just a bit more crowded that morning.
- Expect to be delayed. Overall, the US carriers with whom I’m most familiar have a pretty good on-time track record. And yet flight delays can happen at any time for any reason. For example: an airport wide ground stop because a freak freezing rain storm popped up unexpectedly, or a deicing machine colliding with your plane (these are both real things that have happened to me in the last year). Not giving yourself a cushion before important events whenever you’re flying is a huge travel mistake. I once sat next to a family at the Newark airport that was devastated because one of their siblings was getting married in Florida in 8 hours and their flight had been cancelled. Basically, don’t book yourself a morning flight on the day of your sister’s wedding or anything like that because if you’re delayed and you miss her big day, you’ll both probably be sad. The same thing goes for cruises – try to fly in a day early so if you do have problems with your flight, you’ll have a cushion to get rebooked.
What to do when your flight is delayed or cancelled or you miss your connection
- First off, stay calm if a small delay is posted. The flight times you see are usually longer than actually necessary. If your flight departs exactly on time and doesn’t run into any ground delays, you’ll very likely arrive early at your destination. There is usually an extra 20-30 minutes built into the flight times to give the airlines (and you) a little bit of cushion. A delay of less than half an hour is probably not going to be a crisis for you.
- If your flight is canceled or you miss your connection due to a delay, the airline will rebook you on the next available flight. If it’s a busy travel day, that might not always mean the very next flight if it’s full. You can also request to fly standby on full flights in case another passenger doesn’t show. They should allow you to retain your confirmed reservation on the later flight until you’re either cleared or denied for the standby one. I’ve had to be rebooked twice in the last week, so it’s really not that big of a deal. It’s frustrating of course, but unless the problem is due to a major weather event you likely won’t be delayed for more than a few hours on a domestic itinerary.
- In case of cancellations or big delays, a lot of people will need to be rebooked. Long lines at customer service desks are a staple of any major airport. While you’re waiting in line, use your phone to call the airline’s customer service hotline instead. You’ll usually get helped way sooner and you can go sit in one of the uncomfortable waiting area chairs instead of standing in line with other grumpy passengers. I recently had to be rebooked on an American flight after a weather related ground stop. I called the hotline, got through to an agent immediately and was rebooked in less than five minutes. I got out of line and went to grab some food and enjoyed myself as much as possible in a crowded airport where everyone is stuck (and by that, I mean I sat on the floor and wrote most of this post). Some of the other passengers who refused to call (the gate agent kept trying to pass out cards with the 1-800 number on them but some people wouldn’t take them) stood in line for the entire 2.5 hours we were waiting.
- Know your rights. If you’re stranded overnight due to a delay or cancellation that’s due to something the airline can control (meaning not weather), they should provide you with accommodations and meal vouchers. If you’re on a flight operated by an EU airline or beginning or ending within the EU, you may also be entitled to financial compensation. Good luck tracking that down though, as we’ve been fighting with Air France and Lufthansa for two months at the time of this writing due to flight delays and lost luggage.
Travel disaster: Missing a train
I had booked myself a scenic train ride through the Alps from Munich to Verona with a connection on TrenItalia to Venice. The train was nice, I had a row to myself, and there were bathrooms and a dining car that I could get up and walk to whenever I wanted. Unfortunately, just before crossing the border into Italy, we were unceremoniously dropped off at a train station and told to board buses to our final destination. The buses weren’t labeled, of course, so I wasn’t really positive I was on the right one until we got pretty close to Verona. My nice, comfy train ride was replaced by several hours in a cramped, dirty bus sitting in traffic jams on an Italian freeway. We got one break at what has to be the world’s most crowded rest area, and we got a whopping ten minutes to get inside and use the bathroom and get something to eat. The lines were so long for everything that I only had time to pee and grab a package of apple struedel for my lunch. Naturally, I missed my train to Venice. Fortunately, I’d bought a ticket from a fare class that allowed me to rebook within an hour of my scheduled train, so I did make it to Venice only an hour later than scheduled and what could’ve been a major travel disaster was merely a minor travel inconvenience.
How to prevent missing a train
- Just like with booking flights, give yourself a long enough layover to allow you to transfer trains and have a bit of a cushion after your scheduled arrival.
- Most European rail operators offer several different fare classes. The cheapest ones may not allow you to rebook your ticket at no cost in the event of a delay. Check this before booking and if you’re making a connection, consider paying a bit more for the ability to rebook.
- Book your tickets as one itinerary whenever possible. I could’ve booked my two trains as one ticket through the Austrian operator, but booking the Munich-Verona leg with them and the Verona-Venice leg with TrenItalia saved me money. I’m lucky that I didn’t lose that ticket.
What to do if you miss a train
- Several of the same missed flight tips apply. The big one is remaining calm. Freaking out isn’t going to solve anything.
- Head to a customer service agent. They can assist you with getting booked on a new train. The cost of rebooking will vary based on the fare class you bought.
- Get a confirmation of the delay at the train station. Just like with flights, train operators are required to compensate you for certain delays. In my case, I was entitled to 25% of my fare back, but I didn’t find out about that until I returned home and the delay confirmations were no longer available. The rail operator I used required a form to be filled out with hand and mailed to Austria, so I ended up not even filing because the international postage would’ve cost me half of what I was getting back anyway.
Travel mistake: Paying with currency conversion
At many places, when we used our credit or debit cards, we were asked if we wanted to pay in the local currency or convert it to US dollars. You’ll typically be asked the same question when withdrawing money from ATMs overseas.
Also: pay attention when using the ATM because my dad tried to cancel a transaction on our last night in Poland because he’d put an extra zero in the withdrawal amount, but hit the wrong button and ended up with hundreds more zloty than he had wanted.
How to avoid paying extra due to currency conversion
- You always want to pay/withdraw in the local currency. Your own credit card company or bank will process the currency conversion and give you a better rate. Case in point: in Italy, I was withdrawing 200 euros from an ATM. It offered to process the conversion to USD for a set rate. I declined it, but took note of the number. Later on, I compared it to what my debit card was actually charged and it was $30 less than I would’ve paid had I accepted the conversion at the ATM.
- Pay attention when checking out and if you’re not asked about your currency preference, look at the register to make sure the cashier hasn’t intentionally done the conversion to get more money from you.
- Bring some starter cash from home. Many banks allow you to order it, and many have common currencies on hand. You’ll get a much better conversion rate from your own bank than a currency conversion stand at the airport. Not only does this save you money, it saves you precious vacation time.
What to do if you pay in the wrong currency
- Good news: Even though you made a travel mistake, this isn’t a crisis. This is probably the least disastrous of the travel mistakes in this list, but it can add up and cost you quite a bit over a lengthy trip. Learn from your error and choose the local currency the next time you’re asked.
Travel mistake: Doing too much too fast
Our whole family spent ten days together doing a whirlwind trip through Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Germany. We spent a couple of nights at my brother’s apartment, then headed across the country to spend about 18 hours in Vienna, drove 5 hours up to Krakow and spent one full day there, drove another 5 hours to Prague and spent about 20 hours there, headed back to my brother’s place, visited Salzburg for about 3 hours, and then spent about 12 hours in Munich on New Year’s Eve. It was crazy and it felt like we spent more time in the car than we did in the cities. There were so many things we missed out on in the cities we visited. I was lucky that I’d already been to all of them or I would’ve been incredibly disappointed.
How to prevent overdoing your schedule
Once you book your flights, sit down and do some research on what activities are available in the places you want to visit. Based on your travel style and energy level, you should be able to get a sense of how long you’ll need in each city to do the things that are most important to you. If you’re going to Paris and want to see the Eiffel Tower, visit Versailles, and spend a whole day at the Louvre, you’re going to need to book yourself more than two nights there.
- Understand that you can’t do everything. This is the hardest part of planning a vacation for me, so I’m writing this in the hope that I take my own advice someday. I want to see every corner of the world and have very limited vacation time, so I always want to cram in an extra stop on my roadtrips or hop a train to see one more city, but that’s not always a wise choice.
What to do if you schedule too much on your vacation
- Since there are only 24 hours in a day, you’ll have to cut something out of your schedule. Pick the attractions that you’re the least interested in and skip those.
- If you’re spending several days in a city, plot out the places you want to visit on a map and try to coordinate them geographically. If there are a few things in close proximity, hit those on one day to save transit time and maximize the amount of time you have for fun.
- If you booked an extra stop that you just can’t fit into your itinerary, check to see if your hotel or train reservations are able to be canceled. Lots of hotel bookings are prepaid now, but I always like to book ones with free cancellation in case my plans change. If you’ve done this, you may be able to recover from this travel mistake at no cost above your disappointment at having to skip a fun place.
What’s the biggest travel disaster you’ve ever experienced? Did you learn anything from it? Share your wisdom in the comments so the rest of us can learn from you.
Don’t feel too bad for us though. We managed to have an amazing time despite all of these disasters. Here are some of the more fun highlights of our vacation:
- Fortress Hohensalzburg: Salzburg’s Top Attraction
- The Leonardo da Vinci Museum in Venice
- Touring the Top of the Colosseum