A guest at a so-called upscale hotel in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, was shocked to find no soap in his bathroom. He asked repeatedly for a bar of soap so he could shower.
Two days later a maid gave the man a small piece of soap -- all that was left from a previous guest's bathroom. But the man never got a chance to use it. The water in the hotel had been cut off.
Had this true story been submitted, it might have qualified for a prize. That's right. There's now an award for the worst travel story.
Anyone who has traveled in the last few years probably has at least one horror story to tell -- delayed flights, lost luggage, bad room service, horrendous cruise ship cabin plumbing and other such tales.
Enter the Frankenstein Travel Awards. Businessman Charles Reilly is chairman of the Executive Communications Group, a consulting firm in New York that teaches media and communications skills to executives. Reilly is also a frequent traveler. He got the idea for the award in 1982, when he was a passenger on a transatlantic crossing of the QE2 between Southampton and Philadelphia.
"There was one group of 40 on the ship who had left their hotel in London to board the ship," Reilly said, "but all of their luggage was somehow sent to India. You never saw an angrier crowd as we pulled out of the harbor."
The trip got worse.
"There were dinner parties every night, but the women had nothing to wear. There were a couple of people on that trip who wanted to throw some other folks into the Atlantic," Reilly said.
Then the seas got rough. And the final insult came when the ship pulled into Philadelphia. "Customs was a mess," Reilly said. "They wouldn't let the passengers leave the ship unless and until all the luggage was unloaded. Then they made everyone stand in very long lines and wait. One passenger actually collapsed and died while waiting to be cleared."
"That's when I knew we needed some sort of award," Reilly said. Together with his company's president, Peter Giuliano, Reilly launched the annual Frankenstein Travel Award for the most horrible travel experience.
In 1986 the hands-down winner was Richard Cole. Poor Richard. He was the only passenger on a one-stop commuter flight between Hartford and Boston. When boarded the plane, the flight attendant insisted he had to check his garment bag along with the cargo for the flight -- a box of oranges and some frozen lobsters.
When the plane made its intermediate stop, Cole thought he saw his bag being taken off the plane. The flight attendant insisted that it wasn't Cole's bag.
The flight attendant was wrong. Four cities and five countries later, the bag finally caught up with a desperate Cole in Paris.
His award? Not surprisingly, Cole received a nice piece of leather luggage. "I take it with me wherever I go," he said. "But I now insist on taking it on board with me."
Cole's story was one of about 150 entries Reilly receives each year. "It started out as a cute idea," Reilly said, "a fun outlet for my frustration. But now I do it as a sort of public service for people who have suffered so many indignities while traveling."
Take the case of Natalie Maier's nightmare cruise to Mexico's Yucata'n Peninsula. Maier lives in New Jersey. On the day before her flight to Miami, where she and two friends would join the cruise ship, a blizzard dumped 23 inches of snow on her community of Oradell.
It took hours to shovel her way out of the driveway for the trip to Newark Airport. When she and her friends got there they were told that the flight had been canceled. They were rerouted on flights to Charlotte, N.C., then to Atlanta and finally to Miami.
They made the ship's departure, but their luggage was lost.
The first day at sea, Maier got very sick. She was unable to sleep or stand, and spent the day in her deck chair. The result: She not only was seasick, but now sported a blistering sunburn.
The trip got worse.
Each time the ship docked, passengers discovered that stores had closed. Beaches were temporarily closed -- 17 people had been stung by Portuguese man-of-war.
Then came huge swells at sea.
Finally, Maier's flight back home was marred by a screaming incident between a passenger and a stewardess. Both had to be taken off the plane when it landed in Newark.
Maier's award: A dream weekend in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love.
There are honorable mentions as well. Last year's winner: Charles Hvratin from San Diego.
Hvratin needed to attend a relative's funeral in Houston on a Monday morning. He booked a Continental flight leaving San Diego at 4:40 on Sunday afternoon. His ticket had apparently been prepaid by family members on the East Coast.
But when he got to the airport, the airline's computers were down and long lines of passengers were ahead of him. When his turn finally came, the Continental ticket agent could find no record of the prepayment. Hvratin had only minutes to make his plane. He had $200 with him, and used it to buy his ticket.
He raced for the gate and barely made the flight. The plane started to taxi out to the runway, when it suddenly stopped. Engine problems. After 45 minutes the plane was towed back to the gate and the passengers were told that the flight was canceled.
Hvratin quickly discovered that there was only one more flight to Houston from the West Coast that evening. But it was leaving from Los Angeles at 9:15 p.m. If he hurried, he could make it by catching a Western Airlines flight to Los Angeles.
He made it up to Los Angeles and raced to catch the flight. When he got to the gate and handed the agent his ticket, Hvratin was given another shock: The Western ticket agent in San Diego had pulled the wrong ticket.
Hvratin began to beg. He was allowed on the flight, which landed in Houston at 2:30 a.m.
After burying his relative, Hvratin started back to San Diego. He got up at 5:30 in the morning and headed for the Houston airport. He made his flight, although his seat was broken. Then the attendants announced a delay -- engine problems.
The final total, by Hvratin's own account: two downed computers, one dead plane, one wounded plane and only five hours of sleep over a three-day period.
Another runner-up was David Etter from Dallas, who got mugged, lost most of his clothing in a hotel laundry fire and rented a car with a dead battery -- all in one trip.
Another winner, Dolores Allen of Takoma Park, barely survived a motorized schooner vacation in the Caribbean.
When she arrived in San Juan with her 11-year-old son she discovered that the ship was having engine trouble; 33 passengers were forced to accept tarantula-infested quarters at a nearby hotel.
When the ship did leave port, the passengers discovered that the cabins "were tiny, roach-infested cells."
Next came a small hurricane and everyone -- including the captain -- became seasick. Water poured into the cabins, damaging passengers' luggage. Then the ship's engines stopped; luckily, with the aid of the wind, the schooner finally reached its first port of call.
Have a terrible travel story? Don't call me. I've got enough of my own. Instead, write directly to the Frankenstein Travel Award, 303 Fifth Ave., Suite 1404, New York, N.Y. 10016.
Next week in Travel: Turkeys, a special section featuring more trips that started out badly and went downhill from there.