Is there any sure way to guarantee a trouble-free vacation? Probably not -- too many things can go wrong. But you don't have to let these seemingly inevitable problems ruin an entire holiday.
I travel frequently, and I sometimes find myself in circumstances that threaten to turn a well-planned vacation into a turkey. When it happens, however, I've learned I can usually salvage the trip and even have fun.The alternatives -- getting mad, moping in my room or heading for home -- don't appeal to me.
If there's such a thing as a philosophy of travel, my approach is decidedly upbeat: Make the most of an unpleasant situation, I tell myself, because it may be your best chance to do or see the things that drew you to a particular destination in the first place. After all, the overriding purpose of a vacation -- whether it's sightseeing, mountain climbing or simply napping on a beach -- is to enjoy yourself.
Of course, I'm not talking about authentic disasters -- physical or financial -- such as an automobile accident, a hotel fire, a broken leg or a suddenly bankrupt tour operator unable to refund your full deposit.
I have in mind the niggling annoyances that plague travelers the world over -- among them delayed luggage, a lousy hotel room, bad weather, missed plane connections, bad planning and overbooked resorts.
Inn Trouble A while back, my wife and I checked into a bed-and-breakfast inn in Hawaii for what we hoped would be a relaxing beach holiday. We had dutifully read several guidebooks and chosen a place recommended highly by all the authors. As it turned out, the beach was beautiful, but our lodging -- at more than $100 a day -- was a big disappointment. We were, we later learned, the victims of a brief lapse in the inn's normally high standards.
To our misfortune, the owner was away during our stay, and a substitute manager had relinquished responsibility to yet a third person, who had no notion of inn-keeping. For breakfast, we were invited to forage in the kitchen for what we could find. At the end of the day, we returned to our room to discover it had not been tidied -- no fresh towels or drinking glasses, sink unscrubbed, bed unmade, waste baskets unemptied.
I had plenty of reason to complain,, but I long ago concluded that it is no fun being a grump on your vacation -- no matter how strong the justification. So we said our polite goodbyes and found more agreeable lodgings elsewhere the next morning. Later, I wrote the owner -- again politely -- and she apologized with an acceptable refund.
Luggage -- or Not? One of the most common hazards of modern air travel is delayed or misplaced luggage. Last winter I flew to the Virgin Islands for three days but my suitcase, which I had checked, continued on to Caracas, Venezuela, and I didn't see it again until I had been back home for more than two weeks. An annoyance, sure, but I had taken a couple of helpful precautions for just such a possibility.
When I fly, I wear comfortable sports clothing that is, nevertheless, dressy enough to wear into a fancy restaurant -- usually a sport jacket, cotton slacks, a sport shirt and dark shoes. And I always carry with me basic toiletries, a change of underwear and a swim suit. In the Virgin Islands, this was almost enough. I did have to buy a pullover shirt for day wear so I could keep my sport shirt reasonably fresh for evenings.
I see lots of people flying these days in shorts and a T-shirt, or gym clothes and sneakers. They're comfortable, no doubt, but I would hate to spend a week in San Francisco or London dressed like that if my bags didn't show up.
Weather 'Tis Better ... Bad weather is another vacation spoiler, and so is gorgeous weather if you happen to be on a ski vacation. I traveled to New Hampshire in early spring for a long-planned trip that happened to coincide with an unusually early thaw. I might have pouted in my room because there was no snow, but to what effect? So I hiked instead of skied, and the sun was so pleasant I really wasn't much disappointed at all.
The Last Resort Last summer, my wife and I scheduled two nights in the resort town of Wisconsin Dells in southern Wisconsin. Local tourism officials tout it as the state's most popular destination -- a warning I should have heeded. We pictured quiet woodland lakes, and the Wisconsin River cutting through scenic gorges. Indeed, they are to be found at the Dells -- but surrounded by the worst tourist-oriented commercial blight I have seen anywhere. I suspect the town qualifies as the world capital of miniature golf and water slides.
Obviously, I had blundered, but I had work to do nearby and so we stayed. Quickly altering our expectations, we decided to take the Dells on its own terms. We checked into a motel dominated by a giant statue of a pink flamingo towering overhead. And soon enough, we had boarded a "Wisconsin Duck," an amphibious craft -- one of dozens -- carrying tourists on a noisy thrill ride into the river. Although environmentally questionable, the ride actually turned out to be fun -- well, at least more fun than sitting in our room regretting preconceptions gone awry.
The Readers Speak An upbeat frame of mind is important when something goes wrong. This column receives a steady stream of letters and phone calls from travelers who have had absolutely miserable vacations. Some mischance, they say, "completely ruined my vacation." Many have valid complaints; but others, I think, often bring on the grief themselves.
One writer griped because the TV set in his hotel room in Mexico wouldn't work. So what? And another was very upset because his hotel in the Dominican Republic failed to provide a daily supply of fresh beach towels as promised in its brochures. I had no sympathy for this guy's problem either. I would have borrowed a room towel or bought a beach towel and forgotten about it.
One couple who had taken a cruise wrote that their luggage never made it aboard ship. It ruined the entire voyage for them, they said, because they were constantly embarrassed by the lack of evening attire. I'm sure they were inconvenienced, but I suspect they overreacted. Most of their fellow passengers probably sympathized with their plight.
Another couple canceled a driving trip through Spain and returned home when the luggage in their rented car was stolen the day they arrived. I think I would have purchased a few items in the nearest shop -- a pair of shorts, a shirt or two and a change of underwear -- and kept going. A missing wardrobe doesn't qualify as a disaster. And the cost of a change of clothing is minimal compared to wasting a round-trip transatlantic ticket.
As I wrote this, a caller informed me that he and his family had booked a river trip in Central Europe this spring based on what he says was faulty information supplied by the cruise line. The family showed up at the river port on schedule only to discover they had been misdirected; the ship was several days down river. Ultimately, the caller and his family boarded the ship in mid-cruise at their own expense.
Certainly the man is justified in complaining and attempting to seek a refund. And yet I was troubled by his comment, "It completely ruined the vacation." At least half a voyage is better than none, and it shouldn't be wasted. Nothing could be done about the bungled arrangements until the boat docked anyway.
Bottom Lines Based on my own experiences and those of other travelers, I have come up with a personal list of guidelines that could help you avoid trouble on a trip -- or at least make the most out of vacation disappointments:
Accept the fact that having a good time is your responsibility, not someone else's. When something goes wrong, you should take the initiative to find a practical solution that allows you to enjoy yourself -- despite the obstacles thrown in your way by a hotel, an airline, a cruise ship or a resort.
If, for example, you check into an all-inclusive resort and the food is lousy, you have two basic choices short of demanding a refund and leaving. You can curse the chef and dwell on your misfortune. Or you can accept a bad situation for what it is and concentrate on enjoying the resort's more agreeable attractions, such as its beach or friendly staff.
Choose a destination because it appeals to you and not because it is a bargain. Last year, an acquaintance and his wife had their heart set on going to Aruba, but their travel agent promised them a much better deal on a trip to another Caribbean island, and they took the advice -- unfortunately. The hotel, they discovered, was as crummy as it was cheap, and they flew home the next day. This winter they have a new agent, and they are going to Aruba.
Pick an interesting destination first -- a city, an island or a country, for example -- and then find an agreeable place to stay, rather than vice versa. A lively city, a romantic island or a culturally rich country rarely disappoints. If your hotel turns out to be a bummer, you can salvage your vacation by focusing on the attractions outside your lodgings.
Never plan "a trip of a lifetime." Or at least don't think of a vacation trip in these terms. If you invest emotionally in a dream trip, you are setting yourself up for a big letdown. So much that you don't have any control over can go wrong. If you have always dreamed of flying to Hawaii, for example, be aware that the islands can sometimes be drenched in a rain that lasts for days. The hotel you picked may have overbooked and you could be sent elsewhere. You could come down with the flu. Be realistic about the possibilities.
Don't be taken in by travel ads beckoning you to paradise -- there aren't any. The world is full of inviting vacation spots, but none I've found is without its drawbacks. Many fine Caribbean hotels and inns have a beautiful view of the sea, but in their backyards are scenes of sad and unrelenting poverty. In some so-called paradises, you can't drink the water, eat uncooked vegetables or walk the streets safely at night.
Pay heed to standard safety warnings. In the past 30 years, I have traveled through perhaps 80 countries and all 50 states, and so far I haven't lost a penny to a hotel burgler, a pickpocket or a street mugger -- and I've never even felt threatened. But I get letters from travelers who have been robbed more than once on the same trip.
Am I doing something right? Perhaps. In areas where pickpockets are known to frequent, I carry my money and passport in a neck pouch hung inside my shirt. I do not carry a camera, which I think identifies me as a tourist. The big video cameras make you look like a treasure trove afoot.
I invariably travel alone or only with my wife, so I am never part of a large and conspicuous group chattering in English on a foreign street. I dress conservatively in ordinary street clothing. I try to blend in with the local population -- as best I can, anyway, with a head of bright red hair.
Do your homework. When I don't, I end up in Wisconsin Dells.
My usual procedure when choosing a destination is to readguidebooks, check the encyclopedia, phone or write tourism offices, consult friends who have made a similar trip and seek any recent newspaper and magazine articles.
The more you know about a destination, the more you get out of your trip. You rarely have to ask, "What else is there to do?," since you know.
Be sure of what you want from a vacation. If you have had a hectic work schedule and relaxation is what you need, a sightseeing trip abroad may be a bad choice. Independent touring often can be as stressful as work. Instead, you may be a candidate for a cruise, a guest ranch, or a tennis or beach resort -- all vacations where you can simply settle in for a while.
Don't get mad when things go wrong. Get problems corrected quickly if you can. Move out of your hotel if you must. But wait until you get home to demand satisfaction in writing. Taking the temporary loss of a night or two in a deposit may be better than ruining the rest of your vacation. Keep your emotions under control and enjoy yourself.
Accept mistakes with grace when you can't do anything about them. A few years back, my wife and I carefully chose a series of hotels for an independent tour of Italy. Then we gave the list to a travel agent to book, which she did. However, just before our departure we discovered a mistake. For two nights she had booked us into the Grand Hotel, as we had requested, but it was a hotel of the same name in a different town -- perhaps 20 miles distant.
What a mess. By now, the Grand Hotel we wanted was full up, and time to find an alternative had run out. So off we flew to Italy, clucking our tongues but otherwise restraining our displeasure. And was the wrong Grand Hotel really so awful? Far from it. The hotel itself was excellent, and we were especially charmed by the historic lakeside village in which it was located. The agent's mistake proved to be one of our best memories of Italy.