12 Travel Disasters I’ve Actually Seen Happen
Being a tour leader is not the glamorous life you might imagine it to be. Anything and everything can (and often does!) go wrong.
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The life of a tour leader
Instead of relaxing on the beach with clients (who are actually on vacation), tour leaders are constantly putting out fires. They’re the first ones up in the morning and the last to go to bed—and sometimes, they’re even woken up in the middle of the night to tend to a disaster. When I started my travel company, EscapingNY, I, too, was looking forward to jet setting across the globe and hanging out with interesting travelers on the trips I lead to Cuba, Mexico, and Jordan. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love leading group tours, but sometimes, the job can be a bit of a nightmare. Read on to learn what can go wrong while traveling and what to do when it does.
Breaking a bone
Breaking a bone on vacation is the last thing anyone wants to happen. During a group trip to Cuba that I led a few years ago, not only did someone break her toe on my trip, but she did so on the first day of the 11-day trip. Talk about bad luck! The first hospital we drove her to wasn’t an official “international hospital,” which meant they weren’t allowed to admit foreigners. Though she received excellent care at the next hospital, it took two days to find crutches, which I had to pick up in a different city. While the rest of the group was walking, hiking, biking, and snorkeling, I had to arrange private car tours for the injured traveler to keep her entertained until we were able to arrange to have her fly back to the United States on an earlier flight.
If this happens to you: Seek out the most trusted person who would have first-hand information on where to get help. If you’re not on an organized tour (where the tour leader is your go-to point person), speak with your host, hotel, day trip tour guide, building security, or a police officer. Going to your consulate or embassy could be helpful but knowledgeable people closer to you can sometimes prove just as effective. This is exactly the sort of situation where travel insurance comes in handy. This traveler had purchased travel insurance so she was able to file a claim and be reimbursed for the hospital bills, flight change, and time missed on the trip. Learn more here about when travel insurance is worth it—and when it isn’t.
Losing your phone
Losing a phone in your own city is enough of a hassle but losing one overseas provides additional challenges. I’ve had several clients lose phones on group tours and, in each instance, the unfortunate traveler left their phone unattended in a public place (like a park or public bathroom) only to have it go missing within minutes.
If this happens to you: Go back to look for your phone where you left it and speak with any employees or staff nearby. In order to file a claim with your phone carrier or insurance company, you’ll likely need to produce a police report so head to the local precinct. Since you may never get back the pictures you had stored on your phone, speak with anyone you may be traveling with about sharing their photos with you at the end of the trip. Find out the best products for people who keep losing things.
Finding bed bugs
Bed bugs don’t discriminate when it comes to choosing a place to call home. They’re not limited to backpacker hostels and shady motels—they can show up anywhere and everywhere, including clean, high-end hotels. All it takes is one traveler with bed bugs in their luggage to infect a space. I’ve met countless travelers who have found bed bugs in their accommodations around the world and I broke out in bug bites while staying with a friend in Hawaii. If not handled appropriately, the bugs could haunt you for years.
If it happens to you: As soon as you get to your accommodations, look for signs of bed bugs and if you suspect an infestation, get out of their immediately! If you think you’ve been affected, wrap your belongings in plastic bags and keep them separated from the luggage of travelers who were not affected. Once you’re back at home, launder your belongings on high heat and follow these steps for getting rid of bed bugs.
Being able to book accommodations online has made travel easier in many respects, but it can create its own problems. Many hotels, hostels, and homestays rent out rooms via multiple online platforms that don’t always communicate perfectly with each other, which can result in double bookings. This is particularly true with AirBnB in Cuba, where the platform has more challenges than it does elsewhere. I’ve arrived at accommodations—in some cases, rentals that I’d worked with numerous times—only to find out that the rooms had been double booked. When this has happened, I ask guests to relax—and treat them to a drink—while I’m finding a new place to stay.
If it happens to you: Ask your would-be-host how they can help: Hotels can call partner hotels on your behalf and home-sharing hosts like AirBnB, VRBO, and HomeAway can reach out to the company support for help identifying other nearby hosts, though you should also reach out to support directly. Connect to the Internet as soon as possible and begin looking up alternate accommodations. If you’ve already arrived at your would-be host, ask if they can stash your belongings if you need to pound the pavement looking for a hotel. Learn more about the difference between home-sharing platforms.
Changing a flight due to an emergency
I’ve had travelers need to switch their flight because they’ve injured themselves or because there was a family emergency back home. Adding to the stress of breaking a bone, popping an eardrum, or learning there was a death in the family, are last-minute flight changes that can cost hundreds of dollars. Coordinating the flight changes can also be a challenge depending on the country you’re in, where it may be difficult to access Wi-Fi or make an international call.
If it happens to you: Always keep the contact for your airline and travel insurance (if you purchased it) in your phone and in your email for easy access. If Wi-Fi or international calls are a challenge, contact a friend or family member back home so they can reach out to the necessary parties on your behalf. In some cases, your best bet is to go directly to the office of the airline, where face-to-face communication might help you score a seat and avoid additional fees.
Being unprepared for your period
Periods are never any fun but they can be especially inconvenient while traveling. During a recent group trip to Jordan, one of my trip participants got her period as soon as we arrived at a Bedouin desert camp. All of the camp staff were men (which is common at desert camps) and there were no convenience stores or supermarkets nearby that sold feminine care products. I had to have an uncomfortable conversation (that included some descriptive gesturing) with a modest Bedouin man at the camp and requested he take me to purchase tampons. He assured me he understood the problem and came back with a large box of wingless maxi pads that no woman would feel safe sleeping in overnight. We made do that night and visited the store in person the following morning.
If it happens to you: In a pinch, you could wad up toilet paper and facial tissue or use a bandana or t-shirt you’re willing to part with. In many countries, pharmacies and supermarkets stock menstrual care products, though rural areas and developing countries are less likely to have them. If you think you’ll get your period while traveling, bring a stash of your favorite products and consider trying a reusable menstrual cup, which is eco-friendly and takes up very little space. See how one woman packs for a two-week trip with only carry on bags.
Losing your luggage
Any time bags are checked, there’s the potential for them to be lost, which is why I encourage travelers on my trips to only check bags if necessary—and if they must, make sure they pack all their can’t-live-without items in their carry-on. Must-need items that should go in carry on include: medication, electronics (including chargers!), clean underwear, toothpaste and a toothbrush, and any valuable items like jewelry. I’ve had clients’ luggage go missing a couple times, though it’s always shown up within 24 hours.
If it happens to you: Immediately report the missing luggage to the airline, make a list of what is missing, and request reimbursement for purchases that will tide you over (like toiletries and inexpensive clothing).
Broken down cars
Cars can break down in any country, at any time. Hopefully, the breakdown will occur somewhere there’s a comfortable, air-conditioned waiting room but that’s not always the case. While leading a Day of the Dead trip to Mexico, my main driver’s van was having engine troubles so I had to scramble to find a replacement driver to take us on a day trip to pre-Aztec pyramids in another city on short notice. Given how busy the city (and its drivers) are during Day of the Dead, this was no small feat. Most vans, SUVs, and large vehicles were already reserved so I reached out to my network of guides and found a driver with a van in another city. I paid him to come to Mexico City to pick us up and take us on the day trip. He turned out to be so great that I now use him regularly for my tours. As for my trip participants, I was able to switch around the itinerary so they could enjoy walking tours within Mexico City while I was arranging the car situation so they didn’t miss out on any activities.
If it happens to you: If you’re traveling with a group, just sit tight while your tour leader handles the details. If you’re traveling by yourself, speak to the driver about the next steps. The driver will likely call a mechanic to fix the problem (if that’s possible) and/or can hopefully call a substitute driver to pick you up. If you have a cell signal and are in a country that uses ride-sharing platforms like Lyft and Uber, you may want to pull up the app to see if there are any drivers nearby. If you’re in the middle of nowhere, several hours from the nearest city, you may be sitting there for quite some time. This is where patience, snacks, and pre-downloaded podcasts can come in handy.
Missing a flight
Not only have I had clients miss a flight because of weather cancellations or because a delayed flight caused them to miss their connection, but I’ve also missed quite a few flights myself. If you travel enough, it will happen eventually. Due to a glitch with the Uber app in Thailand, which kept switching and re-routing drivers, resulting in a five-minute wait time turning into a 45-minute one, I missed my flight from Bangkok to New York. Not wanting to wait for a flight the next day, I ran around the airport, as ticket counter agents and customer service reps gave me conflicting information. There was a flight to New York about to depart with a 60-minute connection in Beijing but they told me they didn’t think the layover time was sufficient to make the connection to New York.
I was informed that if I agreed to this flight change and didn’t make the connection in Beijing, that I would be responsible for the cost of booking a brand new, last-minute flight from Beijing to New York. I’d been to Beijing airport several times and I was only carrying a backpack (no checked bags for me, thank you very much!), so I took the chance. Other travelers in line at Chinese customs let me skip ahead when they heard I had 30 minutes to catch my flight, I ran through the airport as fast as possible and boarded the New York-bound connection with five minutes to spare.
If it happens to you: If you’re near the gate of your flight, speak to the gate agent, otherwise, head to the information desk of your airline to request a seat on the next flight. It’s possible you’ll have a layover added to a direct flight and if flight options are really slim, you may be re-routed to another nearby airport. If you’re not at the airport, call customer service immediately. Know that you may be subject to re-booking/change fees up to several hundred dollars. Learn more about what to do when you miss your flight.
Getting sick while traveling
Though I take every precaution so that participants on my group tours don’t get sick, it does occasionally happen so I always carry extra medication with me. Travel tummy is, by far, the most common sickness while traveling, and it is often caused by consuming tainted food or water. Street food and drinks made with tap water (like lemonade) can be avoided but they’re not the only culprits. Mexico is my favorite country in the world and I absolutely love leading tours there but it’s also the country that’s caused me the most indigestion. We’re talking massive diarrhea during desert camping and jungle hiking trips that couldn’t be cured immediately with a pill.
If it happens to you: Reach into your luggage for the headache, travel tummy, and general pain relief medication that you smartly chose to pack even though you didn’t think you’d need it. If the sickness is worse, head to the local pharmacy for over-the-counter medication or make an appointment with a clinic to get checked out. Wash your hands frequently and carry hand sanitizer for when you don’t have access to soap and water. To ensure you arrive at your destination (and then home) happy and healthy, learn how to avoid getting sick on a plane,
Serious hotel problems
Hotels without water? No electricity? Fire damage? With all the recent earthquakes and widespread fires, some hotels are suffering so travelers should confirm directly with hotels to determine if they’ve been affected. A few weeks before leading a Day of the Dead trip in Mexico City in 2017, a massive 7.1 earthquake hit, causing 40 buildings to collapse. Though the hotel I had reserved for my trip wasn’t affected, it was located near the hardest hit area so I decided to move my group to another location. Not only was there the possibility of after shocks, but trip participants were frantically emailing me asking how safe it was to visit Mexico City so soon after the earthquake. Moving the group to another part of the city gave the trip participants piece of mind and assured that the water, electricity, and all other amenities we often take for granted, were working properly.
If it happens to you: If you’re traveling with a group, your tour leader will handle the problems. If you’re arranging your own trip, reach out to the hotel as soon as you suspect there may be a problem. Affected hotels may or may not reach out to you directly regarding affected amenities and when they do, it’s possible they may not be entirely forthcoming about how the hotel was affected and how it may impact your stay. As such, it’s especially important to read recent online reviews. If you’re already at the hotel that’s experiencing problems, ask customer service to help you find a room that’s not affected (if possible), or to help secure a reservation at another hotel. You may have to do this yourself then make a claim with your travel insurance afterward. To help avoid this situation, check out these warning signs you’re about to stay in a bad hotel.
Having credit cards hacked
While credit card hacking can—and does—happen at home, you’re more susceptible to hacking while traveling when connecting to public Wi-Fi sources in hotels, restaurants, and public spaces. Downloading transportation, foodie, or travel tip apps specific to the destination can be very helpful but could also put you at risk. One of my credit cards was hacked while solo traveling in Malaysia, possibly while connected to public WiFi, but there’s no way to tell for sure.
When my credit card emailed me to inform me of suspicious activity, they put a temporary hold on my account. They then asked me to verify a purchase in a tea shop, which I confirmed, so they re-activated my card. When I flew back to the United States the following week, I saw charges over $1,000 at American department stores, which were charged while I was on the other side of the world. My credit card company issued a new card and worked with me to contest the charges, but it was a lengthy and annoying procedure.
If it happens to you: Use public Wi-Fi sparingly, and consider carrying a mobile hot spot, such as SkyRoam, which allows you to connect anywhere, safely encrypts your data, and allows multiple devices to connect at once (especially convenient for families and groups). When connected to public Wi-Fi, limit the amount of personal data shared and never, ever enter credit card information. If you do get hacked, contact your credit card company immediately to cancel the card and begin contesting fraudulent charges. Read up on how to keep your data safe on public Wi-Fi.