America's biggest travel nightmares (and how to avoid them)

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July 18, 2019
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America's biggest travel nightmares (and how to avoid them)

In many ways, air travel is a miracle. Before the Wright Brothers cracked the mystery of flight in December 1903, travel was a long and grueling process. At that time, getting from New York to London by ship took more than a week. Flashforward to 2015, when because of just the right wind conditions, a commercial red-eye flight from New York's JFK to London's Heathrow hit near-supersonic speed: It cut off 90 minutes of its scheduled flght time, making the translatlantic trip in 5 hours and 16 minutes.

It's easy to forget the miraculous parts of air travel when you're being ushered through a fluorescently lit airport past intrusive security, overpriced restaurants, and onto a plane not suited for those suffering from claustrophobia. And these trips are high stakes: The average, full-time American worker gets just two weeks of paid vacation time.

So, of course, there is no shortage of travel nightmares for the American tourist. Many of these happen in transit;  others hit once you've arrived in an unfamiliar place. Bags and travel companions can get lost, inclement weather can bungle a connecting flight (or a beach day), and carry-ons—and wallets—can get stolen from right under a tourist's nose. The idealized vacation is a relaxing oasis, but let's be real: The stress does not magically turn off when the airplane leaves the ground.

South West New Service (SWNS) in November 2018 asked 2,000 American travelers about their biggest travel nightmares. Here are the 20 most common issues gleaned from that survey, based on the percentage of respondents who've experienced the nightmare on a trip. It's easy to get consumed by the worst-case scenario, but almost every one of these nightmares has a fix. Travel can most certainly be frustrating—but keep in mind the 20 most common travel nightmares in the age of the Oregon Trail would be a much grislier list.

Here's the list of America's biggest travel nightmares and some tips to avoid them, ranked from #20 to #1.

You may also like: Top things on America's travel bucket list

#20. Getting separated/losing your travel companion

- Respondents who have experienced this nightmare on a trip: 7.7%

Losing your travel companion is always annoying, but it's especially frightening when traveling with kids and/or traveling abroad. The biggest way to avoid this travel nightmare is to plan: Dress kids in bright clothing, slip a business card of the hotel you're staying at into their pockets, tell them not to wander, have them memorize a phone number, and set a meeting place in the event they still get lost. In the age of cell phones, this nightmare has become a bit less terrifying.

#19. Being pick-pocketed

- Respondents who have experienced this nightmare on a trip: 8.4%

Anyone who's traveled to Europe during tourist season knows to keep an eye out for pickpockets that target unsuspecting travelers. Many tourists in big pickpocketing cities like Barcelona, Rome, Paris, and Amsterdam use money belts that can hang around their neck or slip into their shirt. But the biggest key of all is to stay aware, especially when in a big crowd, and to learn some of their favorite distraction tactics: the bump and lift, crowding on a train, the newspaper distraction, and more.

#18. Carry-on got lost/stolen

- Respondents who have experienced this nightmare on a trip: 9%

The main reason to carry-on a piece of luggage is to save the time wasted at the baggage claim, but the other reason is to keep an eye on your bag throughout the travel. According to Yahoo! Finance anchor Jen Rogers, the key to getting reimbursed for your lost luggage is to have good travel insurance (through American Express in her case) and then file a police report, itemize what you lost, be diligent with keeping paperwork, and be prepared to take lots of time speaking with insurance agents. However, even with months of calls, Rogers still was reimbursed only partially for her losses, so the best rule of all is to keep a close eye on your luggage throughout your travels.

#17. Canceled hotel reservations

- Respondents who have experienced this nightmare on a trip: 9.1%

After a long day on the road or on a plane, the last thing a traveler wants is to arrive at a hotel and be told that their reservation has been canceled. But industry standard is to overbook hotels, which means when few travelers reschedule or cancel, there might not be enough vacant rooms. Hotels have a policy called “walking,” in which they'll rebook you at a similarly nice hotel elsewhere, pay for transport there, and often pay for the first night stay. It'll be hard, but stay polite and calm—and remember it's not the hotel desk clerk's fault.

#16. Got lost/stranded

- Respondents who have experienced this nightmare on a trip: 11.1%

When traveling to somewhere unfamiliar, especially when the signs are in a different language, it's easy to get lost. But with smartphones, guidebooks, and maps, it's getting easier than ever to find your way. However, some prominent travel writers think it's better to sometimes let yourself get lost to find the interesting parts of a new city.

#15. Losing your wallet, phone, and/or passport

- Respondents who have experienced this nightmare on a trip: 11.7%

While losing a phone abroad is heartbreaking (it's expensive, and often serves as your camera and map on vacation), losing a wallet or passport can actually throw a wrench into your ability to get home. But if you lose anything, the first step is filing a police report. With a police report filed, go to the nearest embassy to get started replacing your passport if you're abroad. If you've lost your ID before domestic travel, call your airline and give yourself an extra hour or so at the airport to make sure you can get through security on time.

#14. Learning your phone doesn't work in a different state/country

- Respondents who have experienced this nightmare on a trip: 13.2%

Most phones will work abroad, but it's important to do some research before you go. For many phone providers, international roaming charges can be exorbitantly high, so it's often better to keep your smartphone in airplane mode and simply check email or load maps at cafés or your hotels when you have access to Wi-Fi. If you do want smartphone service, call ahead of time and see what the cost is for a daily or weekly international plan.

#13. Needing to seek medical attention while on a trip

- Respondents who have experienced this nightmare on a trip: 13.4%

It's frightening to seek medical attention anywhere, but doubly so when abroad. But there are actually plenty of resources out there—and in places like Europe, the medical care is actually cheaper than that in the States, and sometimes free of charge. Travel writer Rick Steves tells the story of a woman who got bandaged, an X-ray, and crutches while in Denmark and didn't have to pay a dime. For help finding the best care while abroad in any country, contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate and they can locate a doctor, alert family members of the issue, and even help transfer funds necessary to pay for treatment.

#12. Arguments/issues with or between your travel companions

- Respondents who have experienced this nightmare on a trip: 15.9%

Bill Murray once gave the advice that if you think someone's the one, travel around the world with them; if when you land at home, “you're still in love with that person, get married at the airport.” It's not rare to care about someone, but hate the way they travel. Talk about whether your travel partner likes to laze around or tour the city, whether they like itineraries or playing it by ear, and whether they want to rough it or travel in luxury. And have those conversations before the plane takes off.

#11. Having planned activities/reservations fall through

- Respondents who have experienced this nightmare on a trip: 16.6%

For a certain kind of traveler, itineraries are as essential to a trip as luggage, sunscreen and fanny packs. But as the late Anthony Bourdain once said, "Sometimes the greatest meals on vacations are the ones you find when Plan A falls through." So, when going on vacation, plan, research, prepare, but also be okay with the last-second pivot, because that's a great way to find a hidden gem.

#10. Having to stay in a bad hotel/rented room

- Respondents who have experienced this nightmare on a trip: 23%

It's always a challenge to pick the perfect hotel or room based on photographs or anonymous reviews, which is why so many respondents have experienced the travel nightmare of staying in a bad hotel or rented room. Something to remember before you book: Hotels vary based on country and culture, so certain seemingly obvious amenities (a king-size bed, a huge shower, a hairdryer, etc.) won't always come standard. Know what your must-haves are and do the research to make sure your room fits your specific wants and needs.

#9. Checked bags got damaged

- Respondents who have experienced this nightmare on a trip: 23%

It's frustrating but not surprising that checked bags get damaged while being lugged to and from the hull of a plane. So what can travelers do when their luggage gets ripped or knicked in transit? If you're flying between any of the more than 130 countries that have signed the Montreal Convention rules for air travel, the airline must reimburse passengers up to $1,500 for damaged luggage. Alert the airline to the damage as soon as possible.

#8. Missing your flight

- Respondents who have experienced this nightmare on a trip: 24.4%

Almost a quarter of respondents have missed a flight and many more have probably had the frantic experience of running through a terminal moments before boarding closed. Because the missed flight is so common, every airline has a policy for this travel nightmare. As soon as it's clear that you'll miss your flight, call your airline and see what it'll cost to be put on the next available option. Often, airlines will waive the change fee if a traveler has an extenuating circumstance like a flat tire or another emergency.

#7. Flight being rerouted

- Respondents who have experienced this nightmare on a trip: 24.8%

A rerouted flight is often a two-pronged nightmare: at first terrifying because of the mechanical issue or weather that causes the reroute, and then the annoyance of the logistical nightmare. Every airline will work to get you to your destination for no charge or offer a full refund, but some will also offer lodging if you're stranded overnight, so it's worthwhile to know your Contract of Carriage rights. As always, it pays to be quick and be polite, so call your airline right away, because chances many people will be fighting for a spot on the next flight.

#6. Horrible weather for the entire trip

- Respondents who have experienced this nightmare on a trip: 30.9%

The saying goes, "Don't rain on my parade," but it's just as much of a bummer when it rains on your vacation. No one ever plans a vacation with rainy days in mind, but it's best to be adaptable and ask a concierge or a local what people in town do when it's wet out. And worst comes to worst, go to a museum, book a spa day, or just grab an umbrella and see the slightly less-crowded sights.

#5. Checked bags got lost/stolen

- Respondents who have experienced this nightmare on a trip: 31.6%

Losing a checked bag is always a possibility, so make sure to keep certain irreplaceable items in your carry-on: wedding dresses, jewelry, medication, etc. If your checked bag is lost or stolen, alert the airline as soon as possible. In order to be reimbursed, having the necessary proof and paperwork is of paramount importance: hold onto your baggage ticket, make an itemized list of all that was lost, and provide receipts proving the purchase of every lost item.

#4. Getting a minor sickness while on a trip

- Respondents who have experienced this nightmare on a trip: 32.2%

A cold or flu is always a shame, but if it interrupts a vacation, it starts to feel like a nightmare. The best course is to do everything you can to prevent getting sick in the first place: take vitamin B or zinc during your travel days, use hand sanitizer in the airport and on the plane, and get lots of sleep. But if you do feel foggy or feverish, nip it in the bud instead of trying to power through: Take a day of rest, liquids, bland food, and no booze.

#3. Flight being canceled

- Respondents who have experienced this nightmare on a trip: 39.8%

A canceled flight is always a nightmare, whether it strands you in another city or is just a false-start to your vacation. If your flight is canceled, chances are you're not the only one, so call or find a representative as soon as possible to help rebook you to your destination. It's important to know your rights when it comes to refunds, overnight lodging, etc., which vary based on airline, so read the fine print before speaking with an airline representative, and be polite.

#2. Checked bags got delayed

- Respondents who have experienced this nightmare on a trip: 44.3%

It's a familiar nightmare to watch as the crowd whittles down around the baggage claim and your suitcase still hasn't arrived. So, what can be done if you, like 44.3% of respondents, have gotten on a flight that your bag missed? Your best bet, as always, is to file a claim with the airline; technically, they're on the hook to cover any items considered “essential” (a suit for a wedding, a warm jacket for your winter trip, toothpaste, underwear, etc.) even if the bag is only delayed a few days.

#1. Flight being delayed

- Respondents who have experienced this nightmare on a trip: 70.2%

A flight being delayed is no fun, but at least you're not alone in this terrifyingly common travel nightmare: 70.2% of respondents have had to wait 15 minutes or 15 hours for their plane to take off. But if you want to know before you go, blogger Dan Miller says to use to see the status of your airplane's incoming flight; if it's running late, there's a good chance your flight will be delayed.

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