How to deal with the unexpected during travel

lost-bagI sometimes welcome the unexpected in travel because that’s the foundation for fond and lasting memories, even though you might not think so at the time.

An overnight at a Buddhist temple north of Busan, South Korea, had us fumbling with chopsticks, in fear of an order to swig a slosh of wasted food, then sleeping on (heated) floors and waking to 3 a.m. gongs for worship.

This was nine years ago. Some of us still wear the simple bracelet of wooden beads that was our parting gift.

Friend and colleague Sue Pollack in Michigan shares a tale about drinking too much Ouzo on her first night in Greece, decades ago, and falling on cobblestones in her stiletto sandals. “One of my best-ever trips,” she adds. “It helped that Rocky from New Jersey, an athletic trainer, was a co-traveler and wrapped my injured ankle every day on the bus.”

My most recent international adventure began with a broken wrist, thanks to a slip on Wisconsin ice just hours before my departure. It ended with an overnight in an airport and lost luggage (which showed up five days later). In between, my camera refused to work and my watch battery died. A few colleagues needed extra oxygen or succumbed to traveler’s diarrhea.

So, was this a good trip? Certainly, thanks to helpful and upbeat companions, a grueling but awesome itinerary and stubborn refusal to think bleak for long. Where I traveled doesn’t matter, for now, because on my mind are a dozen tips to lessen logistical headaches when away from home.

Think small. Pack only a carry-on suitcase. Keep it with you en route to your vacation destination; check it in, if you must, when heading home. Who cares if you wear the same thing twice? Include an empty, zipped tote bag for souvenirs.

Don’t presume. Recheck your flight’s status often. It can go from “on time” to “delayed” in a flash. Besides the airport flight board, consult flightaware.com, flightview.com or flightstats.com.

Be assertive. No plane at the gate? Ask why. Flight delayed? Ask about the circumstances – mechanical, weather, lack of crew – and if estimated delay time might change.

Take the initiative. That means having a contingency plan. If you will miss a connection because of a flight delay, propose how you’d like to be rebooked. Check options online or on the airport flight board. When traveling internationally, know your airline’s code share partners.

Jot down details. Note the names of whoever answers questions, to keep them accountable as you fly out of sight and out of mind. This is especially important if you’ve been awake a long time or the travel itinerary gets complicated.

Keep all paperwork. That includes bag tags and boarding passes – evidence of changes that transpired. In the chaos of group rebooking and late-night hours, agents might not return what they collect.

Weigh options. When a mechanical problem delays a flight, you might be offered a free hotel stay. Weigh that against the rebooked flight’s departure time; you may have little time left to sleep after group transport, hotel check-in and the trek back. It might be better to ask for access to the airline’s VIP lounge, where food, drink and online access are free – and seating usually much more comfortable. But if you want more time in your city of departure, take the hotel stay – and ask for a late flight home.

Time matters. File a lost bag claim as soon as possible. Don’t let a complacent staffer tell you it can be filed online, or – during international travel – that your bag likely will surely show up at the next connection.

Know the rules. When flying with more than one airline carrier, a lost bag claim is filed with whomever you fly with last.

Expect politics. Don’t assume that code-share partners will play nice with each other, and they don’t have access to each other’s records. If you feel one airline is blaming the other for a problem, call them on it and consider filing a complaint with the Federal Aviation Administration (866-TELL-FAA, faa.gov/contact).

Be a bulldog. Oodles of passengers and luggage make their way through airports daily. Share legitimate frustrations on Twitter, including your airline’s handle. Be an advocate for your situation, not a passive bystander who hopes for the best or gives up.

Know your rights. Little is automatic and much depends on circumstances. One vocal, nonprofit resource for consumers is FlyersRights.org, formed in 2006.