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5 Mishaps That Made Me a Better Traveler

By Robert Firpo-Cappiello
updated September 29, 2021
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Robert Firpo-Cappiello
Sometimes having your worst nightmares come true can be the best thing that ever happened to you.

My best-laid plans went awry. And I'm glad.

Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating just a little. But I can tell you that, this past July, I was forced to face some of my most nagging travel fears (what if… I miss my connection, my flight is canceled, my bank card stops working, my kid gets sick…) when all of them actually came true. Here, a few minor and not-so-minor disasters that made me a better traveler.

1. My bank card stopped working

Yup. I tried to pay for lunch at a Boston Market in Oakland (long story, don’t judge), and the cheerful young woman behind the counter announced, “Oh, sorry, your card is invalid.” What I learned: I should have told my bank back in New York that I was going to be traveling in California. It turned out the bank blocked my California transaction as suspicious, but was easily able to unblock it. And I got to eat those delicious Boston Market mashed potatoes.

2. I was told I couldn't rent a car using a debit card

Huh? I had plenty of hard-earned (and carefully saved) money in my checking account, yet I was being told I could not use my debit card to rent a car. What I learned: The dude at the rental counter was basically, um, lying. Or at least exaggerating to an unforgivable extent. Most rental car agencies (including the one we were using) will rent you a car using a debit card, but they first put a hold on the estimated rental total (days rented, distance you plan to cover), and may ask to see your flight itinerary to confirm that you’re actually taking the car where you say you are taking it. The process is a bit of a hassle for travelers and agency employees alike, which is why, I suppose, that dude flat-out lied to my face until pressed to tell the truth.

3. I missed a flight connection

Sorry, but I hate layovers and connecting flights, mostly for the same reason you may hate them: My fear of a missed connection. I always imagined the missed connection leading to disaster, sleeping on an airport floor, sustained only by expensive airport food. What I learned: It turns out, at least in our case, dealing with our missed connection was as easy as stepping up to a friendly gate agent who re-ticketed us on the next available flight. (Psst: We were lucky enough to be flying Southwest, which deals with this kind of thing exceptionally well.)

4. My flight got canceled

This one was not quite as easy to handle as the missed connection I just mentioned. We boarded a flight, the plane began taxiing toward takeoff, then the pilot slowed us down, stopped, and announced there was a mechanical problem and we’d have to get off the plane. Of course, I appreciated the pilot’s unwillingness to take to the skies with a broken plane, but I also knew the chaos that a cancelled or long-delayed flight would cause for every passenger onboard, and that our chances of making it home that day were fading with the afternoon sun. What I learned: Long story short, we walked away with $800 in vouchers for future flights on that airline. Our secret weapons were chocolate and patience (I know, Chocolate & Patience sounds like the name of a long-lost Noel Coward play). After an hourlong wait on a seemingly endless line to get re-ticketed, my wife offered the gate agent a chocolate bar. The agent smiled wearily and said, “Can you tell how much I needed this?” Although we did miss any chance of getting home that day, we were booked on a flight for the next morning and took home not only our happy memories of a vacation in Southern California but also those much-appreciated vouchers.

5. My child got sick an hour before boarding

I know I risk sounding churlish when I admit that I really like flying alone, and the more traveling companions I have, the greater my anxiety. That goes for flying with my kids especially. It’s not that I don’t enjoy traveling with them, it’s that my tendency to catastrophize travel mishaps is perhaps at its most pronounced when it comes to the safety and happiness of my children. So, when one of my daughters admitted that she wasn’t feeling at all well shortly before we were scheduled to board a transcontinental flight, I panicked. My wife, however, remained calm and approached a gate agent, asking (politely) for any special accommodations to ease our child’s situation. What I learned: Telling airline professionals what’s wrong and asking for help is not the same as being a “doting parent,” (parents: please read the previous sentence aloud several times) and it is far better than keeping it to yourself. We were given “pre-boarding” privileges that allowed my child to get comfortably situated for a sleep-filled flight.

Has a travel mishap ever taught you a valuable lesson? Share it in a comment below.

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How to Find Cheap Flights to Europe

Early winter can be the perfect time for taking a trip to Europe. Between the mild weather, smaller crowds, scenic outdoor activities, and lower hotel rates, there are a handful of reasons to fly across the pond. There’s more good news: You can score low-priced flights if you plan accordingly. Here, 8 easy tips for flying to Europe in the off season. 1. PICK THE RIGHT DESTINATION (Lukas Bischoff/Dreamstime) Of course, where you’re traveling to affects your fare, so choose a destination with better deals. “The cheapest cities can vary depending on where you fly from, but we’ve been seeing some excellent deals to Copenhagen, Dublin, London, and Paris this year,” says Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com. Case in point: Fare Compare found round-way flight deals from New York to Copenhagen for $320 and New York to London for $354. Moreover, a recent Kayak report found that flights to Northern and Western Europe are currently offering the most competitive rates. Iceland (Reykjavik airport) and Dublin are the travel company’s top picks for cheapest European destinations. 2. PICK THE RIGHT DEPARTURE CITY Generally, flights to Europe from Boston, Chicago, New York City, Orlando, Denver, and Washington, D.C. will be the most affordable, since these cities are hubs for many international carriers. 3. FIND AN ULTRA-LOW-COST AIRLINE Some airlines offer better deals than others. Norwegian Air, British-owned Condor, Icelandic carrier Wow Air, France-based XL Air, and Latvian Primera Air have some of the lowest priced transatlantic flights. Wow Air, for example, recently offered a $160 flight from Boston to Amsterdam in December. Primera Air, meanwhile, is selling flights from Newark to Paris for as low as $99. 4. AVOID EXTRA FEES Low-cost air carriers often charge “hidden” fees for extras, like carry-on bags, checked luggage, seat upgrades, or even beverages. While budget airlines are notorious for nickel-and-diming passengers for added fees, “you can score some serious value from their cheap tickets,” says Emily McNutt, associate news editor at The Points Guy. “Just be sure you read their pricing structure and terms and conditions so you know what you're getting into,” McNutt warns. 5. FOR REMOTE DESTINATIONS, FLY TO A NEARBY MAJOR CITY (Chert61/Dreamstime) To cross the ocean as affordably as possible, it often makes sense to break up your trip into two separate itineraries, says Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights (ScottsCheapFlights.com). “Once you're in Europe, you can hop a train or budget flight most places for under $100,” Keyes explains. Often, flights to remote destinations, such as national parks or Mediterranean islands, cost more than flights to major cities. Hence, it pays to map out your trip and plan your flight path accordingly. 6. LEVERAGE GOOGLE FLIGHTS There are certainly a ton of websites and booking search services for finding deals on flights, but Tarik Allag, founder of SecretFlying.com, recommends Google Flights. The tool lets you view fares from your city for specific travel dates, and it searches all but the smallest airlines, as well as the largest online travel agencies (OTAs) like Orbitz and Priceline. You can also use it to set an alert for a flight, and Google will send you an email if price goes up or down. In addition, by utilizing Google Flights’ calendar function “you can scroll through to see if leaving one day earlier or returning one day later will help to save you some serious cash,” says McNutt. “If you're flexible on your destination, the ‘Explore’ function allows you to input your departure city and when you want to travel to see where in the region offers the cheapest flights.” 7. DEPART ON WEDNESDAY, RETURN ON TUESDAY Many articles tout headlines like “This is the best day of the week to fly!” but few have hard evidence to back up their claims. Yet thanks to Kayak, we can put this subject to rest. After analyzing more than a year’s worth of flight data leaving the U.S. and Canada to Europe, the website’s price forecaster found that flying across the pond on a Wednesday and returning home on a Tuesday typically gets travelers the cheapest flights. A recent report from CheapAir.com supports this, finding that travelers can save an average of $76 by reserving flights on a Wednesday (the least expensive day to fly) instead of on a Sunday (the most expensive). 8. GET TWO VACATIONS FOR THE PRICE OF ONE (marchello74/Getty Images) Want a free stopover in Iceland on your way to another European city? With IcelandAir you have the option of adding a stay of up to seven nights when traveling from the U.S. and Canada to Europe for no additional cost to your original plane ticket.

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Flying home for Christmas? Do those words inspire a kind of once-a-year cognitive dissonance that blends fond sentiment with deep-seated dread? You're not alone. Recent surveys suggest that holiday travelers do not, in fact, love everything about the experience. Shocked? We didn't think so. Here, we've consulted with some of our favorite travel pros to deliver stress-melting travel tips that are almost as effective as that second glass of eggnog. 1. FLY EARLY OR DRIVE LATE While a 6 a.m. flight may seem like a rough way to start your holiday trip, Andrea Feczko, host of the ABC series Vacation Creation, reminds us that the first flight of the day is often the most affordable and, of course, flying early means there’s less of a chance that your flight (and any connecting flights) will be delayed. But if you’re driving to your holiday destination, it may be best to try the opposite approach and hit the road after dark, when the roads are almost always emptier. Let the kids sleep in the back seat, and when you get to Grandma’s house, you may sleep in before the festivities start. 2. TRAVEL LIKE SANTA ON CHRISTMAS EVE Before we leave the subject of the best times of day to travel, the Budget Travel editors swear by imitating St. Nicholas’s approach: Travel on Christmas Eve night. For real. A red-eye from Cali for NYC on Christmas Eve, for instance, is a surprisingly peaceful, drama-free way to get home for the holidays. 3. MAIL YOUR HOLIDAY GIFTS AHEAD OF TIME Unless you’ve got eight tiny reindeer and a flying sleigh, chances are your gifts are going to slow you down. Wrap your presents (and bulky winter coats too, if you want) and ship them to your destination ahead of time to save time and money on the whole checked-bag experience. And be sure to pack an empty expandable bag, too, so if you end up acquiring a multitude of items while you’re away from home and you don’t get a chance to mail them home, you’ll got something to haul them around in. 4. THESE APPS MAKE FLYING EASIER “Appy Holidays!” When you’re flying at one of the busiest times of the year, such as the last two weeks of December, “know before you go” becomes an urgent necessity. Before you head to the airport, be sure you have downloaded some essential apps, suggests Wendy Perrin, the editor of WendyPerrin.com and travel advocate at TripAdvisor. Get the MyTSA app, which will keep you updated on your airport’s security lines and wait times. And download your airlines’ app, so you have up-to-the-minute intel on delays and cancellations at your airport and any connecting airports. 5. BOOK GROUND TRANSPORTATION IN ADVANCE Tim Hentschel, CEO of HotelPlanner.com, suggests that, during the busy holiday travel season, book your ground transportation in advance instead of relying on the kindness of on-demand apps or taxis to get you from the airport to your lodging. “Book ahead of time with a shuttle service or private driver that will be there waiting for you on arrival.” 6. TURN A DELAY INTO AN ADVENTURE Try to look at an unexpected flight delay as a good thing and embrace your newfound free time to explore the city where you happen to be "stranded," says travel writer Kaeli Conforti (@KaeliTravels on Instagram). Remember, a flight cancellation isn’t a disaster if you can think of it as a travel adventure. 7. DON’T BELIEVE “THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS” Instead of going over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house, consider going your own way over the holidays, at least every so often. (Surveys suggest that 7 out of 10 travelers aren't all that crazy about staying with relatives anyway.) Caribbean beaches, European cities, and Las Vegas may be calling your name. This year, we're seeing reasonable holiday airfares to Philadelphia, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Orlando (remember, Orlando's theme parks see a lull in crowds and a dip in hotel rates between the busy Thanksgiving weekend and crowded Christmas week).

Travel TipsProduct Reviews

Stylish Steals for the Polished Traveler

You've seen them at the airport and at the train station; you may know them personally, or you might even be one of them yourself—those people who practically float through the terminal, not a hair out of place or a bead of sweat in sight. The secret to such serenity? Having the right tools for the job, and our picks will do the trick. 1. A Trusty Sidekick (Courtesy Away) Still trying to make it to your gate while lugging a bulky bag and pulling an unwieldy rollaboard? Streamline your approach with Away's trim, handsomely designed tote. Equally appropriate as an under-seat personal item and a weekend-trip carry-all, it has a pocket for everything—laptop, tablet, phone, notebooks, pens, even a wet umbrella—but the external sleeve that slides over your suitcase handle and lets you wheel the two together is the real game-changer. When used on its own, the handles are sturdy and amply padded, and there’s a removable crossbody strap for hands-free shlepping. 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They’re all non-comedogenic, so they won’t clog pores, and they’re free of sulfates, parabens, artificial fragrances, and a whole slew of other bad-news ingredients, so you’ll feel safe using them—and won’t offend your fellow passengers in the process.Kit 301: Travel Kit, $26; myrecess.co. 7. A Reliable Rinse (Courtesy the Laundress)Dressing in head-to-toe black is one way of disguising unsightly spills and stains, but to avoid such embarrassments entirely, pack a provisional laundry kit in case of sartorial emergencies. This set from the Laundress includes two-ounce bottles of wrinkle-releasing solution, fabric freshener, and a static-zapping spray, as well as stain packets that work wonders on tannin-heavy substances like coffee and red wine, and a semi-miraculous bar of soap that can be used to pretreat and hand-wash anything that needs it. Why pay to send your delicates out when you can take care of them yourself?On the Spot kit, $31; thelaundress.com.8. A Real Eye-Opener (Courtesy Thrive)Sure, you could use Thrive’s cushy, oversized eye mask en route to your destination, though it’s a bit heavier and bulkier than the ones we normally recommend. But we’ve found that it’s most effective as a recovery tool once you’ve touched down, thanks to its massaging gel beads and hot/cold capabilities. Throw it in your hotel-room microwave and heat it up to treat symptoms of travel stress like headaches, sinus pain, and even soreness from tight shoulders or clenched jaws, or stick it in the freezer for cool relief for puffy, bloodshot eyes. Regardless, it's a soothing, non-prescription restorative for what ails you.Hot/cold eye mask with gel beads, $13; amazon.com. 9. A Tiny Treasury (Courtesy UncommonGoods.com)Don’t fancy sporting the same neckwear each day you’re away? Pack a variety of ties and keep them wrinkle-free with this tidy cylindrical case from UncommonGoods. 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Travel TipsFamily

Fun Finds for Teen Travelers

Teenagers can be notoriously tough to please, but we believe we've cracked the code. From cute accoutrements to bigger-ticket investment pieces, we've got the gear that'll earn that nod of approval—no sweat necessary. 1. Warm Up (Courtesy Rumpl) Airlines' standards for a clean and germ-free environment may not be mile-high (...sorry), but you can avoid those grimy, barely-bigger-than-a-towel fleece throws by packing something with panache. We love the puffy down blanket from Rumpl for its shimmery shades, cushy feel, and compact, lightweight footprint. They can stuff it in the sack that’s included and clip it to their carry-on to save room in their bag, toss it in the back seat to stay warm on a road trip, and bring it on overnight hikes or camping trips for an extra dose of coziness around the fire. Thanks to ripstop nylon encasing 600-fill goose down, it’ll keep you toasty, and it’s machine washable and dryer friendly, so they'll have no problem rinsing away those plane pathogens once they're back on solid ground.Puffy Down Blanket in Fractal, $199; rumpl.com. 2. Travel Light (Courtesy Patagonia) We’re big fans of a hands-free bag, both for travel and for the everyday, so we were psyched to discover this tough little ripstop number from Patagonia. At just seven inches long by five inches high, it’s already impressively tiny, but it also folds away into its own case, which makes it a great choice for an already overcrowded suitcase. Even better, the case itself turns into an internal, zippered pocket when the pack's being used, so your valuables will stay protected when you're on the go. Add to that its vibrant blue hue, and you've got a real crowd-pleaser on your hands. Lightweight Travel Mini Hip Pack in Balkan Blue, $29; patagonia.com. 3. Guard The Digits (Courtesy cable-bite.com) In the grand scheme of things, a frayed cord may not seem like much more than a petty irritant, but exposed wires on phone chargers can be a dangerous proposition, causing minor shocks and even, in the extremely rare case, death by electrocution. These fun iPhone cable bites will protect your screen junkie and provide some cuteness at the same time, and they're just a few bucks a pop. Choose their favorite animal (we’re partial to the penguins ourselves), or grab a set and let them change things up as the mood strikes.Dreams Cable Bites, from $3; amazon.com. 4. Keep It Moving (Courtesy Jabra) For that traveler who’s looking to shut out the noise of the world, give them the gift of solitude—and good sound. Jabra’s wireless on-ear headphones have a slimmer profile than bulkier over-ear alternatives; they’re adjustable, but they best fit those with smaller heads (we found they don’t pinch at all, even when wearing earrings). They’ll keep the music going for eight hours at a trot, and they come with a cord so you can plug in and keep listening even if your playlist lasts longer than the charge. The Bluetooth pairs quickly and easily, the microphone works well for taking calls, and though they’re not technically noise-cancelling, the headphones do block out quite a lot of commotion. Most important? They produce remarkably robust, well-rounded tones—especially considering the affordable price point. Jabra Move Wireless Headphones, $50 (discounted through 1/5/19; regularly $100); amazon.com. 5. Protect Those Peepers (Courtesy Sunski) What’s a selfie without a set of shades? This pair from Sunski has frosted, translucent frames and polarized, mirrored lenses for a standout look, and they're feather-light and comfortable to boot. Like the rest of the brand’s offerings, they come with a lifetime warranty—a strong selling point if you’re shopping for someone who isn’t particularly precious about their eyewear—and the company donates one percent of its sales to environmental nonprofits, so it’s a win-win for anyone with a green streak.Dipsea polarized sunglasses in frosted sky, $58; sunski.com. 6. Provide Instant Gratification (Courtesy FUJIFILM INSTAX®) In these digital times, there's little more appealing than the tactile pleasure of a physical photo, and when you factor in the immediacy of an instant print, you can't go wrong. Even the most jaded teen will get a kick out of Fujifilm’s latest Instax model, a chunky camera that produces square images ready-made for Instagram—once they're scanned in, of course. They can mess around in double-exposure mode, experiment with macro and landscape settings, adjust the light levels, and play with color via the filters that pop onto the flash and add a tint to the scene. But our favorite feature is the selfie mirror, right next to the lens. All they have to do is make sure they're in the frame, click away, and the camera handles the rest. (PS: It's really popular at parties too.)Instax Square SQ6, $130; fujifilm.com. 7. Teach Them About Beauty Sleep (Courtesy Oliver Bonas) It’s a lesson best learned at a young age: If you have trouble getting a good night’s sleep on the road, an eye mask is your best friend. This one is super-fun, a playful wink to emoji culture wrapped in a fuzzy faux-fur hug. Lined with cool satin and finished with a ruched band to keep it in place without pulling hair, it’ll help them get through that first red-eye like a champ.Faux Fur Eyes eye mask, $19; oliverbonas.com. 8. Grow Their Library (Courtesy Amazon) Bountiful reading material in one slender device: What’s not to love? Amazon’s new Kindle Paperwhite offers 8 GB of storage (double the memory of previous versions), a 300-ppi glare-resistant screen, and WiFi connectivity to download on the go—great for folks who get itchy when they don’t have a book on hand. This version is Bluetooth-enabled, so they can sync to an Audible account and listen instead, and it’s waterproof in six-plus feet of water for up to an hour, so they won’t have to stress over the odd poolside splash. Naturally, it comes with access to a huge collection of titles, including magazines, comics, and newspapers, but they can also borrow Kindle-compatible e-books from the library for even more budget-friendly reads.Kindle Paperwhite, $130; amazon.com. 9. Pack in Style (Courtesy ban.do) Form over function? Not so fast. Yes, this coated-canvas toiletries bag from ban.do is adorably logoed, but it also has plenty of pockets—inside, a clear PVC zippered pouch and two mesh pockets; outside, one big pocket on the back—so everything they pack will have its place, even when they’re stuck in coach. All set on the toiletries front? The youthful brand carries an array of similarly smart travel gear, from planners to passport covers to luggage tags to eye masks, so you’re bound to find something for them here.First Class Getaway Toiletries Bag, $15; bando.com.