A Real-Life Travel Nightmare Worthy of a Hollywood Script

By Liza Weisstuch
August 14, 2017
Yakov Stavchansky /
A cruise ship left Australia for a round-the-world holiday. It encountered a threat on the high-seas that passengers will never forget.

When it comes to things that can ruin a vacation, lost luggage, stolen cell phones, missed flights, and broken bones aren’t even in the same league as what happened to 1,900 passengers on board the Sea Princess, which left Sydney on a round-the-world 104-day cruise. According to a report on, during the first leg of the trip that was bound for Dubai, the passengers were banned from roaming the decks and even taking in the sea air under the stars on their own balconies from dusk until down for 10 days. Speculation flew—terrorism? Bats? Vampires? 

When the captain finally spoke to the worried passengers, the real threat came out: Pirates roamed these seas and the passengers needed to be prepared for a possible attack. They were sailing the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Suez Canal, a route that passes Somalia, one of the poorest countries on earth. On the waters off Somalia's 1,880-mile coastline, the longest in Africa, pirates loom equipped with weapons and ladders in small, speedy boats. They’ve been known to hijack boats and hold crew and cargo for ransom for months. Pirate drills ensued. Passengers were instructed to close cabin doors, lock balcony doors, take shelter in the corridor. Fire hoses to ward off intruders were locked and loaded on one of the decks, an easy entrance point to the ship. (Airplane turbulence must have seemed like a wished-for fantasy compared with this.)

READ: 10 Foolproof Tips to Fight Flight Anxiety

The great news is that the passengers made it through their journey unscathed, aside from a weariness with wisecracks about Captain Phillips and Peter Pan or talking parrots, we can only imagine. According to Carolyne Jasinski, a passenger on the cruise who wrote the article for, anxiety overtook everyone, but “there was a weird kind of excitement. Once aware of and alerted to the prospect of pirates, we watched vessels more carefully,” she writes.

As far as statistics go, pirate attacks on cruise ships is very rare, but the frightening episode is a sobering reminder that the threat is real. This past April, the New York Times reported that after several years of quiet on the Indian Ocean, Somali pirates ambushed four ships in the month of March. The article attributed the sudden rise of incidents to famine, drought, and the influence of the Islamic State, among other factors.

The Constanzi Report on Piracy and Maritime Security, a website that provides live reports on attacks against ships as well as articles on all things related to piracy and maritime security, offers a detailed look at the state of things. It features an incredibly comprehensive chronicle of attacks by month. A map details where incidents occur and to what kinds of vessels. While it’s certainly distressing to note the number of attacks over the past years, vacationers can rest assured that most assaults are made on cargo ships. So, cruise-goers, chances are incredibly high that on your next jaunt you'll be able to swim and drink outside under the stars at night. Still, don't make any Tom-Hanks-to-the-rescue or Captain Hook or talking parrot jokes. 

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Travel Tips

Beware of These Hidden Hotel Fees

Last year U.S. hotels collected more than $2.5 billion in fees and surcharges, up from $2.45 billion in 2015 according to research by Bjorn Hanson, a professor at New York University’s Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism. Hanson credits the uptick to the nation’s thriving travel industry. “When times are financially difficult, hotels are more concerned about offending guests with extra charges, but when the economy is doing well hotels feel more confident about increasing their fees,” says Hanson, who has tracked U.S. hotel fees and surcharges data since 2000. Unfortunately for travelers, many hotel fees are often buried in lengthy disclosure statements or tucked into bill summaries at checkout. The best way to avoid getting slapped with surprise fees? Pick up the phone. “Call the hotel and ask, ‘Are there any automatic or mandatory fees or surcharges?’ before you book a room,” Hanson advises. To be a savvy traveler though, you should still have an idea of what hotel charges can potentially sneak onto your bill. By knowing what they are in advance—and how much they cost on average—you may find ways to cut costs on your next trip. Keep your eyes peeled for these hidden fees. RESORT FEECost: $10 to $50 per night Resort fees are daily charges imposed by some hotels in addition to the basic room rate. These fees—which hotels say cover the costs of access to hotel amenities (e.g., internet, fitness center, hotel pool) or “complimentary” perks, like coffee and newspapers—are usually mandatory. Resort fees are disclosed at the time of booking, but they typically only appear after a room is selected and the traveler is about to pay for the reservation, says Randy Greencorn, co-founder of, an online tool that allows users to look up resort fees at more than 2,000 properties around the world. In other words, “the resort fee is only disclosed when the traveller has their credit card out and is about to book the room,” Greencorn says. Pro tip: “the resort fee is typically found at the bottom of the [last] page” when you check out, says Greencorn. IN-ROOM COFFEEMAKER FEECost: $3 to $6 If you want to make a cup of joe in the morning in your room, you may have to pay for it. To err on the side of caution, use the (hopefully free) coffeemaker in the lobby instead. ROOM SELECTION FEECost: $10 to $40 Some hotels now charge guests for the privilege of reserving a type of room, like a room with a king bed. But this fee may be negotiable, especially if you’re a hotel rewards member. EARLY CHECK-IN FEECost: $30 to $50 If you want to check into your room before the hotel’s standard check-in time, you may have to pay a premium to do so. This is a relatively new fee. BAGGAGE HOLDING FEECost: $2 to $5 per bag If you’re checking in early or stowing your bags for a few hours while you explore the city after checking out, you may have to pay a fee for the hotel to hold your luggage. This fee is in addition to what you tip the bellhop when you pick up your bags. (Etiquette experts at the Emily Post Institute recommend tipping $2 for the first bag and $1 for each additional bag.) IN-ROOM SAFE FEECost: $2 to $6 per day Many travelers put cash, passports, and other important belongings in the in-room safe, but a number of hotels charge a daily fee for it. “Discouraging guests from using in-room safes is a liability risk for hotels,” Hanson says. “It’s a service that should be provided.” In-room safe fees are becoming less common, but if your hotel charges on it will likely be indicated in writing on the safe. HOUSEKEEPING FEECost: $10 to $20 per day Traditionally, hotels have included cleaning services in the cost of the room, but some are beginning to charge housekeeping fees. You may be able to opt out of this service and save money—that is, if you don’t mind tidying up after yourself. MINI-BAR RESTOCKING FEECost: $3 to $6 per day Hotels have always charged inflated prices for mini-bar food and drinks, but these days you may have to pay an additional fee per day after you remove the first item—regardless of whether you buy anything else from the mini-bar during the rest of your stay. Therefore, “don’t take anything out just to look at it” or you could get slapped with a restocking fee, says Hanson. SURFACE PARKING FEECost: $6 to $10 per day “Many people assume that if there’s an outdoor parking lot, it’s free,” says Hanson, but an increasing number of hotels are charging for outdoor, or “surface,” parking. Consequently, “always ask if there is complementary parking,” says Hanson. EARLY DEPARTURE FEECost: The full rate When you check into most hotels, you sign or initial a registration card that states your scheduled departure date. But if you decide to check out a day or several days early, you’ll most likely have to pay the full amount for your stay. To be fair, this isn’t really an extra “fee”—it’s more of a penalty, since you booked a room for a set number of days, during which time the hotel couldn’t offer your room to someone else. 

Travel TipsProduct Reviews

Never Brush Your Teeth at the Airport Again, Thanks to This Cool Website

For the weary traveler, is there anything more refreshing than taking a hot, soothing shower after a long flight? But when you have an epic layover, that relaxing "me time" can feel light years away. Before you pull out your toothbrush in the airport bathroom, consider booking a room with why-didn’t-we-think-of-this site Hotels By Day. This game changer lets you snag unoccupied hotel rooms for the day at discounted prices, for either a morning, midday, or afternoon stay. Time frames tend to be generous, too, usually ranging from five to nine hours, such as 10 a.m.–6 p.m. or 8 a.m.–1 p.m. Perfect for downtime, whether you're hitting the beach or luxuriating in a sunken tub. Obviously, there are plenty of airport hotels, but the options on this site go far beyond that, ranging from budget to luxury properties located all over town, like the four-star Atlantica Hotel in Halifax, Nova Scotia, for about $43; the beachside boho Stiles Hotel South Beach, in Miami, for $90; or the modern Mosser Hotel in San Francisco for $79: All were available when we checked. Make a reservation through Hotels By Day’s mobile site or its iOS or Android app in just four taps. Search by location, price, and time frame and book at no charge—you pay at the hotel—and can cancel for free up to 24 hours before check-in. Since the rates are much more affordable than traditional overnight stays (typically around 40 percent off) you can experience a hotel that normally could be a little out of reach. The swanky—but reasonably priced—solution allows you to get a head start on your vacation by making the most of each hotel’s amenities. Take a nap to combat jet lag, freshen up with a shower, have a quiet place to work with potentially free Wi-Fi, veg out with a real TV, break a sweat at the gym, or eat a complimentary breakfast. Here’s to never giving yourself an awkward sponge bath in the airport bathroom again.

Travel Tips

Cockpit Confidential: A Pilot Answers Your Most Urgent Questions

You might say that Patrick Smith knows a thing or two about air travel. He flies jets for a major carrier and has been a professional pilot for more than 20 years; he is the host of and for 10 years wrote's column Ask the Pilot. His book, Cockpit Confidential, answers travelers' most pressing questions—including advice about the best seats for jittery fliers, explanations of disturbing events like turbulence and iffy landings, and the lowdown on the overall safety of flying. I caught up with Smith and posed some of my own most pressing questions to him—I hope they reflect what you're most curious about, too. Here, his answers along with some tidbits from Cockpit Confidential, a fun, informative read that I highly recommend. Get your kids a cockpit visit Smith reminds us, "Many people wrongly assume that the cockpit is entirely off limits. This isn't so. Cockpit visits are welcome while the plane is parked at the gate, either before or after the flight. Provided things aren't too busy, we're usually more than happy to have a guest stop by. It's flattering when somebody takes that much interest in what we do. And this isn't just for kids. If you've never seen a cockpit up close before, and you're curious, come on up. For nervous flyers, a chat with the crew and a look around is often reassuring. Be sure to ask a flight attendant first, but nine times in ten it won't be any problem." The best seats for jittery fliers While Smith doesn't idly dispense "tips," he does offer solid advice for passengers on those topics he's most qualified to speak about. "If you're a fearful flyer bothered by turbulence and/or engine noise," he says, "avoid sitting in the rearmost rows. It's noisier in the back, and the aircraft tends to sway more during spells of rough air. It doesn't make a whole lot of difference, but the smoothest seats are usually those over the wings." Advice for the truly fearful The good news is that fearful fliers are not alone. "The first thing to keep in mind is that everybody is on some level afraid of flying," Smith says. "This is normal, whether you're a first-timer or an annual million-miler. The problem is when this fear becomes irrational and unmanageable. Often in such cases, no amount of statistics or straight talk from a pilot are going to make a difference, and what's really needed is professional counseling. For some people, one thing that helps is a "dry run" prior to the day you plan to fly. Take a trip out to the airport and go through the motions, familiarizing yourself with the process. Walk through the terminal, watch some airplanes take off and land, etc. Many of the most stressful aspects  of flying—long lines, noise, etc.—take place on the ground, long before you're actually on the plane, and this is a way of priming yourself for these hassles. Another good idea, of course, is to get yourself a copy of Cockpit Confidential." What's the deal with airline food? Smith reminds us that though the topic might still be ripe for stand-up routines, airline food has greatly improved. "On shorter flights, the old plastic trays and beef-or-chicken entree options have been replaced by buy-on-board options. Usually it's a sandwich or wrap of some kind, and they tend to be decent. On long-haul flights, full catered meals are still the norm, and frankly they are a lot tastier than people give them credit for. And if you're fortunate enough to be in first or business class, of course, long-haul meal presentations are often exceptionally good, with four or more gourmet courses and a carefully selected wine list. The more prestigious carriers—Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, British Airways, et al.—take their catering very seriously. Some Turkish Airlines flights carry an on-board chef who prepares and supervises the business class meals. U.S. airlines, to their credit, have markedly improved their service standards over the past few years. This includes better food and drink options in both economy and premium classes, in some cases rivaling the better European, Asian, and Middle Eastern airlines." Spanning the globe on one tank Over the years, Smith's readers have asked what plane has the longest range. The answer is the Boeing 777-200LR, which can cover a staggering 9,000 nautical miles without refueling, making it possible to connect just about every major city on earth via nonstop flights. He also notes that the longest scheduled flights offered by major carriers are less than 8,000 miles and include flights from Australia to Texas and from Texas to the Middle East. The dangers of turbulence Well, the fact is: turbulence is perfectly normal and even the worst turbulence is not much more than a nuisance. Smith stresses that turbulence cannot turn a plane over or cause it to go into a tail spin. (While we're on the subject, I have my own way of dealing with turbulence—I close my eyes and pretend I'm on a bus, which makes me quickly realize that airplane turbulence is always way smoother than the the bumps and curves your body endures on the road.) Under pressure "Though we hear talk of 'cabin pressure' all the time—and I've been known to throw the term around myself—most of us don't really know what we're talking about. The cabin air is pressurized, of course, because up at 30,000 feet there isn't much air pressure or oxygen. But a plane's cabin is not adjusted to match the pressure you'd find at sea level—far from it. That kind of pressure would put too much, well, pressure, on a jet's structure. So, cabin pressure typically matches what you'd find between 5,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level, comparable to, say, Denver or Mexico City." And while we're on the subject of air pressure... Smith also notes that passengers' fear that the doors or emergency hatches of the plane might be opened mid-flight, causing the contents of the plane to be sucked out into the wild blue yonder, is completely groundless. A plane's doors and hatches cannot open once the cabin is pressured precisely because of the pressure. Also, the urban myth that pets and luggage are stored in an unpressurized compartment is false—temperatures outside the plane at 30,000 feet are sub-zero and it would not be possible to move living things and, for instance, shampoo, without pressurization and heat. Safety and older planes One of the reasons planes are so expensive is that they don't have a shelf life—though older planes may require more maintenance, they are no less safe than newer planes and in theory do not need to be retired. How does a plane land in foggy weather? Some travelers will take comfort in knowing that, when weather gets iffy and visibility is poor, the instrument landing system (ILS) is used, picking up on two "guidance beams"—one horizontal and one vertical—transmitted from the ground. The pilot uses the "crosshairs" to guide the plane, but once the plane is about 200 feet from the ground, the pilot must be able to see the runway or the landing will be postponed. What's that racket just after a plane lands? It's just the jet engines switching to "reverse" to slow the plane down. Smith also notes that a "rough landing" by passengers' standards is not a reliable measure of a pilot's skill. Many variables go into landing a plane, and bumps and even slightly sideways landings are sometimes unavoidable and even intentional. Sure, he's a pilot himself, but I hope you'll bear in mind his suggestion that you judge the pilot and crew by the entire flight experience and not just the moment when the wheels touch down.

Travel Tips

Hotels' Dirtiest Secrets

The data hounds at have done us all a favor, undertaking a study of how clean (or, make that unclean) a typical hotel room may be. Prepare yourself for a gross-out: After studying the remote controls, bathroom counters, desks, and phones at nine different three-, four-, and five-star hotels, TravelMath reports that the typical hotel room is way dirtier than your house (you read that correctly) and even dirtier than some airplane cabins. "DIRTY" MEANS GERMS Still with us? When we say “dirty,” we don’t mean dust or grime. We’re talking about bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can give you or your kids respiratory infections, skin infections, and even pneumonia. The measure of a hotel room’s “dirtiness” for this study was the number of viable bacteria cells (known as colony-forming units, or CFUs) per square inch. On average, hotel bathroom counters and remote controls top 1 million CFUs per square inch. Ugh. SWANKY HOTELS MAY BE DIRTIER THAN BUDGET LODGING The biggest surprise was that three-star hotels appear to be cleaner, on average, than four- or five-star hotels. These “average” hotels that offer limited amenities appear to do a better job of cleaning surfaces than their tonier competitors. Among three-star hotels tested, bathroom counters were the dirtiest surfaces, but still far cleaner than those in upscale hotels. Bathroom counters at four-star hotels appear to be the germiest of all hotel surfaces, and the remote controls at five-start hotels are pretty gross too. HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM GERMS We don’t enjoy sharing just the bad news, so we’re happy to report that there are a few steps every traveler can take to stay safe when checking into a hotel. * Wash your hands frequently. * Pack a small bottle of antibacterial spray. * Pack a carton of antibacterial wipes. * Disinfect surfaces such as phones, bathroom counters, and desks. * Pack clear plastic bags and wrap one around the remote control so you can still easily operate it without actually making finger-to-bacteria-laden-key contact. (While dousing the remote with disinfectant may seem appealing, it is perhaps not the best idea.)