For a few unlucky travelers, vacation can feel a little like that bad dream where you're walking the halls of your old high school with no clothes on. Missed connection? Lost reservation? Credit card crying "Uncle!" halfway through your trip? Wake up to these common-sense fixes.
For me, one of the great "ahhhh" moments in travel is when you step through the front door and into the lobby of your hotel and step up to the desk to check in. Being told, "So sorry, I have no record of your reservation" can be one of the most brutal travel nightmares. Two words: Be nice. Remember that desk clerk is your gateway to a comfy bed. Now would be a good time to take out that printout of your reservation (you did bring a printout of your reservation, didn't you?) or call Expedia, Travelzoo, or whichever online booking site you may have used. It's probably a simple misunderstanding or a data entry mistake. If not, and if the hotel is fully booked, ask what accommodations are available in nearby affiliated hotels. (This is easier when dealing with a big chain, but even smaller hotels may be in close contact with competitors in the neighborhood.) If you're like me, this situation will never happen because you will have called the hotel a few days before arriving to confirm your reservation, and if you're going to arrive late in the evening you'll let them know so there's no chance they'll give your room away.
WHERE'S MY WALLET?
For all of us lifelong consumers, the lost wallet can seem like the most sickening travel nightmare, but it's actually one of the easiest to deal with if you've done your homework. Before you leave for vacation, obtain a backup ATM card, print out a list of all your bank and credit card accounts, make a photocopy of your passport, and never carry all of these things in the same bag. I think you can see where I'm going with this: When your wallet goes missing, you'll have access to cash, a list of accounts to cancel, and an ID to prove you're you in the event that you must ask a relative back in the States to wire you funds via Western Union.
This may cross your mind every time you get behind the wheel of a rented car: What happens if I get an accident? Yes, it can be a sticky situation, especially if you're overseas where other drivers, police, and emergency workers are speaking another language. But a little prep work helps: Ask the rental agency in advance what you should do in the event of a fender bender or worse; check with your home auto insurance company and credit card to see if your coverage includes a rental car; learn the local customs and rules of the road. Should you get in a crash, call the agency, file a police report, and get the insurance information of anyone else involved in the accident.
WHERE'S MY PASSPORT?
Stop whatever you're doing and make a photocopy of your passport. Now write on the photocopy: travel.state.gov. Keep the photocopy and your driver's license or state ID separate from your passport when you travel and you will be positioned to find the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate and order a replacement passport immediately if necessary. (You can even get an emergency passport fast-tracked if you are scheduled to fly within 14 days.)
Quick! Does your medical insurance cover you if you break your leg on a mountain in Nepal? If you don't know the answer, you're not yet prepared to get your passport stamped! Make sure you understand your coverage—or explore emergency travel insurance to make sure you don't spend the rest of your life paying for that surprise medevac. (Hint: All medevacs are surprises.) If you are injured, your hotel and/or local consulate or embassy can be your best source of doctor recommendations. For less catastrophic injuries, a modest first-aid kit is your best travel BFF.
MY LUGGAGE IS WHERE?
More than 2 million bags are lost, damaged, or stolen each year. Whether your bag is mistagged, loaded on the wrong plane, or just left sitting unloved in some godforsaken corner of the arrivals level, it can put a serious crimp in the early days of your vacation. But there are a few steps you can take to make sure your bag remains where it belongs: Write your name and address not only on an outside tag but also inside the bag; leave a copy of your itinerary in the bag (in the event the bag goes to the wrong city, this will help get it routed to the right one fast); arrive early and check your bag at the desk, not at the curb (curbside check-ins and those made less than 30 minutes before takeoff are more likely to be misrouted).
I CAN'T FIND MY KID!
Unlike the lost wallet, which only seems like the ultimate bummer, losing your kid at a theme park, boardwalk, or anywhere really, is a legitimate, terrifying disaster. But for the safety of your child and your own sanity, remaining calm and enlisting the help of qualified authorities immediately is your best course of action. Police officers or theme park security will have dealt with the missing-kid scenario before and will be understanding and helpful. And if you're like us, you'll have snapped a photo of your kid that morning so anyone you ask will know not only your kid's complexion and hair color but also the exact clothing he's wearing. And you'll have provided your child with an ID card that includes your mobile phone number—and you'll have pointed out the police and security personnel who can help your kid find you.
Yikes! Was that a jail door that just slammed behind you? In a foreign country? Whether you've been arrested for drugs (the most common reason Americans get in hot water overseas), illegal possession of an antiquity (some countries don't allow anyone to leave the country with a centuries-old item, even if you bought it legally), or chewing gum (one of the reasons I may never visit Singapore, btw), you must contact the nearest U.S. consulate or embassy. Though they can't simply spring you from jail—you're subject to the laws of a foreign country—they can make sure your rights are observed and that you get legal representation. But before you depart the States, make sure you understand the sometimes-baffling laws of the nation you're going to visit. Possession of prescription opioids, taking photographs of certain buildings, and other seemingly benign acts can land you in the slammer.
RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!
Okay, we all know that visiting Los Angeles means you run the risk of being in an earthquake, and that cruising the Caribbean during hurricane season means, y'know? But what happens if you're blindsided by a monsoon, quake, tsunami, or flood? It's pretty simple: Obey the local authorities (for instance, if they suggest you evacuate your oceanfront resort, don't be one of the Ugly Americans who dig in to "ride out the storm") and stay informed via the State Department website or those of local consulates or embassies, or via social media and email with family and friends back in the U.S., who may have a much better informed vantage point than you.
OMG, I MISSED MY CONNECTION!!
Nobody wants their vacation delayed before it even starts, but weather-related travel delays can cause you to miss connecting flights—and the airlines are under no legal obligation to put you up for the night or supply you with a complementary meal if the delay was due to what they refer to as "acts of God." Some ways to prepare for this unpleasant scenario include: In the days before you fly, keep up with weather forecasts for your departing city, destination, and any connecting cities; keep a list of hotels near those airports; check on your flight before you leave for the airport. Oh, and bring chocolate. Lots of chocolate. Why? When you get that awful news that your flight is delayed or you've missed your connection, we want you to be the guy in line at the desk who's not being a jerk. You're going to smile, make eye contact, and offer the gate agent a bar of chocolate. We can't guarantee it'll get you on the next plane or into a free hotel room, but you'll be miles ahead of the dude who's wigging out.
WHERE'S MY IPAD?
Left something important on the plane? It happens all the time, and the major airlines have super-efficient procedures for reuniting you with your stuff asap. Contact the baggage service office in your arriving city to see if the item has turned up immediately. If not, go online to file a report. You'll typically get your item overnighted to you within days. At the risk of being a little obvious: Always double-check the seat back pocket in front of you before getting off the plane.