Eye-Opening Lessons from 9 Travel Disasters

In the middle of travel disaster panic, it’s hard to believe it could result in a personal a-ha moment. Generally, we’re too caught up in the moment, the stress, and the worry of what at the time seems like the end of the world, the think about the bigger picture.

And yet, here are the nine worst travel disasters I’ve lived through, and a valuable lesson from each one.

1. On a business trip in New York City on September 11th, 2001, I was moved by incredible kindness of strangers.

Unable to leave New York City until four days after the disaster, I saw the city a new light. Dazed but kind, New Yorkers were no longer in a rush.

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Nobody was rude. People stopped to help us: Were we lost? Did we need help pulling our luggage up the subway stairs? Complete strangers smiled at us as we passed on the sidewalk and initiated meaningful conversations on elevator rides.

It was a New York I had not experienced during the 2 years I’d previously lived there, and have not seen to such an extent since then.

2. An Israeli taxi driver refused to take me to my destination, giving me a glimpse into a vastly different reality.

jhawar1After landing in Tel Aviv and a routine 45-minute interrogation by Israeli immigration about my purpose in Israel, I jumped into a taxi and gave the driver an address.

“This is not in Tel Aviv. Where are you going?” he asked.

“It’s 20 minutes from the airport – is it a suburb?” I was part of an Italian IT team coming in after a recent acquisition, and it was my first trip over.

“You have incomplete information. Who gave you this address? How well do you know them?”

Even though my story had not raised red flags during the military-style airport interview, the cab driver was convinced something suspicious was going on. I assured him I knew the people who had given me the address very well and that they could definitely be trusted. The driver eventually acknowledged that the address was in a Tel Aviv suburb 20 minutes away, and took his incredibly naive foreigner to her destination.

It was the first example of many during my project: in Israel, every single person has their antennae up for any incongruency. It’s their strategy for staying alive.

3. A significant plane crash delayed my flight out of Paris and reminded me that there are more important things than work.

Sitting in a taxi stuck in traffic so thick that I knew I would miss my flight from Charles De Gaulle airport, I heard the radio announce that the Concorde had crashed.

As we got closer to the airport I could see the smoke, and then the wreckage. The stress I was feeling about my job and the project I was on in France went out the window, as if the universe’s message jolted me out of my workaholic stupor.

4. Denied entry into Sweden because of a law I didn’t know about, I learned that even in countries where rules are never bent, sometimes they are.

At the end of my 20-month work assignment in Stockholm, I’d said goodbye to – and profusely thanked – a small team of people who had made my life as an expat run smoothly so that I could focus on my work. Then, I relocated to Italy. But there was a loose end nobody had picked up.

Arriving in Stockholm for the first time since the relocation, I handed my documents to passport control. “You have a recently expired Swedish work visa.”

“Yes, I’m just coming to see my boyfriend for the weekend,” I said.

“You cannot enter Sweden for the next six months without a special tourist visa, sorry. You’ll have to get the next flight back to Italy.”

What happened next was beyond my control: I crumpled, sobbing, into a heap on the floor. I had no idea I needed a visa.

But even though it was not a tactic, my meltdown worked. I got a slap on the wrist, a stamp in my passport, and a “don’t try this again.”

5. After leaving my wallet in a taxi in St. Petersburg, Russia, I was reminded that you really can never judge a book by its cover.

An unmarked taxi operated by a gruff and unfriendly driver took a girlfriend and I from the airport to our hotel in St Petersburg. During check-in I realized that the last time I’d seen my wallet had been in the back seat of the cab. I had no taxi receipt. After a struggle with the verbal Russian instructions on the hotel phone, I was connected to the airport and miraculously found someone who had remembered my friend and I.

One hour later the taxi driver knocked at my hotel room door with my wallet, completely intact. I gave him two taxi fares, and one of my prized Canadian-flag key chains, which I considered to be one of my nicest gifts.

In hindsight he probably would have preferred cash.

6. When a client got hit by a car in Italy, it was incredible to see the number of people who pitched in to help.

Running a week-long cycling trip in Italy with 25 travelers is hard work. But it’s more difficult when one of them is hospitalized.

Our head office had no extra guides on hand to send to help, so my co-guide and I managed the hospital logistics – in addition to the cycling vacation the rest of the travelers had signed up for.

The week was a blur, but I remember being utterly surprised and grateful to the many people who pitched in – often unasked and always without complaint – to make the trip move forward almost as planned. The injured cyclist went home with a fracture and had a few years of physical therapy ahead of her, but it could have been much worse.

7. Missing my flight while I applied for a new passport in London was a lesson learned the hard way.

jhawar2Heading to the UK for the holidays one year, I grabbed my Canadian passport, leaving my US passport at home. Leaving the US and entering the UK with my Canadian passport were no problem, but on the way back to the US with no proof of residency, I was denied boarding.

My husband and daughter waited at Heathrow Airport while I spent four hours at the embassy in London getting a new US passport.

And I was lucky: had I arrived one hour later, the embassy would have been closed for the weekend.

8. About to fly out of New York after a business trip when the blackout of 2003 hit, I just got lucky.

Stuck at La Guardia Airport when the severe US power outage hit, I walked with hundreds of stranded travelers in search of a hotel, and ended up bunking with a candle-maker.

The entire east coast of the United States (and then some) was in darkness but in our little windowless hotel room, we had light.

9. Arriving at the wrong airport in Milan, I decided that sometimes an exorbitant plane fare is worth it.

I’d flown out of Milan’s Malpensa Airport so many times that on this particular occasion I left the office without checking my ticket. My stomach dropped when my flight to Stockholm was nowhere on the departures boards.

Then I checked my ticket.

The city airport where my flight was actually departing from would have been 15 minutes from my office, but it was an hour away from where I stood. So I paid an absolutely ridiculous amount of money for a flight to Stockholm that was about to board.

Looking back, I don’t miss the money at all. And I had a fabulous weekend.

Get more perspective:

photos, top to bottom, by dvs, ** Maurice **

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Older comments on Eye-Opening Lessons from 9 Travel Disasters

Audris Wong
12 January 2010

Great article! And so nice to be reminded that its both a small world and surprisingly kind. You are so well traveled!

Mike Collins
14 January 2010

I especially love the last two. The candlelight in New York, and the fabulous expensive weekend. Hurray!!

Madeline Jhawar
14 January 2010

thanks! I had fun writing it, though was surprised when my initial four travel ‘disasters’ expanded to nine!

ExplorerDad
18 July 2010

Nice post – good to be reminded…