Expert Advice: Traveling

Five Columbia Residents Recall Their Worst Travel Dilemmas And Experts Weigh In With Advice

By Jessica Perkins and Krystin Arneson

Illustrations By Jill Hamilton

Bumps in the road are part of any journey. In fact, they often teach us valuable lessons. Still, no one boards a plane or hops in the car for a road trip hoping their luggage will be sent to the wrong continent or their car will suddenly decide to meet its maker.

Five Columbia residents share some of the challenges they’ve faced while trotting the old globe, and travel experts Robert Reid, Roy Shelby, Shirley Lin and Andy Nolke offer solutions to those who find themselves in similar jams. They impart some of their wisdom to the rest of us so that our adventures stay just that — adventures rather than misadventures.

The Dilemma: No Lodging

When they arrived in Rome one unlucky night two years ago, then-college-student Elizabeth King and her group of friends seemed prepared for just about anything.

But one thing the group wasn’t prepared for was to be turned out of the bed and breakfast where they had made reservations.

“They were just like, ‘Sorry, all full,’ ” King says. “And they wouldn’t help us find anywhere else. We even had a confirmation e-mail that we printed out, and they wouldn’t acknowledge it at all.”

King and her friends then embarked on a wild goose chase in search of somewhere to stay. After attempting to take a bus downtown but winding up deep in the country instead, the group had a half-mile run, a long bus ride and a subway trip ahead of them before finally arriving downtown — and they dragged their luggage behind them the whole way.

By then it was late and every hotel or hostel they came upon was full, but a stranger approached the Americans and offered his help. “He said if we followed him we’d get a room,” King says. Though they were scared, the desperate students went with the man.

Fortunately, they had put their trust in the right person: He led the group to an old hotel run by a kind family, and the students slept safe and sound after all.

What The Expert Says

“First of all, if you have a reservation at a place and for whatever reason they’re full, I would be really, really reluctant to leave without knowing of a place to go,” says Lonely Planet’s U.S. Travel Editor Robert Reid. “Try to be calm about it and let those people be your friends. Those people can help you. Maybe they speak English and you can leave your bags there while you look for a place nearby, rather than taking your bags onto the street. You’re most vulnerable when you’re moving from A to B with your stuff. Try to patch that relationship. Have them helping you find a bed, because that’s what they should be doing.”

Reid has experienced this problem in his own travels, such as the time he touched down at 3 a.m. in Burma with his bags on his shoulder and nowhere to sleep. After Reid explained his predicament, a hotel employee who had no available rooms allowed Reid to spend the night in a broom closet. “Hotels are conditioned to be nice to a guest,” Reid says, because even if you cannot afford to sleep there, you may have friends who can.

According to Reid, the most important thing in this scenario is to try to get to a safe place, be it a convenience store, coffee shop, visitor’s center or even the lobby of a hotel that’s full or out of your price range. “Find a place that you can use as a base that will help you. Try to set up that base, recruit, stay calm and find your room. You’ll feel better … and later maybe you can even laugh about it.”

The Dilemma: Dealing With Dirty Cops

Columbia resident Dennis Thrower and his daughters were wrapping up a vacation in Mexico when they got a bit of a surprise.

On their way to catch a flight home, a police officer pulled them over for speeding and threatened to take the Throwers to the police station if they didn’t give him money.

“We weren’t speeding or doing anything out of the ordinary,” Thrower says, but a police officer flagged them down.

The officer told Thrower he was driving too fast, so Thrower promised to keep an eye on his speed.

The police officer wasn’t satisfied. “I’m going to have to take you to the station,” he told Thrower. When Thrower explained that he and his family had a plane to catch, the police officer responded by writing “2,500 pesos” on a piece of paper.

Thrower didn’t have 2,500 pesos, which equates to about $201, but he offered the cop the money he had. After threatening to bring Thrower and his family members to jail, the officer eventually took the money and permitted the Throwers to continue on their way.

“Any time a policeman pulls you over, I think it’s pretty natural that your blood pressure goes up a little bit. But the thing is, I only had a certain amount of cash, so I pretty much stuck to my guns,” Thrower says.

What The Experts Say

Although Reid has traveled hundreds of thousands of miles, “This has happened very, very few times to me,” he says.

If you feel comfortable denying the officers’ request for money, resist nicely.

To those who feel they must pay because they are uncomfortable or late to the airport like Thrower, Reid suggests reporting the incident to the car rental company, hotel and visitor’s bureau. “Make sure they know about it so that culture doesn’t exist in those places and there is some kind of pressure to change it,” he says.

If Thrower and his family had missed their flight due to the incident, unfortunately there would have been few options available to them, says Roy Shelby of Great Southern Travel.

When a missed flight is the airline’s fault — for example, the first flight is so delayed that a connecting flight cannot be made — the airline typically issues a refund or puts the customer on another flight. But if it’s the customer’s fault, the airlines “are under no obligation to do anything,” Shelby says. His advice? Do everything possible to avoid arriving at the airport late.

The Dilemma: Lost Luggage

The Hausman clan is hoping the fourth time will be the charm. What should be a relaxing vacation in Aruba never quite goes as planned: Every year they’ve gone, someone’s bag has been lost. It’s a good thing the women in the family enjoy shopping.

The first year Jamie Hausman’s parents went to Aruba together, her mother’s bag was delayed. The second year, Jamie and her two sisters joined her parents, and the airlines lost one of her sister’s bridesmaid dress.

“They lost my sister’s bag and didn’t give it back to us until five days into our one-week vacation,” Jamie says. “So basically, all week my mom was on the phone with [airport personnel]. They gave her, like, $500, so we went shopping.”

This year was Jamie’s turn. Luckily, her bags were returned on the second or third day of her trip, but being without her clothes until then still proved to be a challenge.

“They had to safety pin clothes all over me,” Jamie says of her family members, who do not share her clothing size. “I lost my swimming suit, and [the airline] gave me, like, 100 bucks. That was much less severe.”

What The Expert Says

To avoid a situation like the Hausmans’, always carry a change of clothes and any essential medications or papers in your carry-on bag, says Great Southern Travel consultant Shirley Lin.

Beyond that, the most helpful thing to do is simply to stay calm.

“The main thing we do tell our clients if they have lost baggage is not to panic,” Lin says. “Panicking doesn’t help anything.”

Unfortunately, there’s really no way to prevent the inconvenience that comes from lost luggage. It’s in the hands of the airline, and at that point, the situation might literally be up in the air.

“What some clients don’t understand is that sometimes if the airliner is too heavy, they may actually send your bags on a different plane, and you don’t even know it,” Lin says. “Just because you get on Plane A doesn’t mean your luggage is on it — it may be on Plane B, C or D.”

The Dilemma: Merchants Who Overcharge Tourists

“Israel is like a second home to me,” says Columbian Brad Jacobson. He has spent much of his time there volunteering and visiting family.

Once while visiting the Old City of Jerusalem, Jacobson came upon a vendor selling containers of orange juice.

“I asked the guy selling juice, “How much is orange juice?’ He said ‘Twelve shekels.’ Right behind me someone else said in Hebrew, ‘How much is orange juice?’ And the guy said in Hebrew, ‘Seven shekels.’ So because I asked him in English, it was twelve shekels. And the guy behind me asked in Hebrew and it was seven shekels,” Jacobson says.

Jacobson confronted the vendor. “Of course I said, ‘What? How much is it?’ in Hebrew, so then he charged me seven shekels,” he says.

While shopping at stores or markets, Jacobson would often ask Israeli citizens how much they would pay for certain items in order to avoid being exploited.

What The Expert Says

“You have this sneaking suspicion in some places that all prices are written in pencil,” Reid says.

Take the time to consult guidebooks, visitor’s centers or hotel staff to find out when it is acceptable to haggle and when the prices are more than just a suggestion.

Reid says that if you think a vendor is trying to take advantage of you, you should feel free to playfully but respectfully express your disbelief at the price. “You don’t want to be ripped off because it hurts the travelers that follow you. You want, whenever you can, to push back on that. But I try not to get too fussy when it’s just a matter of pennies,” Reid says. “Charging more for tourists is probably one of the oldest things in travel. Marco Polo was probably ripped off traveling around the world.”

The Dilemma: Roadside Breakdown

One night in April, University of Missouri sophomore Blake Hanson was driving back to school from Apple Valley, Minn. Everything was going smoothly until the “check engine” light started to blink as he crossed a bridge just north of Kansas City. Then his car started to automatically brake on and off.

“I knew that it was in my best interest to stop the car as soon as possible,” Hanson says. “So as soon as I made it off the bridge and found the shoulder, I pulled over.”

After speaking with his parents, Hanson called AAA, and the company summoned a tow truck to come get him.

“The entire time I was panicking,” Hanson says. “My phone was on the verge of dying, and I knew I needed it if they couldn’t find me.”

The tow truck brought Hanson to a Firestone garage in Liberty, where Hanson called his girlfriend, who was already on the road to come get him. The two made it back to Columbia around midnight.

“I had to work at 3 a.m. at KOMU and had been hoping to sleep beforehand,” Hanson says. “But because of my car dying, I didn’t really have the time.”

Hanson’s lack of sleep soon turned into a lack of money when he called the Liberty Firestone the next day. The cause of the previous night’s misadventure was a rather costly snapped timing belt.

“I didn’t have a chance to pick it up all week and had to coordinate rides to work which was quite a hassle,” Hanson says.

What The Expert Says

Hanson’s type of situation would be a nightmare for anyone on the road. Driving always carries some risk of a flat tire, reluctant starter, or, as in Hanson’s case, the always-ominous engine light.

If the engine light comes on while driving and things seem fine with the car otherwise, “you should be safe to get to your destination, and then get it checked out,” says McKnight Tire Service Advisor Andy Nolke.

But if the engine light starts blinking, as Hanson’s did, it’s best to pull over immediately and call a tow truck.

“If the ‘check engine’ light is flashing, that means damage is being done to the car,” Nolke says.

Although there’s no way to guarantee that scary issues won’t come up while traveling, there are measures to take at home beforehand to minimize the chances of an adverse situation.

“Preventative maintenance is the biggest thing,” Nolke says. This includes things that even a car maintenance novice can do on the driveway: checking fluid levels, measuring tire pressure. But inspecting things visually might not catch all the damage, so take the car in for a trained set of eyes to look at before heading out on the highway.

“Plan ahead if you know you’re going to be on a trip,” Nolke says. “Get it into the shop.”

One thing that customers don’t often factor in is the day or two it might take to get parts, he says.

“Waiting until the last minute is always the worst time for repairs,” Nolke says. “Take an extra hour to do it now, as opposed to on the road.”

Although some snafus are to be expected during a trip, Reid stresses the fact that major travel crises are the exception rather than the norm. Reid would know: He has journeyed to Bulgaria, Vietnam, Burma and a host of other places.

Most travel dilemmas can be overcome with a bit of preparation and levelheadedness. “In other words, don’t be scared,” Reid says.

Or as author Henry David Thoreau put it, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.”