How to Deal with Common Travel Problems

Country 7: Latvia | This post is part of my 30×30 series. Read more here!

Cancelled flights. Stolen passports. Bad hotels. When travel goes right, you have the trip of a lifetime. But when it goes wrong, it’s a horror story in the making. And if you travel frequently, travel problems are practically inevitable. Here are some of the most common travel problems and how to deal with them—what you can do to prepare, what you should do in the situation, and tips for prevention in future.


Dealing with Travel Problems

1. Missed, Cancelled, or Delayed Flights

In my opinion, of all the travel problems there are, this is the most annoying. That’s probably because having a missed, canceled, or delayed flight is one of the most common issues I’ve experienced while traveling. It took me a long time to master the one tip that really matters in this case: staying calm and polite. Too angry or loud, and you’ll have a hard time getting the empathy you need from the airline desks. But when you mix assertiveness with sweetness, you’ve got a helluva customer service cocktail.

I’ve also started blacklisting the airlines with whom I’ve had bad experiences. Narrowing the pool means flight can be more costly, but I prefer to know that I’m dealing with good customer representatives and reliable service.

Pro tip: Loyalty pays

If you have the option, make sure to sign up for your airline’s reward program—it can offer some benefits for a flight gone wrong. If my flight was particularly delayed or had serious issues, I’ll always follow up with the airline to check on compensation. They won’t advertise it, but sometimes you can get fat vouchers or free flights. If that’s too time-consuming, you can also one of the new startups (like Airhelp) to chase the airline for you.

2. Lost or Stolen Passport

Another common travel problem is a lost passport. Americans abroad can read through the official processes here, but there are some best practice tips for avoiding this particular issue.

  • Keep your passport on you at all times, or locked safely in the hotel safe (just make sure you don’t forget it at checkout!). In some countries, it’s mandatory to carry your passport on your person, but in others it isn’t. Check out your destination’s policies in advance, and plan accordingly. If it’s not mandatory, I usually keep my passport safely at the hotel, to have one less thing to worry about when I’m out and about.
  • Make sure your passport is really and truly gone. If you file a lost passport report, the passport is declared invalid. That means even if it’s actually hiding in between some pairs of dirty socks in the middle of your suitcase, you cannot use it. So before you report it, make sure you’ve searched everywhere thoroughly.
  • Keep paper and digital copies of all of your important documents—specifically the picture page, but also any important visas. I always email my stateside emergency contacts with this information before leaving.
  • Make sure that you know where your birth certificate or proof of citizenship is. Make digital copies before you leave!
  • Have at least a rough idea of where the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate is—remember, not every city has one. Be aware that consulates and embassies can’t issue passports on the weekends or on holidays (unless it’s a matter of life or death), so if you need to travel to the nearest one, keep that in mind when arranging your trip!
  • If you have spare passport photos (likely yours came in a pack of six), carry an extra one with you. I always tuck 1 or 2 in my travel organizer, just in case.

For Americans with a lost passport abroad, you can get an emergency passport at the consulate that will at least get you out of the country you’re in and through arrivals back home—you’ll just need to exchange it once you’re back on U.S. soil.

3. Lost or Damaged Luggage

I always travel with my important items (laptops, hard drives, passports, etc.) in the cabin. Truthfully, I prefer to fly with a carry-on suitcase whenever possible. It decreases the risk of lost bags and makes the flight process more seamless. But for longer trips, there are times when a checked bag is a necessity. Knowing what to do in case that bag gets lost is also a necessity. In my experience, this travel problem has only happened when I needed my bag the most.

If an airline loses your bag, make sure you report it immediately. Chances are the bag just wound up on a different plane, but you’ll want to have a paper trail of the whole process, right from the beginning. Before you leave the airport, make sure you’ve negotiated to have your suitcase delivered to your accommodation. You won’t want to have to come all the way back out to pick it up.

Most airlines will have an official claim policy for lost bags. If you’re checking things with high value, investigate that policy before your bag goes in. You’re generally allowed a “reasonable expenses” stipend for every day your bag is missing. Be firm with the airline about that, and cross-reference the Department of Transportation when you need to! It also helps to be able to itemize what you had in there. If you’re packing in a blind frenzy, remember to take two seconds to quickly inventory the contents of your bag before you pull that zipper closed.

Pro tip: Mark your luggage

Make sure your bag is clearly marked and has your information on it. Tie something colorful on the handle, class up your suitcase with a luggage tag, or take a photo of the bag before you depart—you’ll need some identifying factor to make it easier for the airline to trace your bag (and make sure no one grabs yours by mistake). This might seem basic, but it’s an easy way to avoid travel problems before they happen.

4. Unaccomodating Accommodation

If you’re lucky, your hotel or B&B you were staying at chose to upgrade you or provided some treats that made your stay above and beyond. I certainly wish that for you, because the opposite scenario can be cringe-worthy. Maybe the hotel lost your booking, your room isn’t as pictured, or worse, there are cleanliness issues.

The first step to dealing with these kinds of travel problems is to go directly to the front desk. Find a manager if possible and complain in a calm and professional tone. If there’s something good to say, say it—you want to give the impression of being fair. In most cases, the hotel should listen and then find a solution (for example, moving you to a better room, offering compensation, etc.). Don’t hesitate to escalate if you need to, but try to avoid yelling or aggressive behavior. It rarely works the way you want it to. Definitely remind them of the power of an internet review.

Pro tip: Know when to fold

If being a reasonable person is getting you nowhere, you may just need to cut your losses and find a new hotel. It’s not worth your time, energy, or trip to try to squeeze service out of a place that won’t give it to you.

Turbo, Colombia
Talk about travel gone wrong

5. Sickness

If you’re worried about getting sick on a trip, the first thing you’ll want is traveler’s insurance. It’s easy enough to get in advance of your travel and gives you the peace of mind you need while you’re on the road.

Do you have a chronic condition and take regular medication? See if you can get extra meds and pack them on your person—not in your checked luggage. It also might be helpful to have a letter from your doctor (on official stationery!) explaining what you take and why you take it. Remember, not all medicines are legal in all countries, so check before you leave to avoid unnecessary issues at customs. It’s also good to know the active ingredients in your medicines, so that you know what to ask for at the local pharmacy.

Pro tip: Pack a First Aid Kit!

Smaller ailments can cause stress, too, though. I always travel with a first-aid kit that can treat the culprits of my usual ailments. It’s easy to put together a little kit yourself to treat the basics.

Processed with VSCO with c2 preset
Easy as 1…

6. Pickpocketing and Theft

It’s no secret—tourists are easy targets. Before you go, check out the safety threat in your destination city. Once you get there, use street smarts and always be aware of your surroundings.

Some things to remember include:
  • Never leave your bags unattended. My general rule of thumb is to have a hand on my bag (suitcases included) whenever possible. Whether that means looping a purse strap through a chair leg, keeping the suitcase in front of me at travel counters or check-in desks, or having my arm through the strap when sitting.
  • Keeping wallets and purses towards the front of your body. Button or zip openings closed when you can. I never travel with an open tote or purse, because it’s so easy for someone to snake a hand inside. Personally, I hate money belts. I find them uncomfortable and very obvious. I prefer to carry my money and documents in a bag, which I keep a hand on at all times.
  • Don’t be flashy! Unless I absolutely have to, I don’t carry a lot of cash on my person. These days a lot of people take cards (…except Germany), which has the added bonus of security. If you do have to carry cash, have small bills. Divide those up among the people in your group, or on your person. For instance, I’ll split carrying money in my wallet and carrying money in a separate pouch in my bag. That way if my wallet or bag gets stolen, I still have some on me.
  • Downplay your phone. Smartphones can be an amazing reference on your trip, but also a major distraction. If you’re using your phone for mapping, research, translations, pictures, etc. make sure you divide your attention between it and your surroundings. I like to “pull off” the main sidewalk, preferably with my back against a wall, so that nothing can surprise me. As soon as I’m done checking what I need to, I put the phone securely away.
  • Refer back up to number 2 for document-specific tips—but again, I can’t stress enough how important it is to have digital copies of your key documents.

7. Money Issues

If you’ve read this far, one thing might be apparent: travel problems are usually associated with a significant financial loss (at least up front!). Vacations are expensive—but allot some funds proactively and you’ll have a little less to stress about. I like to include a cushion for emergencies in my travel budget. That way, if worse comes to worst and I have to rebook a flight, find a new hotel, pay for a new passport, or get some medicine, I’m financially prepared. In best case scenarios, I never spend that money, and back into my account it goes!

You might be wondering what travel problems tips have to do with Latvia (Country 8 in my 30×30 countdown). Maybe it makes sense when I say that I was meant to go to Rome that weekend? Yeah….oops. Which brings me to my last tip: keep your perspective. Do your best to stay calm and positive, focus on the good things, and, in the words of Blanche DuBois, rely on the kindness of strangers when you need to. It will always seem like a nightmare when you’re in it, but in the years after, you’ll find a way to laugh about it. Trust me.

Gone Wrong