For many of us, opportunities to travel are few and far between. In the USA, the average worker earns only ten vacation days a year, which means every moment spent away from work has to count. Adam and I started Road Unraveled to educate and inspire readers from around the world—no matter how much vacation time you earn—to dream big, take a vacation that matters, and ensure you are well-prepared to make the most of the time and money you invest into your trips.
It seems that every day the media has another horror story to share about travelers who find themselves mistreated or inconvenienced by flight delays, cancellations, lost luggage, or unruly passengers. Countless trips are ruined by unexpected obstacles—in fact, there are plenty of issues that can arise that you have no control over and cannot influence. Today, though, we challenge you to become the Educated Traveler: in the face of turmoil, you have the power to save your own vacation.
What does it mean to save your own vacation? A very recent experience taught us an important lesson in why it pays to be educated.
How Our Vacation Was Lost…
Adam and I planned our Kentucky Bourbon Trail trip for months; it involved careful coordination of our schedules as well as my dad’s and his best friend Steve’s, which was no small feat. We booked an Airbnb, we reserved a limo, and we purchased tour tickets. We were going for just a weekend, so every moment was accounted for in order to maximize our trip. At the top of the schedule, of course, were our arrivals; my dad and Steve would arrive by car, and Adam and I would fly from Washington, DC to Louisville- a short 2 hour flight. After a leisurely dinner we would all get to bed early so we would be well rested for a day of learning about (and drinking) bourbon.
Despite intense thunderstorms that drastically slowed their journey, my dad and Steve arrived in Louisville as Adam and I arrived at the airport in DC a couple of hours before our flight. About five minutes before we were scheduled to board the plane, our 5:00 flight’s status was delayed by an hour. No big deal; we assumed that the weather was to blame. When 6:00 came and went with no update from the gate agents assigned to our flight, I started to get concerned.
When we finally got an update at 6:30, we learned the weather wasn’t to blame for our delay at all; our aircraft was stuck in Charleston, South Carolina with maintenance issues. We were told the plane would depart within twenty minutes and would arrive in Washington by 7:00 PM. I started to grow suspicious; while I don’t fly that route often, I was sure the flight time between South Carolina and Washington is longer than twenty-five minutes. The gate agents assured me the time provided was correct, and we would be on our way by 7:30. I passed the time by looking at a few flight alternatives. It seemed our chances of making it to Louisville were slipping away with every passing moment.
By 7:15, with no plane in sight, our gate agents returned with a new update: the flight from Charleston was cancelled, but a different plane was en route from Richmond. The plane would land a little after 7:30, and as soon as the crew had completed their safety checks they would board us and send us on our way to Louisville. Adam and I exchanged a quick high five; all that stood between us and wheels up was a short wait for the new plane and crew. I smiled, thinking of how much tastier the bourbon would be after this stressful episode.
By 8:00 PM there was no sign of our crew. The gate agents confirmed the plane had landed and the crew was on their way to us. In hushed whispers I heard them discussing that the crew had gone over on their allowed flight hours and that they would have to hand out vouchers to all of us. Vouchers are never a good sign. Vouchers always mean bad news is coming. Adam checked the departures board. Our plane’s status had changed from “delayed” to “closed.” I rushed to the ticketing desk, and one of the gate agents met my eyes.
“Uh oh.” That’s all she said. That’s all she had to say.
As Adam and I collected our overnight bags and started to sprint toward the customer service desk, I checked the airline’s app. Our flight wasn’t cancelled, but it was delayed—to 12:00 PM the following day. Our bourbon tour began at 8:30 AM, when the limo we reserved would pull into the parking lot at our Airbnb. I started to hyperventilate. An entire weekend, several nonrefundable reservations, and time with my dad and Steve were on the line, and from the looks of it we were about to watch an entire vacation slip away from us.
…and How We Saved It
We were the only passengers at customer service when we arrived, and a representative greeted us with a big smile as he asked what he could do for us. I shoved our boarding passes across the desk.
“We need to be in Louisville by eight-thirty tomorrow morning,” I snarled. “We spent a ton of money on this vacation and my dad is waiting for us and I—“ The representative, still smiling, interrupted my rant. “I am going to do everything I can do to get you to Louisville,” he said. “Just leave it to me.”
I relaxed just a bit at that point; if there was one thing out of my control it was rebooking our flight, and the representative seemed like he was on our side. We made small talk as he typed a constant stream of airport codes and flight numbers into his computer. He cracked a few jokes, we returned them with a few punch lines of our own, and I could feel my heart rate slowing as his fingers slowed on the keyboard.
“So it looks like your best option right now is for us to fly you into Houston tonight. You’ll have to stay in the airport, but we can get you on a plane that will land in Louisville by 1:00 PM tomorrow afternoon.” I shook my head. “Our tour starts at 8:30 AM. If we land that late we’ll miss the entire tour.” The representative stared into the screen. It was clear he had already shared the best option he had for us.
“Can you check Charlotte, North Carolina?” I asked him. “Charlotte?” he questioned. “Yes, Charlotte. If we can get to Charlotte tonight I think there is a flight that will get us into Louisville by 8:45 AM tomorrow morning.” The representative started to type again, and a minute later he was smiling.
“I see that flight right here. It’s on a different airline, though.”
“That’s fine with me,” I told him. “We just need to be in Louisville in the morning. I don’t care which airline makes that happen.” The representative entered a few more keystrokes, tore up our old boarding passes, and slid brand new ones across the desk to us.
“You’re off to Charlotte tonight and Louisville in the morning,” he told me. “Not a flight combination I would have checked, but it’s going to work for you if everything is on time.” With many sincere thank you’s for his help, Adam and I left customer service (and a line of angry travelers that stretched well beyond the designated area) to find our gate for Charlotte.
We ended up landing in Charlotte just before midnight. After sitting on the tarmac for more than thirty minutes while we waited for a gate to open for us, we deplaned and caught a cab to the closest hotel, where we both spent four hours tossing and turning in anticipation of our 4:00 AM wake up call. By 5:30 AM we were back at the airport, by 7:00 we were on the plane, and at 8:45 exactly we were off the plane and rushing toward arrivals, where our limo pulled up to the curb just as we walked out the door. The rest of the story is history: despite our sleepiness, we had a perfect day—and the bourbon really did taste better after how hard we worked to get to it!
— Road Unraveled (@RoadUnraveled) June 24, 2017
Why Being an Educated Traveler Is So Important
If Adam and I had put the fate of our trip into the airline’s hands, we would never have made it to the Bourbon Trail. Their best alternative was to fly us the next day on our delayed flight, which would have resulted in more than a nineteen-hour postponement and negated our plans for the day. When we pushed back, their next best offer was to route us through Houston, which still would have resulted in us missing a much-anticipated trip and forfeiting all of the nonrefundable payments we made. It wasn’t until I suggested an alternative that did work for us that our representative made the right changes to make it happen. If I hadn’t been aware of the flight combinations and routes that were more desirable for us, we would certainly have missed out on our vacation.
It’s so important to be an educated traveler. Understanding your options and your rights can take you from catastrophe to salvation; it can protect your vacation, your time, and your money.
How can you become an educated traveler? Here are our four tips for empowering yourself to save your own vacation.
You Are Your Own Best Advocate
When it comes to travel, the most important thing to remember is that you are your own best advocate for your needs and interests. There are a lot of great customer service representatives out there—we were lucky enough to find one—but no one is going to look out for you better or with more conviction than you can for yourself. Ask for help and graciously accept it, but don’t be afraid to make your expectations clear to anyone who is assisting you. The representative who helped us knew that getting to Louisville was our priority, but if we didn’t advocate for what we needed he would never have known how critical it was we arrive by a certain time—or what lengths we were willing to go to get there. You will do yourself a lot of favors when you not only identify the problem you are facing but suggest a few solutions that will help you solve it. Stand up for yourself. It’s your vacation, and it needs your voice.
Do Your Homework
How do you come up with solutions to solve travel problems? When it comes to getting your trip back on track, the more you know about your options, the better your chances will be of securing your best alternative plans. Admittedly, I am a bit of a worst-case scenario planner. When our flight was delayed and the gate agent told me the plane we needed was preparing to make a 25-minute flight from South Carolina to Washington, I realized there was a good chance our flight was not going to get off the ground. I spent my downtime at the gate looking at some alternatives that I could have ready to suggest if needed—and that research saved our entire vacation. When our customer service representative identified a few options for us, I was able to push back with something that he didn’t find on his own—a late-night departure for Charlotte and an early morning flight to Louisville. Our representative would probably not have research that combination; it involved changing our reservation to another airline, and it required a terrible layover. There was nothing good about it—except that it would get us where we needed to go on time.
In addition to researching alternative travel arrangements, take a few minutes to educate yourself on what—if anything—an airline may owe you if your flight is delayed or cancelled. Many times airlines owe you nothing if your flight is delayed because of weather. Because our flight was delayed because of a mechanical issue, the airline offered meal and hotel vouchers to everyone who was stranded in Washington. In our case, we didn’t want a free hotel stay—we wanted to get to Louisville. If time hadn’t been of the essence, though, knowing that we were owed vouchers might have been a welcome solution.
Do you need to do this kind of research for every trip? No, you don’t. But when you are traveling with an inflexible itinerary, it can really help to know what your second or third best alternatives are just in case you need them. When should you do your homework? I like to do a little bit when I start planning any trip just to be on the safe side. Although I always pick the flight combination that works best for me, I also pay attention to other flight times and combinations that search engines identify as options. That research can inform my plans if anything goes wrong, such as a cancellation or a weather delay. In this case, some quick research on my phone from the airport worked its magic very quickly—that’s how I found the flight I asked our representative to book for us, and because I was able to find that flight online I knew there would also be available seats. Just a few minutes of homework can really make a difference!
I broke this rule in my initial state of panic, but I also believe finding my calm—and keeping it—made a difference in the outcome we secured. Initially, I was furious about how the airline had handled this issue—I felt like we were deceived from the time they told us our inbound aircraft needed less than 30 minutes to make the journey until the moment they promised a crew that didn’t have any more flight hours was on their way to us.
I started my interaction with customer service in a terrible mood, but I quickly changed my attitude. Panicking wasn’t going to solve my problem; maintaining a level head almost certainly would. Keeping calm let me keep my focus. I kept a firm hold on my priorities (getting to Louisville as early as possible), and I was able to more rationally react to the options our representative presented to us.
Keeping calm also saved us some time—instead of losing precious minutes ranting and raving about how miserable the situation was for us, we put our energy into solving the problem at hand. It only took five minutes before we were on our way with new boarding passes. As we left customer service, I noticed a man who arrived just after us was still screaming at the representative assisting him—she hadn’t even begin to offer options for him because he was too busy yelling to hear them. I wondered how much longer it took for him to resolve his problem than it did for us to find a good solution to ours.
Speak Up—Even After the Fact
Facing vacation-threatening issues in the moment can be a major challenge, and while you may be focused enough to achieve your primary goals, you may wonder later if there is more you should have done to save your trip. For us, walking away with boarding passes to Louisville by way of Charlotte was enough to convince us we had done everything we needed to do. It wasn’t until a few hours later, after spending $100 out-of-pocket on taxis and a hotel, that we wondered if we should have requested reimbursement or vouchers for those costs. After all, it wasn’t our fault we had to spend the night in Charlotte. When we returned home, I sent my hotel and taxi receipts to the airline as well as a letter detailing why I wanted them to reimburse me for the money I unexpectedly had to spend. Two weeks later, a check for the full amount arrived in my mailbox.
When it comes to travel—and many of life’s situations—you don’t get what you don’t ask for. If you feel you missed out on something that should have been offered to you, speak up for yourself. It never hurts to ask, even after your trip is complete. For us, we had no choice but to pay for a hotel and a couple of taxi rides even if reimbursement wasn’t on the table; we needed a place to sleep, and there was no way the airline was going to approve the expenditure on such short notice.
After our trip was over, we were able to put together a compelling case for why the airline should pay us back, and they agreed. It paid to speak up—and that’s $100 we can now put toward another trip!
Make it Happen
We work hard for our vacation time. When plans go awry, months of planning can be derailed in mere moments. For many of us, if a vacation falls apart at the last moment, there’s no getting it back—it may be months before the next opportunity to get away presents itself. That’s why we challenge you to become an Educated Traveler: a person who advocates for their trip, does their homework to understand options and alternatives, keeps calm in order to keep focused, and speaks up for the service they expect. While these tips aren’t foolproof in every situation, they will empower you to protect and defend your vacation if necessary. Travel with confidence—as an Educated Traveler, you are ready for whatever challenges and opportunities cross your path!