Any Port in a Storm

Making the best of bad weather, itinerary changes, and all the other things that can go wrong when you travel

ship-on-angry-sea

Timing is everything. At least that’s what they say, and when you travel, timing can make all the difference between whether your vacation or business trip proceeds smoothly and as planned, or you end up in a whole different place – both physically and emotionally.

Most of us book our flights, cruises and hotels a good bit in advance, unless it’s an emergency or a “pop up” opportunity. Generally that’s a good thing. It often makes for the best prices, and allows us time to prepare – to plan, pack, make sure everything for which we’re normally responsible at home will be taken care of in our absence.

However, at the time we make those arrangements, we can’t foresee how circumstances, both in our own lives and in the world, may change by the time “zero day” in our countdown rolls around. Those changes can have a profound effect on our travel plans.

The waiting is the hardest part

Last month, I went on a “dream cruise” in the Med on Carnival’s brand new Vista. I booked that cruise, which sailed Oct. 11, 2016, on January 23 of 2015 – 627 days (or one year and eight and a half months) ahead of time. A lot happened in that interim period. Our original itinerary began in Athens and sailed to Izmir (Turkey), Rhodes (Greece), Valletta (Malta), Messina (Sicily), Naples, Rome, Livorno (Italy), Marseilles (France) and ended in Barcelona (Spain).

The Greek economy, which had been in crisis since 2009, came to a head again in 2015 and continued to spiral in 2016. A number of people who had booked the cruise (many of whom had never been to Europe before and were already nervous about it) cancelled in the time leading up to final payment.

greek-crisis-headlin

Then only a few months before we were set to go, the political situation in Turkey flared up, with terrorist bombings and an attempted military coup. More cruisers cancelled, and Carnival changed the itinerary from Izmir to Kusadasi, in hopes that it would be safer. The region stayed unstable, though, and prior to the cruise date, Carnival cancelled the call on the Turkish port altogether, substituting a sea day. This decision was popular with some, who were concerned about safety, and less popular with others because it resulted in the imposition of a 24 percent VAT (Value Added Tax) on most purchases made on board the ship.

Unfortunately, fate hadn’t finished toying with us. Days before our sail date, the Greek Air Traffic Controllers called a strike, to effectively shut down all flights into and out of the country for four days – including the two days immediately prior to embarkation day, which was when most cruisers were scheduled to arrive. Airlines cancelled flights and many of us scrambled madly to reschedule for the day of sailing, which was not to be a strike day. Then the day before the strike was to begin, they called it off. Flights were reinstated but many had already changed everything and some had ended up cancelling. Chaos and confusion reigned.

And then there was the other kind of rain, which was falling heavily when I finally arrived in Athens the morning of embarkation.

rain at greek airport.png

The original plan was to get there the day before and have a nice dinner with friends and a relaxing evening at the hotel so I could be fresh and rested when I boarded the plane. Instead, I was rushing straight from the airport to the cruise port after being awake for almost 30 hours on planes and in airports, and when I finally straggled onto the ship, I was also soaking wet.

But there’s a happy ending to this story. Despite the difficult start and the missed port (and despite another day of rain in Rome), and despite missing several friends who had originally planned to be there but cancelled along the way, it was a wonderful ten days full of magical moments that left me with a lifetime of happy memories.

Planning ahead: What could possibly go wrong?

The more complicated a machine or system is, the more different things there are that can go wrong. Modern travel tends to be very complicated, involving an intertwined web of separate arrangements and reservations that all have to work together. A European cruise might involve transportation to the airport, a flight (possibly with connections and plane changes along the way), a hotel stay, transportation to the cruise port, excursions in various ports of call, transport in the debarkation city (either to a hotel or the airport), another flight(s) to get home and a ride from the airport to your house.

If one element falls behind or falls through, it can make you late or make you miss the next step, which ultimately could even cause you to “miss the boat” completely. It requires good planning and coordination and more than a little luck. That’s why some people dump it all in the hands of a travel agent and let someone else be responsible for pulling it all together.

travel-chaos

Of course, not all trips are this complex (and some are much more so). A family road trip to stay with relatives is a far simpler proposition – although not without its own brand of complications. But whether your trip is short and simple or a complex round-the-world voyage by air, car, plane and train, and whether you handle it all yourself or have a professional do it for  you, there are unexpected events that can and do call for changes to some of your carefully plotted plans.

Weather or not. Bad weather has been interfering with the best laid plans of man (and woman) since the first prehistoric patio party had to be cancelled due to rain. What type of weather you experience on your trip depends in part on the time of the year you go, but to a large extent it’s the luck of the draw.

It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature, but she has a way of fooling us when we least expect it. Weather forecasts are notoriously unreliable; as with any other occupation that’s based on predicting the future – stockbroker, professional gambler, palm reader – meteorologists seem to be wrong more often than they’re right.

weatherman-wrong

Sure, it usually is bright and sunny in the Caribbean in the summer – except when it’s not. It’s true that the rainy season in Alaska is most Certainly, northern Atlantic hurricane season normally peaks between August and October – but that doesn’t guarantee that one won’t spin up in December. Yes, it’s rare to have an earthquake in Florida, but it happened last summer.

So sure, check out past trends and future forecasts, but not count on cooperative weather when you travel. And always, always pack a rain jacket and/or umbrella. I love my very light, very compact rain jacket that rolls into a tiny package and doubles as a windbreaker on chilly evenings. I don’t leave home (if I’ll be staying overnight or longer) without it.

The uncertainty principle. When you travel, the one thing of which you can be certain is uncertainty. Don’t get your heart set on a specific itinerary or excursion. High winds can cause that helicopter tour to be cancelled or the ship’s ropes course to be closed down; a rock slide can do away with that train ride along the side of the mountain, a tumultuous sea can keep your ship from docking at the island port you were most looking forward to.

Mechanical problems can result in a cruise or a flight being cancelled altogether. During a busy season, getting rescheduled may be a problem. In some European countries, strikes are commonplace and bring normal operations to a halt. The consequences can range from the inconvenience of having to carry your own bags because the porters are on strike to being  unable to get to the port at all when transportation is down for the duration.

quarantined

The outbreak of illness (or even just the possibility of an outbreak) can wreak havoc with your itinerary and planned activities, even if you, yourself, stay well. On my Vista cruise, there were some cases of suspected Norovirus on board, which caused some activities to be cancelled, the Swirls ice cream machine in the Family Harbor lounge to be shut down, and the aft stairway and elevators on lower decks to be closed for a day while the brand new carpeting was replaced after someone got sick all over it.

That’s not nearly as scary as the “Ebola cruise” on the Carnival Magic that my cousins sailed on, when passengers were prohibited from going ashore in Belize because one person worked in a hospital lab that had handled the virus. Of course, in the end nobody had been exposed after all, and the cruise line compensated the passengers well for the scare.

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, be ready for anything. The good news is that sometimes the cruise line, air line or other travel provider will refund your money or even give you compensation above and beyond that when your plans get changed. However, it often depends on the nature of the change agent. If it’s something for which the provider is responsible, such as the failure of their equipment, you’re more likely to get compensated than if it’s something beyond their control, such as a strike or an act of nature.

It’s smart to pursue such compensation but don’t depend on it. Always have travel insurance for any major trip. The airlines and cruise lines sell insurance that’s usually offered when you book and can sometimes be added later. Third party insurers such as those you can find on the insuremytrip.com web site often cost less and provide more coverage, as well as different levels of coverage for different prices to meet your needs and budget.

If you have a “black card” or premium credit card (the kind that charges a $400-500 or more annual fee), its benefits probably include travel insurance equivalent to or better than the airline and cruise line policies, for free. Some lower fee cards may also provide a lesser level of insurance.

Credit where credit is due. Speaking of credit cards, it’s a good idea to take a couple with you when you travel, even if everything is prepaid and you don’t plan to buy anything extra. You never know when you might need to make an emergency expenditure. What if the airline loses your luggage and you need to buy clothes and toiletries to get through your trip? Your insurance should reimburse you, but you need a way to make the purchase in the meantime.

Various Credit Cards

Sure, you could use cash or a debit card, but a credit card is safer because if you lose it you can simply cancel it (unlike cash) and you’re not generally held liable for fraudulent charges (unlike many debit cards). I suggest taking two, of different types (e.g., a Mastercard and a VISA) in case you find that a merchant doesn’t accept one or the other, or in case you find one of the cards deactivated or you lose one.

If you’re traveling as a couple, I suggest one person carry one of the cards and the other carry the other. If you’re alone, carry them separately (e.g., one in your around-the-neck travel wallet and the other in the inner pocket of your backpack or bag).

Money isn’t everything. Being prepared involves more than just being prepared financially. Equally important is to be prepared mentally and emotionally for the possibility of changes. Use what I call “if/then thinking” to map out a route to having a good trip no matter what happens.

If someone on the ship has a medical emergency and the captain has to divert to get the patient to a hospital, and that means you miss that wonderful port where you were planning such a great time, then what can you do instead?  Spend the day relaxing at the aft pool and working on your tan and enjoying not having to rush to get to an excursion on time?

Okay, that’s the spirit – but take it one step further. If it’s rainy and stormy all day and you can’t lie out by the pool without getting pelted with hard, giant drops of water, then what can you do instead?  Go to brunch and indulge in a big breakfast/lunch and then win trophies playing trivia until dinner, after which you go see all the production shows that you usually miss because you’re tired from your excursion?

Excellent idea, but … If those seas get rough in the storm, and your stomach feels slightly queasy so you really don’t want to eat much, and they have to cancel the shows because the dancers could get hurt due to the movement of the ship, then what can you do instead? Grab a good book and snuggle up in your cabin or buy the Internet plan that you usually forego and spend the day catching up with your email and sending pictures of the pitching sea to your Facebook friends, ordering room service and getting some much-needed sleep so you’ll be fresh and ready tomorrow when the weather clears?

And so forth. The moral of the story is that learning to roll with the flow can make your travel time a  whole lot happier.

Flexibility is the key to happiness

key-to-happiness

If you’re one of those people who can’t handle changes, who’s unable to function if there’s a deviation from the pre-planned agenda, who gets overly anxious or depressed or worst of all, grumpy when something goes wrong (as something inevitably will), you probably won’t enjoy traveling in this day and age. Murphy’s Law seems to come out in full force and effect whenever we leave home.

In my “day job,” I’m a technology industry analyst and writer. One of the biggest buzz words in that field these days is “agile,” which means able to move quickly and easily, and in this context refers to the ability to respond quickly to changing needs within the software development process. To be a happy traveler, you need a big dose of agility and a generous scoop of adaptability, smothered in patience and topped with sprinkles of a sense of humor. It also helps if you can look at problems not as setbacks or even as challenges, but as the opportunity for adventure.

Now, I’m not advocating that you put up with genuine incompetence or poor treatment or bad customer service when it happens – and it does happen in the travel industry, as in all industries. If you’re not getting what you paid for, and it’s the fault of the travel provider, by all means speak up. But remember, when you do, that the person you’re speaking to usually isn’t the one who made the decision or engaged in the action that disappointed you.

irate-customer

Also remember what your mom probably told you (at least mine did) about catching more flies with honey than with vinegar. While you might not be interested in fly-catching, you’ll also generally get faster responses and more concern about your problem if you’re nice to the people who have the power to help you (or not).

Nobody wants to deal with someone who’s angry and ranting and shouting and blaming you for something you personally had nothing to do with. Customer service people are humans with feelings, doing a job, and deserve your respect unless or until they, themselves, treat you badly (and even then, a judicious phone call or letter to a superior is far more effective than losing your temper with them).

On occasion, I’ve stood patiently in line behind a crowd of fellow passengers whose luggage had also been lost or whose flight had also been delayed or cancelled or whose reservation had been screwed up, listened to them scream at the ladies and men behind the counter, and go away having accomplished nothing. When it’s my turn, I make it a point to smile politely, to say a few words of sympathy, “Wow, I wouldn’t want your job today” or “that last one was really rough on you.”  I give them my information as completely and accurately as possible, convey my urgency if indeed it is urgent, and most important, tell them how very much I appreciate their efforts to help.

And many times, I’ve ended up getting my problem solved, or getting compensation for it, or having personnel go an extra mile to try, when they obviously weren’t doing as much for those who were throwing temper tantrums.

And if they aren’t able to solve the problem, well rarely will missing a flight or being without your luggage mean the end of the world. There are stores in most locations where you can buy enough clothes to get you by, or if you have friends at your destination or on your ship, you might be able to borrow from them. Even if you miss sailaway completely, cruise lines have provisions for letting you board at a later port of call. Or turn it into a vacation wherever you are.

small-stuff

Even if you miss your best friend’s wedding, if she’s really a best friend, she’ll understand. Even if you miss that important business meeting or don’t get there in time to give your presentation at the big conference, they’ll find someone to fill in for you or they’ll reschedule or they’ll work around it. Life will go on.

That can be hard to believe, especially if you’re a type A personality like me. But we’re the ones who need, most of all, to learn to let go of the anxiety, the worry, the need to always be in control – to relax and sit back and enjoy the ride, wherever it takes us. And travel, more than most other things we do, is an excellent teacher of that lesson.

Travel is never a matter of money,
but of courage.

– Paulo Coelho

relaxation.png

About debshinder

Technology analyst and author, specializing in enterprise security. Author of or contributor to over 25 books, including "Scene of the Cybercrime." Fourteen-year Microsoft MVP, married to Microsoft FTE Tom Shinder, and proud mom of two wonderful grown-up human children and three amazing Japanese Chin pups. In my spare time, I love to travel - especially on cruise ships - and write about my grand adventures.
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