On Tuesday my seventeen year-old niece left for a two-week service trip to Paraguay. It was her first time traveling out of the country and I blew it in the aunt advice department. I should have told her the first rule of travel: something always goes wrong.
Had I shared this message with her, she may have been more prepared when they announced (after her parents were long gone from the airport) that her flight out of Salt Lake was more than three hours delayed. The delay meant she would miss her connecting flight to Paraguay and the rest of her service group.
Ultimately, my niece did end up making her connecting flight, but not without some significant stress—and a dent to her parents’ wallet. (They had to purchase a new ticket on a new airline to get her to LA on time.)
It was a crash course that night in the first rule of travel for all concerned. It was also a 101crash course in responding to travel stress. And that’s where the real secret lies: How you handle problems that come your way when you’re traveling.
Because things will go wrong. Even when you research and organize and plan. Just ask Clark Griswold.
In my many travels and many more disasters, I’ve found three strategies work well when travel debacles strike: think creatively; make it a game; and laugh.
Let me give you some examples from my family’s recent trip to France.
We arrived an hour late in Dinard, France due the air traffic controllers strike. Luckily, the car rental desks stayed open to accommodate. But not so luckily, they didn’t have enough cars for both our travel partners and us.
I was about to lose it. We had six tired and hungry kids between the two families and were still an hour and a half drive from our rented farmhouse. With only one small car.
We considered shuttling the group in two loads, but the late hour and proximity really prevented it. We needed a creative solution, even if it was temporary.
I went back to the most friendly car agent and asked if she had any cars that weren’t “available.” She found one scheduled for a bumper repair the following afternoon. We took it and felt victorious, even though it meant a three-hour round trip commute the next morning to exchange it for different one.
Make it a Game.
My husband had to leave a couple days early from the trip. He took the evening train from Normandy, where we were all staying, to Paris so he could catch his international flight home. Late that night I got a panicked text from him: he’d left his passport in Normandy.
The whole reason he’d taken the train was to spare the kids and me a ridiculously early drive to Paris. But there we were. We’d all have to suck it up or my husband couldn’t get home.
So we made the trip into a game called “Operation (save dad’s) Bacon.” Pretending we were doing military maneuvers made the 4:30 AM wake-up and three-hour drive much more palatable. And when our mission was a success, we celebrated with croissants. Because that’s what soldiers do.
Following our rental car hiccup back in Dinard, our first order of business was food for the kids. We pulled into the McDonald’s drive-thru without thinking how we’d order. Did I mention we don’t really speak French?
Before we could back out and order from the multilingual kiosk inside, other cars had pulled in behind us. We were stuck.
After seriously bloopered attempts to order, we pulled up to the window only to have our Visa not work on their machine. Thank heaven I had thirty emergency Euors in my wallet, which was just enough to pay the bill.
But the real kicker came when we parked in the lot to eat our food and half of our party didn’t get what they thought they’d ordered. All we could do was laugh. And it felt good.
Even though we’ll surely remember surveying the beaches of Normandy and climbing the Eiffel Tower on this same trip, odds are we’ll also remember the things that didn’t go right—because with the right reaction, they end up being a pretty good part of the story.
Odds are my niece will remember how she almost didn’t get to Paraguay, too.
A version of this story originally appeared in the St. George News.