Ask Fathom

Help. I'm in Travel Hell.

by Amy Spencer

Dear Fathom: The airline cancelled my flight while I was at the airport. The rental car stopped in the middle of an open road. The train derailed. Derailed! How to deal with this fresh travel hell?

Part of the fun of traveling is the unexpected — sometimes it's the good kind and sometimes it's the not-so-good kind. We turned to Amy Spencer, author of the just-released book Bright Side Up: 100 Ways to Be Happier Right Now, for suggestions on how to manage the less pleasant scenarios that one faces while on the road.

If you find yourself burning up with frustration, take a moment to look at the situation from another perspective. You can't control traffic delays, but you can control your physical, mental, and emotional reactions. Basically: When all hell breaks loose, stay cool.

Your sweet husband thinks 13:00 is 3:00, and you miss your flight from Dublin to London. You're stuck at the airport, what do you do? 

Get a reservation for the next flight and get your husband to change to the 24-hour time-setting on his iPhone. Then work on your outlook. You can spend the next few hours grumbling or reminding your husband — again — that he should have double-checked the time. Or, like you'd rally to make the best of a rain delay at a baseball game, see this as an opportunity to kill time by doing something fun. Ask yourself: How can I make the best of these unexpected hours?

If you are stuck at the airport, browse the book stores and buy a journal to make notes about your trip. Look for a funny gag gift for a friend or head off on a quest to find the airport's best dining options. Stuck at the gate? Play a game. (This is what Hangman and Tic-Tac-Toe were made for.) Whoever stays in a good mood wins.

You've been robbed. Passport, money, clothes: gone. Now what?

After you've dealt with the logistics of replacing your passport, calling your credit card company, and locating cash, deal with how you feel. Because the last thing you want is for some crook's selfish act to ruin your entire vacation. Start by asking yourself, "What didn't I lose?" The camera around your neck? The favorite shirt on your back? The train reservation to the next stop along your trip? You didn't lose your ability to stroll through the city's central park for free on your final day in town.

My friend and I were halfway into a month-long, cross-country road trip when our car was broken into and all our clothes were stolen. At first I was angry about what I'd lost. But then a funny thing happened: I felt liberated carrying little more than the clothes on my back. After all, we still had our car, each other, and a few weeks left on the open road.

Once you've stomped out your anger, focus on your health and your attitude, and have fun with what you have left. Don't let a thief steal that from you, too.

The guy sitting next to you keeps pushing your elbow off the armrest and taking it all for himself. WTF?

Annoying strangers have a way of ruining our good mood, don't they? You could elbow him right back to confirm your stance in what will be an unyielding battle for the duration of the flight, but I recommend this instead: Let him have it. Yes, it's the principle of the thing when a stranger hogs your space or cuts in line, but when you get too focused on the bad behavior of the people around you, you don't have any mental room left to enjoy the good stuff. Sit back and let them pass — sometimes literally.

That's one of the things I appreciated most about driving in Ireland on small, winding, two-lane roads: If one car wanted to drive faster than another, the front car would simply pull over, let the faster driver pass, then calmly pull back onto the road. It's so much more civilized than taunting a tailgater with brake lights in a battle for lane supremacy. When people encroach on your personal space, step back, make a quick exit, wait for them to pass. You'll have the space to yourself once again.

So much for the strolling around the piazzas in Italy. It's pouring! Now what?

Drown your sorrows — ideally with a cocktail or a cup of tea at a cozy cafe — and then re-route your day. Travel happiness shouldn't be about checking off a list in perfect order to match a guidebook's exact specifications. It's about immersing yourself in unique experiences in new cultures in different places.

When pouring rain "ruined" the last lounge-around beach day on a recent trip to Costa Rica, my husband and I hunkered down at a beach shack with cervezas, kicked off our flip-flips, and pedaled through town barefoot in the rain for fun. Likewise, you can trade those piazzas for pizzas, visit an indoor museum, or sit with a bottle of Chianti and watch the downpour wash over cobblestones. Make the most of what's in front of you at any moment.

You accidentally booked a seat on the local train instead of the express, which will add two hours to your trip, and now you can't change it.

If you're on the slower train, download a two-hour movie to distract you. Buy a cheap pillow so you can nap and arrive refreshed. Use the time to research the perfect lunch spot. Ask a local for must-do suggestions upon arriving at your destination.

Be your own travel lifeguard: Don't fight the current and tire yourself out — float with it. Take, for example, the setback I share in Bright Side Up about what happened when journalist (and fab FATHOM contributor) Mark Ellwood woke up realizing he'd set his alarm for p.m. instead of a.m. and missed his plane home for Christmas. He immediately booked a later flight for an additional fee of $1,000. Yeah, ouch. But he asked to be upgraded to business class and made the best of his situation: He drank free cocktails, ate fine food, and settled in for a comfortable overnight rest.

Your hotel overbooked, and the new place reserved for you is across from a 24-hour disco with a view of a parking lot. Sanity? At a moment like this?

Sure, it stinks when something goes wrong. But when three things go wrong, you've got the makings of a really funny story. In fact, the worse it gets, the funnier it will be, so start making a list of all that's gone wrong and begin to imagine how you'll tell your hilarious story later.

When I went to Cuba with a friend who'd been before and assured me we could absolutely, positively use our U.S. credit cards while we were away, we'd already spent most of our cash on our guest room, music, and mojitos before realizing we had three days left and only $20 between us. The worse it got, the funnier it was — from failed trips to four banks and a Western Union to the two-mile walk to a part of town where mini-sandwiches cost fifty cents instead of a dollar. On our last night in Old Havana we split one beer and a Cuban cigar on a park bench and listened to music in the distance. We laughed as we recounted the details of our most memorable trip.


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