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What to Do When Things Go Wrong

Bad trip? Here's what you can do about it.

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A departure board at the airport in Stuttgart, Germany, shows cancelled flights.

While travel is intrinsically fraught with little wrinkles, guided trips—by their very nature—promise fewer of them. Snafus, however, aren’t unheard of.  Several years ago, 100 passengers and 54 crew members were rescued off King George Island after ice punctured a hole in the hull of their ship Explorer en route to Antarctica. Nobody was hurt and passengers were financially compensated by the operator, GAP Adventures, within a few weeks. Of course, it doesn’t take a sinking ship to ruin a trip: Substandard accommodations, poorly trained guides, and substantial itinerary changes can all add up to a real bummer of a vacation whether it was the outfitter’s fault or not. So what’s a disappointed traveler to do?

Prevention: Find out a company’s policy on refunds before you book and don’t assume an itinerary is written in stone. If, for example, you’ve got your heart set on seeing the Reclining Buddha at Gal Vihara on your tour through Sri Lanka, ask upfront about potential hindrances.

Preparation: Review your medical insurance policy and consider supplementing it with travel insurance and/or medical evacuation insurance from companies such as Travelex, TravelGuard, Global Rescue, or Medjet Assist.

On the ground: Direct complaints to the trip leader, not fellow travelers. Don’t wait until the end of the trip to speak up.

Make a call: If necessary, move up the chain of command to the operator. If it’s a small company, ask to speak directly to the owner. Make sure you have the phone numbers before you depart.

Have realistic expectations: It’s reasonable to expect some kind of compensation if the operator dropped the ball, say if the charter flight didn’t show up because of a logistical mistake or a local guide isn’t up to par. But don’t expect a refund if there’s been an act of God, transportation strike, terrorist attack, or other circumstances beyond the operator’s control. Nonetheless, a good company will work to lessen the impact of such an event; trip leaders usually have a plan B up their sleeves. During post-election violence in Kenya a few years ago, for example, Micato Safaris staff decided to forgo a scheduled sightseeing visit to Nairobi and spend an extra game-viewing day in the bush. And Sierra Club Outings gave its Kenya clients the option of canceling without a penalty, as it does for any destination that is under a State Department warning.

Remain flexible: Finally, keep in mind that the best adventures often result from a well-planned trip gone slightly wrong. Minor disruptions can lead to some of the most serendipitous experiences you’ll ever have.

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