“We feel we need a vacation from this vacation”

One of the most memorable trips of my life was seeing Denali National Park years ago when I edited the Alaska section for Travel Weekly.
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Unnatural disaster: What to do when your hotel doesn’t have room

The deadly storms that left large swaths of the East Coast without power just before the Fourth of July holiday provided an uncomfortable lesson to hotel guests like Ken White: Always call to confirm your reservation — especially when the place you’re visiting is reeling from a natural disaster.

White lives in Charlottesville, Va., an area that was hit hard by the hurricane-force winds. Many residents were struggling to stay cool in record-breaking heat, and checking into an air-conditioned hotel nearby was a popular solution.
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It’s not the end of the world as we know it — unless you’re traveling

I‘ve been thinking about the end a lot lately. Maybe you have, too.

Birds are falling out of the sky. Fish are dying. And this morning, snowmageddon: the sequel.

Let me rephrase my headline: I don’t know for a fact that the world isn’t ending. Some believe it is.

But my money’s on 2012, when California will slide into the ocean, according to Roland Emmerich. Which is why I’m visiting it now, while it’s still here.
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Lessons learned from past holiday meltdowns

You can’t talk about the worst holiday travel experiences without mentioning the movie “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.”

The 1987 comedy, starring Steve Martin and John Candy, is about one frazzled business traveler’s struggle to get home in time for Thanksgiving. It’s a textbook holiday travel nightmare, featuring snowstorms, flight diversions and almost every imaginable delay.

Art has a way of imitating life. Or is it the other way around?

Perhaps our fascination and how closely many of us relate with the iconic ’80s flick says something important about us. We expect to have an incredibly negative experience, whether it’s being held hostage by a blizzard or trapped in a taxi that’s taking the scenic route.

What have we learned in the two decades since “Planes,” and what does it say about this year’s holidays?

Learning from our mistakes
One of the worst holiday air travel experiences in recent memory happened in early 1999. About 3,700 Northwest Airlines passengers returning to work after the New Year were trapped on parked planes at Detroit Metropolitan Airport for hours in a blizzard. The planes couldn’t take off or return to the gate, and travelers reportedly suffered inconveniences such as overflowing toilets and running out of food and water.

Some of the passengers sued Northwest and in a 2001 settlement, the airline agreed to pay each passenger an average of $1,300 as compensation. Sadly, the industry didn’t learn back then that trapping passengers on a plane was bad for business. They’ve done it time and again, including JetBlue’s infamous Valentine’s Day meltdown in New York and American Airlines’ stranding of passengers in Austin in early 2007, which led to the latest passenger rights revolution.

Weather turns nasty, roads get dangerous
Many of the worst traffic accidents on American roads happen during the winter holiday travel period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Like the 99-car pileup on December 11, 1990, on Interstate 75 near Calhoun, Tenn., which was triggered when a tractor-trailer in the southbound lanes rear-ended another semi in the fog. In the ensuing pile-up, 12 people were killed and 42 injured. Other notable collisions include a 127-car pile-up in San Antonio, Texas(Dec. 2, 1994) and a 100-car pile-up in Central Michigan (Dec. 31, 1998).

Multiple-car accidents can happen any time of the year, but they seem particularly prevalent during the winter holiday period, when the weather turns bad and motorists get blitzed on eggnog before getting behind the wheel.

All the more reason to drive carefully — or not at all.

Holiday headaches on the high seas
True, the biggest cruise ship catastrophe in recent memory happened last April, when 1,200 passengers and a crew of 400 had to be evacuated from the Sea Diamond after she apparently hit a rock near the Greek island of Santorini — and eventually sunk.

But the winter holidays aren’t particularly kind to cruisers, either. On Nov. 23 of that year, more than 150 passengers and crew aboard Norwegian cruise ship MS Nordnorge had to be rescued near Antarctica when their ship is thought to have collided with an iceberg. And who can forget the Seabourn Spirit’s close call with pirates back in 2005? The buccaneers opened fire on the luxury liner with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades a few weeks before Thanksgiving. Fortunately, the attack was successfully repelled.

I’m not saying you should avoid cruising over the holidays. I am saying things happen. Mind the icebergs — and pirates.

Ask for a room on the ground floor
There have been few notable hotel accidents or disasters in the past, oh, 60 years. However, two of the deadliest hotel fires in U.S. history — one at the MGM Grand in 1980 and another at the Winecoff Hotel in Atlanta in 1947 — broke out during the winter holiday period. I know, both happened more than two decades ago, but you might consider staying on the ground floor during your holiday stay.

All aboard!
A review of the major railway disasters in the United States since the turn of the century suggests that statistically speaking, catching the train probably is your safest bet during the holidays.

The worst accidents tend to happen at other times of the year, although there are notable exceptions, such as the head-on collision on Nov. 29, 2004 of two CSX freight trains in Zephyrhills, Fla., which killed one person and injured three. But those were freight trains, so they don’t really count. Lesson learned? The train may be slow, but it’ll get you there in one piece.

Take the forecasts with a grain of salt
Be wary when studying the Thanksgiving travel forecasts — and those issued just before Christmas and New Year’s Day, for that matter. The best-known of the lot is done by AAA (and was released Tuesday), which last year predicted a “modest increase” in the number of Thanksgiving travelers. Nothing against AAA, or any of the other travel companies with predictions and polls, but it’s almost impossible to verify any of their claims. For example, AAA expected 31.2 million people to travel by car last Thanksgiving. Did they? Nobody knows. Truth is, no one counts how many motorists were on the road during the holiday weekend. What’s the point of making a forecast when no one will ever know if it is true? And will the forecasts stop people from making the trip to Grandma’s house? Unlikely.

So what does all of this mean? I think it means that our collective expectation that holiday travel will be a negative experience is both true — and untrue.

Yes, historically the holidays are a difficult time to be on the road. I haven’t even mentioned the long lines at the airport, the delays, the cranky fellow travelers, and, of course, the traffic. But this year may be different, as I recently predicted.

In fact, these holidays may be among the best in recent memory. Airlines, hotels and other travel companies are trying to coax travelers to open their wallets by offering attractive prices. If you’re diligent and flexible, you could find your best deal in years.

I could be wrong. I’ve been wrong before. At the press screening of “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” I told director John Hughes he should consider a sequel to his cult classic “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” (I was a know-it-all college film critic back then, and that’s what know-it-all college film critics do. They tell Hollywood directors what to film.)

“Might be interesting,” he said.

Interesting, yes. But unnecessary — just like a sequel to holiday horrors we seem to endure every year at this time. Maybe we’ll get a break in 2008.

Unhappy endings: 5 ways to avoid a sad vacation finale

Oh, the terrible things we come home to from vacation.

While everyone else seems obsessed with how we will — or won’t — spend our summer, does anyone care what happens when it’s over?

Well, I do. I’ve experienced almost every non-Hollywood ending to a vacation you can imagine. They feature, death, destruction and a couple of pink slips from my clients. I’ll get to those in a second.

But first, let’s hear about your unhappy endings.

Cliff Woodrick returned from a four-week vacation in Quebec to a gruesome sight and an even more unpleasant smell: the corpses of more than two dozen fish bobbing up and down in his algae-coated aquarium.

“We had a storm that knocked out the power while I was gone,” he remembers. “The three pump filters went offline, and some of the electrical connections in the house were fried.”


Reader Stacey Udell came back from a weeklong California getaway to find a thousand unwelcome visitors. “Black flies everywhere,” she says. “Water had accumulated on the floor in the basement near a window, and the flies must have come in and multiplied. It was so totally gross and shocking. We couldn’t even let the kids in the house.”

How about getting fired after coming home from a vacation? I’ve been there so often — why do they always wait until you’re away to decide you’re history? — that I’m reluctant to go on vacation. That, and maybe the fact that the last time I took a real break, a hurricane hit my house.

It could be worse. A British couple recently came home from a trip to find that their pet tortoise had burned down their residence. I’m not making this up. A few weeks ago, the Grahn family of Hugo, Minn., returned from a weekend getaway to discover their house had been flattened by a tornado.

Here are five ways to prevent a bad homecoming.

Don’t try to control what you can’t.
There’s a certain randomness to travel. In a sense, you never really never know what you’re going to come home to. Alice Argento returned from a vacation in Belize to see her Cranbury, N.J., apartment in flames. “We jumped out of the car and ran towards the apartment to find our roommate, who had been watching the house and my dog, on fire,” she remembers. It turns out her roommate was making French fries, and had left the hot oil unattended for a minute. They were able to extinguish the fire, but her roommate had to go to the hospital with second- and third-degree burns. “What a night!” she says. And really, there was nothing she could have done to prevent it — except maybe to tell her roommate to stay away from deep-fried foods.

Be prepared for a power failure.
That would have saved Woodrick’s fish and possibly the contents of Naoma Foreman’s refrigerator. The power went out in her Phoenix home while she was out on vacation recently. “All food was spoiled, and everything had to be hauled away — including the refrigerator,” she recalls. Don’t stock up on groceries — particularly perishable groceries — before heading off for the weekend. Power failures can happen, and if they last for more than a few hours, you’ll have a mess on your hands.

Don’t cut corners on pet care.
The folks whose turtle burned their house down already know that. And so do I. A few weeks ago, while I was away on assignment, one of my beloved cats was run over by a car. Instead of putting my kitties in a kennel, as I should have, I asked a friend to come by twice a day to feed them. I’m still grieving the loss of my companion. I can’t read the comments on my own blog without losing it. Lesson learned? Make sure your pets are safe before you go on vacation.

Take extra precautions when you see trouble coming.
Remember the 2004 hurricane season? Florida resident Evelyn Fine does. She was having her Orlando home remodeled during the middle of the summer and thought it might be a good time to go on vacation. If you’ll recall that summer, there were storms lined up one after the other at several points, taking aim at the Sunshine State. Wouldn’t you know it, one of them took out her air conditioner and Fine’s irreplaceable wine collection was, in her words, “cooked.” “Much was corked and the balance was barely drinkable,” she says. It might have been a good time to move them to a nearby wine storage facility, where the bottles could be stored safely.

Stay home.
Back in 1995, when I lived on Long Key, Fla. — a remote island between Islamorada and Marathon in the Florida Keys, I watched Hurricane Opal approaching. I was scheduled to fly to Albuquerque, N.M., for a family reunion. But with the storm on a direct path for the Keys, I decided to call off my trip and take my family to the mainland instead. What made me change my mind? Maybe it was the Monroe County sheriff who stopped by our house and asked for our names and whether or not we were staying in the house. He needed to know how many bodies to look for if the hurricane hit. Fortunately, it didn’t. Sometimes the best way to prevent a vacation tragedy is to not go in the first place.

Not every vacation disaster is avoidable. Karina Lok, a retiree who now lives in San Francisco, was returning to her home in Hawaii from California with her husband several years ago. She couldn’t have known the tragedy that what was about to strike.

“The airline had overbooked our flight by 33 senior citizens who needed to make a Hawaiian cruise departure,” she remembers. “My husband convinced me to give up my seat. He was tempted to as well, but he had an important meeting to make.”

On the flight back, Lok had what she describes as an “uncomfortable” feeling. “Nothing seemed right,” she says.

When she landed, her husband wasn’t there to pick her up. She spent several hours waiting, and finally rented a car and drove home. On her answering machine was a message from the city morgue. “My husband was killed by a red light runner three miles from the airport on his way to pick me up,” she says.