Holiday Travel Horror Stories

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The holiday travel season is about to swing into high gear, which means a record number of people will soon be hitting the road and taking to the skies. And the trip doesn't always go so smoothly. Read on for real stories of holiday travel nightmares from seasons past. Think presents flying off the top of the family station wagon, and an airline that decided to take Christmas Day off.

Holiday Horror Stories

Julia Simens

Julia Simens, an expat currently living in Bangkok, Thailand, recalls her family's strangest holiday ever -- the year they booked a Christmas Day flight only to find out that the airline was closed for the holiday when they arrived at the airport.
As an expat family, we've lived all around the world. In 2006, my husband and I were living in Lagos, Nigeria with our two kids. We lived in a compound there, so you can imagine that when the holidays came around we were ready for a change of scenery. We couldn't wait to leave. We decided to book a trip to Cape Town to spend the holidays with family. They would be coming from San Francisco so we decided to meet in Cape Town, as they did not see the need to stop off in Lagos. The plan was to go on safari, do some wine tasting, generally just have some real good vacation time. So we closed up our home in Lagos and gave away all of our fresh food to the maid so it wouldn't rot while we were gone. When I'd booked the tickets back in September, I was told flights didn't leave every day. So we had the option of flying on a Friday or on Wednesday, which was Christmas morning. Christmas morning turned out to be the best option for us. So I booked the tickets in September and picked them up from South African Airways' head office in Lagos in November.

On Christmas morning, we all piled into the car and set off for the airport in Lagos, ready to head to Cape Town for our adventure. Our driver took us to the airport, about a two-hour ride. When we arrived to check in, we realized there were no cars around. We knew something must be going on, so we asked our driver to hold tight while we went in search of information about our flight. There was no one at the check in area, no one at the main counters, not a soul manning the VIP lounge either. Finally, we found a cleaning person who was tidying up behind the airline counter. He reluctantly took us to the internal flight control area of the airport, where four men were just sitting around, all dressed in company logo uniforms. Clearly they were not expecting to see a family of four in their office. After a long conversation it was explained to us that the airline had decided not to fly on Christmas from Lagos because it was a holiday. We showed them our paid tickets for travel on that day and numerous emails about the itinerary, and they assured us that the airline would resume flights in a day or two. When we tried calling the airline's hotline, a recording told us that they were closed for the holiday.

Realizing there was no chance of getting to Cape Town that day, we packed up the car and made the two-hour journey back home. So there we were, back at our house on Christmas, with no food to give the children since we'd given it all away in anticipation of our trip. We called our relatives visiting in South Africa to let them know what was going on and to see about rescheduling the safari. All we had in the house to eat was plain white rice, so that was our meal for Christmas dinner. The kids love rice since they had spent seven years already in Indonesia but we couldn't even have fried rice. So the only one of us enjoying Christmas dinner in Lagos that year was our dog, who had a feast (of dog food) compared to what we were eating. But I think the rice dinner was the least of the kids' worries -- they were just so disappointed not to be getting on a plane after traveling four hours in a car to get nowhere. Eventually, we went to bed.

The next day, we managed to get through to the airline by phone and were told that operations were back to normal. So we made the two-hour trip back to the airport only to find that the airline would not honor our original tickets from Christmas Day, and we were forced to buy new tickets just to get out of Lagos. In the end, we arrived only one day late for our family Christmas reunion and ended up having a great time in Cape Town with the safari, camping with the lions and going wine tasting on horseback. Cape Town is the most beautiful city in the world, and we even did a champagne boat trip in the harbor at sunset -- we were definitely not in Lagos anymore!

When I did get back to Nigeria, I spent the next six months trying to get my initial tickets refunded. Eventually, they were fully refunded. But the local money had gone to hell in a hand basket by that time, so my original investment for four tickets was not the same value that I originally paid. The funniest thing? The airline officials kept asking "Why did you buy tickets on a day we didn't fly?"

Holiday Horror Stories

Jennifer Jedow

Jennifer Jedow, 39, who owns a website design and marketing company, still remembers a family road trip when the luggage -- hard-earned Christmas gifts included -- flew off the roof rack of the family wagon into a stream of holiday traffic.
It was a dark night, two days before Christmas, and my entire family -- my parents, three younger siblings and the family dog -- were all piled into our Caprice Classic station wagon. I was 12 years old, my sisters were 8 and 5, and my brother was only 2 years old. I still remember that wagon -- yellow, with wood paneling and one of those reversible seats in the back so you can face looking out the back window. That's where I was seated, watching the world go past behind us. The rest of the kids were piled in the other seats and our pillows were everywhere -- seatbelts and booster seats weren't mandatory back then. We were just spread out wherever there was room. And the dog was in there, too, who knows where.

My father had painstakingly piled all the luggage on the roof. Whenever we went on road trips, he often put a suitcase or two up there to save room in the car. But since it was the holidays and we were bringing all the presents for our family as well as all the presents we were giving to our Vermont family along, the wagon was extraordinarily packed. Stuff was tied to the rooftop two or three feet high. There was even a computer up there, a gift for our family from my parents. All of a sudden, from my seat in the back, I saw stuff from the roof flying into the highway behind us. I'm not sure, but I think other drivers were beeping and motioning to us about what was happening. It took a few moments for my dad to find somewhere safe to pull over -- not an easy task at 55 miles per hour on a road busy with holiday traffic. And there wasn't a streetlight in sight.

So dad got out of the car and went to salvage what he could. It was mostly the suitcases that had fallen off. Thankfully, the computer had stayed strapped to the top. Dad kept returning with bits of clothing and presents that had been tossed from the roof and run over by other cars. He was out there for what seemed like hours, and we were more scared for his safety than about getting our clothes back. I just remember all the kids screaming and crying, mom trying to keep all four of us calm and everyone praying for Dad's safety. Dad would disappear for a few minutes then throw open the door, toss in some random items and go back into the darkness, running between cars, to look for more. My mom was yelling for him to just let it go, but he wanted to save as much as he could. It was absolute chaos. At one point he returned with a nightgown of mine that had large burn holes and tears in it. He also found some of the small gifts I purchased with my own money that year for everyone, including cheesy dollar store gifts like statues that said "#1 Mom" and "#1 Dad" that had been damaged on the road.

Eventually he secured the rest of the stuff on the roof, and we continued to Grandma's. When we returned home after the holidays, my parents gave me some money to replace the presents that had been damaged. They wanted to kind of save the holiday. To this day, they still have those #1 statues, and for a long time after that Christmas, I held onto the torn nightgown as a memory. It was certainly a holiday adventure, but it also brought perspective to be thankful for what we did have.

Holiday Horror Stories

Elizabeth Ford

Elizabeth Ford, 28, who lives in New York City and works as a manager of sales operations, swore off Delta Airlines after a runaround delay, baggage snafus, and more.
It was the Saturday before Christmas, December 20, 2008. I was booked to fly home to Houston from JFK airport in New York, where I live. I'd booked my ticket several months prior, in October, and was prepared for holiday travel madness. Since my flight was projected on time all day, I arrived at JFK at 6PM for my 7:20PM flight on Delta. I checked my two bags, paying an additional $50 for the second one, went through quite a security line and arrived at the gate at around 6:30PM. That's when I saw that my flight was delayed until 8:55PM.

I was dismayed that there was no Delta agent -- or anyone for that matter -- at the counter for information, but proceeded to relax in the packed terminal for a bit and checked the status on my flight every half hour or so.

At around 8PM, I saw that the flight was further delayed, this time until 11:55PM. So I waited in line to discuss the situation with the now present gate agents and learned that the plane was delayed due to the incoming flight being delayed in Chicago. The flight, we were told, was now leaving Chicago. So I became hopeful that an 11:55PM departure for my holidays in Houston seemed possible.

An hour or so later, the departure was moved up to 11PM -- surely a sign of progress, I thought. Finally, at 10PM, I checked gate 18 one more time and was surprised to find no mention of my flight. Other flights listed on the screens had been moved to different gates but mine seemed to have fallen completely off the radar. Again, there were no gate agents on hand to answer any questions. I was already on the phone with my travel expert brother, who looked my flight up online and told me it had been moved to gate 19A, which happened to be in a different wing. So I hauled it to 19A, but didn't see my flight listed there either.

A few minutes later, I heard a boarding announcement for my flight to Houston and rushed to the gate. I thought it was odd that the flight was boarding 50 minutes early, but I wanted to double check since the communication had been so terrible up to this point. I checked with the ticket agents and was turned away, told that the Houston flight was closed and that I could join the long line at gate 19 to find out what was going on.

A few moments later, a Delta agent called out for Houston passengers and escorted us away from the crowd. She informed us that our plane had a weight issue due to too much fuel and that they could only take 22 of the 75 passengers scheduled to travel. After a near-riot from the crowd, she then informed us that the plane had already taken off with those 22 passengers and that we should wait in line at gate 20 to be re-booked.

All 53 of us got into a line where only one agent was working on re-bookings. I was fourth in line and waited over 45 minutes to talk to the agent. While waiting, I spoke to my brother again, who looked up alternate flights and Delta's Contract of Carriage. He instructed me to absolutely not take the $200 credit they were giving out because according to their Contract of Carriage, I was owed 200% of the ticket value in cash. In addition, he found an alternative flight on Continental for Monday night to get me to Houston. But when I finally spoke to the agent, I was told there were no confirmed seats available until Tuesday morning -- more than 48 hours later. They refused to book me on the Continental flight because the only available seats were first class. This also eliminated a United flight and another Delta flight on Monday. I ended up getting re-booked on a 6AM flight Tuesday morning connecting in Cincinnati.

When I mentioned Rule 245 in their Contract of Carriage to the agent, I was told I could talk to a manager, but they didn't know where I was going to get cash at that time of night. As if that were my fault! I sat patiently and waited for a manager. It took over two hours and a lot of attitude, but I left JFK that night with a check for over $400 -- and it was only because I stood my ground and knew the rules. So in the end I was compensated $454, which was twice the worth of my original one-way ticket. It paid for my Christmas trip home that year, but the fact that I had to sit there for three hours and argue for the money that was legally mine made it not worth the trouble. I felt intentionally misled.

My re-booked flight on Tuesday was a relative success and I made it to Houston. What was less successful, however, was the arrival of my luggage. When I'd been re-booked the night of my original flight, I'd been told my bags were already on their way to Houston. On Sunday morning, my mother headed to Houston to pick them up. She was surprised to learn that my bags were still at JFK.

Over the next five days, I spent five hours on the phone with Delta's 800-number for luggage. I called the number 68 times and only got through three times. I was on hold for over 30 minutes each time, to be told they could not help me or answer anything, to be told I should go to the nearest airport and file a delayed baggage complaint in person so I could check the status online, to be told it was the holidays and they were very busy. My bags eventually arrived in Houston on the afternoon of the 23rd but weren't delivered to me until a full two days later, on the night of the 25th. Of course I'd had presents packed in the bag, too, and my father was particularly unhappy that his gift was missing. Add to that, Christmas happens to be my birthday. Needless to say, it could have been a merrier one.

In addition to the money spent on this trip ($450 for the ticket, $50 on the checked bag they lost, $40 on trips to the drugstore to get necessities from my lost luggage, $30 in an extra cab to the airport for a trip I wasn't anticipating making), and aside from the time wasted concerning myself with this (nine hours in JFK that fateful night, a total of four hours on hold with Delta's customer service and baggage numbers), the biggest frustration with this entire charade was the fact that I was repeatedly lied to and misled by unhelpful Delta employees. They moved our flight to a different, unposted gate and called for it to board an hour early. They took the first 22 people and never asked for volunteers to be bumped (a direct violation of their rules). They sent the plane to Houston before we could find out what was going on. And they offered a $200 credit as a consolation. Then they had us wait in a multi-hour line. When I asked for the cash as clearly stated in their Code of Carriage, they treated me as a nuisance. And then they put me through five days of lost baggage hell.

I swore off Delta after the incident but ended up flying them once this year with no other viable option. But I don't think I'll fly them ever again.

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Editor's Note: Attempts to get comments from South African Airways and Delta Airlines prior to the publication of this article were unsuccesful.

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