Last week, I wrote about some of the reasons airlines can get away with bad customer service. One extreme example came earlier this month, when a passenger was seriously injured while being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight—but overall, the amount of control airlines have over their customers is the envy of other industries, the marketing expert Joseph Turow told me:
“Irrespective of any individual fare, they have this overarching notion of who their valued customers are, and what their lifetime value is,” he said. “And because of the structure of the system, they can take advantage of it to the point of being mean to people.”
Business travelers, who are less likely than leisure travelers to comparison-shop for airfare, reap the rewards of pricey, company-sponsored travel in the form of miles. They’re pampered, while passengers in the back, who are more likely to have simply searched for the best deal, are left without many frills.
A reader emailed over the weekend to share her own harrowing experience with a major airline in the ’90s, which quickly escalated from a routine complaint to an emergency landing and a round of questioning with the FBI:
I and my then-boyfriend were flying to Portland from NYC. His father, an executive with loads of mileage to spend, got my BF a business ticket and me a coach ticket for some reason. We were chatting at my BF’s seat, thinking it should be okay until the departure. A flight attendant approached us and as soon as he knew that I was a coach customer, he started to get very mean and raise his voice at me—even though we explained I was going back to my assigned spot before takeoff.
We decided my BF would come to my seat later to watch a film together after a meal. When I was going to enter the business section to pick him, the same flight attendant stopped me, saying my BF was asleep and I couldn’t get in the business area since I didn’t have a business ticket. He even said I shouldn’t bother my BF and shut a curtain in my face.
So, I complained about this flight attendant’s rude attitude, but nobody was decent and I started to cry. My BF came and he also told them that the flight attendant was very mean to me.
All of a sudden, an announcement was made to be seated, so we went back to our seats. Later I would learn that the captain decided to make an emergency stop to kick us out. We were handcuffed.
For the past week we’ve been compiling your worst travel experiences, from a creepy bus driver on the Romanian border to vengeful shellfish to a business trip gone bust to a descent into one of the most perilous airports to a near-death experience on the icy interstate to gang shooting on a Guatemalan bus to a hugging that turned mugging.
Here’s a final roundup of reader stories. Gerry had a short but psychologically endless voyage at the Happiest Place on Earth:
I have DEEP psychic scars from being stuck for an hour on the Disneyland “Small World” ride when it broke down … but the music did not.
Thank god this next reader, Nick, wasn’t stranded on that ride:
For three months back in 2007, a companion and I traveled dirt-cheap all around India. My Midwestern GI tract performed admirably well, save for one surreal moment on an overnight, long-haul, toilet-less sleeper bus that found me hanging my rear out the window performing my first “flying toilet.” Only problem was, the bag was too small for the task at hand, leaving me to assault the roadside (and, it turned out, the side of the bus) at god knows how many kilometers per hour.
To my everlasting horror, I realized at the next rest stop that the occupant below me was fast asleep next to his open window.
A flying toilet would have been much more difficult for this reader:
I started feeling sick six hours before my flight was scheduled to leave Nairobi, but I convinced myself it was nothing serious. A half hour or so into the flight, I was hit with the worst-imaginable stomach cramps. A cramp would hit, and I’d curl up in a ball for a few seconds of relief. Then another cramp would hit, and I’d stretch as much as I could for a few seconds of relief, etc., etc.
A reader writes:
In 1998 I drove from Austin to southern Illinois in my ‘89 Dodge Ramcharger truck. I started running into freezing rain outside of Dallas, going over Ray Hubbard Reservoir, and decided to keep going. Rather than getting better, it got worse—all the way through Texarkana and beyond. The interstates turned into a skating rink and still I kept going. The drive usually takes 15 hours, but by the time I made it 15 hours, I was only in central Arkansas.
Traffic was going by at a crawl when a commercial truck passed everyone in the left lane at 35-40 mph, left the highway, and went nose-first—hard—into the median’s ravine. I stopped to check on the two guys in the truck, and one had hit his chest on the steering wheel and was not in good shape, shocky, and coughing blood.
Of course nobody had cell phones, and nobody else stopped to help but me. Via sign language, I was finally able to get someone to call the state police as they drove by. The temps were in the teens and the wind was blowing at 30 mph, so I got the two guys in my truck, blasted the heater, and kept the one guy talking so he wouldn’t go unconscious.
State troopers showed up, I had to fill out a statement, and I immediately went looking for a motel before they all filled up with other refugees from I-40. I stayed in a motel that wasn’t much more than a set of prefabs: a bed, a TV, a bathroom, a radio and some paneling. By that point, it was the best motel I had ever seen.
The next day, when I got going again, there was a big rig in the median about every five miles. Worst driving conditions I ever traveled in.
Have you ever confronted a terrible accident during your travels? Drop us a note and we’ll post?
A reader had a night in the capital city he’ll never forget:
Back in 2008, after completing college, I went on a backpacking trip through South America. Best time I ever had.
But it didn’t end well. I was in Quito, Ecuador, and I returned late to my youth hostel after getting lost. I’m a rather huge fellow, so I wasn’t much nervous about it. While standing outside the place waiting for the receptionist to wake up, two ladies approached me—and wrapped themselves around me.
They did so not because of my immense allure, but rather to pickpocket me. After I felt my phone leave my pocket, I caught a hold of one of the señoras demanding it back. She took out a can of pepper spray and gave me a long extended blast to my face.
So, I lost my phone. And my eyes were melting. I inhaled quite a bit of the spray, so my airway was burning. I was screaming.
It didn’t end there. While stumbling around screaming and crying, I tripped over something and broke my ankle. And to cap it all, I had an allergic reaction and spent some time in a not-so-lovely hospital. As a result, I missed my flight home. And upon coming back, I discovered that my insurance claim was denied. My family still thought I was the one at fault.
I still love Ecuador though. Been there twice since.
Have you ever been mugged on vacation? Drop us a note and we’ll post. Update from Chris, whose terrible travel experience ended up being the best thing ever:
Reader Adam recalls his worst travel experience:
I was going back to Honduras after my honeymoon. I had a connecting flight in Miami. I went to get my bags to get through customs. They hadn’t made it yet. I couldn’t miss my flight, so off I went.
Flying into Tegucigalpa was frightening, to say the least. We were all over the sky. I later found out it’s one of the worst airports to fly into. We landed safely on the ground once the pilot figured out how to pull this off.
Once at the airport I came to the realization that my bags had been kept in Miami. Everything I bought on the honeymoon was lost.
Here’s a bit more about Tegucigalpa’s Toncontin Airport, according to a Popular Mechanics list of the 10 most dangerous airports in the world:
Aircraft have to skirt around the mountains of the interior highlands to land in a valley 3,294 feet above sea level. On approach, airliners as big as Boeing 757s make a 45-degree bank to effectively reach the 7000-foot runway with well above average rates of descent. Winds require pilots to compensate while hustling their aircraft in a zig-zag path over the terrain. Departures require high rates of climb to clear the nearby peaks.
And the very worst airport to fly into? Conde Nast Traveler says it’s the one in Lukla, Nepal. That airport is featured several times in this long compilation of dicey landings:
Have you ever had a harrowing landing, or an emergency situation on a plane? Drop us a note and we’ll post.
Reader Greg recalls a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad work trip:
Back in 1999 I’m in Zurich trying to get to Brussels for an extremely important seminar that I, as a self-employed consultant, had arranged with a Fortune 500 client. It’s my introduction to their senior management from all over Europe. A huge potential contract is in the balance. Gulp.
It’s mid-August and I’m delayed three hours in a sweltering airport then two hours on a sweltering plane waiting on the tarmac for air travel in Western Europe to get over afternoon thunderstorms. I eventually fly to Amsterdam, then I’m driven to Brussels, in the heat and rain, in a full mid-size Mercedes, me middle front. Terrifying. No sleep possible.
I arrived in a Brussels hotel at 4:30am. No reservation in my name. No mention of the company I was there for. No normal rooms. I rented an extended-stay suite (very nice) for 90 minutes—enough time to shower, change, and stare at the wall, thinking WTF.
No one from the company is at breakfast. I don’t have anyone’s cell phone numbers. At 9am I finally contact a person in the Brussels office. “Oh, two days ago we moved the meetings to a hotel by the airport. Didn’t anyone tell you?”
It was supposed to start at 8am. I arrived just after 10am, introduced myself, and started my spiel. I had to finish by noon, but my head was spinning so fast and I kept wanting to faint, so I had to lose another 15 minutes for breaks.
Europe was not impressed. I was able to keep my existing work for them going, but I lost out on the huge contract.
Ever have a work trip from hell? Drop us a note.
A reader tries to recall his worst travel experience:
Let’s see, the 153AM out of Grand Central can be pretty lively, as can the first train in the morning on Sunday. Taking an overnight train in Vietnam was overrated, as it was dirty, uncomfortable, and sized for Vietnamese people. I’ve had my share of cancellations and so on, including get stuck in Denver overnight a few times, but that’s nothing unusual.
My worst experience though, was flying from LA to Chicago when everyone on the plane got food poisoning, which incapacitated the pilots. It forced a fighter pilot turned taxi driver to conquer his fear of flying and save everyone on the plane.
Surely he can’t be serious.
This reader gets real:
It’s about two weeks after 9/11 and I had been saving up for a year to travel through SE Asia to visit a friend who was working for a NGO in [Burma’s capital of] Yangon. Despite the security concerns over terrorism, I had already cleared off time at work, I was broke, and there was NO WAY I was canceling this trip. As expected, there are no “formal” travel restrictions in place, but the airports/border control are making damn sure that it’s really, really hard to travel.
Essentially, it’s just a complete cluster and I’m already regretting my decision to save a little cash by flying out of Vancouver, BC instead of Seattle. Not only do I have trouble at the [Canadian border crossing in Blaine, Washington,] because the crappy Sanford & Son bus that picked us up from the sketchy part of downtown was over four hours late, but the (usually affable) Canadian agents are not happy with the quality of passengers on our bus.
Many, many hours later (and a forfeited hotel room I secured for the previous evening), I made my way to the airport because it was too late to try to get a few hours of sleep. Surprisingly, I’m on a great flight to Hong Kong with no issues!
A reader’s memory of a hellish trip to Istanbul still sounds fresh:
In the early ‘90s, my young husband and I thrived on traveling as frugally as possible. We were traveling from Scandinavia and our goal was to make it to Istanbul. On a train from Poland to Romania, we were warned by a fellow tourist not to change money on the black market, because the undercover police “may arrest you.”
Armed with that information, we arrived at the train station on a Sunday, eager to purchase our tickets to Istanbul and leave Romania as quickly as possible. The “Official Money Station” was manned when we approached to change our currency. “No money,” he shrugged and waved us away. With no Romanian currency, we had no money for food, lodging, or train tickets.
A friendly young Romanian man approached offering to help us change money on the black market. He promised he was not a police officer.
A bunch of Atlantic readers in this discussion group are exchanging their travel horror stories. (If you’d like to sharing your own, please send us a note: firstname.lastname@example.org.) A short anecdote from the group:
I caught bronchitis when I was in Germany for a business trip. Spent the plane ride home sitting next to a strange drunk man who kept talking at me. Intolerable Cruelty starring George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones was the in-flight movie. I wanted to die.
Another reader shares that sentiment:
I was stuck in the snowbound Omaha airport with a three year old, a chihuahua, and a small carryon bag, for TWO DAYS. That was the ninth circle of hell. I wanted to die.
This next reader nearly did, for real:
Peace Corps: On a bus in Guatemala. A group of three teens in MS-13 [a notorious gang] decide to rob our bus. Being the only American on the bus and having just gone to the bank, I took all the money I had hidden in my bra and put it in my pocket ready to be robbed. People would get shot if they tried to run, so I prepared to give everything and pulled my passport out of its hiding spot in my bag so I made sure they knew they were getting it.
Then some dude decided to John Wayne and open fire on these robbers, which resulted in a firefight on a very crowded bus. I had actually been the next passenger to be robbed, so the perp standing next to me was actively shooting. I dove under the seat and stayed there until literally everyone else had gotten off the bus.
Bonus trip: I got a lightly armored security escort back to the embassy.
This reader’s experience is much more relatable:
I travel for work, so I have A LOT of these stories. I have two that beat out all of the other minor upsets though: