Tips for Avoiding a Summer Vacation Disaster

Advice from fellow travelers who have experienced less-than-ideal trips.

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While the passengers aboard the Asiana Airlines flight that crash-landed at the San Francisco International Airport Saturday experienced a rare catastrophe, most people face far lesser dangers while vacationing. And if you plan well, you can minimize even those inconveniences.

Everyone has, or knows somebody who has, a story of being grounded on the tarmac for hours, coming down with food poisoning or finding a hotel room infested with bed bugs. Entire movies – think "National Lampoon's Vacation" and "The Out of Towners" – have created a plot on the premise that a vacation or trip can be a very dangerous thing.

So if you're the proactive type and want your summer vacation to go as smoothly as possible, consider these tips from fellow travelers who have had less-than-ideal vacations.

Letting a family member or friend plan the trip? Don't. True, someone has to make the travel arrangements, and if you've pawned off making reservations to someone else, go ahead and feel smug. But take the unofficial role of vacation supervisor and make sure whoever is planning the trip has talked to you or other family members, so you know exactly what you're getting into.

That's a suggestion Shannon Watterson gives everyone. Watterson, a 24-year-old public relations executive in Boston, recalls that about a dozen years ago, she, her sister and their parents went on a vacation with her maternal grandparents to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The area is beautiful, she says, but the cabin chosen by the grandparents wasn't exactly optimal.

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"There were six of us staying in a tiny cabin on the Mira River, which, we found out later, was slightly infested with leeches," recalls Watterson. "The cabin itself was infested with bugs, so much so that you would wake up in the middle of the night and there would be ants and spiders crawling on you. The shower was just as gross, so soon we were, too, from avoiding showering."

The real low point was when Watterson's mother was on the cabin's rickety deck overlooking the water, and the floor below her broke. Fortunately, only her leg went through the deck, but after Watterson's father extracted her mother, they took her to the emergency room where she was treated for a muscle contusion.

Looking back on the experience, Watterson says, "I guess the lesson here is to make sure you're on the same page with everyone you're vacationing with as to what you're expecting from the trip – are you staying in a hotel or roughing it?"

Let a professional plan the trip. Of course, there is an argument that you shouldn't plan your vacation. Jessica Uchtman, a marketing professional in Minneapolis, and her husband recently went to the Dominican Republic for their honeymoon. "Boy, was it unforgettable, and I don't mean that in a good way," Uchtman says.

There were a lot of things wrong with their hotel, including a dirty shower, dirty room, a freezing cold swimming pool and wretched customer service. "The food made us sick, and the drinks were so disgusting, they weren't drinkable," Uchtman says. "Everything we asked for, the answer was no. No, you can't eat at that table. No, you can't get cash. No, you can't have a glass of water. No, no, no. When we raised our concerns to hotel management, they were rude, unapologetic and unwilling to rectify the issues we had."

Uchtman says she and her husband booked their honeymoon based on positive reviews on travel websites. "I fear these sites have been compromised by the hotels posing as fake guests. So my advice to others would be to do your homework," she says. "Either work with a travel agent or talk to someone who has actually been to the resort you want to go to." She also suggests bringing a translation book if you're traveling to a country where English is not the official language.

Take your medicine with you. Have it with you at all times – which means you shouldn't put it in your luggage if your bag is going to be in the baggage compartment of an airplane. Last September, Jim Angleton was on a combined work trip and family vacation and flying from New York to London when their flight took off late – nine hours late. Angleton recalls being told that service engineers were working on the aircraft.