The term “travel plans” is bit of a contradiction. Travel rarely goes as planned! It’s great to have a plan, of course, but more important is the ability to think outside the box (or “travel outside the suitcase”). Travelers who have a “can do” attitude, flexibility, and a willingness to look for solutions travel more, travel better, and travel happier all around the world.
There’s always a solution to any travel situation you find yourself in, but you might have to work for it. To give you some ideas, and maybe give you some encouragement, here are some of the most creative ways we’ve thought outside the box in our travels. Truly, part of the fun of travel is the journey!
Quito’s Cotopaxi Volcano
We planned for a long layover in Ecuador’s capital city of Quito on our way home from an epic trip to the Galapagos islands. The old town in Quito is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and we stayed in a beautiful, old mansion right in the middle of it all. Everything was great—until the Cotopaxi volcano “exploded.”
Exploded? Shouldn’t that be “erupted?” No, those are not interchangeable terms. There was no lava rushing down the mountainside to cover us all in fiery death, but there was white ash falling from the sky. Honestly, we just thought the city was dirty; we had no idea it was from the volcano until a tour guide told us! This ash has the ability to clog airplane engines. Airlines were cancelling flights, and no one could predict how long the volcano would continue to “explode” or if it would erupt. It could be days, weeks, or longer. Uh oh.
We didn’t know it until hours after the ash started falling, but our flight home that night was cancelled. When we did find out, at about 2:00pm, it was time for us to go into Action Mode. Our hotel’s staff was kind enough to call the airline’s local number for us, while Steve searched for new flights online and I did some searching on my phone.
Getting Out: Thank goodness for the Star Alliance.
United Airlines was unable to send its once-daily flight from IAH (Houston), which was supposed to have a quick turn-around and fly us home the same night—hence why our flight was cancelled: The plane was just not coming. However, United is in the Star Alliance, along with Copa Airlines, based in the country of Panama. There was a Copa flight that afternoon, and we did get seats on the flight, but timing was tight, and we were actually told to go straight to the gate because the flight might leave early—or, it might not go at all due to the volcano.
To make a long story short, we did get on the flight out, which, if I remember correctly, was the last flight out that night, and potentially for several days to come. We flew all night long, stopping in PTY (Panama City), then EWR (Newark, NJ), where we saw the sunrise as we caught our final flight home to IAD (DC).
Getting an Earlier Flight: Thank goodness for United elite status.
Another win: Steve checked the departures board when we landed at EWR and saw that there was actually an earlier flight to DC than the one we were booked on. Instead of a five-hour layover for a flight leaving at 11:30am, we could possibly make the 30 minute connection for the 6:30am flight and be home before 8:00am.
How did we make that happen? I remembered we had cell service, since we were back in the States, and I called the 1K desk (for United Premier 1K Members only) and got the agent to rebook our last leg for the earlier flight. The agent at the gate tried to deny us boarding, but because we already had seats confirmed on the flight, she had to let us on. We were home and napping by 8:00am.
So worth it: Our Favorite Animals in the Galapagos
Easter Island and Hurricane Harvey
Two years after the Cotopaxi volcano debacle, we tried again to visit South America. We met the same fate: Our flight was cancelled, and we may have been stranded indefinitely. This time, the problem was our connecting flight in Santiago, Chile. Again, there was only one flight per day on our preferred airline, United, and the same plane turns around quickly and goes back. If the plane doesn’t come, there is no back-up.
The trip to Easter Island, Chile, was memorable, fun, adventurous, beautiful, and truly fascinating. We had a great time. But on our last day, we found out that Hurricane Harvey was heading straight for Houston, where our flight was supposed to come from the following day for our connecting flight in Santiago, the Chilean capital city. Our flight was preemptively cancelled, and no one at United could tell us when flights would resume. Hurricane Harvey ended up being a Category 4.
Getting Out: Thank goodness for the Star Alliance.
So, from Easter Island, where both cell service and wi-fi were spotty at best, we tried to find a workable solution. We found flights with Avianca, which is a Central and South American-based airline in the Star Alliance, but we’d have to spend the night in Santiago and leave early the next day. Then, we’d have to connect in LIM (Lima, Peru) and SAL (San Salvador, El Salvador). So that’s what we did.
Another Issue: Delayed in Lima
Everything was going well enough, but when we arrived into LIM, we realized our flight was delayed… Two hours. Our layover in SAL was only an hour and a half, and that was the last possible flight we could take to get home to D.C. that day. If we missed that flight, we would have had to spend the night in San Salvador, which we were told was extremely dangerous.
We used Skype to call United to see what they could do for us within the Star Alliance, but there was nothing better than what we had. Finally, just before boarding, Avianca staff told us that connecting flights from SAL to SFO (San Francisco), LAX (Los Angeles), and IAD (D.C.) would be held. Apparently, 2/3 or more of the passengers on our flight were all in the same boat as us—navigating changes of plans due to Hurricane Harvey hitting IAH in Houston.
We did make it, after nearly 48 hours of travel from Easter Island to home, but it took some thinking outside the box on our part, strength in numbers that came from our fellow passengers, and Avianca’s willingness to wait for us, even if it wasn’t their first idea. No matter what, keep trying until you get a solution that works for you!
More here: 10 Reasons to Visit Easter Island
Change of Plans in Wales
Here’s a very positive one for you! While Steve and I were in London for a long weekend, he got a message that he needed to go on a business trip the day we were supposed to arrive back home. It wouldn’t disrupt our trip, but I realized that we had some flexibility.
The Beauty of Points: Flexibility
We had booked the London trip with points, instead of paying for our tickets outright, meaning that we could change our flights with no fees or other penalties if we wanted to. Since I knew I couldn’t go on Steve’s business trip with him, we agreed that the opportunity to extend my trip in the UK was too good to pass up! So, he flew home on schedule, and I took the train to Cardiff, Wales, for a few days. I got two trips out of the deal!
More here: The Ultimate Guide to Solo Travel in Wales
Getting Left Behind at SFO
This one is an experience we never want to repeat, but if we do, we know we can handle it. Basically, we were delayed by three hours leaving IAD to get to SFO because of weather at SFO. Our connecting flight left without us—and the other 22 people who also needed to make that connection with us. We tried to get on an earlier flight to SFO (which was also delayed, but ahead of us in the lineup), but we were told we could not get on, despite there being seats available.
That long delay ate up our entire layover to catch our connecting flight from SFO to AKL (Auckland, New Zealand). All the flight attendants told us that the flight to AKL would wait for us, however, because there were so many people on our flight who needed to make the same connection, and there was only one flight on our airline to AKL per day. We were told it made more sense to wait for us, since the connecting plane would still be on the ground when we arrived.
Except that was not the case. We literally saw the connecting plane sitting at the gate when we landed, but we quickly found out that the pilot had ordered the door closed. They would not be waiting for us.
Figuring It Out: Two Approaches
Any time a flight is delayed or cancelled, the right thing to do is 1: Get on the phone with customer service; and 2: Get in line at the customer service desk. That’s what we did, along with literally over 100 people who also missed their connections—including 22 other people trying to get on the next day’s SFO-AKL flight on the same airline. It was not going to be easy or quick, but only standing in the customer service line (or worse, giving up and waiting until the next day to deal with it) was not going to make anything go faster.
Knowing Our Rights: Getting a room at the airline’s expense.
Because Steve and I are relatively seasoned travelers, we know that the airline had responsibilities to us, since the delay and being left behind were no fault of ours. But, we had to know to ask for it. When we got our new flight sorted out—on Air New Zealand the following evening, thanks again to the Star Alliance—we made sure we secured a hotel room and food vouchers to use at the hotel, along with a courtesy package that included a toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, a water bottle, and a few other small things. Did that make up for being left behind? No. Was it better than having to find and pay for our own accommodations and food? Sure.
We made it to New Zealand the next day, having lost the cost of our accommodation there for the first day, plus a day of our short trip. But we were just happy to get there.
In case it happens to you: What to Do When You Miss Your Flight
Lux Bus Across the Baltics
This is one of my favorite “outside the box” travel stories. It was Steve’s turn to choose our annual “trip of a lifetime,” and he wanted to visit the Baltics: Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. The countries are small, but we assumed it would be best to fly between the countries’ capital cities.
Trying Something New
But there was this new app I heard about, Rome 2 Rio, which was supposed to show you the best ways to travel between two places. As it turns out, the best way to travel among the Baltic capitals is by bus! But not just any bus: a luxury bus! Each comfortable seat reclined, and came with a snack, bottle of water, TV with movies, wi-fi, and no seat mate—just one seat on each side of the aisle!
It was faster than flying, once we figured in time to get to the airport, time at the airport, flying time, and commuting from the airport to the city centers. And as you might imagine, it was less expensive, too. It was the perfect solution, but we never would have known if we hadn’t checked!
Rental Car Shortage in the USA
COVID has clearly had some weird side effects, and not all of them health-related. The rental car shortage came as a result of rental car companies selling off their inventory to make up for having no customers for months on end. It was exacerbated by a computer chip factory fire in China (all the car eggs in one basket!). As a result, car rental prices shot way up in early 2021 and have yet to go back down!
The Solution: Going Car-free
You don’t need a car everywhere in the world! Many large cities, especially historic cities, are set up for pedestrian travel. Just take an Uber from the airport to the city center, and then you’re set for the rest of your trip! We went car-free in Chicago, Waikiki, Key West, Miami Beach, Washington, D.C., Coronado, and more during the pandemic, and we never missed having a car! While some destinations are explored better by car, if you’re a little bit flexible, you can find a place to go that meets your needs without a car. That makes for a huge expense saved!
More ideas here: Where to Travel without a Car in the USA
Renting a Car on Tahiti and Taking the Ferry to Mo’orea
One place we’re glad we had a car: Mo’orea! But it almost didn’t happen. There were only two cars left on the entire island for our dates, but they were both manual, and Steve and I are not comfortable enough to commit to that. If we wanted an automatic car, we were out of luck.
Solution: Rent on Tahiti and Take the Ferry
This is not a solution I came up with on my own! A fellow blogger mentioned this in passing in a post about traveling to French Polynesia, and I had no idea this was even a thing. There were many more cars available on Tahiti—where we had to fly into anyway—including automatic cars. We picked it up, got a spot on one of the two car ferries to nearby Mo’orea, and had a wonderful trip! There was a $19 USD insurance fee that we had to pay to the car rental company, but it was worth it to have an automatic car and no worries.
Get all the details: Everything You Need to Know about Renting a Car and Taking the Ferry on Tahiti and Mo’orea
Want more? Check out my Travel Tips Page for everything you need to travel more, travel better, and travel where you want!
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