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How to Avoid a Summer Vacation Disaster

Geoff Williams

If all is going well, right about now you're packing for or planning a summer vacation. And if you're really lucky, you won't be unlucky.

Americans love their vacations, but their vacations don't always love them back. 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.

[Read: How to Split Travel Costs With Friends.]

"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.

"Everyone in the lounge was guessing acronyms for Delta, like Doesn't Ever Leave the Airport," says Angleton, president of AEGIS FinServ Corp, a business-to-business prepaid debit card company based in Miami.

[Read: Smart Ways to Save on Your Summer Roadtrip.]

But that was a mere inconvenience compared to having his baggage misplaced for days. Angleton's medicine, time-released capsules for his allergies, was packed away in that baggage. He suggests bringing medicine in a carry-on bag, along with a spare set of clothes and anything you can't live without for a few days.

Study your itinerary carefully. This is a suggestion from Margaret King, director of the Center of Cultural Studies & Analysis, a Philadelphia think tank. A few years ago, she went to a conference in Singapore, where she was a scheduled speaker, and took a separate flight from her husband, who she planned to spend vacation time with when the business part of the trip was over. But her airline erroneously issued an itinerary that said she would arrive on a Sunday, when the flight was actually scheduled to land Monday. King didn't notice the mistake, but in hindsight says if she had scrutinized her itinerary more, she would have spotted it.

The end result: She wound up missing two days of the conference, although not her speech, and her husband went to the airport in Singapore on a Sunday and was panic-stricken when he couldn't find his wife or learn where she was. Stuck on a plane, King couldn't be reached by cell phone, and she had no idea that her husband was on the ground in Singapore and worried.

"Be sure to check your ticket and confirm the actual date of arrival at your international destination," King says. "I always do that now - lesson learned."

[See: Free Mobile Apps for Cheap Summer Travel.]

Of course, the stress of a good vacation gone bad is compounded by the fact that rest and relaxation costs a lot of money. A recent survey of 1,001 travelers by Room Key, a hotel meta search engine created by hoteliers, concluded that Americans age 25 and older expect to spend $84 billion on hotels this summer. Or more specifically, the average American spends $1,180 (per person) on a typical summer vacation, according to a 2012 travel survey of 1,500 adults by American Express.

It's one thing to blow $3,000 or $4,000 on a family vacation when it means filling up photo albums and Facebook with warm memories that will be cherished for a lifetime. It is another thing to spend a few grand on a nightmarish excursion everyone hopes to erase from their memories. So be careful out there and plan as assiduously as you can - or buy lots of travel insurance.

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