Witnessing a storm level a town was not what I had in mind when planning an Australian diving trip.
I was traveling up the west coast of the country and had greatly anticipated visiting the remote town of Exmouth, known for its pristine reef and abundance of whale sharks.
But diving was out of the question once the forecast began predicting 150 mph winds due to a Category 5 cyclone.
At the time, tropical cyclone Vance was the strongest storm to ever hit Australia, and the eye traveled just a few miles from the evacuation shelter where I rode out the colossal event.
I had never seen anything like the ferocious winds that blew for an entire day, and I was unprepared for the emotional marathon that happens when you survive a natural disaster.
About a hundred backpackers from dozens of nations crowded behind a set of protected glass doors, and together we watched with awe and fear — especially when a building was ripped apart or a palm tree shredded before our eyes.
While it was disappointing that I never got to dive in Exmouth, that storm was one of the most astounding experiences of my life, and it became one of my most salient memories from my travels.
Disaster often strikes when you’re on the road. It’s just part of the deal. Maybe you won’t face hurricane-force winds, but things can go sideways without warning on any trip.
And a surprising truth is this: The best stories almost always come from when things go wrong.
So, as we enter the peak of summer travel season, here is some helpful advice from seasoned travelers and tour guides from the Pacific Northwest for navigating the unexpected.
The No. 1 rule: Attitude
If you want a quick study in group dynamics, work as a tour leader.
For several summers I led small group tours on adventurous road trips that crisscrossed North America. Every few weeks I watched a new group respond to the highs and lows of group travel.
By my second season I’d learned a valuable lesson: The success of a trip had almost nothing to do with the sights, the weather or even my skills as a leader. Instead, it all came down to two major factors: group dynamics and attitude.
A group touring the nation’s top sights in perfect weather could have a terrible time. And a group with the right frame of mind could endure meh attractions in monsoon rains and still have a blast.
Carole Rosenblat, a 25-year veteran of the tour industry, has learned to tell her tour groups on Day 1, “We’re going to have amazing adventures and some adventures are planned and some are unplanned.”
“Travel is nutsy. That’s part of the joy of it,” she says.
Preparing mentally for unplanned detours is helpful so that people can look at the situation as an adventure and not a problem.
Look for the silver lining
Just because you’ve traveled to 128 nations doesn’t mean you’re immune to disaster.
Last year Stephanie Zito, of Portland, was road tripping across Canada — and the owner of the van she’d borrowed forgot to tell her the gas gauge was broken.
When she eventually ran out of fuel, she was stranded, with nothing around for miles.
Eventually, a local woman picked her up and they spent the next hour looking for gas. Zito got to hear the woman’s life story, learned about living on a First Nations reservation, and was exposed to the heartfelt kindness of strangers.
There’s something about being in a vulnerable situation that makes you open to magical experiences. It puts you at the mercy of others, and can help restore your faith in humanity.
The unexpected can derail your plans, but that doesn’t mean the resulting experience will be bad.
One time I missed a trip to Tibet because bad weather closed the airport. But the silver lining was befriending a National Geographic photographer who filled three days with amazing travel stories — an experience I never could have enjoyed had my plane made it out on time.
How you handle the situation is the difference between a dreadful memory and the possibility of turning lemons into lemonade.
Find some personal space
The worst vacation of my life was the summer my family toured the Northeast in a tiny rental car.
I should have been grateful for a month-long vacation, but I was a sulky high-school sophomore, trapped in the backseat, spending 100% of my time with my parents when all I wanted was independence.
But when we stopped at Virginia Beach, I discovered bodysurfing. It was a huge hit — in part because I could be blissfully away from my parents for a few hours.
My folks broke from our rigid schedule and we turned a single day in the town into three. It was the highlight of my trip.
When Nick Jensen, of Issaquah, led three-week cross-country tours for a living, he discovered that sometimes his groups needed personal space.
“Around Texas it was a good time to find a mall with a movie theater and give people four hours to just be them,” he says. “If you’re traveling together, that’s a high-intensity 24-hour-a-day experience, even if it’s a spouse or family. Sometimes finding an afternoon to go off and do your own thing is really healthy.”
They’re not disasters, they’re story-makers
Transportation issues are a common source of woe. A mudslide wipes out your road. Flights are canceled. Your bus breaks down.
Like it or not, the part of your trip where you experience stress followed by deliverance will probably be the most vivid memory from your vacation.
When Jensen and his wife were traveling through India, one of their trains never arrived and they were stuck at the train station for the next 14 hours.
“At one point I could count eight rats within arm’s reach. But now it’s a great story and we laugh,” he says.
“Nobody wants to hear ‘I went to California, we had a great time, we went everywhere we wanted, the food was good and then we came back,’” says Jensen. “That’s the worst story you could tell!”
Zito agrees that great stories come from the unexpected events.
“Every good story has an arc in it, and misadventures are like the arc of your travel story,” she says. “The perfect plan doesn’t leave a lot of room for the detours, and I think the detours are the places where we find the beauty with travel and interaction with other people.”
Plan surprises for the kids
In the travel industry it’s known as “guest recovery,” says Rosenblat. “It’s when something goes wrong, and what can we do to make it better?” she explains.
Rosenblat has learned that, for kids, even small things can make a huge impact when things go sideways.
Sometimes that meant decorating a child’s bed like a princess bed, or surprising them with bathtub messages written in washable paint. If a child is in a downward emotional spiral, see if the hotel concierge has anything special for kids, Rosenblat recommends.
Even room service can be thrilling — nobody’s ever upset when warm cookies and ice cream arrive at your room.
And keep a few surprises on hand for emergencies. You become everyone’s hero when you produce new Legos, Play-Doh or a book of puzzles during a crucial moment. Kids may not even notice that the Grand Canyon is closed if they’re busy with their new Paw Patrol activity book.
Jeff Layton, of Plain, Washington, has visited more than 75 countries, all 50 states and every continent during his time as a writer, tour leader and vagabond backpacker. He blogs at MarriedToAdventure.com