The treehouse in Sweden looked divine: a spherical flying saucer twinkling from a snow-coated pine forest. On the property’s slick website, meals were cast as “Swedish delicacies” and adventures like dog-sledding and dinner in an ice hut looked dreamy. Of course, no seasoned reporter would rely on a website. The destination had been reviewed glowingly by The Guardian, Travel + Leisure and Architectural Digest. This, and that the hotel was listed on the boutique hotel booking site Mr & Mrs Smith, convinced me that this remote spot near the Arctic Circle would make a thrilling vacation for my family of four.
Boy, was I wrong. We had booked the property’s newest treehouse, slated to be complete in time for our December visit. It wasn’t. Since flights were paid for, we opted for the property’s guesthouse, at a staffer’s suggestion. When we turned up, my heart sank.
The guesthouse was a time-worn hostel tricked out with 1930s-era lingerie and dusty vintage shoes. The low-rent boudoir theme extended to our rooms: peeling wallpaper, musty curtains and ancient table lamps casting just enough light to confirm that, yes, those were dead bugs in the ceiling fixtures. A group of pungent young men (cigarettes, sweat and wild game?) camped out in a common area next to us — disconcerting as the locks to our rooms were broken.
At this point, I expressed displeasure with the Bates Motel situation and began weighing options. Could we grit our teeth and enjoy the Arctic activities? A dinner of rubbery moose under the goggle-eyed gaze of a creepy doll collection forced the decision: We’d ditch this Nordic nightmare by first light.
Travel often involves hiccups like a misrepresented property or a destination that pales to the hype. The key is taking the snafus in stride, and knowing when and how to pivot from an unpleasant situation into a better one.
Here’s what I and a few other travel pros have learned:
Know when to walk away
Ross Belfer, the founder of the travel and hospitality public-relations firm Xhibition, found Dubrovnik, Croatia, to be a bust, or, as he described it, “a charmless tourist trap with generic restaurants and gridlock on the beaches and at sites.” A drive to the less-crowded Montenegro led to a budget-friendly hotel and pristine beaches. “Vacation time is precious,” he advises. “If you are unhappy, don’t wait it out. Move on.”
Marley Blandori, a manager with the luxury tour operator Indagare, took the same tack when an algae bloom interfered with her bohemian beach vacation on the Mexican island of Holbox. She cut her losses mid trip and decamped to Tulum, some 90 miles away. Since it was a Sunday in mid-January, Ms. Blandori felt confident she could show up at one of the many beachfront hotels and score a room. She did.
Leave if it feels dangerous
Looking for “edge” on a trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, the travel journalist Hilary Eaton booked lodging through a travel agent in an up-and-coming neighborhood. Even before they arrived, she noticed nearby buildings spray-painted with swastikas and other red flags.
They had traveled more than 20 hours to find they booked a bare-bones hostel. The amenities were nonexistent: no hot water, no sheets and ‘blankets’ that were itchy pieces of carpet. And a lot of uninvited guests.
“Our room had a fist-size hole in the wall opening to the street, so there were swarms of bugs,” she said. “We toughed it out for one night. But when my friends’ laptop was stolen from the room, we decided it was too dangerous and uncomfortable and splurged on a night at the Grand Hotel Europe to regroup.” She disputed the charges and was refunded by her credit card company.
Rely on an ally: your credit card company
Credit card companies can perform miracles extricating travelers from sketchy travel situations. During one vacation in France, after we discovered the villa we booked was an insect-ridden horse farm with a septic problem, I contacted American Express. There are more than 5,000 travel-specific support staff globally (one reason I often book through them) and the staffer I spoke with opened an investigation. We were refunded by American Express.
According to the American Express spokeswoman Melanie Backs, the most effective way to handle a dispute is with evidence.
“If a card member feels that their experience was not as promised, they can file a dispute for the charge,” she said. “Items like receipts, correspondence with the hotel or merchant, or website screen grabs that detail the experience promised, as well as written descriptions and photos, are helpful in conducting the review.”
Tap Into Rewards Points
Credit card, airline and hotel reward programs are currency that can help you pivot from a disaster. Hotel bookings can be easily executed with points online (if nothing is available, always call and plead your case). Flights, especially last-minute ones, can be more challenging.
Erin Murray of Points.com suggests that it can be more effective to book the least expensive flight available and use your credit card points to pay down the balance when your statement arrives (versus trying to use points for the entire redemption with a participating airline). She is also quick to point out that if you are a few thousand points short of redemption, all is not lost.
“Most programs have an option to buy points to top off your accounts,” she said. “For example, if you need 4,000 points to complete a flight redemption, these can be purchased for roughly two to four cents a point. This would mean that a last-minute flight can be executed for approximately $100 plus mileage.”
Another option? Transform a travel dud into a road trip by renting a car with rewards points.
And what happened to us in Sweden, you ask? I used the one bar of cell service available to nab flights out of Luleå. Then I logged on to the app Hotel Tonight and booked Grand Hotel Stockholm, where cozy down comforters and a hygge-inducing spa helped blunt the memory of the treehouse nightmare.
52 PLACES AND MUCH, MUCH MORE Follow our 52 Places traveler, Sebastian Modak, on Instagram as he travels the world, and discover more Travel coverage by following us on Twitter and Facebook. And sign up for our Travel Dispatch newsletter: Each week you’ll receive tips on traveling smarter, stories on hot destinations and access to photos from all over the world.
Get more stuff like this
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting stuff and updates to your email inbox.