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Don't let geographic illiteracy ruin your vacation

By Christopher Elliott, Tribune Media Services
Ending up in Sydney, Nova Scotia, instead of Sydney, Australia, is a very inconvenient travel mistake.
Ending up in Sydney, Nova Scotia, instead of Sydney, Australia, is a very inconvenient travel mistake.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Cities that have the same names can lead to travel confusion if you're not careful
  • One traveler ended up in Sydney, Nova Scotia, instead of Sydney, Australia
  • Double-check your airport codes and review plans made by a travel agent

(Tribune Media Services) -- Want to hear the latest stupid-passenger joke? Just hang out near the galley on your next flight, and you might catch the attendants poking fun at our gullibility -- and geographic illiteracy.

I overheard two crewmembers on a recent flight from Orlando to Seattle mocking customers who believed the Earth's rotation could slow the speed of an aircraft.

"And that's why the westbound flights are slower than the eastbound flights," one of them giggled.

Actually, a strong tailwind might account for the difference in speed.

The travel industry employees shouldn't be so smug. After all, their geographic illiteracy -- if not their gullibility -- has cost us in the past.

Consider:

Costa Rica or Puerto Rico? Samantha Lazzaris asked her travel agent to book a vacation in San Jose, Costa Rica. She didn't notice a problem until she landed. "I asked the taxi driver to take me to this hotel I'd pre-booked, he looked in amazement, speechless, then laughed and said, 'This is not Costa Rica. It's Puerto Rico," she told a British newspaper. "I didn't believe him. I was in shock. I looked around the airport, saw posters of Puerto Rico everywhere, and thought: What am I going to do? Where is Puerto Rico? Where am I?" Turns out her agent had typed in the wrong airport codes when she booked the flight.

Hey, that's the wrong Sydney! Several years ago, a British couple that thought they'd booked a vacation to Sydney, Australia, instead ended up in chilly Sydney, Nova Scotia, according to the BBC. Raoul Christian, one of the travelers, described the experience as "really, really confusing," adding, "We thought 'OK, we are going to wait here and a big plane is going to turn up and take us to Australia.' But it did not quite happen that way." (It is unclear if the online agency that sold Christian the ticket had confused the two Sydneys, or if he had.)

The final insult. Airlines can be geographically challenged, too. In 2008, an American Airlines customer sued the airline when it sent his wife's body to the wrong country for burial and then demanded more money to fix the screw-up. Miguel Olaya said he made arrangements to send the remains of his wife, Teresa, to their native Ecuador after she died. Instead, American mistakenly shipped her to Guatemala, according to a report in the New York Daily News. Why? Apparently, someone at the airline typed in the wrong airport code -- GUA for Guatemala instead of GYE for Guayaquil.

This is familiar territory for me. I was traveling to the Gleneagles golf resort, just north of Edinburgh, Scotland, a few years back. Gorgeous hotel. When I checked my bag at Heathrow, the ticket agent slapped a GLA tag on my bag instead of an EDI label, and my luggage flew to Glasgow while I took the plane to Edinburgh. Couldn't the gate agent tell the difference?

Then again, maybe it was intentional.

No matter. It's clear some travel employees didn't pass their geography classes with flying colors. Fellow travel blogger and travel agent Janice Hough remembers phoning a car rental company recently to reserve a vehicle in Milan. "Is that in France?" the agent asked her.

She was serious.

So how do you avoid flying to the wrong side of the Caribbean, landing in Canada instead of Australia, or having your bags lost? Here are three tips:

Mind your airport codes

The three-letter designations that are attached to your checked luggage often make no sense. For example, can you guess what airport ORD is? If you said Orlando, try again. It's Chicago O'Hare. Orlando isn't ORR (that's Yorktown, Australia) or ORO (that would be Yoro, Honduras) -- it's MCO. And don't even get me started on Canada, where the airport codes inexplicably begin with "Y."

It's fine for you to confuse the city codes, but there's no excuse for your ticket agent or travel agent to do it. They ought to know better. In order to prevent the city code chaos, be sure you know the code for your destination, and check the tag on your luggage before you hand it over to the TSA. Just in case.

Don't rely on anyone's expertise

I'm a big fan of travel agents, but I don't recommend disengaging your brain when you hire one. You have to double-check their work. Even a veteran ticket agent can make serious errors during a booking, and if you don't catch it right away, you'll pay.

The problem is exacerbated by the agents in faraway call centers who have little or no training and rely on scripts to get them through the booking process -- it's these underpaid order-takers that can confuse Paris, Texas and Paris, France (or worse).

Point is, just because they claim to be a travel expert doesn't mean you can leave everything in their hands. They can mess up. If you don't believe me, scroll back to the top of this story for a refresher.

Avoid getting lost in translation

Nothing can confuse you like another language. Try looking for Munich on a map of Germany and you won't find it. (There is, however, a Munchen -- same place). Not a huge difference, but just enough to make the average American tourist wonder: Am I going to the right destination? Again, a little research can overcome 99 percent of these "lost in translation" errors. The rest are probably inevitable and unavoidable.

On the flip side, we tend to let our guard down when dealing with English cities, and forget that there is often more than one of everything. Manhattan is one of New York City's five boroughs, but there's also a Manhattan, Kansas. I have a friend who lives there. San Jose is in California. And Costa Rica. OK, technically that was Spanish, but you get my point.

In case you were wondering about those flight attendants kidding around about ignorant passengers -- eventually, one of them turned around and noticed I was eavesdropping. She smiled sheepishly as I shook my head and rolled my eyes. Maybe she believed that the joke was on her. But that's only half right.

Technically, the joke is on all of us.

(Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org).

© 2010 CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.