By Christopher Elliott

Accidents happen when you travel.

The bad accidents -- the fender-benders, the missed airline connections the unfortunate food-borne illnesses -- are the ones that come to mind first, of course.

Here's one from Cindy Barthi, a hotel reservationist from San Clemente, Calif. When she returned to the Esmeralda Renaissance hotel, after a fun weekend in Palm Springs, Calif., she suspected something was wrong.

"The valet attendants had some very sad faces as we approached them with our claim check," she says. "The general manager met us and this is what he showed us: A palm tree had come down on our car during the winds."

Oops. Good thing Barthi wasn't in the car.

You don't necessarily think about the happy accidents, though. Like the terrific restaurant you discovered while wandering through a medieval European town, or that cutie you met on the train and is now your pen pal. We think of these, instead, as one of the unexpected benefits of travel.

But they're really the other side of the same coin. Accidents -- good and bad -- happen when we're away. More so, maybe, because there's a certain randomness about travel -- a sense that the unexpected can happen.

For better or worse.

No one has tried to quantify the happy coincidences, like meeting the love of your life while you're on vacation or finding the best hot dog stand ever, at least not that I'm aware of. But a recent poll by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives suggests companies are aware that accidents (the bad kind) are inevitable. More than 8 in 10 companies have a policy restricting the number of executives that can travel together on a plane, in order to prevent a business from losing all of its managers in an aviation disaster.

Sometimes, bad accidents can lead to good things. Barthi's hotel did everything in its power to make things right, including finding her a replacement rental car and ensuring that her damaged vehicle was repaired quickly. "They even offered us a certificate for two free nights," she says. (Next time, she may ask the valet to park her car away from any palm trees.)

So how do you maximize the happy coincidences -- and avoid the bad ones? I asked the real experts -- travelers like you -- for your advice. Here's what you told me:

Be open to new experiences. Happy accidents happen when you are open to trying new things. Michelle Bell, the alumni director for a university in Fayetteville, Ark., recalls a stop on the Greek island of Mykonos while on a recent cruise with some former students. "We stumbled upon Restaurant Katrine and ventured in," she remembers. "After bringing the typical olives and bread, we looked at the menu and were shocked to see the redfish was 90 Euros. When the owner came over with some wine, he said, 'Oh yes, it feeds probably six of you.'" It was one of the longest, but best, meals I have ever had. I recommend it to everyone." Had Bell not been open to trying a new restaurant and assumed that the 90-Euro redfish only fed one person -- and left the establishment in a huff -- she would have never had the best Greek food ever.

Adjust your perspective. Sometimes a different perspective can make for happier accidents. Tour guide Jodi Nelson was leading a group through Tanzania when her Jeep blew a tire. She left the vehicle to find help, and when she returned, found her tour group surrounded by "hundreds of little African children who'd come out to see the random white people in their neighborhood." What could have been the worst day of the tour became the highlight. "They were all singing and playing chase," she recalls. "It was a beautiful sight and one of the most memorable days of the trip. Thank goodness for accidents, sometimes. Those are the stories you tell because the unpredictable mishaps are what create the adventure."

Timing is everything. Happy coincidences are often a matter of fortuitous timing. Lisa Scalia, who is also a tour guide, remembers a recent vacation to New England with her husband. They were looking for fall foliage, but they found more than that. "One day he noted we were near Lime Rock racetrack, so we drove over to see it and found out it was media day for an upcoming race," she told me. "We ended up being invited to participate in all the activities set up for the press -- which we were not -- like driving on a slick track, driving a road course with a professional driving instructor, and enjoying lunch -- all for free, just because we were in the right place at the right time. Very cool." Had Scalia stuck to her schedule that day, she might have missed the best part of her foliage tour.

One more thing: The line between a happy accident and an unhappy one isn't always clear. Take the case of professional triathlete Brendan Brazier, who was hit by a car while cycling in Canada and had to take the season off. That's when he stumbled upon the idea of writing and self-publishing a book about his vegan diet and fitness regime. The manuscript featured recipes for plant-based shakes, drinks and energy bars that Brazier created.

Eventually, the book caught the interest of a publisher, and turned into a line of food products, all because of one traffic accident.

So was that accident desirable or not? In the short term, no, but the long-term consequences were arguably positive for Brazier's career.

In other words, even a bad accident can sometimes turn out for the best.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine


© Christopher Elliott

Travel - Accidental Tourist? Tips for Maximizing Happy Coincidences and Avoiding Bad Ones