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Be kind to your fellow travelers; you never know when you’ll need a helping hand in turn

  • Author: Scott McMurren
    | Alaska Travel
  • Updated: January 6, 2018
  • Published January 6, 2018

"Bon voyage!"

That's the iconic send-off for travelers. Everyone wishes for friends and loved ones to have a great trip. These days, there's often a postscript: "Have a safe trip," "stay safe" or something like that. Even though modern-day travel is much safer than it was years ago, things still can go wrong.

If it's not the train wreck, it's the icy sidewalk outside your door.

I'll admit it: if a trip goes seamlessly, I tend to feel self-reliant and get a bit puffed up. It's easy to forget that it takes an army of devoted professionals to keep the giant travel machine going like clockwork. And still, things happen.

Last week on an Alaska Airlines flight, I got up to use the rest room. The door wouldn't open, so I turned to the flight attendant. "Oh, we're holding the rest room for this gentleman," she said, looking down the aisle. Slowly, another flight attendant was helping an elderly man forward.

I returned to my seat and watched the man inch forward. His frail hands grabbed the back of each row of seats as he struggled to maintain his footing. There was some confusion at the front of the cabin. Finally, the flight attendant turned to us, asking, "Does anyone speak Spanish?"

A traveler in back of me was able to go forward and help the elderly gentleman, who was blind, navigate to the restroom.

When we're traveling away from home, it's easy to lose our bearings. The familiar waypoints are not there. So often we're at the mercy of strangers just to get us through the day. That's especially true if a traveler has trouble moving around, or if they speak a different language.

Sitting at my laptop working on the details of a trip, it's deceptively easy to imagine that everything's all planned out: the flights, hotel arrangements and the rental car. Maybe even dinner reservations with a friend.

But even the best-laid plans are subject to change. Think of the "bomb cyclone" that just moved through the East Coast. Wind and snow made short work of travel plans for those in the path of the storm.

Last month the power went out in the Atlanta airport, the world's busiest. Flights were canceled and travelers had to be evacuated from the trains that ran between terminals.

For each of the high-profile stories of mass disruption, there are a thousand little hiccups in the system each day, resulting in changes, mix-ups or cancellations. And so often we depend on strangers to navigate an unfamiliar path.

There are many reasons why we travel. Sometimes it's to close a business deal. Then there are holidays. I have friends who are traveling this week to have medical procedures performed out of state. There are also friends and relatives who are traveling to be with them at the hospital.

If you take a moment and ask the agent at check-in, chances are they can tell you about all kinds of people who are traveling for different reasons: mechanics or electricians headed to a job site, prisoners heading to court or a priest visiting a church in a remote community.

Each one of these travelers has a story about why they're traveling from one place to another. Each of them depends on our modern transportation system to perform flawlessly.

Weather is a huge variable in travel plans, but it's not the only one. In war-torn countries, whole populations can be displaced and become "travelers" or refugees. Some seek political asylum. Others are just running with nothing but the clothes on their back to keep from being killed. Instead of arriving on an airplane, they arrive on a foreign shore in a boat.

Political decisions made with the stroke of a pen can close borders and disrupt plans instantly. Our government bans most travelers from eight countries, including Iran, Somalia and Syria. In a diplomatic spat, travel to and from Turkey was halted abruptly three months ago. Overnight, visa applications were suspended. Finally, on Dec. 28, both countries once again started issuing visas.

As we start our travel adventures for 2018, I certainly wish you pleasant trip. And I hope your trip is a safe one, too. But along the way, you may be called upon to help a total stranger. That could be something simple like stowing a bag in the overhead bin. Perhaps it's listening patiently as they share a story about a loved one who just died. Maybe you'll have a meal with someone in a strange airport, waiting for a flight.

We count on the professionals in the travel system to take care of things: the hotel staff, the flight attendants, or the nurse at the clinic. But every so often — and especially on the road — we are called upon to help. Just like my seatmate who could speak Spanish to the frail, blind traveler on the plane. You could be a guardian angel for someone when they really need it.

Bon voyage.

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