Image: Unhappy endings
Andy King  /  Reuters file
Imagine coming back from vacation to a leveled home. It happens. Columnst Christopher Elliott has experienced just about every non-Hollywood ending to a vacation you can imagine. Take it from him: You can take steps to avoid a sad end to your trip.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/23/2008 10:27:04 AM ET 2008-06-23T14:27:04

Oh, the terrible things we come home to from vacation.

While everyone else seems obsessed with how we will — or won’t — spend our summer , does anyone care what happens when it’s over?

Well, I do. I’ve experienced almost every non-Hollywood ending to a vacation you can imagine. They feature, death, destruction and a couple of pink slips from my clients. I’ll get to those in a second.

But first, let’s hear about your unhappy endings.

Cliff Woodrick returned from a four-week vacation in Quebec to a gruesome sight and an even more unpleasant smell: the corpses of more than two dozen fish bobbing up and down in his algae-coated aquarium.

“We had a storm that knocked out the power while I was gone,” he remembers.  “The three pump filters went offline, and some of the electrical connections in the house were fried.”

Yuck.

Reader Stacey Udell came back from a weeklong California getaway to find a thousand unwelcome visitors. “Black flies everywhere,” she says. “Water had accumulated on the floor in the basement near a window, and the flies must have come in and multiplied. It was so totally gross and shocking. We couldn’t even let the kids in the house.”

How about getting fired after coming home from a vacation? I’ve been there so often — why do they always wait until you’re away to decide you’re history? — that I’m reluctant to go on vacation. That, and maybe the fact that the last time I took a real break, a hurricane hit my house.

It could be worse. A British couple recently came home from a trip to find that their pet tortoise had burned down their residence. I’m not making this up. A few weeks ago, the Grahn family of Hugo, Minn., returned from a weekend getaway to discover their house had been flattened by a tornado.

Here are five ways to prevent a bad homecoming.

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Don’t try to control what you can’t.
There’s a certain randomness to travel. In a sense, you never really never know what you’re going to come home to. Alice Argento returned from a vacation in Belize to see her Cranbury, N.J., apartment in flames. “We jumped out of the car and ran towards the apartment to find our roommate, who had been watching the house and my dog, on fire,” she remembers. It turns out her roommate was making French fries, and had left the hot oil unattended for a minute. They were able to extinguish the fire, but her roommate had to go to the hospital with second- and third-degree burns. “What a night!” she says. And really, there was nothing she could have done to prevent it — except maybe to tell her roommate to stay away from deep-fried foods.

Be prepared for a power failure.
That would have saved Woodrick’s fish and possibly the contents of Naoma Foreman’s refrigerator. The power went out in her Phoenix home while she was out on vacation recently. “All food was spoiled, and everything had to be hauled away — including the refrigerator,” she recalls. Don’t stock up on groceries — particularly perishable groceries — before heading off for the weekend. Power failures can happen, and if they last for more than a few hours, you’ll have a mess on your hands.

Don’t cut corners on pet care.
The folks whose turtle burned their house down already know that. And so do I. A few weeks ago, while I was away on assignment, one of my beloved cats was run over by a car. Instead of putting my kitties in a kennel, as I should have, I asked a friend to come by twice a day to feed them. I’m still grieving the loss of my companion. I can’t read the comments on my own blog without losing it. Lesson learned? Make sure your pets are safe before you go on vacation.

Take extra precautions when you see trouble coming.
Remember the 2004 hurricane season? Florida resident Evelyn Fine does. She was having her Orlando home remodeled during the middle of the summer and thought it might be a good time to go on vacation. If you’ll recall that summer, there were storms lined up one after the other at several points, taking aim at the Sunshine State. Wouldn’t you know it, one of them took out her air conditioner and Fine’s irreplaceable wine collection was, in her words, “cooked.”  “Much was corked and the balance was barely drinkable,” she says. It might have been a good time to move them to a nearby wine storage facility, where the bottles could be stored safely.

Stay home.
Back in 1995, when I lived on Long Key, Fla. — a remote island between Islamorada and Marathon in the Florida Keys, I watched Hurricane Opal approaching. I was scheduled to fly to Albuquerque, N.M., for a family reunion. But with the storm on a direct path for the Keys, I decided to call off my trip and take my family to the mainland instead. What made me change my mind? Maybe it was the Monroe County sheriff who stopped by our house and asked for our names and whether or not we were staying in the house. He needed to know how many bodies to look for if the hurricane hit. Fortunately, it didn’t. Sometimes the best way to prevent a vacation tragedy is to not go in the first place.

Not every vacation disaster is avoidable. Karina Lok, a retiree who now lives in San Francisco, was returning to her home in Hawaii from California with her husband several years ago. She couldn’t have known the tragedy that what was about to strike.

“The airline had overbooked our flight by 33 senior citizens who needed to make a Hawaiian cruise departure,” she remembers. “My husband convinced me to give up my seat. He was tempted to as well, but he had an important meeting to make.”

On the flight back, Lok had what she describes as an “uncomfortable” feeling. “Nothing seemed right,” she says.

When she landed, her husband wasn’t there to pick her up. She spent several hours waiting, and finally rented a car and drove home. On her answering machine was a message from the city morgue. “My husband was killed by a red light runner three miles from the airport on his way to pick me up,” she says.

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. Your comments are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, drop by my blog for daily insights into the world of travel.

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