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Originally published Saturday, March 24, 2012 at 7:00 PM

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Making things right when travel goes wrong

When it comes to travel snafus, don't assume the worst. Airlines and hotels can and sometimes will bend their policies.

Seattle Times travel writer

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Things were going almost too smoothly on a two-week trip I took to Cuba in November.

The trip was legal, so there were no government hassles. We weren't ripped off or scammed. The Cubans we met were warm and welcoming, and the private homes we picked as our lodgings for the last few nights lived up to the good reviews.

The taxi got us to the airport in Havana in plenty of time for our flight to Cancún, Mexico, where we planned to spend the night before catching a Delta flight to Seattle the next day.

What happened next had the makings of a disaster. A few hours before takeoff, Cubana Airlines canceled our flight and several others. No explanation.

Flashing through my mind was the prospect of paying Delta $600 in change fees to rebook my husband, Tom, and I, on new flights. Our cellphones weren't working and the airport had no Internet.

How could we contact Delta or get in touch with the condo we had rented for the night in Puerto Morelos near Cancún? And how would we pay for another night in Havana? We were almost out of cash, and American credit and ATM cards are useless in Cuba.

We would have survived, but it's a scary feeling when the tourist bubble bursts, and you're suddenly on your own in a place where communication is difficult and the rules are different.

As it turned out, we had almost no hassles. Everyone — the airlines, the condo owner and the people in Cuba — made things right even when things were going wrong.

Like you, I've run up against what seems like a "tough luck" attitude on the part of airlines these days.

Hotels, online booking agencies and cruise lines often are no better, enforcing cancellation policies by directing us to the fine print and scolding us for not buying travel insurance. But not this time. So there's hope.

Here's what happened:

• Cubana Air bused everyone to a luxury beachfront hotel for the night, and provided vouchers for a free drink, lunch, dinner, breakfast and transportation back to the airport the next day. We still weren't sure how we were going to contact Delta or the condo in Mexico, but having all of this taken care was a welcome surprise. We settled in and caught up on the news with CNN.

• The hotel charged $35 for 24 hours of Wi-Fi access, but we needed to conserve what cash we had because we didn't know how long we might be stuck in Havana.

A business center next door charged just $6 to use its computers. It was closing by the time we found it, but the English-speaking attendant agreed to stay late so we could email the condo owners, and check in online for our Delta flight. She even helped us print our boarding passes.

• Cubana flew us out the next day, but the flight left an hour late, and we arrived at the airport in Cancún just as the gate was closing for our flight to the U.S.

A Delta agent was sympathetic and offered to rebook us on a flight the next afternoon — for a change fee of $300 each.

"Could you make an exception under the circumstances?" I pleaded, showing him our boarding passes as proof we made a good-faith effort to keep our reservation.

He called his supervisor over, and they agreed to drop the fee.

• We left the airport and took a bus and taxi to the condo in Puerto Morelos where we had prepaid for a room the night before. That room was booked, but another overlooking the pool was available, and the manager let us have it at no extra charge.

We unpacked, and within the hour, we were sitting on the sidewalk terrace of a restaurant in town, cooling off with icy margaritas the owner offered free as an incentive to get us to stay for dinner.

Lessons learned: Don't assume the worst when it comes to travel, and never be afraid to ask.

Have a question or comment on travel? Contact Carol Pucci at cpucci@ seattletimes.com.

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About Travel Wise

Travel Wise is aimed at helping people travel smart, especially independent travelers seeking good value. Drawing on her own experiences and readers', Carol Pucci covers everything from the best resources to how to tap into the local culture. Her column runs each Sunday in the Travel section.

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