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Right name, wrong place

Sydney Australia... and the Nova Scotia coast
A British couple intending to visit Australia once ended up in Sydney, Canada

By Oliver Brett
BBC News

The glossy brochure in the travel agent's window does not always tell the whole story. But how can holiday plans go so hideously wrong that people end up in the wrong country, or even the wrong continent?

In 1881 Robert Louis Stephenson came up with this nugget: "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour."

Samantha Lazzaris, a 33-year-old holistic therapist from Bristol, would beg to differ following a nightmarish holiday experience.

Samantha Lazzaris
Samantha Lazzaris was the victim of tour operator's error (Photo: SWNS)
It all started OK. Her flight had landed safely, and she hailed a cab. But when she gave the driver the name of her hotel he laughed and said: "This is not Costa Rica. It's Puerto Rico."

Having ended up 1,300 miles away from her intended holiday destination, she spent a night in Miami airport as she desperately tried to get to the right part of Central America.

Ms Lazzaris' problem stemmed from an error made by holiday giant Thomas Cook, where a member of staff had used the booking code for San Juan (SJU), Puerto Rico, instead of San Jose (SJO), capital of Costa Rica.

Frances Tuke, from the Association of British Travel Agents, says arriving in the wrong country in a case of mistaken identity is rare.

"That kind of thing is just human error," she says. "Usually it doesn't happen because someone will see the mistake beforehand. I remember a journalist who was trying to get to Recife in Brazil, rather than Arrecife in the Canary Islands - but he noticed the error and his travel plans were rectified."

Ms Lazzaris is definitely not alone. Her case is comfortably trumped by the experiences of a young London couple who thought they were on their way to Sydney, Australia, when they had in fact booked tickets to a former mining town in the north-east of Canada, also called Sydney.

Emma Nunn and Raoul Christian were both 19 when their flight from Heathrow, which they booked online, touched down in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 2002.

Dhaka or Dakar?

"We though we were going the long way, and that a big plane was going to turn up and take us to Australia," said Mr Christian. "But it did not quite happen that way."

Wromg routes
Right name, wrong place: The perils of flying to a (near) namesake destination

After the couple's horror story was unearthed, a whole catalogue of mistaken destinations was disinterred. Tales included an army recruit being flown to Lisbon, Portugal, rather than Lisburn, Northern Ireland, and how a family living in Dhaka, Bangladesh, invited a friend over from Britain - who flew to Dakar, west Africa.

Then there are the stories - apocryphal perhaps - of visitors regularly pitching up in the historic Oxfordshire village of Woodstock with a frown on their faces. Why? Because they had been expecting to witness the site of the 1969 festival of "three days of peace and music" - ie. Woodstock, New York.

The Americas can play particular havoc with travel plans that have not been detailed with the necessary precision.

Laura Rendell-Dunn, of Journey Latin America, said one group of tourists hoping to visit San Jose in Costa Rica had found themselves instead in San Jose, California - so had to ask the way to San Jose while already in San Jose.

"Often people confuse La Paz, Bolivia, with La Paz, Mexico," she adds.

Woodstock festival goers
Hardly behaviour that's becoming of Woodstock, Oxon

Other tourists hoping to see Santiago in Chile have booked tickets for San Diego, the city in southern California, thousands of miles to the north.

But with so much travel these days booked from the sanctuary of the bedside laptop, a slip of the mouse can be perilous. So what happens if you do make a vital error - putting the wrong name, the wrong date or, perish the thought, the wrong place?

Basically, it's often going to cost you.

But if you do find yourself in the wrong place you should console yourself that people have been wrestling with similarly named places for millennia.

Pity the merchant of antiquity who found himself setting out for Thebes in Egypt instead of Thebes in Greece. And woe betide the traveller who tried to find Caesarea in the Roman Empire without establishing whether it was the one in Judaea, the one in the Golan Heights, the one in Numidia, or the one in Cappadocia.

They couldn't simply shell out for an extra flight.


Below is a selection of your comments.

Friends of mine agreed to meet in Portland. One turned up in Portland, Oregon and the other in Portland, Maine. A continent apart.
Mary, Dublin, Ireland

I used to work in the travel dept of a multinational company. Our office was in London and head office was Boston. We asked people to fill out their flight request forms with the proper three-letter codes: LHR = Heathrow, LGW = Gatwick, BOS = Boston etc. Once I received a request to book a flight from LAP to BOS. I looked it up and found out that LAP was La Paz, Mexico. This seemed an unusual itinerary, so I called the executive assistant who booked it to confirm that her boss needed to fly from Mexico to the US. She said of course not... because obviously LAP stands for London Air Port.
Andy Fegarty, Toronto, Canada

Booking a ticket from Bangkok to Male, capital of the Maldives, the travel agent initially suggested I transit in Paris. Eventually I realised she was trying to send me to Mali.
Tim Boyle, Bangkok, Thailand

I used to work in the British Rail train enquiries office and we'd get people, usually American, ringing up for train times to Leeds. After we sorted out when they wanted to go, what time they wanted to get there etc and given them some train times, they would then ask if Leeds Castle was far from the station. Leeds Castle is in Maidstone, Kent.
Jacky, Woking, England

I once almost sent my manager to Amman in Jordan. I had asked the travel agent for flights from London to Oman, and she put him on a flight to Amman. Luckily, I discovered the mistake before he travelled.
Michelle Hanmer, Enfield, UK

In the mid-80s I caught the wrong plane in Norway, intended to go to Bergen, ended up in Spitzbergen, the most northerly airport in the world. Now that's a good excuse to the wife as to why you won't be home.
Ian Simpson, Crewe, Cheshire

I have been asked for directions to Alton Towers from Alton town centre before, there is a palpable sense of disappointment when the occupants of the car realise that the Alton they need is in Staffordshire and not Hampshire. It puts a bit of a dampener on the day out...
Stephen, Alton, Hampshire

Bill Bryson in Down Under mentions Australia is particularly bad for this - they have a Sturt Highway and a Stuart Highway that start at the same place and finish 1,500km apart.
T Talbot, Ibstock

I used to be Cabin Crew and came across a number of mistakes made by passengers. Whilst coming into land at Gatwick returning from Egypt one night, the couple sat opposite my jumpseat asked why the aircraft was diverting to Gatwick. They had meant to be going to Manchester and had got onto the wrong plane. I would like to think that wouldn't happen now. Another lady on a flight tried to pay for an item of duty free onboard with American dollars on the way to the Canary Islands. On being asked why she thought that Playa de las Americas was in the US. So it's not always a mouse click error, sometimes human error comes into it too.
Lorna Harris, Yateley, Hampshire

"Do you want Alexandria, or Alexandria, or Alexandria, or Alexandria, or was it Alexandria you were heading for?"
JM, Southend on Sea

On a skiing trip a few years ago, myself and some friends had an unexpected 400km detour on arrival in Geneva due to mistaking "Moutier" (Switzerland) for "Moutiers" (France). We spent several hours playing cards on the train (I think beer was involved too) before asking a bemused Swiss taxi driver how we get to our ski resort (at that point 250 miles and a country away). We really should have realised at the point - after an hour on train - when someone said the fateful phrase, "Aren't those mountains getting further away...?" (We made a pact en route back to Geneva never to tell anyone, but I never was very good at keeping secrets!)
Andy, Glasgow

A few years ago the managing director of my company was due to go to meet with IBM in the US. A flight was duly booked to Rochester, unfortunately for him Rochester NY, instead of Rochester MN. We always imagined the look on the ticket desk when "another one of those" bought a return flight from Rochester to Rochester.
Mike Collins, London UK

I used to think the Woodstock music festival was in Oxfordshire, and I'm from there.
James, Oxford

A few years ago Sweden was accidentally "invaded" by Italian troops due to pilot error. An Italian air force plane with mountain troops on their way to Kristiansand, Norway, for a Nato exercise instead landed at Kristianstad, Sweden. Newspapers reported of surprised passport control officers when camouflaged troops began pouring out of the plane. Probably the mountaineers were equally surprised - Kristianstad is located some 2m below sea level.
Eric, Malmo, Sweden

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