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Travel Tips from Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

We watch this movie every Thanksgiving.

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I cannot say that I look for much travel wisdom in Hollywood films, as the way they often portray travel is so ridiculous and unrealistic that I find it difficult to even be entertained, let alone informed or inspired. When I sat down to watch Planes, Trains, and Automobiles — an 1980’s classic about a Wall Street broker’s misadventures on his way home to Chicago for Thanksgiving — I cannot say that I was expecting much more than a few slapstick laughs. But as I watched this film I could not help but to look beneath the outrageous comedy surface and find an underbelly of both good and bad travel practices that were rooted in real life possibilities.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles portrayed travel as decision making, with each choice leading to different outcomes. The perpetually traveling salesman character, Del Griffith (John Candy) initially comes off as a moron, but makes truly excellent travel decisions throughout the movie which should be emulated; while the Wall Street broker character, Neal Page (Steve Martin) often makes very stupid, though incredibly common, errors that a wise traveler would be prudent to avoid. I often say on the site that travel tips come out of travel mistakes, but I must add that they also come from travel remedies as well. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles had a lot of both.

Route of travel in movie

Unlike most “trip from hell” genre of travel movie, where the characters make poor decisions that no reasonable human would actually make, in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles many of the decisions which drove the ridiculous plot line — especially the poor ones — were not too far fetched, and are those that any real life traveler could (and often do) make. Likewise, the solutions to these problems were also very much within the realm of reason. In point, this hyper-exaggerated Hollywood comedy had an underlying basis in reality. Now lets analyze this film for any shreds of travel tips and wisdom that we can take from it.

A traveler’s analysis of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

It is sometimes better to have a companion than it is to be offended

This is probably one of the most unique travel tips of this movie: companionship on the road can sometimes be scarce, and it is sometimes better to have a companion who is an onerous snob than no companion at all. Throughout the film, Neal Page (the stock broker) is pretty much a dick to Del Griffith, but Del is still friendly to him anyway and tries to help him out wherever he can. After traveling for a long time even the company of an arrogant imbecile is sometimes better than being alone. Travel also teaches a sense of tolerance and how to give a wide berth for character extremes, for people who are different than you are, and even for those you may not even like very much. Many travelers seem to cultivate the ability to be able to befriend the unfriendable, and this is perhaps because they know that there can be beneficial morsels from even the most rotten of individuals — even if that just means having someone to talk with — and that choosing to become offended is sometimes not worth the price of companionship.

People choose to be offended — getting pissed off over something someone says or does and then ostracizing them is a choice. All too often people choose to be alone by rejecting the company around them, and for the long term traveler who does not readily have a community to abscond into, this is often a poor choice to make. Del Griffith shows this wisdom keenly as he sheds a blind eye to his companion’s onerous behavior, and in the end he makes a friend.

Look into the future through experience of the past

Travel (life) is nothing if not the continuous collection of experiences. The more you’ve lived through certain events in the past the better you will be able to predict the outcome of similar events in the future. People are called experienced or wise based upon their ability to collect their memories of past events and apply them in preparation for the future.

In Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, the perpetual traveler Del Griffith (John Candy) turned to his uptight and relatively untraveled stock broker companion on a rocky flight and said, “I bet you my right nut this plane is not landing in Chicago.” He observed the conditions he was in (bad weather), measured them against prior experiences, and came up with a projection of what the near future would hold.  He was correct, the flight was rerouted to Kansas.

Upon landing at the contingency airport the stock broker went to a pay phone, called home, and waited passively to see what the airline would do with him. The traveling salesman, who had an idea of how many hotels there were in town and how many people whose flights would be canceled and want to use them, rushed to a payphone and booked a room. As predicted, by the time the airline told the passengers that they would be stranded, all the rooms in the city were already booked. The stock broker, who did not see this coming, faced an impending night sleeping on an airport floor. But, of course, the traveling salesman saved the day and invited him to stay in his room.

“When you were calling home, I was calling a hotel.”

Wash your own laundry by hand each night

As a comical device, the traveling salesman emptied out his dirty laundry in the hotel sink to wash. This was meant to be a funny scene, as the stock broker had to weed through oversize dirty underwear to get to the sink, but this is a classic move of the long term traveler: doing a little laundry by hand each night keeps you with a perpetual supply of clean clothes (and extra money in your pocket).

Double lock hotel room doors

In the film, as the stock broker and traveling salesmen slept in the hotel, a thief slipped in and robbed them. This may seem like Hollywood BS, but this really happens more often than I would have though. As I travel I hear countless stories of how travelers have been robbed inside their own hotel rooms at night — oftentimes without even waking up. This really happens. To prevent against this, I highly recommend the Howsar Quick Lock, or a similar mechanism that allows a person to double lock a door from the inside.

Don’t think for a second that the people running your hotel will keep you safe, they drop the ball (or are involved in the theft) more often than I care to presume.

Talk to people

This is a simple key to world travel: talk to the people around you. The traveling salesman character in this movie talked to everyone, and after eight years on the road had acquaintances everywhere. Though only a fictional character, he seemed happy traveling, and I believe that gregariousness and fulfilling travels go hand in hand in reality as well.

Keep contact information

As the salesman made acquaintances, he collected their contacted information. He was likewise able to get out of many jams simply by calling up a local he’d previously met and ask for help. This is only an event from a movie, but can be applied in real life. In fact, I do this — the contributor pool of this website is built on my acquaintances that I one day email asking for help — and collecting contact information is almost too easy to do with social media platforms like Facebook. You never know what circumstances the future may hold, and, likewise, you never know which acquaintances you may someday find a reason to contact — so keep the contact info for as many people as you can on file.

Don’t throw away a receipt until the item/ service is fully expended

In the film the stockbroker rented a car, went out to the lot, and found it missing. He got angry and threw away his receipt. When he returned to the rental car office the lady behind the counter asked for his receipt, which he no longer had. She then told him he was SOL.

Though I do not believe that many travelers are going to stomp up and down in a parking lot on a rental car receipt, I do know that it is common for people to throw away receipts almost as soon as they receive them. For every purchase I make I keep the receipt until the item/ service is fully expended. This has saved me lots of hassle and potential lose as I’ve traveled.

Anger gets you nowhere

Steve Martin’s character was frustrated throughout the movie, and many spins of the plot had to do with him taking his anger out on the people around him. This only served to make his situation worse. In one sequence, a rental car company rented him a car that was not available. He walked back to the desk fuming, yelling at the lady behind the counter. “You’re fçked,” she told him and refused to rent him another car. Now super angry he stormed out to a taxi stand, was rude to the guy there, and got punched in the face.

Unless in a culture that is easy to bully where the people are tripping over themselves to offer services to tourists, showing anger usually gets a traveler nowhere. Being bold, firm, and direct is often a good strategy, but openly getting angry and yelling often gets doors slammed in your face. My mother, who is a master at working customer service reps, always says, “You have to make people want to help you.” It is amazing how often this philosophy can be applied in the travel context.

Don’t separate from vital possessions

Another crux of comedy in this movie happened when the stock broker was trying to go to sleep in the passenger seat of car. His wallet was causing him discomfort, so he placed it in the glove box. The car ended up exploding in flames, and he lost all his money and credit cards.

Now I know that it is a rare incident for someone’s car to explode, but I also know that when in travel ANYTHING can happen, so I keep my most important possessions — such as money, passport, ATM card — connected to my body at all times. I don’t even place it next to me, as I know how pervasive the human ability to forget is. If my important possessions are firmly attached to my body then I don’t need to think about them, and the chance of loss is vastly less.

Don’t be afraid to ask for favors

John Candy’s character is very sociable, he talks to everyone, and is not hesitant to ask his friends and acquaintances for favors, which gets him out of a lot of tight jams through the trip. He asks virtual strangers for rides, for hotel rooms where they are otherwise booked, and for things that normally would not be offered outright.

As I travel I ask for favors all the time. This not only gets me things/ services that I want or need but also thickens the bonds between myself and my acquaintances. When in a group, people help other people, and there is no surer way to make a deeper contact with someone than helping them out or being helped out by them. Communities are built on favors.

Traveler vs. sedentary mentality

What is most interesting about Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is that the traveler and sedentary mentalities butt head on to drive the plot.  The traveling salesman is gregarious, talkative, resourceful, and seems to know that there is always another way to get from point A to point B. This is the mentality of long term travel, as the road often lends a belief that anything can be possible if you keep trying other options, that living like a rat in a maze will eventually get you to your destination. When one option goes belly up, Del Griffith comes up with another: flying proved a dead end, so he proposed the train; the train broke down, so he suggested the bus; the bus couldn’t get them to where they wanted to go in time, so he rented a car; the car blew up, so he hitched a ride in a milk truck, on and on until he got to where he was going. While the stock broker was giving up in despair and complaining, the traveling salesman was coming up with and arranging alternatives.

Travel quickly teaches that there is ALWAYS another way.


Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

While Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is, ultimately, a comical “trip from hell” type of movie, the decisions that the characters make to drive the plot stem from those that any traveler may face in their own travels.

It is normal for people who are traveling to only see what is in front of them, to not plan two steps ahead, to take their current situation for granted, and to have an ingrained belief that basic human logic will prevail. These attributes lead to many travel blunders, problems, and, in the end, real live trips from hell. Though just about anything can happen on the Road, ultimately, the traveler makes his own path: no matter what sucker punch is thrown, no matter what goes wrong when traveling, the ability to quickly construct contingency plans, to balance probability and possibility to make the best decisions, and keeping a general positive attitude will get the traveler to where they want to go.

Travel is often a sort of purgatory, it is a test of character, smarts, experience, and wit played out on an internal and external stage. The traveler must find his/ her way around the obstacles that stand in the path as a normal part of the day. If you can’t go left, you go right; if you can’t go left or right, you go straight. Whatever the case, if you keep trying new directions you will arrive at your destination. There is always another way, another option, another route. Travel is an exercise in infinite possibilities: selecting the best roads through the deluge is the art of the occupation, and that which ultimately lends it lasting value.

I don’t really recommend anyone to watch Planes, Trains, and Automobiles to learn travel tips, but I could not help having them jump out at me throughout this film.


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Filed under: Travel Movies, Travel Tips

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3715 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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