Feb. 2, 2010— -- A sinking ship, Cuban gun boats and a rude morning wake-up were not things that Alfred and Sherry Zappola had in mind when they set out on a Caribbean cruise in 1989. But the Philadelphia-area couple got all of that and more when they sailed on the Carnival Celebration, making them contenders for the world's unluckiest travelers.
Today, two decades after they were passengers on the Celebration -- which hit a disabled Cuban freighter and split it in two -- the Zappolas remember all the details of the accident.
The couple were asleep in their cabin and were shaken awake by the crash.
"We dressed, donned our life vests and rushed on deck. People were crying and hysterical. We could see both halves of the ship in the water," Alfred Zappola said. "My wife prayed for the crew of what we learned was a Cuban freighter. Our crew struggled to lower lifeboats, not knowing if they were for us or the survivors."
Some of the freighter's crew wanted political asylum. The Zappolas remember Cuban gunships arriving.
"They manned the guns," Sherry Zappola said. "They had two gunships and they were aimed at our ship."
There was an eight-hour confrontation. The couple came through fine -- three members of the freighter's crew died -- but today the memory still lingers.
The Zappolas have had better vacations since: They have gone on more than a dozen other cruises.
Their travel horror story is just one of hundreds submitted in a new contest by Travel Guard International, a travel insurance company. The firm is trying to show that travelers face real risk every day and -- of course -- that insurance can "provide protection and peace of mind to satisfy even the World's Unluckiest Traveler."
The winner of the contest can get a camcorder or a $10,000 dream vacation grand prize. The Zappolas will take a trip to the Mediterranean and Italy if they win. But they face some stiff competition from other hard-luck travelers.
People have had their trips ruined by food poisoning, marathon flight delays, freak snowstorms in Vegas and many other mishaps. Some contestants describe being hit by surfboards or snowboards.
Take the case of Erin, who was planning 12 days of hiking in Bhutan and another five in Japan to visit a friend.
The misery started with a delayed flight, which meant arriving in Bangkok too late to get anything but a quick shower and change. Erin arrived in Bhutan 24 hours late, after two days of sleepless traveling.
"Not a good start," she said, but she thought some good hiking would make everything all right. Until a slide down a hill led to a knee injury -- followed quickly by news of an uprising at the Bangkok airport and a bombing in India.
"Airports are shut down, phone lines jammed, all flights rerouted and with no way out -- we're trapped in Bhutan," she said. "Eight days later, we get an emergency visa through Delhi and I fly around the world in the opposite direction to get home."
She limped away from the trip with a 40-hour flight, a bad knee and no visit to Japan.
Then there was what could possibly be the longest journey home for Diana, a Marine in California, who had not been home on leave to the East Coast for almost five years.
Her first flight was delayed two hours by mechanical problems. We've all been there.
But the next leg was also delayed two hours, again by mechanical problems.
"By the time it got to Chicago, I had missed my connecting flight so they put me up in a hotel until the morning flight out at 6 a.m.," she wrote. "So Christmas Eve is spent at the airport hotel. Not fun but OK."
The next morning Erin headed to Boston. The plane hit really bad turbulence so the flight crew started handing out booze to everyone. (It was a Christmas morning flight after all.) As the plane approached Boston, it just started to circle and circle.
"We lost our landing gear. Yes, they were foaming down the runway for a belly landing in the middle of the winter on Christmas Day," she said. "My family was having a fit in the airport waiting room. Amazingly we landed and everyone was fine, a little drunk but no injuries."
Erin doesn't head home that often after that flight.
World's Unluckiest Travelers
Missing flight connections is a problem that has ruined more than one traveler's vacation. Carol tells about her disaster in Madagascar.
It all started with a 2½-hour delayed flight that led to a missed connection. It doesn't sound that bad at first -- except there was only one flight a day to Madagascar.
She finally arrived, only to learn her luggage was lost. Let's just say the only underwear available was beyond extra-large.
Her reservations for a flight to the north of the island were canceled and the flight was full. Her travel agent sent a car and driver -- but on the way back to the hotel the car ran out of gas.
"Finally on day four of our trip, our vacation begins," she wrote. "Then, as we once again are heading to the airport for the next leg of our trip, a truck rolled over blocking both lanes, with no way to get around it. This time we do make it and our luggage is found just in time to leave."
"Just as I think our luck is changing," she added, "as we are going through immigration I feel sick. I throw up for hours on the plane."
Finally, there is the case in which the photos don't represent reality.
One traveler who went to Senegal was expecting a nice apartment in a quaint village near the water where she would learn African dancing and drumming. At least, that's what the Web site promised.
"But the only dancing I would do once there was to stomp out all the bugs running everywhere in my room. There was no refuge on the bed, since it was just a thin mattress on the floor," she said. "Though I had expected a nice bathroom and had been assured that this would not be a problem, that wasn't the case. My room didn't have a bathroom, or running water of any kind. Last a week in this place? I wasn't going to last out the hour."
Thanks to her travel insurance, she was booked at a hotel in town and left Senegal on the next flight back to New York, cutting her weeklong vacation to two days.