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What you can learn from my five biggest travel mistakes

Updated on September 13, 2009

As a seasoned traveler and someone who has lived abroad, I have made some pretty big mistakes while on vacation. While it’s great that I’ve learned from my experiences, I don’t necessarily want everyone to have to learn for themselves. That’s why I am going to share with you some of my biggest travel foul-ups so that you, as a fellow traveler, can avoid the kind of mistakes that might destroy an entire vacation.

Here’s the transportation worker filling our gas tank. Trust me – you never want to have to take a picture like this for yourself.

Travel Foul-Up No. 1: Running out of gas… on a freeway ramp

This is perhaps the funniest and most embarrassing mistake I’ve ever made on a trip. During a trip in which my travel buddy and I visited Seattle, the car we were borrowing from our host ran out of gas while we were exiting a highway ramp to get onto the freeway only miles from our lodging. I made a lot of excuses as the car sputtered to a stop on the left side of the ramp, such as the following: “But the gas light never came on,” “We’re only two miles from home, we didn’t need to gas up,” and “We were trying to save money.” Believe me – the deputy sheriff who spotted us on the side of the ramp didn’t want to hear a single excuse; our unfortunate situation happened during rush-hour traffic.

On top of that, the law required that we be moved from the left side of the ramp to the right. While we waited for officers to close the ramp to do this, a Department of Transportation worker heard the departmental radio call about our situation and came to our rescue with a standby canister of gas. We averted closing down an entire ramp for our mistake with a half-gallon of gas – just enough to get us to a gas station so we could eventually make it to our destination.

The Lesson

I learned three big lessons: 1) that being cheap can cost you more than you plan on paying, 2) that one must always be prepared, and 3) know where gas stations, hotels, etc., can be found while you’re on the go. Keeping enough gas in your tank when you will be driving on the highway is a must. Had we not been lucky enough to have the assistance of a deputy sheriff and someone with a can of gas, there could have been a whole array of things gone wrong. Avoiding the situation in the first place is key.

If you need to find the closest gas station or hotel, a good GPS system is helpful.

Travel Foul-Up No. 2: Missing my plane… and not getting the next plane until the next day

After a week in London with my peers on a study vacation, I ended up missing a plane back to Sweden – where I was living and studying at the time – after a chain of events that could have easily been prevented. As a consequence of missing this flight, I had to pay around 50£ to get on another flight – a flight that did not depart until the next day. As a result of my 24-hour airport stay, I ended up paying almost 25£ to access the Internet and eat in the airport, which was too far outside of the city for me to go elsewhere and save money. It didn’t end there – I ended up getting sick from a lack of sleep and a huge amount of stress during the entire ordeal. Worse, I had to use my parents’ emergency credit card. Not only were they extremely unhappy about the extra costs, they also chided me for knowing that it could have been prevented.

The Lesson

As perhaps my biggest travel failure, I have never missed a plane since. I definitely learned my lesson as I spent four days sick in bed upon my return home: 1) always be on time, 2) have all of booking information verifiable and immediately on hand, and 3) budget extra in case of emergency.

This video from Expert Village has some great tips about doing it right

Travel Foul-Up No. 3: Not booking accommodations ahead of time… when all the local hotels were booked

Not booking a hotel room or a spot in a hostel ahead of time is not necessarily the worst foul-up anyone can ever make. If you’re backpacking or not keeping a traditional schedule – for instance, if you’re traveling at night – it might be in your best interests not to schedule where you’re staying. However, most people take time to rest during the night, and that requires accommodations.

If you are traveling like most people do, you want to know that you will have a place to stay that is relatively safe and fits within your budget. If you’re like most travelers, you can’t afford a five-star hotel at the drop of a dime. We forgot this when my parents, brother and I drove along the French Riviera on a weekend night. Although we had initially planned on hanging out in Cinque Terre that weekend, we instead ended up venturing towards Nice from Italy. When it started getting late and our driver became tired, we couldn’t find a single hotel with a vacancy for a whole two hours. When we finally did find a hotel room, four hours after searching, it cost far too much for our budget. We were stuck sleeping in the car.

The Lesson

If you know you’re going to be somewhere at a particular time and the cost of canceling your room is low, it’s a good rule of thumb to have that safety net of a place to crash. Lucky for us, we didn’t run into any troubles that night. We had to park (and sleep) in a lot where we felt safe – which isn’t a whole lot of places, especially if you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language and you’ve never even been there before – and we had to be on alert in case any thieves or robbers came along, or at least have excuses for the police if they came by, too. None of this happened, but the possibility of that happening existed. We swore to never, ever again be uncertain of our accommodations.

Travel Foul-Up No. 4: Letting my belongings become vulnerable… and losing them

I’m fortunate that I’ve never lost a wallet or passport while traveling. However, while most pickpockets aim to steal the cash, identity, or sellable item a tourist may have, losing any kind of belongings can hurt a trip pretty badly. Take this for an example: when I was about two-thirds of the way through my first European trip, I lost my sneakers in Italy. I had not planned for losing my shoes, nor did I have a reliable way to replace them or get them back.
It could’ve been worse. I had other footwear, we were most of the way through the trip, and shoes aren’t incredibly expensive or irreplaceable. However, I had only sandals left in my belongings, we were planning on doing a lot of walking around Paris, and I really liked those shoes!

The Lesson

Leaving belongings unattended means leaving them in trusted places; it’s preferable to keep unattended items in locked places, whether it’s in a car trunk or a locker, because thefts do happen on trips. Second, you can’t always control all of your items all the time; if something is lost, it’s important that the person who finds your lost item have a way to return it to you. While I doubt I could’ve re-obtained my shoes, if it had been a bag or planner, my chances of getting a lost item returned would have been much greater had the finder been able to reach me and return my item.

Avoiding the loss of items also means planning ahead. Being punctual, staying organized, and giving yourself a lot of time, like many other situations in life, is good practice. This gives you room not only to devote your attention to your surroundings, but also to enjoy your trip! Furthermore, don’t bring more than you need; you’re on the path to losing items if you have too much to keep track of in the first place, and besides, who wants to haul a bunch of junk around all day anyway?

Travel Foul-Up No. 5: Losing means of communication… and getting stranded in the process

I can’t tell you how many times I have lost one of my means of communication during a trip. It’s always possible – but when preventable, should not happen. On the exact same Vancouver/Seattle trip in which my friend and I got stuck on the freeway ramp, we also forgot that in order to communicate, each party needs a way to access that means of communication.

The situation was simple: we had to return a rental. We also needed a ride back to our lodging, which happened to be a friend’s house a half-dozen miles from the airport, and it required taking two cars: the rental and the host’s car. When we piled into our cars, we forgot two things: 1) we should all have known where we needed to be and when, and 2) we should have been able to communicate between cars had anything gone wrong with our journey. We didn’t think anything of it – what would happen in only six miles? While those of us in the rental car knew where we were going, the people in the other car didn’t and got lost around the airport. To top it off, the guys driving our return ride didn’t have a cell phone, although all of us in the rental car did. We had no way of getting reconnected upon losing visual contact with one another.

The Lesson

Thankfully, the guys in the other car eventually found us waiting outside the car rental after an hour of searching for us. As I’ve mentioned before, having a game plan is a good idea. Although we could have gone without making a game plan, it could have helped when we lost contact (you know, people went without cell phones once upon a time!). This goes for any situation in which a group splits up: have a game plan, and be sure you can communicate with each other!

One of the ways to ensure this communication is to get a tri-band phone. Quad-band phones can operate everywhere, but they’re rather expensive, so a tri-band phone is a good, cost-effective and smart way to travel while being accessible.

Have you made any of these travel mistakes?

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