Travel mistakes are as common as places to travel to. It’s part of the travel experience. I once mistook a brothel for a massage spa. But more on that later.
You listen to travel tips and advice but you are still going to make travel blunders both big and small. Whether you are a first-time traveler or you’ve been around the world a couple of times, you’ve made travel mistakes and there are more in your future.
There are different types of travel mistakes. Some are the result of uninformed tactical decisions like exchanging currency at an airport kiosk (don’t do it because airports have the worse rates, use an ATM instead) or eating near a major tourist destination (don’t because the food will be more expensive and not as good as in a restaurant a couple of blocks away.) These tactical travel mistakes are easy to correct with solid, correct information.
Other travel mistakes are caused by cultural confusion. Addressing these can be trickier but by no means impossible. While traveling, especially for long periods of time and in vastly different cultures, opportunities for cultural miscommunications, scams, travel fails and mistakes abound.
I want to share some of my travel experiences where I made some really cringeworthy travel mistakes so you can avoid them. I also want to communicate that travel mistakes should in no way dampen the joy of travel.
CULTURAL CONFUSION = CUATURAL MISTAKES
I have made some pretty silly mistakes and wrong assumptions during my many years of personal and professional travel. Most of them had to do with navigating an unfamiliar culture, but quite a few involved getting scammed and ripped-off. You can guard against these situations, but sometimes you just don’t know what you don’t know.
Fortunately, travelers DO learn from these experiences. You absorb the lessons and move on to continue traveling for the sheer pleasure of it. Here are a few examples, some funny; some…not so much.
While wandering around London for the first time, we saw signs all over the city declaring “Bill Posters will be prosecuted!” We wondered what Bill Posters could have done to anger the British public so. The more signs we saw threatening Bill with prosecution the more curious we became about what his crime could have been.
We finally concluded that Bill Posters was a serial killer because only a crime as bad as that could have elicited such a reaction. We mentioned it to a friend who was British. He laughed and explained that it meant it is unlawful to paste posters and such on the wall.
Our British friend mentioned a similar misunderstanding when he visited the U.S. He was surprised to see a sign in a mall that said, “no strollers allowed.” He wondered how the store expected to do any business if customers were not allowed to stroll in and around the store. It took a while until he realized a “stroller” is also a baby carriage in U.S. English.
Sometimes cultural misunderstandings can be embarrassing, like that time in Japan when I ceremoniously accepted a beautiful flower pot from my hostess as a gift when all she was trying to do was describe the antique design to me. I don’t know who was more mortified, the very polite and gracious hostess or me as I self-consciously removed the flower pot from my luggage and returned it to her.
Clearly one must make an effort to comprehend and adapt to the local culture rather than insist on following your own customs. But sometimes that’s difficult to do if you don’t even know what the local customs are. If you have been taught to eat all the food on your plate as a child, you’ll be uncomfortable with customs in certain countries in Asia where your host will continuously fill your empty dish because he considers it the polite things to do.
In Latin America, I courteously arrived for dinner appointments right on time only to find the startled hostess mopping the floor in a robe. Eventually someone explained to me that arriving an hour after the scheduled time is the more socially acceptable custom.
These confusions can be especially awkward in professional situations. In Brazil, I misunderstood the name of a local restaurant and took my customer, who happened to be an Orthodox Jew, to a place called “Pork Heaven.” He had a salad.
Sometimes cultural confusion can label you rude and even get you into trouble with the locals. If you make the “OK” sign with your thumb and forefinger in Brazil, it is considered rude. Display the thumbs up sign in some countries of the Middle East and it is the equivalent of giving someone the finger. Luckily, most locals will acknowledge you as a foreigner and be forgiving, but you never know.
Probably the biggest mistake I made due to misunderstanding a different culture was during one very confusing experience in Beijing. I worked in China for several years and loved getting massages there where the prices were much lower than in the West. I always went to a place called Dragonfly, a chain or spas.
One weekend I was working in Beijing in an area that I was not so familiar with and decided to get a massage. The local Dragonfly was just too complicated and far away to get to, so I decided to go elsewhere and try something different. I remembered I had seen what appeared to be a massage spa a few blocks from where I was staying, and I walked over.
The location didn’t look exactly like the type of spa place I was familiar with. I guess that should have been my first warning. It had pictures of smiling women in the window that I supposed were the various massage therapists. Flashing neon lights in blues and reds decorated the outside. I did feel a tad apprehensive but thought that was just because I had never been there before. I know from experience that many times things might feel strange in unfamiliar cultures but once you dive in, chances are you’ll discover a wonderful new experience or location, or a delightful food you never tasted before. With this in mind, I went in.
The inside of the location had all the familiar features of a spa; candles, incense, wind chimes and recorded nature sounds like ocean surf and birdsong. That’s more like it, I thought, and was immediately reassured.
When the hostess approached me, rather than the smiling, gracious hostess that one typically expects, this woman looked apprehensive and asked me something in Chinese. I rubbed my shoulders with kneading fingers pantomiming a massage. She disappeared into a dark room and quickly returned with another woman who also asked me something in Chinese. I repeated my pantomime and the two women engaged in a long and animated conversation behind a beaded curtain. I couldn’t understand what the confusion was. I thought maybe they don’t take foreigners or they’re overbooked. Maybe it’s break time…who knows.
Finally, they lead me to a small, dimly lit room with what I took to be a massage table in the middle. I disrobed and lay face down on the table as I normally would. A woman came in and started to give me a massage. It wasn’t a great massage but certainly adequate. After an hour the woman indicated the massage was over and gave me a cup of green tea. I paid, gave the lady a tip and went back to my hotel.
The next day was Monday. Everyone came into the office discussing their weekend. I told my colleagues about my massage. “Oh! Don’t tell me you went all the way to Dragonfly?!” a colleague asked surprised. I explained my massage experience at the spa a couple of blocks away. After identifying the exact location, they told me that was a high-end brothel. Everyone had a good laugh at my expense. I suppose they’re still laughing.
You can’t protect yourself against every single misadventure you may encounter while traveling. Otherwise, you’d never go anywhere. You must determine your own balance between the level of discomfort you are willing to accept when venturing out of your comfort zone and the wonder and exhilaration of discovering a new destination or experience. Some people have no desire or interest in exploring beyond their world, which is fine. People who love to travel have no choice. They must go, or they will wither.
TOP TRAVEL MISTAKE: FALLING FOR CLASSIC SCAMS
Other situations where I’ve made dumb travel mistakes involve scams I encounter while traveling. A foreigner can be an easy target for unscrupulous locals. Here is a collection of travel scams I fell victim to mainly for not paying attention.
GETTING SURPRISED BY A BILL
Here is one of the classic travel mistakes. In a restaurant in Barcelona, I looked at the menu and noted the prices were pretty reasonable. I asked a waiter for a recommendation. He suggested the seafood platter which was not on the menu, I ordered it and it was delicious. When the bill came I was just shocked. It was 10 times more than anything on the menu. I could have avoided that situation simply by asking the waiter the price of the item rather than assuming it would be in the same range as the other menu items. Lesson learned.
THE OLE TAXI SCAM
Taxis are notorious for ripping people off especially tourists or people that appear unfamiliar with the location they are in. Here are some travel tips for taxis.
- Always look for a meter and insist they turn it on. If there is no meter, ask how much the fare is likely to be because “I want to make sure I have enough.”
- Confirm the estimated fare with someone else who is familiar with the area. Personally, I am loathed to take taxis. I always try my best to learn and take local transportation whenever I can.
- Research transportation options in your destination before you arrive. Buses or trains are efficient, cheap, easy to learn and a great alternative to an airport taxi. If you are staying at a hotel, contact the hotel and ask what is the best way and cost from the airport to the hotel or post the question in a travel forum like TripAdvisor.
- Check to see if there is a taxi kiosk or counter at the airport before you go outside. These sometimes sell you a trip to your destination and give you a voucher to give to the taxi driver. This way no cash is given to the driver.
PICKPOCKETS IN BIG CITIES
Pickpockets abound in big tourist cities especially around crowded transportation areas like airports, train stations and subways. I was pickpocketed in Madrid right after I left an ATM having withdrawn €300 for a weekend trip. I was distracted by a couple of rambunctious kids where another lifted my wallet with my cash and all documents. I only noticed it when I went to pay later that day.
The perfect example of pickpockets happened to my husband in Rome. He was approached by a group of women. One distracted him by shoving what appeared to be a baby at him while another extracted his passport from a zippered pocket. Quite a feat! After a few moments, one of the women came back, returned his passport and ran away as if to say, “look what a talented thief I am! You didn’t even feel it.”
My best suggestion to avoid pickpockets is to be alert, especially in crowded areas and pay attention. Watch out for unusual distractions. Don’t invite pickpockets by leaving wallets exposed in back pockets or bags. Don’t have all your money in one place, split it in a couple of locations.
SCAMS IN AFRICA AND ASIA
Europe does not have a monopoly on travel scams. Africa and Asia also have their fair share. The scams in this part of the world, however, feel a little different, at least in my experience. They involve persuasion, guile and a certain level of sophistication beyond the simple pickpocket. Here are a couple of examples.
In Delhi, I purchased a lovely silk print for $90 at a fancy-schmancy store our guide recommended. I then saw the same print at the airport for $2.00. Ouch!. The sad part was that that purchase was going to be our one splurge on a trip where we budgeted every penny.
In Turkey, I purchased a carpet to be shipped to the U.S. When it arrived, it was a different carpet of inferior quality. It’s hard to guard against these situations. Your best bet is to get a recommendation from a hotel concierge or a trusted local; someone that has something to lose if you come back to complain.
The best protection against unpleasant surprises you may encounter while shopping during your travels is prior research, planning and being alert. I like to read as much about a place as I can before I visit it.
Research the store you want to patronize, get recommendations, shop around, don’t go to just one place, don’t risk too much. You should also accept that no matter how well you plan you are probably going to get scammed a couple of times, but hopefully only for silly little things. It’s all part of the experience.
Read about other common travel scams and how to avoid them.
PROTECT YOURSELF AGAINST RANDOM PETTY CRIME
Invest in a couple of anti-theft devices like moneybelts or pickpocket-proof clothing. I like to take some basic personal protection accessories with me when I travel. These are simple, low-cost items that can make the difference of whether or not you get pickpocketed on a trip. These can include tank top with secret pockets, secret pocket infinity scarf, travel door alarm and safety whistle.
If you’ve got valuable equipment; cameras, lenses, computers, you may want to invest in a portable safe and attached it to the most secure and immovable location in the room like the bathroom water pipes or closet rod. That way you don’t have to carry your valuables around with you at all times. Granted, if someone REALLY wants your stuff they can saw through a pipe or a 4X4, but this just makes it difficult enough that they’ll probably go hit on someone else. If you’re still not comfortable leaving your stuff in the room, then bring it with you in an anti-theft, shock-proof backpack.
DON’T OVERPAY FOR FLIGHTS AND HOTELS
Probably the number one mistake I’ve made over a lifetime of travel is overpaying for airline tickets. That’s an easy mistake to make because travel sites are designed to maximize the price they can get for airline tickets. This is called revenue management. Over the years and through extensive research, I’ve picked up tips for finding and booking the cheapest flights possible. Some tips are simple and obvious like, use budget airlines. Others require patching a trip together with different airlines and alternate modes of transportation. I have saved thousands of dollars with these tips.
Some of the best tips I’ve ever gotten are from travel guru, Nomadic Matt, entrepreneur and author of the New York Times bestseller, Travel the world on $50 a day. I had the pleasure of interviewing Matt and picking his very fertile brain for even more travel tips and insight. I also love his comprehensive city travel guides: Amsterdam, New York City, Paris, Bangkok and Iceland.
MINIMIZE YOUR EXPENSES WHILE TRAVELING
Some of my favorite tips for saving money while traveling include avoiding hotel laundries like the plague. They are expensive and you cannot count on them having your clothes ready on time. Avoid the cost and stress and do your own simple laundry using laundry sink packets or Woolite sachets for delicates. There…you just saved enough for two nice meals. For sheer convenience, I like having a separate toiletry organizer just for travel. That way I don’t have to keep switching my stuff from one bag to another whenever I go on a trip.
DONT RUN OUT OF BATTERIES ON YOUR DEVICES
Electronic devices are a fact of life. I can’t remember who said these are devices you never knew you needed and now can’t live without. One or the other of these devices will be with you at all times so you might as well ensure they are kept charged. Options here include a portable compact charger that charges two devices at once (so you’re not fighting over the charges).
Of course, you need your worldwide travel adapter so you’re not carrying 3 different adapters and wondering if any of them will work in Montenegro, or wherever you’re going.
Here is a nifty little accessory I found. If you want to take simple videos with yourself included, consider a lite-weight tripod with a remote. These spider-like gadgets will latch on to many surfaces while holding your smartphone. The remote allows you to start and stop videos bringing your videos to a new level.
COOL FUN STUFF FOR YOUR TRIP
A couple of accessories just for the sheer fun of it include a Kindle Fire, so you can stay entertained on long flights and, one of my favorites, wine bottle protectors. Ever find a bottle of a really interesting liquor you want to bring back with you but you’re afraid it’ll break in the luggage? Here’s the answer to that one. Cheers!
What cringeworthy travel mistakes have YOU made? Let us know anonymously. We’re sworn to secrecy.
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