5 Travel Lessons I Learned The Hard Way (& How to Avoid Them)
Right now, my greatest goal in life is to make the 30 under 30 list. No, not on Forbes – I want to visit 30 countries before I turn 30. I’m currently sitting pretty at 25, and because I’ve visited 25 countries, I’ve learned a LOT of travel lessons along the way.
Still, the same few stories seem to always come up when sharing a beer or two with old friends, and they always revolve around my biggest travel mistakes. While they were hard at the time, looking back, they’re now some of the funniest and most formative experiences of my life, and some that I’ll always remember.
So, here’s a list of my top five travel lessons and the ridiculous stories behind how I learned them. Enjoy!
1. Always check your visa status well before traveling – even for countries you only have a layover in.
Ok, this one hurts. When Daniel and I booked tickets for spring break in Nepal, I opted not to spend the extra money for direct flights and instead bought them with two layovers in India.
Fun fact: India is one of the few countries where Americans cannot buy a visa upon arrival and instead have to get them in advance at an Indian embassy.
A second fun fact: if you have two layovers in India, you’ll have to leave the international terminal and enter the domestic terminal to fly to the second city. That means that you need an Indian visa. We found all of this out while being denied boarding for our flight at the gate. At midnight.
So what’d we do? Well a group of about 10 other people made the same mistake, and we were cruelly strung along by the airline thinking that they may be able to help us fix it… nope. We spend a few hours jumping from person to person, office to office, all to be told the same thing.
We didn’t read the fine print. We bought our tickets through a third party vendor (NEVER DO THIS. YOU WILL REGRET IT), and there was nothing that they could do.
So, defeated, we went back home for the night. It was late, I was tired, and we still had to rebook new international round trip flights for the next day.
The total hit to our budget was over $1,200 dollars. One of my most expensive travel lessons.
Honestly, I think the total hit to my stress levels was losing at least a year off of my life and all of this was because I wanted to buy the cheapest flight and couldn’t be bothered to check the visa requirements for the countries it passed through. 0/10 I do not recommend this experience to anyone!
2. Never leave your belongings unattended.
Can I even count all of the different countries I’ve had items stolen in? Italy, Thailand, Germany, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Romania… the list continues. However, by far the most traumatic experience Daniel and I have had happened on a public beach in Oman.
Just to preface: Once in Dubai, I left my laptop on the public metro system and returned two hours later to pick it up from security without a problem. We were so used to the safety and security of the United Arab Emirates, where we had been living for two years, that we let our guard down.
On our weekend trip to neighboring Oman, we falsely assumed that the country was just as safe and left our tent set up on the public beach while we left for the day. Friday and Saturday went smoothly, but Sunday was a wake up call.
We left our site at 6am for our scuba trip and didn’t return until 10pm that night. As soon as we pulled into the lot, I could tell that something wasn’t right. And that something was that EVERYTHING had been taken.
Our tent, blankets, chairs, cook stove, clothes, everything.
In a telling sign, all that was left in its place was a sad and empty case of Budweiser.
Now it was 10 at night and we had nowhere to sleep. Of course, this was a long weekend trip because it was a national holiday in the UAE, so a lot of the hotels in the city were booked full or only available for hundreds of dollars more than their usual price.
We decided to do what any dumb person would do in this situation and make the long trip back to our apartment in Abu Dhabi overnight.
First, we wasted time hunting down the police station and reporting the theft… it was pointless and took over an hour. By the time we left the city, it was super late. Oh, and did I mention that we were too cheap to rent the GPS with the car? And neither of our phones had data plans?
What followed was one of the longest nights of our lives. I opened Google Maps and tried to follow along with our blue dot and point us in the right direction. We wasted almost another two hours at the border between the two countries when we were first unable to find the crossing point and second when the guard couldn’t see the light entry stamps on our passports.
I couldn’t drive because I didn’t have a UAE license, so it was on Daniel to complete the trek from start to finish. We found ourselves on a deserted road with nothing but black desert on either side as far as the eye could see.
The speed limit was 45 mph, and we didn’t dare go over because it was radar enforced and we had already received $600 in speeding tickets (but thats a story for another day.)
Picture this: Daniel doing push ups on the side of the road at 4am and slapping his face to stay awake, me attempting to guide us home through the barren wasteland, and both of us going slightly insane from being up for almost 24 hours at this point.
We eventually made it home at 6am the next day, and our loss wasn’t terrible. Mostly retainers, glasses, and medicines that were a headache to replace. Luckily, we were bright enough to keep our passports and valuables in the car with us during the day.
However, the whole hilarious situation could have been avoided if we had just used a few brain cells and packed our tent up before we left the campsite for the day, or even just made sure we had data or GPS in a foreign country! Those travel lessons have definitely been learned, and I will never leave anything I own unattended while traveling again!
3. Just take the loss – money is NEVER worth arguing over.
When I studied abroad, money was tight and I always traveled on a strict budget. I carried that mentality with me after I graduated and on my first big trip to Thailand over Christmas in 2014. Daniel and I decided to splurge and order a hookah to smoke in a beachside bar. The cost was only $14, but with the large discrepancy in cost of living in Thailand vs. the US, that was very expensive by the country’s terms.
If you’ve ever smoked a hookah before, you know that it’s something to be enjoyed over the course of an hour or two. However, once we sat down and it was delivered, we were almost immediately told that the bar was closing, and we had to leave the beach front.
I asked politely for some of our money back since we hadn’t been able to smoke the hookah for more than 10 minutes at that point. I was (of course) met with a resounding NO. I was a few drinks in and decided to push it, asking (ok, insisting) again that some of our money was returned.
Well, you never know who you’re dealing with, and in this case, I was dealing with a waiter with a temper… who also happened to have many Thai friends. The beach cleared, and we found ourselves surrounded by ten young Thai men shouting, arguing, and escalating the matter. It was extremely lucky that the bar next door had a private security force who came over and diffused the situation.
Still, the waiter knew the name of our hotel, and our walk home required a long stretch of desolate beach.
I laugh about it now, but at the time on that walk I carried a beer bottle with me as a form of protection because I was so afraid. I have no idea what would or would not have happened that night had the security not stepped in. All I know is I came closer than I would like to becoming just another foreign tourist in the headlines, for an arrest or worse.
Traveling isn’t dangerous, and the world is not a dark and scary place. However, muggings, murders, and more DO happen everywhere in the world, and it’s our responsibility to protect ourselves as much as possible. Being drunk or argumentative, wandering alone somewhere deserted at night, these are the first steps in making ourselves vulnerable to an attack.
No amount of money is worth your life. Be smart, drink smart, travel smart, and you can always avoid a scary situation like the one I put myself in on that Thai beach.
4. BACK UP YOUR PHOTOS
Did you know that my husband has his own charity?
It’s called the Daniel Constable Foundation, and no matter where we travel, he likes to donate his iPhone to those in need. Yes, the donation is unintentional, but still a regular occurrence. He has lost or had his phone stolen in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Germany. At this point, it doesn’t even faze me any more, but at the time, the first experience was pretty heartbreaking.
On our first trip together to Thailand, Dan had an iPhone 5, and I had my sister’s old 4. This was early in our relationship, and I naively took all, and I mean ALL, of our travel photos during the three week trip on his because the camera quality was so much better. Our first Christmas together, New Years Eve setting off lanterns, waterfall hikes, old temples, monkeys, this phone had it all.
Unfortunately, the only thing it didn’t have was the iCloud direct import feature. After three weeks traveling through the country, Daniel was pick pocketed and his iPhone was stolen at the bus station, 10 hours before we left Thailand to fly home.
Absolutely all of our photos and memories from that trip are lost because we didn’t spend a few minutes uploading his photos to a secure source. All that we had left were a few Instagram updates and hundreds of new Thai contacts in his iCloud account.
For me this was one of the worst travel lessons, and now I have the Google Photos app on my phone and upload my pictures daily. Make sure you ALWAYS back up your photos regularly because you never know when you may lose them all.
5. Eat the street food – but be mentally prepared for the consequences.
This one is not for the squeamish. I honestly don’t know which country is the culprit, but to put it mildly, Daniel and I became hosts to some other… life. Health standards vary wildly around the world, and when it comes to meat and seafood, it’s very easy to get sick in an unclean environment.
Anyway, one day in Sri Lanka Daniel and I discovered in the bathroom that a couple new friends had joined our little family! Basically, we had worms. It was more emotionally taxing than anything else, but we stopped at a medical center and had medicine ready to go by the end of the day.
It was quick and easy, physically, to get rid of them, but still disgusting beyond belief! I don’t have much advice for this one because I LOVE street food and will never stop eating it. But now at least I’m more mentally prepared for what may happen because of it. Yikes.
These are my top 5 (of many) travel lessons that I learned the hard way. Hopefully, you can take something from this so that you don’t have to go through the same hilarious, messed up, crazy, depressing, and gross situations that I find myself in time and time again!
Just as I’m sure I’ll never stop traveling, I’m also sure that I’ll never stop adding more travel lessons to this list… at least I have some funny stories to share 🙂
You might also be interested in: The Truth About Traveling Full-Time
Have more travel lessons to share, or just think I’m pretty dumb? Comment below to let me know!
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