This post was most recently updated on January 12th, 2022
With many years of travel behind me, I can still remember the travel disasters as if they were yesterday. If only I could have known that you don’t buy a dagger as a souvenir! What I know now through trial and error, I can certainly pass on to you. You can avoid the travel blunders our family had to deal with. Here’s my advice for a relatively problem-free vacation…
1. Don’t leave without confirming important reservations
Reservations for transportation, hotels, rental cars, and difficult-to-obtain admissions will throw the biggest wrenches in your plans if they’re not correct. You don’t want to arrive at the airport and learn you already missed your flight — but that’s just what happened to my daughter and son-in-law when we went to Italy last year. They bought their tickets from Lufthansa Airlines, who used United Airlines for the domestic leg of the flight. United made some schedule changes without notifying Lufthansa.
So when they checked in at the airport, they learned they had missed their domestic flight. Imagine how shocking that was! Fortunately, United was able to find seats for them on another flight, and they barely made their international connection. But it could have worked out very differently! Likewise, you want to be sure there will be a rental car for you when you arrive late at night and just want to get to the hotel and sleep. You’ll want to know if you accidentally bought tickets to see a musical on Thursday when you’re not arriving in town till Friday. Believe me, a little bit of time spent checking your confirmed reservations before your trip, could save you hours of frustration later!
2. Don’t go skiing on a sunny day without goggles
We took our family for a late season ski trip at Brian Head, Utah. It was a beautiful day — sunny and warm enough to ditch coats and gloves (and apparently some goggles, too). At the end of the day, both of my sons had developed snowblindness (sunburnt eyes). I’ll tell you that as a mother, it was very difficult to see my sons in so much pain! And there wasn’t much we could do but search the internet for treatment ideas, which amounted to keeping cold compresses on their eyes all night long. We didn’t sleep well, and the next day was spent recovering instead of skiing more. Now you know. Don’t ditch the goggles! And do use sunscreen if you spend the day at the beach. Sunburns are miserable. Of course, if you’re not going skiing, make sure you invest in some quality sunglasses to protect your eyes. They are a worthy investment.
3. Don’t forget to sync your calendar with the local time zone
I spent a week visiting my grandmother in Orlando, Florida. We had a wonderful week together, and on the morning of my return home, I packed my suitcase and sat down to visit with her until it was time to go. My alarm went off on my phone. That’s when I realized it was still synced with my home time zone. I should have been more familiar with my itinerary or I should have looked at my reservation confirmation instead of the calendar. I missed my scheduled flight.
As I drove the rental car like a maniac back to the airport, I was calling my husband, asking him to find me a seat on another flight. I returned the car, made my way to the ticket counter, and at first there was nothing. I was going to have to come back the next day or pay for a ticket (I was traveling with reward miles). But then my husband found something on a flight only two hours later. So you can actually learn two lessons from this — sync your online calendar with the local time zone AND have a good friend or family member who can make calls for you while you’re having a meltdown!
4. Don’t assume you can get a taxi during national holidays
My husband was travelling home from a business trip in Singapore during their Chinese New Year celebrations. He checked out of the hotel with plenty of time to catch a taxi to the airport for his flight. Plenty of time when it’s not a national holiday. Even though the street was full of taxis, none would stop for him. They were on their way to holiday events or picking up riders who had reserved their services. He literally could not hail a taxi for over an hour, and he missed his flight. He had to return to the hotel and fly home the following day, and we were both so disappointed!
5. Don’t lose your passport
This seems so obvious, right? You know how important it is to safeguard your passport. But it happens. We had a foreign exchange student staying with us a few weeks. Just two days before she was to return home, she came to us and admitted she didn’t know where her passport was. We turned the house upside down to no avail. Even called airport security to see if it had been recovered at the airport when she arrived weeks earlier, but they didn’t have it.
We had only one day to drive her up to Los Angeles to the Spanish Consulate to apply for a temporary passport. We weren’t her parents and she was a minor. It was a nightmare, and it took several hours. We weren’t even sure she would be allowed to fly home. With one very helpful consulate staff member, and lots of prayers, we finally got her home safely. What can you learn from this? Well, it IS possible to get a temporary passport if you lose yours. It’s a lot easier if you have a copy of the original stored in a different place. Our student didn’t have a copy but she had written down her passport number, and that is, ultimately, what got her home. If you have a foreign exchange student living with you, keep the passport in a safe place from the beginning!
6. Don’t plan to cook without groceries
I found a great deal on some quaint lodging in Ravenna, Italy. It had a fully equipped kitchen and we wanted to prepare a pasta dinner to save on the costs of eating out. We arrived at about 7:00 pm, checked in, and then went out to find a grocery store. For the next hour, we used the GPS to locate store after store, driving all over Ravenna, only to learn that every single grocery store in town was closed.
We nearly drove into a ZTL (historic zone that’s off-limits with hefty fines for violations!) trying to navigate through the town. We finally ended up buying some take-out food at a small bar. It wasn’t the best tasting food, it was pricey, and we were frazzled. When you stay in smaller towns (especially medieval ones!), it’s a good idea to do a little more research about things like services, parking, and one-way streets.
7. Don’t travel without a back-up plan
It can be hard to imagine all the different scenarios that could arise, and it’s nearly impossible to be prepared for everything. But if your rental car breaks down, a flight gets canceled, or you miss a train, you’re going to wish you had a back-up plan. Our family experienced this when traveling from Spain to France. On the day we were supposed to use Ryan Air from Madrid to Toulouse, the French air traffic controllers went on strike and all flights into or over France were cancelled.
The airline put us up in a nice hotel and we waited another day in Madrid, but when the flights were cancelled the next day too, we had to find another way to France. When you are in the middle of a busy airport with thousands of stranded passengers, this is NOT a good time to figure out an alternative. We were running around trying to rent a car or find a train and competing with the crowds. It was insane! And I was a basket case. My best-laid plans were falling apart! But my daughter called her former mission president, who came and picked us up, fed us dinner, let us use their computers to find train tickets and another rental car in France, put us up for the night, and took us to the train station early the next morning. What an incredible blessing!
So…have a back-up plan. For my daughter, she just had to know someone who was willing to help. For me, I could have done a little research, planned some alternatives, and written down some phone numbers. Know what you’re going to do if the car breaks down (ask at the rental counter when picking up your car!). Avoid taking the last train, the last flight, or the last bus home, in case you miss it. Have a little extra money for emergencies. Think ahead and ask yourself a few “What if…?” questions. If you need tips on how to plan a trip in the first place, read How to Plan a Trip (the easy way!)
8. Don’t plan on sleeping in an airport
This time I really took being frugal too far, and it back-fired on us. My husband and I were in Greece for a week. We’d spent a few days in Athens and then flew to Santorini (read my post about beautiful Santorini here). We had to return to Athens to fly home. Our flight to Athens got in late, 10:30 pm or so, and our flight home was 6:00 am the next morning. There were hotels close to the airport but they were expensive. I didn’t want to pay for an overpriced hotel just to get maybe five hours of sleep.
I decided we could just sleep in the airport. Hah! It didn’t happen. As it turned out, we couldn’t store our baggage anywhere, so we had to keep it with us. There weren’t any comfortable chairs or benches on which to sleep. (They often design the seats that way on purpose) And it’s not like they turn out the lights for you. Take my advice–just don’t try this! I was tired and miserable all the way back to the United States. It was not the best way to end an amazing trip to Greece.
9. Don’t underestimate China
(Be careful to follow all international regulations)
For weeks, my husband’s friend had been talking about his upcoming business trip to China. At some point, my husband realized he only had a passport and didn’t know a visa was required too. When my husband pointed that out, he postponed his trip to give him enough time to get the visa. Thank heavens my husband spared him a big surprise in China!
During his own trip to China, my husband was processing immigration paper work at a ferry station and about to miss the boat. The official rejected his form, made him fill in a new one right there, and he literally jumped onto the ferry just as they were closing the gate. His colleague was standing there with a foot on the dock and one on the boat to buy him time. His infraction? He had filled out the form in green ink rather than blue or black. If you’re traveling to a new country, be sure to ask what you need to know. Follow the rules, no matter how silly they seem.
10. Don’t buy a dagger!
In 2010, we took the entire family to Madrid for a week. My son is fascinated with all things medieval, including weapons and chain maille. When he learned we would visit Toledo (which is legendary for its handmade swords and armor), he began saving up to buy a dagger. Sure enough, he found something he loved and bought it. He wrapped it in thick paper and placed in a messenger bag for the remainder of the day.
Before we returned to our apartment, we went to visit the Reina Sofia Museum. Little did we know there would be a metal detector in an art museum! We all put our bags on the conveyor belt and held our breath as each bag went through the scanner. Could we get in trouble for having a souvenir dagger with us? As luck would have it, the security staff happened to look away as my son’s bag went through the scanner, and we all silently breathed a sigh of relief.
But this is not the end of this story. Remember the story above of cancelled flights to France? We had always planned to pack that dagger in a checked bag on a plane, but now we were traveling to France on a train…where all the bags go with the passengers and go through a metal detector. We couldn’t be carrying a weapon. But my son didn’t want to lose his 70 euro dagger, either.
With only minutes till the train left, we decided to rent a storage locker and have our daughter’s friends pick it up for us and send it home to the U.S. But first, we had to go through security to put the dagger in a locker. So in her best Spanish, my daughter explained that we had a souvenir we were placing in a locker for someone else to pick up. Still wrapped in its paper packaging, we placed it on the conveyor belt, picked it up at the other end and put it in a locker. The guards never said anything, and we knew we were receiving divine help.
About four months later, my son got his dagger back, and we still have it. It makes for a great story, but you didn’t see the beads of perspiration! I suggest you just don’t buy a dagger (or knife or souvenir weapon of any kind!). If you need that medieval-looking dagger, have the store you purchase it from ship it home for you! Enough said.
Sometimes there’s just no way to know what you should have done differently. Not all of our travel disasters were caused by negligence or ignorance on our part. After all, life happens. But knowing now that there’s a degree of risk for some of these events to happen again, we try to do whatever it takes to assure a smooth traveling experience. What do you do to avoid troubles when you travel? What kinds of lessons have you learned along the way? I’d love to learn from your experiences too!
I love hearing of all your travels, and especially your blunders 🙂 My young family is finally starting to travel beyond just road trips to visit family, and I’m loving it! I’m kind of a control freak, so I just have to remind myself that SOMETHING will go wrong, and I just need to roll with it. Two years ago we did our first big family trip, a week at Disney World. We left the west coast on a red eye flight on December 31st. Just as our 6 hour flight was taking off and all the stewardesses were seated and the plane was at a 45 degree angle, I got violently ill. I raced to a bathroom, but didn’t make it, and vomited all over the whole back of the plane and myself. I tried to wash up, I removed a layer of clothing (fortunately I had a few!), and wrapped myself in 2 of the thin little blankets they provide. Once back in my seat, I just kind of laughed. It was the best reminder to me that I just needed to give up a little control and roll with things! One of my three sons also ended up with whatever bug I had, and we spent our first day resting, but once we recovered, we were good to go. The rest of the trip was awesome!
Oh my gosh! That would be so awful, Kimi! But I agree that you need to adjust your expectations — just knowing that something could go wrong helps you get through it a little better. And maybe helps you relax a little more.
My husband planned our trip to Europe by himself, which we now realize may not be his strong suit. We went to Cinque Terre, Italy first. We were only there for around 24 hours. Not nearly enough time to spend in this beautiful place! We had three different trains to take from the airport while lugging our giant suitcases with us onto each train. We had brought large suitcases since we needed summer clothes for Italy and winter clothes for Switzerland where we were headed on the next leg of our trip. Once we exited our final destination in Cinque Terre, we got to lug those large suitcases up long hills as we got lost walking on our way to find our inexpensive B & B for our one night stay. Of course there were also stairs up to our room…more lugging suitcases. FYI most of the bathroom facilities we encountered were just a hole in the ground that you need to squat over.
Our daughter met us in Cinque Terre, but there wasn’t enough time planned between train rides for her to even see the town before we headed out on another train to pick up a rental car in Genoa, Italy. Beware driving in Italy! Anyway, once on the road we were headed to Switzerland. My husband and daughter were navigating in the front seat. It’s all a big blur from this point, but I do remember that it took us a few hours longer than it should have since the SatNav(GPS) was set on avoiding toll roads!! We ended up driving up and over the alps, in the rain, at night on a skinny mountain road. No wonder we didn’t pass any other cars for a couple of hours! We took such a back road that we didn’t even get a stamp in our passport.
After Switzerland the “itinerary”(I use the word loosely) had us driving to Florence, Italy to drop off the car, then take the train to Rome. Plan on taking a few Valium with you if you drive in Florence or Rome. The B&B we stayed at in Rome was not what we expected. Also, their included breakfast that they kept saying was “anything you want”, was only a croissant. The best part was that we brought home BED BUGS with us!!
It was a vacation to rival any Chevy Chase Vacation.
Verna, I had no idea you had so many problems with your trip! Sounds like there were lots of lessons learned–the hard way. Hope you get to go back and benefit from all that experience you gained…
Except…how can you avoid bringing back the bed bugs? Ewwww!
Haha. I just love reading all of these blunders and thinking about how things have often gone awry in my own travels. For me, though, I love having these kinds of stories to laugh about after the trip is all said and done….It makes the good memories seem all the better! ☺
Yeah, if we hadn’t had such a funny story with the dagger, I’d have been hard-pressed to come up with a title for this post!
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I had to come check out your dagger story! We’ve definitely been in that cringe-worthy moment when we’re not sure if something we purchased will cause massive problems on the way back. I’m glad it turned out in the end!
Great tips, wouldn’t think of some of these!!
Great post! I am always in panic mode a few days before a trip, wondering if I really did make those reservations or did I dream it! So I always have my reservations printed out otherwise I will occasionally have those moments of panic!
I visited China in 2001 and I was petrified that I was going to do something wrong or they wouldn’t let me back in (i had a multiple entry visa for Hong Kong). Russia was the same for me as well.
Oh my! These tips are amazing, I can’t believe I haven’t read a post like this before!
I love reading your stories.I can totally relate with sleeping at the airport. I once had to sleep at Heathrow, i was traveling alone, it was cold and the chair uncorfotable. Never again!
Great list! And if someone books some tickets for you, check the name 😉 I had someone book flighttickets on the name everyone calls me, which is not my full first name! Oh oh…
Ohhh the time zone one has stung me a few times. I thought it would update – Nope I just end up missing the beginning of tours. I’ve never tried to buy a dagger as australian customs are so extreamly strict on what you can bring to the country…it’s hard core lol
Excellent tips! I also highly don’t recommend sleeping in an airport – so incredibly uncomfortable!
I laughed as I read these…with the exception of the dagger, I think I’ve experienced something close to all of these on my travels. The syncing of the calendar still gets me on a regular basis.
Great tips and anecdotes from your travels. Sometimes travel does put us in the strangest of situations. Experience does do you well in getting through some of them but thinking and planning ahead can be a lifesaver. Also doing as much research as you can before travelling!
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Thanks for the tips!!
I don’t get lost I get great adventures, I don’t have problems just great stories when I get home.
Great perspective, Lynn!
Loved reading this. Awesome post 🙂
I’ve caused an issue at Nadi airport in Fiji. I brought a handmade machete from a village I visited. It was beautifully made and so intricate, I just had to have it.
It was wrapped to perfection and I wrapped a plastic bag round it as a makeshift handle.
I checked in my backpack and made my way to the security before heading into the departure lounge.
I didn’t even think about it until the alarms went off on the x-ray machine and then someone unwrapped the box, held the machete in the air and asked, ‘whose is this?!’
Bugger! What an idiot I am.
“And don’t buy a dagger” – hilarious!! It’s really great to hear about other people’s blunders and issues, as that’s not super common in the blog world. I laughed through the entire dagger story, but I’m so glad your son got to keep his prized possession!
On one of my nights in Dublin, I got drunk with an Ed Sheeran look-a-like (who I’m pretty sure was actually Ed himself). On my way up to my room in the hostel, I dropped my passport. Someone banged on my door almost immediately after I got into the room, but I ignored it. Then again, at 7 am, someone knocked on the door again and one of the other girls in the hostel room answers it. Hungover me was handed my passport by someone at the desk. I lucked out!
Wow! So glad you got your passport back. That could have ended very badly!
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I know none of this was funny at the time, but I the ‘don’t plan to cook without groceries’ made me laugh. We rented an apartment in Bologna and went to the grocery store to buy stuff for dinner. We found freshly made mushroom raviolis (which were amazing!!) and I went down the aisle to buy spagetti sauce. I found what looked like a Prego type spaghetti sauce, but when I got back to the apartment (after the grocery store was closed, of course) I realized it was only tomato sauce….with NO seasonings. Plain tomato sauce with NO seasonings is really just – yuck. The apartment had only salt and pepper which was not enough to rescue dinner. LOL! Thankfully the fresh mushroom raviolis were so fantastic they were good without. I always chuckle at the memory. 🙂