This post was most recently updated on May 25th, 2020
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!