25 Things I Learned the Hard Way While Traveling

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One thing is true about travel — we learn a lot of lessons along the way. And many of those lessons are the result of making major mistakes on the road.

Not blogging errors. Not life errors. Just good old-fashioned travel errors.

I thought it might be nice to share them with you. 25 mistakes from 25 different countries. Just so the same things don’t happen to you.

China: Don’t fly through smaller Chinese cities.

Man, I thought I was so smart for getting that flight deal: just $400 from Dubai to Tokyo. It was on China Eastern Airlines and required stopovers in Kunming and Shanghai. But it was technically an all-the-way-through flight, so it wouldn’t be a big deal. Right?

Not so much. First of all, even if it is the same flight, you need to go through immigration, which in China is complicated if you’re using domestic flights for an international journey.

But the real trouble began when the flight from Kunming to Shanghai was canceled. The passengers were nearly revolting, yelling and banging the tables.

Had I been in Shanghai, or Beijing, or Hong Kong, I would have been able to find someone who could speak English and would reroute me quickly. In Kunming, a city almost the size of New York, almost nobody spoke a word of English and those who said they spoke English didn’t have much of a grasp of the language.

Getting rebooked onto a later flight to Shanghai took hours. I would show the English-speaking man my tickets to Shanghai and Tokyo, he would nod, walk away, and come back and do it all over again as if he had never seen them before. It was an utter nightmare.

When I finally arrived in Shanghai, an airline employee welcomed me in perfect British English. I nearly burst into tears in relief. I had to spend an overnight there, but the airport was filled with shockingly friendly and helpful employees.

I’m going to avoid flying through small Chinese cities for the rest of my days.

France: Always carry spare toilet paper in your purse.

Because if you don’t, that’s when your period will strike with a vengeance. Thank God you had some receipts in your purse.

Indonesia: Don’t stay in a hotel next door to a mosque.

Unless you like waking up at 4:30 every morning, that is.

Poland: Overpacking will bite you in the ass at the worst possible time.

I was only in Warsaw for one day, so I decided to stay by the train station. It was a brilliant idea, I thought — I wouldn’t have to walk too far and I could easily grab my 6:00 AM train to Berlin the next morning.

Until I realized that even though I was only a few blocks from the train station, there are no crosswalks in that part of Warsaw. There are underpasses instead. And no elevators or ramps. So you need to go down and up, down and up, down and up, down and up while holding your giant, heavy suitcase. Because this was a conference trip and I had overpacked a lot of my fancier duds.

After all those steep staircases, I was sweaty and exhausted. Then it got worse: I couldn’t find the guesthouse I had booked. I burst into tears, then looked across the street and saw the letters NOVOTEL.

I want to go to there.

Down one more flight. Up one more. The hotel was right there. And it wasn’t too expensive.

“Do you have any rooms available?” I asked politely at the front desk. I felt like a secret agent. I always book in advance; I had never said that phrase at a nice hotel in my life.

Argentina: Always use a purse that zips.

It was my first solo trip ever, to Buenos Aires in 2008, and it was one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me while traveling. I used a big, open purse from H&M as I went to visit Recoleta Cemetery. It didn’t zip; it barely closed.

Of course my wallet was snatched.

And that wasn’t all. I wasn’t as cautious a traveler as I am now — so the wallet was filled with literally all the money and cards I had. All I had left was my passport. If a nearby couple hadn’t taken pity on me and given me a ride, I don’t know how I would have gotten back to the hostel.

It was 2008 and the internet wasn’t as widespread as it is now. But I was able to get American Express to wire money to a Western Union that would accept my passport as identification.

Looking back, I’m horrified that I went through an experience like that on my first solo trip. But at least it didn’t put me off solo travel forever. I had an ulterior motive for Buenos Aires — how I handled this trip would show me whether or not I should plan a long-term solo trip. I survived and thrived, and soon I was on my first long-term trip to Asia, all by myself.

Austria: People really like to be naked.

It was just after my first-ever travel blogging conference and my friends and I were chilling out in the hotel’s sauna after a swim in the pool. And then a middle-aged man walked into the sauna, stark naked, swaying in the breeze. “Grüß Gott!” he sang out.

Grüß Gott,” we murmured back. We quickly exchanged a glance. And without another word, we all got up in unison and left that poor man alone in the sauna.

Liechtenstein: If there’s an early morning knock, someone will be naked.

I kept hearing incessant knocking at my hotel in Vaduz, the diminutive capital of Liechtenstein. It was 6:00 AM. Eventually I got up and opened the door, only seeing a completely naked man knocking on another door.

He looked at me. I slammed the door.

Germany: Double-lock your door because YOU’LL be naked.

It was just after midnight in Nuremberg and I suddenly heard my door opening. “No!” I gasped as the door swung open and a befuddled thirty-something man walked in.

“Oh — sorry. They gave me this room,” he said.

“Get out!” I rasped.

I wasn’t naked. I was nearly naked. And some dude had caught a glimpse of me in my undies.

That’s the reason you’re supposed to double-lock your door.

Jordan: Your guide is not going to leave you in the desert.

My wonderful tour guide, Ibrahim, told me that one of his favorite things to do was just sit by himself in Wadi Rum and enjoy the solitude. It was his favorite place. “I want you to have this experience, too,” he told me.

They dropped me off. I tried to relax. And yet I couldn’t. Were they really not going to leave me?

I pretended to chill out while keeping an eye on the Jeep. Were they really not going to leave me?

I sat and pretended to meditate while keeping the Jeep in my peripheral vision. Were they really not going to leave me?

Of course they didn’t leave me. I ran back to the Jeep fairly quickly. But I really wish I had taken Ibrahim seriously and took the time to feel the desert around me.

Denmark: Late at night it will seem like a great idea to take a ride on a meat cart. It is not.

Well, it was fun for about ten seconds before I fell off and slammed straight into the curb.

Sri Lanka: Keep your debit cards in different places.

I travel with two debit cards, and I usually keep the spare hidden in my luggage. That’s smart. But Sri Lankan ATMs were weird and sometimes they wouldn’t accept my main debit card, so I started keeping them both in my wallet.

Then came the fateful train ride from Hikkaduwa to Colombo. It was bad enough getting my ass grabbed by one rando (though that was probably the fastest I’ve ever reacted — “Hey, motherfucker! Do not touch me. Do not touch me ever”). Then when it was time to get off, the crowd swelled so tightly I had to fight my way off the train.

My wallet was stolen in the fray. Along with both debit cards.

Once again, Amex saved the day. They let me withdraw money at ATMs with my credit card until I got home.

Costa Rica: High season doesn’t always mean good weather.

I had made the last flight out of JFK before they shut down the airport for the biggest snowstorm of the year. Yet somehow I thought Costa Rica would be sunny and warm. Nope! There’s a reason why they call it the rainforest!

It poured buckets the whole time I was in La Fortuna. Then it mostly misted throughout my time in Monteverde.

Finally, I broke through the clouds and landed on the beach in Guanacaste. The sun was out and glorious. Finally, I understood the Pura Vida everyone was talking about.

Sometimes, even when it’s supposed to be the sunniest time of year, you can have shit luck in the weather department. Just be ready for that.

Philippines: It’s neither funny nor entertaining to stay in a “love hotel.”

It was a cheap hotel in a central-seeming neighborhood, and it had decent reviews.

The mattress was covered with a rubber protector and there were no windows.

One guy checked in with two girls.

Yeah. Nope. Not my thing.

Maybe if it had been one of the cool fairy-tale themed ones in Korea or Japan. This one was just sleazy.

Colombia: Altitude will kick the crap out of you.

I hadn’t traveled much in altitude before I arrived in Colombia. And while people said that altitude can knock you sideways, I thought I was immune — I felt fine!

I was hiking through the Valle de Cocora and met some girls from Bogotá. As the three of us walked on, suddenly the ever-so-slightly uphill road felt like I was scaling Everest. My lungs burned; my legs ached.

“I’m fine,” I told them, trying to hang onto my pride.

“Are you sure? Do you want to keep going?”

“Yes! I’m fine!” I had to make it around the corner to the next viewpoint.

Finally, I gave up — I felt bad that I was slowing them down. Bogotá is at a much higher elevation. For them, this was a respite.

Yes, altitude can certainly hit you hard, even if you feel completely healthy otherwise.

Turkey: When getting a massage from a large-chested woman, face away from her boobs.

One of my most famous adventures was when I visited a hammam in Istanbul for the first time, was massaged by a lady with giant swinging breasts, and took one directly to the face. I’ll never forget the “Oop!” that came out her moth. You can read the whole thing here.

Portugal: Don’t stay in a hostel with only one toilet.

There were only two cheap hostels to choose from in Évora. I chose the one that looked slightly better.

It wasn’t a good choice. My intuition had been pinging like crazy since I had arrived. Something was off about this owner. I was concerned about the lack of lockers; the owner told me I had nothing to worry about because the other hostel guest was “from a good family.”

Then late at night, I was ready to go to bed…and the owner was in the one and only bathroom.

I waited downstairs. He kept using the bathroom.

I got out my Kindle. He was still in there.

Finally, he came out of the bathroom after half an hour, newspaper in hand. “Oh,” he said, seeing me there. “Yeah,” I replied.

Finland: Don’t bring beer into the sauna.

Sauna time in Finland is a sacred ritual. I first got to experience it at the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival, where my media status got me into a musicians’ party in the woods. First the women would sauna and skinny-dip in a warm lake underneath a pink midnight sky, then the men would have their turn.

I brought my beer into the sauna.

You’re not supposed to do that.

I wrapped a towel around me in the sauna.

You’re not supposed to do that, either.

The women were nice. They didn’t scold me or even point it out gently. But I knew as soon as I stepped inside that I had made a grave error.

England: When Brits say, “You all right?” They’re not asking if something’s wrong.

I’m embarrassed how long it took me to realize this.

“You all right?” is the equivalent of “How are you?” in Britain.

Even after six months of living in the UK, I was still saying, “Yeah, why?” to everyone who asked me that.

South Korea: If Koreans give you mayonnaise noodles, it’s for a reason.

There’s not much that I won’t eat, but mayonnaise is one of those things. With very rare exceptions, I can’t stomach the stuff.

Then while in Seoul, I sat down to a barbecue dinner of super-spicy octopus. I put it in my lettuce wrap with the garlic and vegetables and accoutrements, ignoring the evil mayonnaise noodles.

Soon I was writhing in pain from the spicy octopus. And I’m a girl who likes spicy food ordinarily.

I didn’t make the connection until later. Those noodles were there to cut the spiciness. If I had just eaten them like a normal person, I wouldn’t have made an emergency 7-11 run for an ice cream sandwich and a yogurt.

Spain: Even meaningless Tinder travel dates can be duds.

It was supposed to be the Summer of Kate. A summer of rocking out all over Europe, going wherever the wind blew me, wearing cute dresses, and dancing all night long. So when I landed in Barcelona, I decided to try and get a date on Tinder. It didn’t take long. I found a nice Venezuelan guy.

It wouldn’t matter if this guy wasn’t a good fit for me, I told myself. I’m only here for a few days! Not to mention staying in a dorm room…

I put on my cute turquoise-and-white dress and met the guy. And for the next two hours, we walked along the beach and he did not stop talking about himself the entire time.

God, I thought. I left my blogger friends for this?

Eventually I tried to make a casual exit. He instead put his arm around me. I pulled away, yelping, “No, I’m too shy!” “Well, you need to get over your shyness!” he replied. “That’s okay, I should go!” I said.

Not my finest moment.

Thailand: Monkeys are intelligent little fuckers.

Monkeys terrify me. When I went to the Monkey Forest in Bali, I painstakingly examined my backpack to make sure there were no residual Oreo crumbs. And it worked — none of them jumped on me. Perhaps they could smell my fear and gave me a break.

But then I got to Railay, a beach in Thailand with a not insignificant monkey population. I had watched Railay grow more environmentally impacted from 2010 to 2014 to 2015 and one thing I didn’t realize was that the monkeys got wiser.

I had bought chips and Oreos from the store and carried them in the white plastic bag the store gave me. Well, the monkeys saw that white plastic bag and KNEW something delicious was inside. One ran up to me and grabbed the bag. I shrieked and let it go. He climbed to the top of the tree WITH my chips AND Oreos and proceeded to eat them all, mocking me from above.

Little fucker.

Norway: That burger and coffee will cost you $29.

Granted, it was a reindeer burger and a cappuccino — but reindeer is like the beef of Norway! It’s everywhere! It’s abundant! It should not cost $24! No wonder Norwegians go to Stockholm and booze it up like a backpacker in Cambodia. Stockholm is Norway’s Phnom Penh.

South Africa: When people say it’s a short walk, estimate that it will be three times longer.

When the hostel guys invite you to come walk back along the beach with them, you and your friend agree. It should only be twenty minutes. And yes, you’ve just consumed two beers at the nearby brewery, but you can hold your bladder for that long.

Well. That’s how you end up in the brush, holding onto a hanging tree branch and peeing in the dark, terrified that a creature will sneak up behind you and bite you on the ass.

It was 50 minutes into a 20-minute walk.

Bulgaria: Don’t take the train to save money if it’s much worse than the bus.

I had a Eurail pass with just one train ride left on it, and I needed to get from Veliko Tarnovo to Bucharest by the end of the day. It was July. The countryside was baking with heat. I decided to take the train instead of the bus, even though the locals told me the bus was faster. Why not? It was “free”!

That train was one of the worst travel experiences of my life. It was at least 110 degrees inside (43 C). The bathroom was putrid. The seats were uncomfortable and the air wasn’t moving. I burst into tears and sobbed for an hour, ending up in a ball of sweat and tears and snot.

A thunderstorm hit a few hours in and I leaned out the window, letting the rain fall upon my skin.

The bus would have been so much better.

In Cambodia: You look stupid in hippie pants.

Seriously, Kate. You are going to look back and cringe.

What lessons did you learn the hard way while traveling?