Travel Mistakes Not to Make

Solo travel can be stressful.  All the responsibility lies with you and no one else. Not only do you need to figure out travel times, flights, and train schedules but you need to be leary of scams, pickpockets, and dangerous situations.  All while navigating your way through a new city without looking like a complete idiot and not being the primary target for anyone looking to take advantage of any unsuspecting tourist.  

Over the years, I’ve made my fair share of mistakes when traveling.  It seems to me like the mistakes I’ve made over the years tend to be the stupidest mistakes possible.  Here are some examples of the embarrassing mistakes I’ve made over the years and hopefully you can learn from them.  

  • Wrong airport
  • Wrong time
  • Time change
  • Not signing your passport 
  • Passport number changes
  • Putting your important docs in your checked bag
  • Wrong train

Wrong Airport

I’ll start with the dumbest one that still sticks out for me.  Flying to or from the wrong airport. I’m sure most of you will think “how can you be so stupid?” and I have to admit, that’s a valid question.  However, many of us who live in large cities have multiple airports to choose from. New York has La Guardia, Newark, and JFK. DC has Dulles and Reagan.  LA and San Diego have more than a few between them. Suffice it to say, it’s easy to get confused. 

What makes this more frustrating (as I found out) was that the airport codes for San Diego and Santa Ana are almost identical.  San Diego’s code is SAN while Santa Ana’s is SNA. The thing is for us So Cal natives, we don’t refer to it as Santa Ana Airport but as John Wayne so it’s easy to get confused.  On top of that, any online search where you’re allowing the search engine to include nearby airports will include John Wayne with San Diego. So if you’re looking at an itinerary really quickly, it’s easy to miss the fact that your flight is not priced to fly out of San Diego but from an airport about 100 miles away.  

high-angle view of city

So that was a mistake I made on the departure but what about an arrival.  Of course I’d know EXACTLY where I’m flying into right? Well not so much.  On my first trip to Germany, I was flying into Berlin. Now in my defense, I actually went through a travel agent to book everything for me (since there was a lot going on for me and really didn’t have time to research, plan, and book) but that is still no excuse for not knowing exactly where I was.  

Berlin has two main airports.  Tegel and Schonefeld. For whatever reason, I didn’t bother to look at the airport code that I’d be flying into and just assumed Berlin had one major airport.  That said, I had planned on arriving at Schonefeld and taking the train into the Berlin city center to get to my hotel. I didn’t bother looking up bus routes, the approximate cost of taxis, or anything else because I was going to take the train.  Unfortunately it didn’t turn out that way. 

As I made it through immigration, I was looking for the train platform and couldn’t find it.  When I finally asked where it was, everyone seemed confused and kept pointing me to the bus stop.  When I finally showed them where I was trying to go, I realized that not only was I at the wrong airport but I also on the opposite side of Berlin.  Well since I didn’t travel with a smart phone or a laptop at the time, I basically had to learn the bus and tram system on the fly. To be honest, the rest of that day is a blur but somehow I made it to my hotel in one piece.  

Suffice to say, make sure you know which airports you’re flying into or out of to avoid confusion. 

Wrong time 

Ever misread your flight times and get your AM and PM mixed up?  Of course not, cuz that would be stupid. Well yup, I’ve done it.  Luckily I showed up 12 hours early (instead of late) so I didn’t miss my flight but that didn’t make it any more fun.  

I remember I was trying to find a cheap round trip flight to Las Vegas.  Now being on San Diego, flights to Las Vegas are frequent so I just booked (what I thought) was a really good flight for the price.  It was departing Vegas around noon so it wasn’t too early but early enough to get back to San Diego and recover from a weekend of debauchery.  

pocket watch at 3:55

After getting to the airport, I tried checking in for my flight at the kiosk but couldn’t.  Of course I immediately thought the kiosk was broken so I moved over to another one and again, no dice.  Finally I had to go up to the counter and ask if there was something wrong with my flight. I had the receipt and confirmation number so I wasn’t worried too much but thought maybe my flight has been cancelled.  The lady looked in her system and typed away, confused like I was. Eventually she looks up at me and says “Sir, your flight is leaving at 12AM and you can only check in up to twelve hours in advance so you’re too early to check in.” 

“Well, at least I didn’t miss my flight” was all I could say.  I then asked if it were possible to fly standby for an earlier flight.  Luckily it all worked out and I was able to get on an earlier flight home but that’s a mistake that I still remember vividly.  

Now as a fix, I try to use military time so I don’t get confused (even though I do get confused sometimes with early morning departures and the date).  For those of us who aren’t used to seeing 19:00 vs. 7pm, it’s a good idea to use it for anything involving travel. I try to write down everything in military time now so there is ZERO confusion.  

Time change

Sometimes it’s tough enough to remember which way to turn the clocks for daylight savings let alone remember which days it starts and ends.  It’s also annoying when not every country observes daylight savings and even worse when some countries reset their clocks on different days.  

This one always seems to get me when I least expect it.  I encountered this in Mexico when I was driving from Playa del Carmen to Chichen Itza and unknowingly crossed a time zone.  I’ve also been on flight where the arrival time made no sense to be whatsoever because of daylight savings times.  

I think it hurts mainly because I travel in November every year so it tends to coincide with daylight savings time but with the US on an odd schedule, it certainly makes flying into Europe more confusing because you could, in theory, be changing your clocks back and forth twice.  

Since I started traveling with a smartphone, it has certainly become easier to keep track of but it doesn’t mean it’s foolproof.  When I was going to Chichen Itza, all the cars in front also had smartphones and they hadn’t automatically changed times so we were all confused as to why there was a hold up at the gate for us to enter.  It’s good to be aware of the situation and know that your smartphone may not always be able to save you.  

Not signing your passport 

This is a mistake you’re really going to make once (or whenever you get your passport renewed) but don’t forget to sign your passport.  It’s the first page for and it’s invalid if you don’t sign it.  

As I was arriving in Berlin, I was traveling with a new passport (I had just become a naturalized US citizen and this was my first trip using my US passport vs. my old Japanese passport) and I had completely forgotten to sign the passport.  As I walked up to go through immigration, the official asked me the normal questions and then said “oh, your passport is invalid.” Now all I could do was look at him and say “but it’s brand new and I just got it 2 months ago!”  

He quickly pointed to the line that required me signature and as soon as I signed it, I was on my way.  Now this wasn’t a big deal in the end but I’d be lying if I didn’t say a little bit of pee came out when he said my passport was invalid.  In that instant, I was wondering how the hell I was going to fly back to the US.  

Just remember to sign your passport when you get it and whenever you need to get a new one or renew it.  

Passport number changes

So I’ve traveled enough and filled out enough immigration forms that I don’t need to pull out my passport to fill out the forms anymore.  I just have that info memorized. Well recently, I had to get renew my passport because I was running out of pages for stamps and many countries have rules stating you need at least 2 empty pages for entry.  Well I figured I might as well get this done while I didn’t have any travel plans so I just renewed it. 

passport book on floor

What I didn’t realize was that my passport number and info would change because of it.  Since I was well within the timeframe of my passport expiring, I figured I wouldn’t have to worry about the renewal and assumed the number would stay the same.  When I got my new passport, I didn’t even look at the info and just blindly signed it (lesson learned). But when I got to Belize, all my info was incorrect since I’d put all my old info on the immigration form.  I got stopped and asked a million questions and couldn’t understand what was going on. It wasn’t until a few days later when I had to provide my passport when crossing into Guatemala that I realized that my info was different from before.  

Just know that your passport info changes when you renew it.  I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me since it now seems so obvious but there you go.  

Wrong info and ticket prices for locals and tourists

Often times, tourists will be charged an exorbitant fee for visiting popular tourist sites vs. the local who will be charged a much lower fee.  Unfortunately, sometimes it isn’t always possible to see or know when there is a glitch in the system when it won’t let you choose between a local or tourist price.  

When I was visiting Machu Picchu, I had done everything correctly.  I bought my ticket early, went on the correct day, and had all the proper documents ready when I arrived.  Unfortunately, when I booked my ticket, there was a glitch in the system that didn’t allow me to choose US as my country of citizenship since the drop down menu wasn’t working.  It only allowed me to choose Peru.  

Most times, it wouldn’t be a big deal but in this case, the price difference wasn’t that large so I figured if anything, I would be able to explain that the website was down and that I’d be happy to pay the difference.  However, in this case, since they limit the number of people who can visit, they said my ticket was invalid. I tried to explain that it wasn’t working online when I bought it online and I offered to pay the difference. Unfortunately, the only way around was for me to buy a new ticket at the correct price.  They said they couldn’t accept a payment for the difference.  

Luckily, I had cash still on me from the day before when I thought I might need it since otherwise I definitely would not have been walking around with that much money.  The price of the new ticket was pretty much all the cash I had on me (no credit card payments) and I don’t even think I had brought my debit card with me that day to use an ATM even if they had one.  

Basically, if you’re spending a lot of money on your vacation, don’t risk missing out on the highlight of the trip over something stupid.  Just wait a bit to buy the ticket if it looks screwy online or call if you can. If not, try to buy them a few days in advance once you’re in the country to avoid any mishaps.  

Putting your important docs in your checked bag

Now I never check my bag.  I’m a strong believer in traveling light (you can read my post on solo travel tips) and that means carry on bags only.  However, sometimes, you’re forced to gate check your bag because the idiots in front decided to sneak on a bag that’s way too large or put a small item like a purse or a jacket up in the bin vs. under the seat in front.  

red hard shell luggage by an airplane wing

In those odd circumstances where I’ve been forced to gate check a bag, I try to remember to pull out my documents but it’s tough.  Luckily, I’ve been fortunate enough to realize my mistake before my bag got loaded in the cargo hold but if it had been a few minutes later, I would have been screwed.   

Remember that you need to pass through immigration before you collect your checked bags so if you realize you’ve made a mistake, hopefully an official will be kind enough to help (I can’t imagine this is the first time that’s ever happened) but the point is you don’t want to be in that situation.  

If you’re like me, you probably already have a spot for your documents but remember to make sure you have everything if you’re forced out of the normal routine and need to check a bag. 

Wrong train

This drives me bonkers.  I don’t understand why so many cities will announce the platform 15-20 minutes before departure.  Surely they must know which platform they’ll be using ahead of time. I also don’t understand why some stations will use the same platform for trains times close together but going in different directions.  

I’ve gone to the wrong platform, gotten on the wrong train, and even gotten on the wrong train after asking to make sure I’m on the right one.  Usually getting on the wrong train isn’t that big of a deal since you can just get off at the next station and fix the mistake. However, sometimes, it turns into a much bigger ordeal. 

When I was on my way to the airport in Morocco, I had to switch trains.  Everything was going smoothly. I had bought my ticket, went to the correct platform, and was on time.  I even asked to make sure that I was on the correct train since the train seemed odd to me. Well sure enough, it turned out that it was the wrong train going in the wrong direction.  It took 2 hours for me to get back to where I was originally and then all the money I had left to bribe the taxi driver to race me to the airport (seriously, this taxi driver deserved a medal for how he got me there) but it was all for nothing since the check in window had closed and I officially missed my first flight. 

I’m not sure what else I could have done but I knew something was strange when most of the people getting on the train were locals and not tourists.  Why would so many locals no tourists be going to the airport? It didn’t make sense. I guess that’s when I should have gotten off and asked again since my gut was telling me something was wrong.  

The lesson though is that if you need to be somewhere at a specific time (like a flight or a ship departure) make sure you have ample time and then take the time to get it right.  It’s a lot cheaper to pay more in a taxi to get there with plenty of time vs. rebooking a missed flight.  

Final thoughts

So there you have it.  Probably my easy to make and incredibly stupid mistakes I’ve made over the years.  I’ve gotten better over the years and yes I have a lot more experience now as well.  But I still make mistakes. Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes and not make these dumb ones.  They’ll save you time, money, and a little panic in the future. 

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