On my third-ever international trip—in Chiang Mai, Thailand—my friend stumbled into the bathroom in the middle of the night and found a giant cockroach chewing on her toothbrush.
On my second-ever international trip—in Botswana, Africa—I picked up some sort of virus and spent a whole day laying under a lonely tree in the desert vomiting bright yellow bile into the sand. I remember feeling a little better and trying to eat an apple, which was the worst idea ever and catapulted me back into the land of endless vomit.
Speaking of Africa, our translator told me to watch out for the giant beetles. They were poisonous, he said. And aggressive. And so I spent the entire trip leaping onto tree stumps and zipping away from beetles anytime they appeared. I’m pretty sure the whole thing was a joke and I’m pretty sure the translator still looks back and laughs maniacally.
Also in Africa, I found these beautiful, uniformly-shaped rocks. I decided to take some home with me and put them in a jar. For transport, I sealed them in a plastic, see-through container and promptly forgot about them for the two months that I was in Africa. When I arrived home and found the plastic container at the bottom of my bag, it was full of dead bugs. Turns out my uniformly beautiful rocks were actually some sort of bug egg, which I unknowingly smuggled out of Africa. The fact that I held them in my hands haunts me to this day.
A few months ago, I had a conversation with my most well-traveled friends about how not-savvy we all really are, even after years and years of navigating new countries, cities, and countrysides.
Our conclusion was that nobody—no matter how classy, well-traveled, or savvy-seeming—really has it all together. Sometimes shit happens (literally). Sometimes you make mistakes and order six breakfasts in French when you meant to order one. Sometimes you accidentally book a room in a brothel.
Allowing your small child to attempt to ride a sheep? Not so savvy.
So, today I thought I’d ask a few other “savvy traveler” friends to tell me their worst horror stories.
Let’s start with my lovely friend, Kerry-Anne:
“In 2006, my husband and I went to visit friends in the little seaside town of Erquy in northwestern France. We spent three leisurely weeks wandering through medieval towns, picking berries in country lanes, eating fresh crabs and oysters, drinking plenty of French wine, and picking up seashells on the sandy beaches.
After our time in the country, we went off to Paris for a week. On the second or third night, we returned to our scraggly 50-euro-a-night hotel room and were greeted by a strange and ominous smell.
I started sniffing around, trying to figure out whether our plumbing had backed up, or whether we’d forgotten a piece of brie au lait cru somewhere in the room. I eventually traced the smell to my suitcase and, with some trepidation, I opened it up. At this point, the strange and ominous smell turned to an overpowering and hideous stench.
After some Very Brave Searching, I realized the problem was quite definitely emanating from a small box I’d been using to collect various souvenirs along the way. In fact, the box seemed to be leaking some kind of liquid.
Which was strange because all I had in there were postcards and napkins and a few assorted seashells from Erquy—OH MY WORD. THE SEASHELLS FROM ERQUY.
The horrible truth slowly came into focus. One of us had inadvertently picked up an oyster shell with the oyster still inside. And then I’d kept it in a box for a week and carried it all the way to Paris. Naturally, it had ceased to be an oyster at some point and was now a small glob of oozing liquid inside my suitcase.
By this time the entire room smelled of rotting carcass and since neither of us knew how to say in French, ‘Excuse me, but we’ve accidentally brought a dead sea creature into your hotel and it smells quite nasty now, so could you help us get rid of it and also supply us with some industrial-strength air freshener?’ we had to deal with the problem ourselves.
In case you’re ever in a similar predicament yourself, here’s what I recommend, based on our experience: fling open the windows and let in the chilly but sweet-smelling November air, then fight heartily about who is responsible for getting rid of the liquid oyster corpse. Rinse the shell, over and over and over and over, and leave it on the windowsill overnight, to rid it of any traces of dead oyster. Finally, scrub every inch of your body lest any of that vile ooze made its way onto you, before collapsing into bed and laughing for two hours straight.
We still have that shell somewhere.”
Peeing on the streets and getting fined? Not savvy.
Rolling in someone else’s pee: even less savvy.
1. ALWAYS check out the guesthouse/hotel/whatever no later than afternoon, so that you have time for Plan B and so you can see the neighborhood before it gets dark.
2. NEVER pay until you have seen the actual room.
For various reasons I had to break Rule One, and arrived well into the night. My Lonely Planet Mali was sadly out of date, and I should’ve known something was up because there was no gaggle of backpackers lounging in the lobby. Then in stupidity and exhaustion I broke Rule Two. Going up the rickety stairs, I recognized … noises. Yep, this place is now definitely a brothel. And not the nice kind that is occasionally your best bet for lodging in, say, rural Tibet. Nope, I have just checked in and overpaid for a bedbugged brothel in Bamako. AND the door to my room will not lock. Yay, me!
I march back down and begin the negotiation to get my money back. My French is weak but but my stubborn is strong like bull, and an hour later I have cash and am back on the street. At midnight. In the middle of Bamako with no cell phone and no taxi in sight. A friendly customer comes out of the brothel, hails me a cab … and then grabs my tits and tries to get into it with me. Things are looking up! I literally push the guy out of the door with my legs and yell at the driver, who tears off with the door still open. But, I get the door shut and at last am safe in a taxi. With a driver who speaks, apparently, no French.
The one person I know in the entire country lives near the new bridge. ‘Pont. Nouveau.’ No comprende. ‘Pont. Nouveau.’ Blank stare. We go back and forth until finally he stops on the road, takes my hand, and dashes with me across four lanes of traffic to a police checkpoint. I say ‘Pont Nouveau’ to the cop. The cop says ‘Pont Nouveau’ to the driver. And then the driver says ‘OHHHHHHH. PONT NOUVEAU.’
At three a.m. I scratched on my friend’s door, like a cat, and slept gratefully on her sofa.” – Cynthia Barnes
Not heeding this sign? Super un-savvy.
Well, we got to the airport the next morning and made it to the front of the security line and put our bags on the belt for scanning and walked through—and then my bag was stopped. And then it hit me. In my haze the previous night, I’d tossed in full-size bottles of sunblock. Brilliant, embarrassing, but not the end of the world.
Those were full-size, new bottles of sunblock, and I was operating on just an hour of sleep. My judgement was just a bit impaired. ‘I don’t want to just toss them,’ I explained to the agent. ‘Can I… well, can I just check my bag instead?’
At the time, that seemed like the smart option. Rather than leave behind sunblock that I’d just have to buy in Bermuda, at sky-high island prices, I could just check my bag, just this once! What could go wrong?
So, I ran my bag back to the desk for my airline, quickly checked it, and ran back to security. I sailed through the line, met my husband on the other side, and we ran to the gate. We were the last people to board the plane before they shut the door.
I settled back in my seat and breathed a sigh of relief. In just a couple hours, we’d be burying our toes in the sand and enjoying a few days of stress-free vacation. No worries beyond reapplying SPF. We were ready for that kind of relaxation.
Except, my suitcase wasn’t. It had other plans.
As it turned out, we made the plane… but it didn’t. We landed in Bermuda and learned we’d need to return back to the airport to pick it up the following day. My bathing suit? That big bottle of sunblock? Still in Boston. As it turned out, that snap decision to save a few bucks ended up costing us as we visited a drugstore for sunblock and a local mall so I could grab a bathing suit. A few packing problems weren’t going to keep us from snoozing in the sun just yet.” – Margot Bloomstein [travel blog / brand + content business]
Sticking your face in a snow drift: not savvy.
“I once spent the equivalent of $100 in London for a limousine to take me about 10min away to my friend’s apartment because I had decided to fly in from Spain to visit her in the middle of the night, arriving at an airport an hour outside the city, with sketchy directions to her location and no clear plan as to how I would actually get there from the airport at 2am when the Tube was closed and most cabs were not in service. Despite getting ripped off by the limo driver I ultimately found in central London after a long bus ride from the airport, I nearly wept with relief when I improbably made it to my destination and did not have to sleep under a bridge, so perhaps not the worst (although quite possibly the least savvy) $100 I ever spent.” – Jessica
Running the Denver marathon in fairy costumes: Savvy? Probably not. Adorable? Hell, yes.
“My first ever time traveling solo in a non-English speaking country, I got off the train in Paris with nothing but Swiss Francs (I had been in Switzerland for a few days before) and all the banks were still closed and I had no map. The workers in the train station did not particularly like the English-speaking guy with a huge pack trying to get information while backing up the regular commuters. After finally getting information that would get me to a local RV/tent camping site, I ended up walking many miles within the city and feeling completely drained by the end of the day. I actually called my mom and cried.” – Dustin Waite
What’s your least savvy travel moment?
I love this.
I have a theory that experienced travelers screw up more. They’re not afraid that something might go wrong so they leave a LOT more stuff to chance. They figure, “Oh, I got this” and then, the get on the train on the wrong day, or lock themselves out of hotel rooms repeatedly, or take the subway 7 stops in the wrong direction before they realize they’re going in wrong direction, or… not that any of that’s ever happened to ME. Nope.
Oh, I never thought of it that way – how true. I wonder how many epic travel fails I could have avoided if I didn’t think “I’ve got this…” (Several come to mind immediately.)