The more you travel, the more widely your experiences are going to vary. I started this blog to share many tips about specific destinations I have visited in my decades of travels. I love giving my thoughts about what activities and sights to see in many places, although everyone’s travel tastes and styles differ. And I have also enjoyed sharing my two cents about the travel planning, including tips on packing, booking travel and more.
I don’t ever intend to gloss over the experience of travel because just like in real life, sometimes it’s all a struggle. So when I write about my experiences, I try not to pretend everything is always happy and effortless and perfect just because I am on vacation. But I also don’t want to complain or be too negative about my traveling experiences because I do feel fortunate to a) have the means to travel; b) have the ease of travel thanks to my nationality and c) be adventurous and curious about the world.
With that really long lead-in, I thought it would be interesting to share my top travel mishaps. The other night I found some writing I had done to try and document my two years in Beijing which was the first place I lived after finished grad school at age 24. I was so green back then, and in the (cough) 20 years since moving to China I have certainly been met with a range of awesome, good, bad, ugly and frustrating travel experiences. My Beijing tales reminded me of incidents I would have rather forgotten, and others that made me laugh. Anything and everything can go wrong when you are in another country, or city. Even if you are a very experienced traveller, mistakes happen. So, here are my top travel mishaps!
The time I got my flight departure time really wrong:
In 2008, I spent three weeks in Beijing attending the Summer Olympics. I was living in New Zealand at the time and was so happy to have new direct flights from Auckland to Beijing. I had a wonderful time seeing old friends, eating amazing Beijing fare and of course watching amazing athletes win gold medals. On my last day, while hanging out with a dear friend, I went to take one more look at my boarding pass. I gasped! I thought my flight left at night. Turns, out I needed my eyes checked because my flight was a morning flight, and oops it had already left me behind. #$@#($@#(*$#@*(
In the end, bless Air New Zealand for only making me pay $250 to get home because I should have had to pay a full one-way fare to get home. The first airline staff member I spoke with told me this was what was going to happen, but somehow I must have called back and spoke to someone else who let me just pay a rebooking fee. I think having Koro club membership back then thanks to work might have helped plus I was a pretty frequent flier on Air NZ. Either way, what an embarrassing gaffe. I have certainly never made that mistake again!
The time I walked the wrong way at a Seoul airport and created layers of panic:
I moved to South Korea in late 2002. It was the week before Christmas and I was supposed to arrive on December 19th, which happened to be Election Day there. Shouldn’t have mattered, but in the end it kinda did.
So, I get to Seoul Incheon airport and am a bit confused about where I am meant to go to get to my connection to Gimhae airport. I can’t find any airport staff to help me and the directional signs for international connections were nowhere to be seen. Either that or I did not see one because soon I realize I ‘entered’ Korea and can no longer get on my connecting flight. I got taken into a small room alongside a man in a turban who was being interrogated. Soon, I too was being questioned and it’s well implied I am an idiot for making this error. I am, naturally, upset and am sleep deprived and scared. I remember worrying about my suitcase, and the airport staff (all men, I recall) made me feel like shit about this whole situation. I was told I would need take a bus to Gimpo airport to catch a new flight to Gimhae. Naturally I needed cash (3000 won) for the bus and this is an ordeal too because time is of the essence, and I don’t have any local currency FFS and this has been a trying few hours. I remember a Korean woman who worked for the airport ended up giving me the money so I could buy my bus ticket. Fast forward a full hour on this bus and I made it on my new flight to Gimhae, which is where my new employers are supposed to meet me.
I can’t recall how much later I arrived at Gimhae than scheduled, but when I get there, I can’t see anyone there to meet me. This has already been a bad day, and now I try and call the school. No answer – it’s Election Day and no one is working (my school was usually open until 8 or 9pm). So I call my mom who is in a panic because the agency I used to get the job called her asking where I was. Turns out, my new employer went to pick me up at the airport, and when I didn’t arrive he called the agency and basically had decided I arrived in South Korea and did a runner. So mom has been freaked out because she heard I didn’t arrive on my flight. Then I called the agency and get told to just STAY PUT and my school’s owners will come to me. My goodness. I am sure I had a tear-stained face and was a damn mess, and then I meet Mr Kang and his wife who were picking me up. Not a great start for what would end up being an 18-month teaching position.
The time US Airways sent my suitcase on a Mexican holiday without me
This one isn’t a very long story, but during a month-long visit back to the US in 2009 I hopped from Minneapolis to Tampa to see a close friend. I connected through Charlotte, and back in those days I tended to check in a suitcase with my stuff. I remember just carrying on my purse and, sadly, leaving everything else I’d packed in my suitcase.
Basically, when I got to Minneapolis my bag was missing, and I found out the airline staff in Charlotte had misloaded it, so my suitcase was sent to Cancun. I was immediately worried that it would not be returned to me at all, or that while unattended some things might be stolen out of the suitcase. I thankfully had thrown my parent’s car keys in my purse and had my mom’s cell phone. I did not, however, have her phone charger and naturally it was running out of battery as I tried to call the airline during my 3-hour drive home.
In a nutshell: I waited two days for my suitcase to be returned to me. When I opened it up, my work phone and charger were missing, as was my entire makeup bag and jewelry bag. THANKFULLY my passport was not taken. I mean, how dumb was I even taking it to Florida? I also don’t know what possessed me to take all the jewelry I’d taken back to the US for a month with me to Florida. Or to not put it in my purse when I checked my bag. Anyway, it was all gone. Gifts including amazing earrings from a friend in Melbourne, a necklace my mom bought me in Poland, a ring from Mexico my aunt had given me plus an amazing glass ring I’d bought in the South Island of NZ. Lots of irreplaceable things.
In the end, after lots of arguing, I did manage to get some flight vouchers from US Airways (fairly useless to me though living in NZ) and they reimbursed me for my makeup. One of the airline’s stances was that the baggage was not delayed, damaged or lost. Well, it was obviously delayed but none of these categories covered their error in sending my bag to the wrong airport.
Now, I barely bring any jewelry when I travel. I make a point to choose a few pairs of earrings and maybe 2-3 necklaces tops for longer trips. Often I just have a single simple necklace and earrings. I also always make sure I keep my keys in my purse (not in a carryon suitcase even if I can take it on a plane). You just never know. Also, keep your passport safe, and only take it on trips when you really need it! and for crying out loud don’t keep it in your suitcase. Overall, I suppose I was lucky but damn I still miss those rings.
When I first moved to Beijing, I was told to be really careful about drinking the tap water. I was encouraged to use bottled water to brush my teeth and also close my mouth in the shower. I certainly didn’t always do that during two full years living there, but never felt sick after ingesting any water. The food, on the other hand, got me a few time during travels in China.
My first episode that knocked me on my rear was the end of a 10-day trip to Xinjiang in Western China with friends. On our way back to Beijing, a friend and I both ate scrambled eggs from a buffet at the airport. In hindsight, not my best choice. And both of us ended up with salmonella poisoning. This all mere days before I was leaving China after two years so to say the timing was bad was an understatement. I’d had to move out of my provided apartment into a smaller one and I was surround with all my crap. I was so sick, and weak, and I had to pack and tie up all the loose ends when moving countries. And then everyone kept wanting to take me out to eat and have a farewell party. All I could stomach to eat was white rice, which doesn’t make me a fun person to take out for dinner.
But, it could have been worse. My fellow egg-eating friend ended up in the hospital.
Hospitalized in Shanghai
Fast forward 8 years later and I was in China for work. I had spent 4-5 days in Beijing and then was to spend about the same amount of time in Shanghai for a range of meetings. The organization I worked for had an office there so I was put up in the Langham hotel and had a few nice days being hosted to local media offices and outstanding restaurants. And then we had a work dinner at a flashy restaurant overlooking The Bund river. It was a great evening, and I felt so proud to be at the level I was in this organization to be included in such a dinner. I ordered prawns to start, and then steak for my main. I woke up feeling as sick as I ever had in my life. I tried to just pray for it to go away, but my colleague insisted I go to the hospital after I called her in agony. I ended up on IV drips for six hours and ended up staying at a colleague’s home for a few days as I recovered.
By the time I was ready to try getting home again I wasn’t able to fly back direct, and instead had to connect through Hong Kong. Not only did that add time but I was then thrown another curve ball because as soon as I checked into my flight I learned that my Hong Kong-Auckland flight was delayed a full day due to the inbound flight. Why the Air NZ desk didn’t tell me that as I checked in is still a mystery. All that meant was that I could have just stayed in Shanghai and continued to rest at the house of my colleague. Instead, I got to Hong Kong and thankfully my Hong Kong-based colleague was able to book me into an airport hotel.
At this particular job, I was known to be accident prone, usually when playing tennis. I remember my boss at the time just giving me a sympathetic look when I finally got back to the office. My job not only covered the hospitalization and also the majority of the nearly $800 phone bill I racked up making calls to rebook my flights and call family and friends during those 6 hours in the hospital. Naturally, I was racking up global roaming fees while calling on my NZ phone to Chinese and US numbers.
A friend had insisted that I call the restaurant and tell them how sick I’d gotten but I just did not have the energy. This is the last time I’ve been to China and I think, given my luck there, maybe that’s for the best.
Bus tumble in Beijing
If you have ever been on public transport in China then you will have a good idea what I mean when I say they are packed. During my early days in Beijing I tried to be frugal as I learned how to best navigate the massive city. Buses were really hard to work out because the maps were impossible for me to read. This was before smartphones and handy Google Maps to tell me how to get around. I usually walked to a subway station if I could, or else I took taxis. But on one trip somewhere, I was on a very full bus and as I was getting off, people were pushing and I managed to miss a step and fall to the ground. Just my luck.
My Chinese teacher, a retired doctor, came by later that day and was worried about how much my arm hurt. She insisted I go to the hospital to get X-rays but nothing was broken thankfully . This ended up being my first of three visits to the local hospital in Beijing. The two other times I don’t wish to go into detail about, but I had two minor procedures done and both times they kept me overnight for what would have been a straightforward same-day surgery in the US. On one occasion, I got so frustrated being kept that I told them I was leaving. And I did!
The time a backpackers roommate bought herself a camera with my credit card
While living in New Zealand we got a day off each February for Waitangi Day, which was the national day of New Zealand. I took the day before off to spend a 4-day weekend up in the Bay of Islands. Paihia was a popular touristy area and I was looking forward to enjoying the beaches, the Waitangi Treaty Grounds located a short drive away, and historic Russell. I had been to this region a few years earlier but it was winter and rainy so I wanted to have more time to explore properly.
I booked a backpackers that looked good and it was a shared women’s room with four beds. I always had had good experiences in hostels and since I was on my own I figured I would meet some interesting people to hang out with.
One morning, I left all my belongings under my bed and went to take a shower. I then went to pay for another night’s accommodation as I had decided to stay in Paihia the whole time. When I went to pay, I noticed my credit card was not in the normal place I always kept it. When I went back to my room, one of my roommates told me she’d seen another girl putting something back under my bed while I was in the shower. I hadn’t met this French girl yet but she had already left for the day. I then called my bank and learned there was a recent $300-400 transaction at the local camera store in town.
The backpackers called the police and I filed a report. The backpackers was able to find out that the girl who took my credit card had booked herself on a boat trip so the police planned to meet it when she arrived and arrest her. I meanwhile, went into the camera store and explained the situation. I asked to see the receipt and it was so clearly a forgery I was furious that the store didn’t even check signatures because if they had it would have been clear that it was obviously not a match.
Once the girl had been arrested I tried to resume my long weekend of fun, but my mood was crap. I took the ferry over to Russell, and wandered a bit but my heart wasn’t it in. I returned to Paihia, loaded up my car and headed home a day early.
Lessons learned: lock your purse in your suitcase, or take your wallet to the bathroom with you! Or, don’t stay in a backpackers. Lots of choices!
I barely want to write this one. To acknowledge that despite knowing BETTER, and knowing all the rules for how not to get pickpocketed, I got pickpocketed. Sigh.
So here’s what you should do if you don’t want someone to take your wallet right out of your purse right in front of you:
1) Zip your purse (I mean, duh) – I had stupidly just put my wallet in my purse after buying a subway ticket. Distracted by many things, I not only didn’t shove the wallet far down into my purse, but I set it just inside the top of the purse which zipped on the top. So, it was open. It was not a shoulder bag as I prefer a cross body bag when I travel so it’s in front of me. Well, I failed. I left myself completely exposed and anyone watching me would have seen that I did not zip my purse, and they would have seen what color my wallet was.
2) Don’t get distracted by men holding up ponchos, or umbrellas in a crowded metro station on a rainy day. Be. On. Guard. It was chaotic and I was trying to figure out what to do because the rain meant getting a taxi wasn’t an option so I just was not paying attention like I should have been.
I got lucky – eventually the station security found my wallet which had been discarded after whomever took it grabbed the cash I had in it. I also violated another rule – don’t carry multiple credit cards in your wallet. I stupidly had three in my wallet, and I should have kept at least one back in my hotel. I was so lucky I got back my license and all my credit cards. The thief could have just thrown the whole wallet in the trash and I never would have seen it again.
There are so many more stories that I won’t elaborate on that I can now chuckle about:
Nearly being hit by a rickshaw in Beijing and in getting out of the way I scraped my leg on a rusty bike parked along the road while walking around Hutong alley I think it was called. My lower leg got cut badly enough it was bleeding so I went to the pharmacy to get something to put on it. I was especially worried because the bike was really decrepit looking (not sure my tetanus shot was current!?) The pharmacist gave me some powdery thing to put on the cut, I assume to clean it out and fight infection. I have a scar from that one.
I got a massage on the beach in Puerto Rico, and the massage therapist put some sort of oil on my chin. I never understood why other than it was to add a relaxing fragrance to the experience. Well, it burned my chin so badly it blistered. And from time to time my chin actually still gets red, 15 years later!
I won’t go into the number of times I have needed to get medicine while traveling. I should actually be wise enough at this stage to thrown in a few item to address some common ailments, such as hydration tablets or magnesium. I always advocate for being a light packer, but these would not take up much space. But if you need medicine while traveling, just find a pharmacy, a chemist, what have you. I have typically found what I was after, even with language barriers. These situations can be a drain when you are in a different city, or country, but for most minor illnesses or accidents you can find what you need to feel better.
There are many more stories, but these are my most memorable, or most extreme situations. Most of these make me laugh now, and I expect many more as I don’t plan to stop traveling anytime soon.