Every year, I reflect on the trips I’ve taken, the places I’ve been, and what I’ve learned.
Often, the things I’ve learned fall into the ‘life lessons’ realm more so than information I’ve learned about a new place, something I’ve experienced, or a cultural nuance I’ve discovered.
More than ever, in 2019, I felt the notion that travel isn’t designed to make you comfortable, nor is a place created for you to be comfortable while visiting.
Destinations exist to make the people who live there comfortable. And, having the immense privilege to travel, whether near or far, isn’t about doing the same things you could do at home.
For me, travel has always been about experiencing new things, exploring new places and making new connections.
Inevitably, friction comes with anything new.
That’s where the addiction in traveling lies- I love the sense of being cracked wide open, of constantly being surprised and needing to adjust, of learning constantly.
But, as much as I love learning on the go, I also believe in learning from the mistakes of others. After all, you won’t live long enough to make them all yourself.
Some ‘mistakes’ I made this past year were repeats of previous uhh-ohh’s I’ve made in different form.
Others were the result of me skipping out on essential research or taking a short cut where I shouldn’t have.
And still yet, others were things I could have in no way prepared for, but have taken to heart to learn from for the next time I find myself in a similar situation.
Without further ado, here are the biggest mistakes I made traveling 26 countries last year, and what I learned from them.
The Biggest Travel Mistakes I Made in 2019
OVERPAYING FOR TRAVEL INSURANCE
Before setting off on my trip to Asia, I knew I needed travel insurance, but didn’t give much thought to who the provider would be. Of course, it was important I select a legit company that would provide the emergency cover I hoped I wouldn’t need, but I didn’t second guess paying a premium for World Nomads.
If you follow other travel bloggers, then you’ve likely heard of World Nomads- they pay for placements across the industry, and until recently, had a lock on offering the best, most flexible worldwide nomad coverage.
At a fraction of the cost of World Nomads, SafetyWing offers better major medical coverage, and competitive travel insurance.
The only thing they don’t include?
But, in my opinion, with the caps WorldNomads has in place, it’s better to pay for electronics through another provider- AppleCare or the like, especially if you travel with a lot of gear.
LEAVING MY BANK CARD IN AN ATM IN THAILAND
I’ve always wondered how people could leave their debit card in an ATM- the notion seemed unfathomable to me. How distracted do you have to be?
Cue me trying to accomplish a bunch of errands in one day on a Thai island, and without thinking, leaving a card in the ATM. Thankfully, it was my digital bank card, and the provider, Revoult, were able to ship me a new card in a matter of days
NOT READING THE FINE PRINT ON TRAVEL INSURANCE
While I love banking with Revoult, I did have a moment of major disappointment with them this year.
When I had to replace my card twice in a short time span while traveling Thailand and Vietnam, I decided to upgrade to their metal plan, which offers worldwide three-day shipping. At the time of upgrading, an agent from Revoult further sold me on the upgrade by touting travel insurance as a perk.
In this convo, the agent knew I was currently traveling and not in my home country- after all, why would I need a card rush delivered to Thailand if that wasn’t the case?
Fast forward a few months during a health episode in Bali.
My coverage with SafetyWing is great because it’s meant to cover major medical mishaps, which means there’s a deductible you have to hit before making an insurance claim. With small bills in Bali quickly stacking up, but falling short of the claim threshold, I decided to try and use the travel insurance I had with Revoult because it’s meant to cover smaller medical instances.
At this point, I found out my travel insurance was never valid, and the agent had misled me. In order for it to be valid, I would have had to be in my home country at the time of purchase. When I contacted Revoult and tried to get an answer to why I’d been misled (I had a copy of the chat with the agent to serve as proof), I was met with what I can only describe as disinterest, outright dismissiveness, even.
I understand it’s on me, as the customer, to always read the fine print, but there’s a level of trust and service I expect from providers, and this was a blatant abuse of the end consumer. The exchange actually led me to consider other digital bank cards, which I’ll be opening in early 2020.
NOT TRACKING EVERY EXPENSE FROM DAY ONE
There are so many apps that can help with this, there’s no excuse not to track expenditures if you’re on a budget- my favourite is Trail Wallet.
I had a general sense of what I thought I was spending each month, but of course, when I finally got around to totalling it up, it was higher than I anticipated. This is an easy thing to correct, just by tracking, and once I started doing it, decisions about where I needed to trim budget, and where I could splurge in my excursions became effortless.
PLANNING TOO FAR AHEAD
When I left for my trip to Asia, I had everything booked for the first few months. Huge mistake. While, planning far ahead removed the onus of continually having to figure things out on the go, it also meant I had next to nil flexibility to extend my time in a destination.
After kicking myself for not allowing enough time to explore Taiwan, I resolved to stop booking flights, accommodation, and the like more than one-two weeks out. This resolution proved to be especially great in the back half of the year, allowing me to pivot how I’d envisioned spending late October and November to head to Sri Lanka, India and Turkey.
NOT PREPARING FOR LONG TERM TRAVEL REALITIES
Leaving on a one-way ticket without a set return date was scary in many ways, and while I couldn’t have anticipated just how long I’d be gone, there are some things I should have sorted before leaving.
Moving my items into storage or shipping them home; creating a digital phone number for two-step authentication; sorting an address back-up, both in the UK and US.
Not managing these things before I left meant I encountered bumps over the course of my trip, especially on the front of not having a back-up number for two-factor authentication. In the end, I resorted to using my sister’s US number and kept my UK sim for international things, but neither is what I’d call ideal.
FORGETTING TO BOOK EXIT FLIGHTS
Thankfully, I was never forced into purchasing a pricey last-minute flight, but several times, I found myself arguing with airline agents and hoping they’d grant me boarding.
If you’re new to international travel, some countries require you have proof of onward travel (exit flight) booked to enter the country. Occasionally border agents check, but more often than not, the responsibility falls on airline agents, as part of the check-in process.
With sites like onwardtravel.com, where you can buy a faux flight confirmation mega cheap, or Expedia, where you can buy a 24-hour refundable flight and then simply cancel your reservation after you’ve arrived, there’s no reason not to be prepared on this front.
BECOMING A BIT TOO CHILL WITH TRAVEL PLANNING
This year, I majorly chilled out in how I plan and book trips, which felt incredible. It’s exhilarating to not know where you’re going to be in a few weeks, let alone a month.
However, the downside to being more hands off with travel plans is that at times, I arrived places and missed out on things I wanted to do because I hadn’t planned ahead.
Let’s look at a few (of many) examples-
- Seoul: Not realising DMZ tours don’t run on Mondays, and missing the chance to visit the border zone because I’d waited too long in my trip to book
- Sydney: Arriving in Sydney with no real plan, and spending a few days of glorious sunshine inside working / planning at the beginning of our trip. Normally, not an issue. But, during the last week of my trip, it rained heavily daily, which meant we missed out on doing some of the day trips we’d been most excited about experiencing in NSW
- Turkey: Not realising Cappadocia’s small airport doesn’t run public transit to the towns. 10 minutes before our flight boarded from Istanbul, we realised the error and frantically emailed shuttle companies, hoping to secure a spot upon landing. Of course, things worked out, but it definitely created unnecessary stress because we thought we could just rock up and roll
- Seoul: Not knowing Google maps are outdated in South Korea (for security reasons), and being unable to tell or show my taxi driver where I needed to go for my Airbnb at 12:30 am. Cut to a yelling match in the middle of a highway, scary moment of almost being kicked out of the cab on a busy street, and eventual need for me to walk 15 minutes from a main road to my Airbnb by myself at 1:30 am. Thankfully, I was in a safe area of Seoul, but the entire mishap could have been avoided if I had directions to my Airbnb in Korean, and had one of the transit / map apps that works in Seoul downloaded
LAPSING ON HOW SERIOUS I TAKE MY FOOD ALLERGIES
When you have a life-threatening food allergy, you’re pretty much always on alert while traveling. I skip out on street food most of the time, simply because I can’t guarantee cooking methods. At restaurants and cafes, I usually ask to speak to a chef or someone who is fluent in English. If all else fails, I order something Western (like cheese pizza), that I know will be safe for me to consume.
And usually, the precautions I take work.
During my third month in Bali, I got too comfortable. A smoothie bowl I wanted to order had cashews in it, so I communicated the seriousness of my food allergy to the wait staff.
The smoothie bowl arrived, I took a few bites and immediately knew i had an issue. While my friend handled resolving our bill, I drove myself to an urgent care centre for treatment.
The next day, I went back to the cafe to speak to a manager. The manager, who was fully fluent in English, wasn’t there the day prior. She showed me how the smoothie bowls are prepped, and instantly, I spotted a big issue. Unlike other places in Bali, where everything is prepared fresh, the ingredients for these bowls were frozen together- fruits, nuts, etc. Her kitchen staff had tried to pick out the nuts, but the cross-contamination at that point would have been so severe, it wouldn’t have mattered.
For me, it was a lesson in not ordering things that come with nuts I’m allergic to unless there’s someone on staff who is fully fluent in English, and can affirm there’ll be pretty much zero chance of cross contamination.
OPENING MYSELF UP TO BEING ASSAULTED IN VIETNAM
I know being assaulted wasn’t my fault, but I also didn’t need to have my iPhone in my lap while on the back of a motorbike on a major highway.
Doing so made it relatively easy for someone to zoom up alongside us, hit my arm (twice), grab my phone and speed off.
Flaunting what I have while traveling isn’t usually a concern for me- especially while backpacking (read: nothing worth stealing). But, this incident was a major lesson in securing my belongings, and not getting too comfortable in a foreign country.
What ‘mistakes’ did you make while traveling in 2019, and what did you learn from them?