Travel Disasters: Learn From Our Mistakes

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Our adventurous experts may have failed, but they do things differently now.

It was a sticky summer day in Mexico City, 3 days into my first trip to the country. Zona Rosa, a gayborhood in the city, was bustling and dangerously sharp high heels, faded sneakers and gleaming black dress shoes beat the pavement into place. I knew because I watched each go by from my spot on the pavement where, I imagined, plenty of dogs had peed. I was sitting, my bare legs tucked tightly under me, rocking slightly against a city planter, also probably peed on, trying desperately not to crap my pants.

I knew exactly when my predicament had begun. It was two days previous, exactly seven blocks away from my hostel in Zócalo, the heart of the urban center. I had wandered into an empty restaurant, starving

Haunting piano music played a little too loudly and the white tablecloths stood out, an unlikely sight after blocks and blocks of casual joints. Too many employees stood around the tables, waiting for patrons who didn’t seem to come. Except me.

Eating in weird places is just part of the deal when I travel. The real issue came in the form of jugo de naranja⁠—with ice.

I was told many times to ask for beverages without ice in Mexico, as the water has different microbes than the water I drink at home, and I had religiously followed that advice. But somehow, when faced with a delicious, cold glass of orange juice on a scorching hot day, I couldn’t say no. And, honestly, I couldn’t even have requested something different if I had wanted to⁠—my Spanish was too broken.

I paid for my rash gulps with days on various toilets and, occasionally, rest stops right on the pavement when a restroom was outside of reach.

Note: I did not soil my shorts. And now I know enough Spanish to request my beverages sin hielo.

I’m also not the only adventure traveler who has messed up. Since that trip south of the border, I've traveled to 13 more countries (and to Mexico two more times), and heard many a trip terror from fellow travelers about adventures gone wrong along the way. Some could have been easily avoided, others were completely unexpected. But they all had something in common: They were learning experiences. That's why, for my own edification and for yours, I reached out to some of my favorite travel experts to hear their missteps and what they took away.

Dr. Kiona

The blogger and Instagram phenomenon behind How Not To Travel Like A Basic Bitch on why you should pack light.  

I was 21 years old and headed to Spain on a summer-long study abroad trip. Nervous but excited, I stopped at my grandfather’s house in Austria on the way. He picked me up from the airport with two suitcases and a duffel. He immediately said, “You are traveling with a lot of things.” I shrugged it off.

Then my aunt came over. And being the overly dramatic one, had me unpack all my suitcases just to see what I could possibly be carrying. She gasped. I had 27 pairs of shoes: I had rain boots, hiking boots, sandals, shower sandals, high heels, low heels, blue, red, black, all the colors of the rainbow all packed into those suitcases. I mean, a girl has to look good while traveling, right?

When it was time for me to head to Spain, my grandfather silently drove me to the airport. We got to the counter, and the woman said, “That will be 300 Euro. You pay 10 Euro per kilo extra.”

My grandfather silently opened his wallet and shelled out 300 Euro. And all he said was, “Next time, just bring a backpack.”

Meg Atteberry

Solo traveler, freelance writer and REI Co-op Journal contributor on why travel insurance is a must.

The first time I ever traveled to Asia solo, I decided to meet a friend who was living in Mongolia. Unfortunately, she had to go home to U.S., and I had a non-refundable ticket to the Land of the Blue Sky. Mongolia is a remote, rugged place and I made the decision to head out there solo. I spent a week living in gers (yurts) off the grid on the steppe with a few fellow travelers I met on my first day in the country.

On my last day, I caught a nasty bout of food poisoning from eating bad horse meat. I was alone and ended up being hospitalized as my body began to shut down from extreme dehydration. Thankfully, I got sick in the capital of Ulaanbaatar, where the only western hospital in the entire country is located. I got very lucky that the hospital chose to treat me (many hospitals in foreign countries won’t help you unless you have cash upfront). I ended up cancelling the rest of my tour through northern and central Asia and heading home to recover. I didn’t carry traveler’s insurance at the time, but since that incident, I always carry it when I travel overseas. In fact, travel insurance typically isn’t even that expensive.

Ashley Brown

Well-traveled REI employee on why flexibility and rain jackets are required.

My ex-husband and I were in Japan at the perfect time to summit Mt. Fuji, which can only be hiked safely for about two and a half months in the summer. Most people bus up to mid-mountain and summit from there, but we decided to do it the purist’s way and begin at the bottom, with a night at one of the minimalistic inns that dot the trail.

Halfway through the first day, the sky turned dark and rain started dumping. We looked like drowned rats by the time we got to the inn. They were shocked to see us, and told us that authorities were evacuating the mountain because a typhoon blew in uncharacteristically early. We spent the night and were bused off the mountain the next morning. We found a room in a nearby town and sadly prepared to move on to our next location.

The next morning we woke up to stunning blue skies and a gorgeous view of the mountain. We ran down to the front desk, rearranged our plans, and bused back to the trail exactly where we’d left it the day before. After spending the night in another inn near the peak we made a sunrise summit the next day. What did we learn? Be adaptable and spontaneous and things just might work out. Oh, and always be prepared for unexpected, and sometimes miserable, weather.

Dylan Brown

Adventure and travel photographer on why you should never travel without a daypack.

I never want to be without a piece of equipment. I'd rather not use something than wish I had brought it. And that goes beyond just lenses, camera bodies, tripods and the obvious camera gear. One item never to be underestimated is a day pack⁠—and a nondescript, non-technical backpack at that. It allows you to carry just a few lenses and essentials at a time, while not drawing unnecessary attention to yourself.

I came to this realization while working in India. Night after night, I'd come home after dark, lugging my big camera backpack with my tripod strapped to its side, and I just felt like I was sticking out like a sore thumb. Some time after India, I traveled to Cuba, and walking around Havana at night, I was grateful that I didn't look like a photographer, and more importantly look like I was carrying $10,000 worth of gear.

Kelsey Wenger

REI Adventures' program manager for Latin America on why you definitely need to treat your water.

I went on a backpacking trip in Peru’s Vilcanota range. The trail was beautiful and above 10,000 feet the whole way. My friend and I were vigilant about sterilizing and boiling our water. However, we didn’t take into account that water boils quicker at altitude, and you need to let it boil longer if you’re using it as a sterilization technique. We both got giardia.

Heather Gyselman

REI Adventure travel program manager for North America on how to travel with kids.

My husband and I were flying from Seattle to Albuquerque, New Mexico with our two-year-old girl, and it went every way but right. I won’t go into the gory details except to say that from the minute we walked into the airport, this kid had a chip on her shoulder and was going to make sure everyone knew it.

The biggest lesson I learned there is that you can never have enough treats and activities. If you think you’ve got enough, you don’t. For your sanity and the goodwill of the people around you, go overboard with distractions and snacks you’d never give them at home. Go to your local secondhand store and get little toys, trinkets and books they’ve never seen before. Pull them out on the hour every hour. Being prepared can make the difference between an awesome travel experience or a miserable one.

Allison Boyle

The founder behind the backpacking and outdoor adventure blog, She Dreams of Alpine, on why you should consider an international cell phone plan when you travel.

When my fiancé and I were taking a two-week campervan tour of New Zealand’s North Island a couple of years ago, we ran into a lot of issues with the vehicle’s battery. Our first morning on the island, just outside of Auckland, we woke up and the battery was completely dead. We were able to get a jump, and just brushed it off. However, just a couple days later in Waitomo, we had battery troubles again. We were still having a blast in New Zealand though, so we got a second jump start and headed toward our next destination on the map. At one point along our drive, we pulled off on the side of the road to take a photo of the epic landscape around us (you do that a lot in New Zealand). But when we went back to our van, it was dead. Again. Palm-to-face.

Only this time we were in the middle of nowhere. We were surrounded by sheep and green pastures on a road that was unnamed. We had no idea where we were. We had to turn on our cell service to call for a jump and to tell the campervan company that we were having serious issues with our van. Thankfully, we had service, and by some miracle we were able to describe where we were in enough detail that roadside assistance was able to find us.

That 30-minute phone call cost us well over double what an international cell phone plan would have cost us for the month. Second palm-to-face. Our trip was still amazing despite being off schedule, but we could have saved ourselves a lot of time, stress and money if we had just gotten an international cell phone plan for emergencies like this.

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