Mistakes, errors, gaffes, blunders. Whatever you call them, I’ve made them – lots of them. Sometimes more than once. Read on to learn from my screw-ups.
Don’t try to cover too much ground, wherever you’re traveling. It’s tempting, I know. There’s always so much to see and so little time.
- I made this mistake when planning our 2018 US Southwest road trip. We covered 5500 miles in three weeks. (Somehow, on a similar trip 11 years earlier, this hadn’t been a problem. I never like to blame age, but maybe… age?) With one exception at the very beginning of the trip, that pretty much translated to a new sleeping locale every night, usually precipitated by 4-5 hours of (admittedly very scenic) driving to get there. After that, I learned my lesson. For both the England/Wales road trip we took last summer, as well as the Spain/France sojourn that coronavirus has ruined, four nights in each place was/will be (some day, in a post-virus world) the standard. I guess this is us embracing slow travel.
Returning to someplace you’ve already visited? Don’t assume things will be the same as the last time you were there.
- In 2006 we incorporated a four-day visit to Paris into a longer trip to England. We saw many of the places people think of when they think of Paris, including the Eiffel Tower. In fact, we did more than see it; we went up it. We also walked right up to and under the structure, completely unhindered. There was a line to go up, but nothing worse than expected. Fast forward to 2017. This time our Eiffel Tower visit was for lunch reservations at the Jules Verne restaurant on the tower’s second story. Already stressed because a closure at our nearest metro station meant we were going to cut our reservation time very close, we were shocked by what we saw as we approached the iconic tower: barricades. The entire structure was enclosed by what seemed like miles of fencing. Not a surprise – there had been 22 terrorist attacks in France since our previous visit – and yet a total surprise to us. The barrier had a trailer or two along each side that were used as entry points for eight zillion tourists, who were like mob of ants swarming around a cracker on the sidewalk. I broke out in a nervous sweat knowing that missing our narrow reservation window at the Jules Verne would be a very costly mistake – think au revoire deposit and au revoire dejuner) For a play-by-play of this French sit-com (starring us), read Transit Troubles in the City of Light, but suffice it to say, don’t expect things to remain constant, and do your research beforehand.
Be sure to research local festivals and national holidays that may negatively impact your travel.
- In my early twenties, I packed everything I owned into my car and drove out west to begin a 2½-month Colorado Outward Bound outdoor course, after which I would drive to Montana, get a job, and start a new life in the mountains. As I drove through Omaha, I started to feel tired and decided that Lincoln, 60 miles down the road, would be my stop for the night. Little did I know that the Nebraska State Fair was taking place in the capital city and vacant hotel rooms were as easy to come by as a Nebraska ski hill. I stopped several times only to be told, effectively, “No room at the inn.” Finally, I found a hotel that had a single remaining room… the honeymoon suite. Battling stronger fatigue now, I had no choice but to cough up the dough I could ill-afford to part with and learned that spontaneity doesn’t always work.
- A similar thing happened to the husband on his way to Utah for a bike-packing adventure in the San Rafael Swell. Unwilling to let his Travel Architect wife book him a hotel room, he winged it and barely managed to find a hotel in Moab, which was filled with spring-breakers who, unlike him, had planned ahead.
- And then there was attempting to spend Bastille Day in Annecy, France, which was an unmitigated disaster. This time it wasn’t a lack of accommodation that was the problem. It was the holiday crowds. We ended up fleeing to another town in the Alps, but not before lots of tears, stress, and arguments brought on by what we now call The Annecy Curse.
Research the nuts-n-bolts details of museums and other cultural sites carefully.
- We went to see England’s Arundel Castle on a Monday. It’s not open on Mondays.
- The husband had been looking forward to visiting the observatory at Flagstaff, Arizona’s Lowell Observatory. It was closed for renovations.
- On one trip to London, we visited Windsor Castle. I was very interested in seeing the resting places of Henry VIII and his favorite wife, Jane Seymour. (Favorite because she bore him the male heir he had gone to great lengths – namely abandoning his first wife, creating a whole new religion for his country so he could finally divorce her and remarry, and beheading his second wife – to get.) Though many English monarchs are buried in Westminster Abbey, Henry VIII is buried in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. We happened to find ourselves there early on a Sunday, which meant we were free to explore all the castle’s usual delights… except St. George’s Chapel, which was closed for services all morning.
Give yourself a few days to adjust a radically different time zone before picking up your rental car.
- A few years ago we flew to Paris, made our way to the car rental counter to pick up our vehicle, and attempted to drive to the Loire Valley. We were both coming off a sleeping pill and very jet-lagged. Driving a car, it turns out, was not the best idea. We had to pull over and nap at a highway rest stop or risk falling asleep at the wheel.
- Although I had learned my lesson, the logistics of our trip to England/Wales meant we couldn’t avoid repeating this same scenario. This time the husband avoided the sleeping pill, so he was “merely” jet-lagged and underslept, but it was a difficult 140-mile drive just the same, as his travel partner (me) kept falling asleep and couldn’t help keep him awake with witty banter. He even upbraided me on the podcast me for my thoughtless dozing! Lesson really learned now. Whenever this stupid pandemic ends and we can head to Spain/France as planned, we are parking our kiesters in Barcelona for three days before picking up the car.
NEVER carry your passport around with you in your purse or on your person.
- I woke up one morning in London years ago to discover that I had left my purse at the Indian restaurant where we’d dined the night before. And if that weren’t bad enough, my passport was in it. Thankfully, the restaurant was very close to our hostel. I literally ran there, only to find it empty – opening time was 11:30 am. We had to punt. We abandoned our plans to visit Portobello Road Market and instead killed time visiting the nearby Bank of England Museum (which, in our discombobulated state, we accidentally toured in reverse, causing much confusion) and a few other things that were nearby, but my anxiety cast a pall over everything. At precisely 11:30 we were back at the restaurant, where, to my immense relief, they produced the purse with passport, money, and everything else that was in it. It turned out that my good mood had been trapped in the purse all morning, so I got that back as well.
Don’t wear your wedding ring or bring other items of high monetary or emotional value with you while traveling.
- I learned this lesson the hard way. (Is there any other way?) I lost my wedding ring in the ocean on the first day of our Belizean honeymoon. It was awful, and it happened on the heels of a terrible set of flights that delayed our arrival by 24 hours. Of course, once you’ve worn a wedding ring for a while, you feel anxious and naked without it… or at least I do. The solution? A cheap $10 ring. That’s what I wear on all my travels now. If I lose it while traveling, the loss won’t create a When Bad Things Happen to Good Travelers moment. Bad for the blog, but good for me.
Driving in a foreign country with a GPS unit? Be quiet and don’t get distracted!
- GPS units are a thing of beauty, especially while driving around an unfamiliar country. If you’re on a long, static stretch of road, though, you may start chatting with your car mates, and if you’re in the midst of a conversation when your GPS unit gives a directional cue, you may talk over it, missing critical information. Worse, sometimes GPS units give late cues, which means you don’t have very much time to react. This happened numerous times while driving around France and England, but we were always able to make the correct turn, exit, or lane change in the nick of time. Except once: chatting amiably (or maybe we were bickering – you never know with us), we missed our GPS’s late cue in a convoluted area of twisty highway exits and missed our turn. The result? We ended up driving an extra 45 minutes on the ring road around some moderately-sized French city. Quelle perte de temps!
I’d love to tell you that I’m finished – that this constitutes the sum total of all the travel-related mistakes I’ve made.
Alas, no. In fact, I’m just getting warmed up.
Stay tuned for Part 2…