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There are plenty of travel sites that tell you how to do things the right way — but as every traveler knows, sometimes things go wrong. In his bi-monthly travel and credit card mistake series, TPG Contributor J. Keith van Straaten invites you to learn from his mistakes — his many, many mistakes. All photos are by the author unless otherwise noted.
When I tell people I write a column about making mistakes when traveling and using travel-related credit cards, the most common question I get is, “Aren’t you afraid you’re going to run out of mistakes?”
Alas, I am not. If 2015 is any indication, the more I travel, the more mistakes I’ll make. I’ve written before of some of the doozies from this year, such as showing up to the airport without a visa, not budgeting for travel vaccines and losing out on a big credit card bonus. I confess to these blunders in the hopes that readers can learn from my mistakes and have a more pleasant experience than I did. But rest assured, there are many more of them — mistakes that aren’t consequential or universal enough to warrant a full post but still may prove instructive as they are humbling.
So here’s a rundown of many small mistakes I’ve made this year and the lessons you (and hopefully, I) can learn from them. If it seems like a lot, keep in mind: I’m not even confessing the ones I made without leaving the country!
In Egypt, I let a smooth-talking salesman put samples of spices and teas in my hand, which led to a pleasant chat about traveling, which led to me paying $25 for about $5 worth of fragrant nonsense. I left town more mad at myself than the merchant, which, of course, is ridiculous.
Lesson: Don’t be afraid to say no. Forgive yourself for getting ripped off. In fact, I just had a friend tell me he budgets in an extra $100 as a “foreigner tax” on negotiated purchases abroad. By that metric, I came out ahead!
In Abu Dhabi, I got a pretty good deal at an Aloft hotel, a Starwood property. And which cobranded credit card did I forget to bring with me to pay for my stay? My Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express, which would have given me 2x points per dollar spent at this SPG hotel.
Lesson: Double-check which hotels you’ll be staying at when traveling and make sure to bring the cobranded card. Almost all hotel-branded cards earn bonus points when used at one of their properties.
In Denmark, I walked from the train station to the Louisiana museum outside of Copenhagen and was delighted to find someone had left out bottles of homemade marmalade for sale next to their mailbox. I gladly abided the honor system and deposited some krone in the lockbox and took two jars. Guess what you’re not allowed to bring inside carry-on luggage from Copenhagen’s airport?
Also in Denmark, I made sure to bring my Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard. It’s my favorite card for traveling in Europe because it has no foreign transaction fees and uses chip-and-PIN technology, which is necessary for many transportation ticket vending machines. But you can’t use chip and PIN if you don’t have your PIN! Since I don’t use the PIN in the US, I had forgotten it, which I didn’t realize until I was trying to buy a train ticket from a machine at a suburban Danish station.
Lesson: Confirm your PIN before traveling abroad. If necessary, it’s easy to change at the Barclaycard website.
In South Africa, I brought what is advertised as an “All-in-One Universal Adapter” for plugging devices into foreign outlets. It’s got four sets of prongs to use all over the world. I was glad to have it when I traveled to South Africa this year. But guess which country uses a plug that’s not so universal? Fortunately, small adapters could be purchased at most stores.
Lesson: Double-check the electric outlets used in the country you’re visiting.
Leaving Johannesburg, I stood in line with my luggage at Johannesburg’s airport only to be told by the EgyptAir agent that all bags on this flight to Cairo had to be wrapped in plastic. This was a free service, but I had to lug my luggage to the wrapping station, lug them back and wait in line again.
Lesson: This is why you allow more time at the airport when traveling from or to a place you haven’t been. I fault EgyptAir for not informing passengers (on signs or on the boarding pass) of this added requirement/hassle (which the agent said is unique to this JNB-CAI route), but it’s an example of why you have to expect the unexpected when traveling.
In Sweden, my friend who lives there had told me that when taking the train from Stockholm Arlanda Airport (ARN), my travel buddy and I could take advantage of the “2 for 300” deal, saving us 260 Swedish kroner. The line for the ticket machine was long and the instructions were confusing. Feeling pressured by the people waiting behind me, I bought two individual tickets and then used them. When I went to the ticket office at the arriving station, the agent told me she couldn’t refund the difference because the tickets had been used. If I’d gone to the office at the airport, they could have refunded them without a problem.
Lesson: Take your time when making purchases. If you’re not comfortable (and you have time, like we did), let people go ahead of you until you can calmly reason out the process. And if you make a mistake purchase, get it resolved before leaving the location.
In Nairobi, wanting to see if I could find better seats for my flights home, I searched my email for “Nairobi” and then clicked the link in an email from Expedia. After logging in, I was horrified to discover that my itinerary had been canceled! I couldn’t understand how a trip that I was currently on would be canceled! Was I abandoned 9,000+ miles from home? How would I get back? Who would feed my cat? I spent nearly a full panicked hour trying to get customer service on a Skype call, only to have the agent say that the itinerary had been canceled in April. Impossible! Or was it? It was then I remembered that when I was searching for flights for this trip in April, I found a better deal on Orbitz and had canceled the itinerary I’d booked on Expedia. I logged into Orbitz and changed my seats successfully, as my heart rate very slowly returned to normal.
Lesson: Delete emails for trips that you’ve canceled! And keep your current and valid travel info in one easy-to-find place, like TripIt.
Ironically, the best way to avoid travel mistakes is not to travel at all. But that would be the worst mistake possible. Mistakes are evidence of a well-traveled life. I’d rather overpay for tea at a spice shop in Egypt than the Whole Foods down the street. I’d rather forget I canceled a trip than never take the trip at all. I’m looking forward to all the travel – and subsequent travel mistakes – I’ll make in 2016.
What’s your biggest travel mistake of 2016?
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