Waking Up in the Wrong Country — Reader Mistake Story

Mar 16, 2017

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One of the things I love most about being The Points Guy is getting to hear stories from readers about all the positive ways award travel has affected their lives. That being said, while I love hearing about your successes, I think there’s also a lot we can learn by sharing our mistakes, and I’m calling on readers to send in your most egregious and woeful travel failures.

From time to time I’ll pick one that catches my eye and post it for everybody to enjoy (and commiserate with). If you’re interested, email your story to info@thepointsguy.com, and put “Reader Mistake Story” in the subject line. Include details of exactly how things went wrong, and (where applicable) how you made them right. Please offer any wisdom you gained from the experience, and explain what precautions the rest of us can take to avoid the same pitfalls. If we publish your story, I’ll send you a gift to help jump-start your next adventure (or make up for any blunders from the last one).

Recently, I posted a story from Steven, who missed out on the Southwest Companion Pass after misunderstanding the qualification requirements. Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader Matt, who found himself on the wrong end of the right train while traveling in Europe. Here’s what he had to say:

Matt had a long detour on the way to Munich’s Oktoberfest. Image courtesy of Johannes Simon via Getty Images.

My biggest travel mistake happened on a train. In my third year of undergrad, I went to Brussels for an internship. Some friends of mine were also studying and interning in other European cities, and we decided to meet up in Munich for Oktoberfest. I tried looking for flights six months out, but even the cheapest Ryanair itineraries were over €400! Instead, two friends and I settled on a train itinerary through Cologne for under €200 each, and planned to meet the rest of our group in Munich.

Our trip included two regional trains to Cologne with a connection in Liege, and a sleeper train to Munich. Delays on the Belgian network led to us missing our train in Liege, though the Belgian rail operator recognized the problem and accommodated us on a high-speed Thalys train. However, we ended up getting to Cologne with time to spare, and boarded our train right away. After finding an empty compartment that matched what we had booked, and with no train staff at hand to direct us otherwise, we settled in to get some rest before arriving in Munich.

I woke up around twenty minutes before we were due to arrive, and looked out the train window to see a strangely rural landscape. I checked Google Maps to find that we were nowhere near Munich, and instead were about to cross the Swiss border near Basel. The first people we found on the train were Swiss customs officials, who informed us that the train had split in two in the middle of the night! Half of the train was bound for Munich, and the other half (the one we had boarded) was headed to Zurich.

After the initial shock wore off, we got off the train in Basel. I used my Belgian mobile data to call our group in Munich, while my two travel companions (who spoke a bit of German) tried to figure out our next step. Fortunately, with the help of a sympathetic train agent, we were able to get ticketed on a new train to Munich, arriving slightly over six hours after we planned to.

I’ve traveled extensively since I was young, and while I have been lost before, I’ve never been so lost that I accidentally woke up in the wrong country! Some lessons I learned were to always have your ticket checked when boarding a train, and to be sure which train you’re boarding in the first place. It’s also a good idea to check ticket requirements — some national rail networks in Europe require you to validate your ticket on the platform, so double check what you need to do to avoid a hefty fine onboard!

Another key tip is that traveling with a factory unlocked or out-of-contract phone is a huge help. Prepaid SIM cards are incredibly cheap across Europe (roaming charges in different countries are regulated and very reasonable). In the absence of Wi-Fi, mobile data can be a lifesaver.

Finally, I learned that saying the right combination of “lost,” “American” and “Oktoberfest” will get you a one-way ticket to Munich from anywhere on Deutsche Bahn’s network!

While you might go to the wrong airport or buy a ticket to the wrong destination, airlines are pretty good about keeping passengers from boarding the wrong flight. Trains are another story. A ticket on a dividing train may not make clear when or where the split occurs (or that there is a split to begin with). However, it’s easy to board the wrong train even if you’re booked on one that stays intact, especially when you don’t speak the local language. I recommend checking twice that you’re in the right car anytime you ride the rails while traveling abroad.

As Matt pointed out, his story is also a good reminder that having some sort of international data plan can be a huge help when your plans go awry. It’s less important when you’re staying in one place (especially if Wi-Fi is readily available), but I recommend exploring your mobile data options if you’re going to be moving around overseas. At the very least, find out whether your existing plan offers international service, and what you can expect to pay for it. Most carriers offer reasonable rates these days, but it’s best to know ahead of time if yours doesn’t.

Make sure you board the right train (and half) when traveling abroad. Image courtesy of Sean Gallup via Getty Images.

I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. To thank Matt for sharing his experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending him a $200 Visa gift card to enjoy on his travels.

I’d like to do the same for you! If you’ve ever arrived at the airport without ID, booked a hotel room in the wrong city, missed out on a credit card sign-up bonus or made another memorable travel or rewards mistake, I want to hear about it. Please indulge me and the whole TPG team by sending us your own stories (see instructions above). I look forward to hearing from you, and until then, I wish you a safe and mistake-free journey!

Featured image courtesy of Jonatan Fernstrom via Getty Images.

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