The mishaps and misadventures of travel – and how to avoid them

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 13 minutes

International travel has been off-limits for what seems a long, long time now. The recent lockdown has dampened hopes further, and many of us wander-lusters may be close to giving up on the idea of ever stepping on foreign soil again.

Yes, the government has announced plans to eventually “reconnect New Zealand to the world”. This will apparently involve broadening the quarantine-free travel for vaccinated Kiwis from the first quarter of 2022, with different ’risk pathways’ based on how dangerous a country is.

According to some reports, experts predict a ‘bumper’ travel year in 2022.

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 13 minutes

International travel has been off-limits for what seems a long, long time now. The recent lockdown has dampened hopes further, and many of us wander-lusters may be close to giving up on the idea of ever stepping on foreign soil again.

Yes, the government has announced plans to eventually “reconnect New Zealand to the world”. This will apparently involve broadening the quarantine-free travel for vaccinated Kiwis from the first quarter of 2022, with different ’risk pathways’ based on how dangerous a country is.

According to some reports, experts predict a ‘bumper’ travel year in 2022.

Even so, with the pandemic situation changing every day, it’s impossible to really know how long it might be before we can actually board an international flight again.

But – is it ever too early to prepare?

Travel has never been easy. COVID may seem like the biggest obstacle now, but it’s just one more thing to take into account. There are countless things that can – and will! – go wrong when you travel. The trick is to be prepared. And sometimes, the best way to do that is to learn from others’ mistakes.

Missing flights

Nearly everyone has a story about missing (or nearly missing) a flight. According to some sources, it happens to around 2-8% of passengers every year.

Delayed connecting flights is one of the biggest causes and also one that you have no control over.

But there’s an unending list of other reasons for not making it to the boarding gate: waking up late, traffic jams, misreading the ticket, losing your passport, getting lost on the way to the airport …

Then there are mistakes that could have been prevented once at the airport, like taking the wrong items through security, not hearing the flight announcement, going to the wrong terminal, spending too long at the bar, or simply confusing a.m. for p.m.

Whatever the reason, missing a flight can cause significant stress.

So, what do you do? Simple: keep calm and travel on.

Airport staff are trained to deal with every kind of emergency, and most of them have seen every kind. The first thing – as impossible as it seems – is to try not to panic. You aren’t the first person to miss a flight, and you won’t be the last. You will get to where you’re going eventually. Try to look at it as part of the adventure.

In most cases, you’ll be rebooked to the next available flight. Unfortunately, travel insurance doesn’t always save the day. You’ll only be covered if you miss your flight for an insured reason, like a motor vehicle accident, a natural disaster, severe weather, hijacking, or a severe illness (signed off by a medical practitioner). Sleeping in or leaving your passport in the shuttle bus (as I did) won’t qualify.

Injuries and accidents

Your odds of having an accident while travelling in a foreign country may well be higher than they are at home. After all, you’re in an unfamiliar environment, you’re trying new things (white-water rafting, zip-lining, a jungle safari?), and you may not have read the instruction manual. Prime conditions for a disaster.

I’ve had my fair share.

I was crossing the road in Ho Chi Minh one steamy Saturday morning when a woman on a scooter ran a red light. Lesson number one: Don’t run across a road in Ho Chi Minh.

She hit me side-on, breaking my wrist in a way that was too gruesome for my shocked brain to comprehend at the time, and I wound up crumpled in the middle of the road. Lesson number two: Don’t sit on a road in Ho Chi Minh.

Getting plastered in Ho Chi Minh

While locals tried to drag me out of the traffic (with no regard for my mangled arm), the scooter driver – a middle-aged woman – laughed. And laughed and laughed. In hindsight, she was probably in shock, too. She then called a taxi to take me to a hospital, which turned out to be a small, dirty clinic with few beds and even fewer doctors. Lesson number three: When disaster strikes in Southeast Asia, request to be taken to a ‘tourist’ hospital.

I did eventually end up in a functioning hospital with doctors and beds and, after several hours’ wait, my arm was wrapped in plaster three centimetres thick. Lesson number four: Always take out travel insurance. I did have travel insurance, but the Vietnamese traffic police ordered the scooter driver to pay all my hospital fees. She also took me out for lunch a week later, which was nice.

Losing stuff

Misplacing or losing your belongings is inevitable but frustrating. Again, it can be put down to being in an unfamiliar environment or routine, being distracted, or just good ol’ forgetfulness. The problem is that it’s much more difficult – or impossible – to retrieve things when you’re on the move.

I’ve lost dozens of things in dozens of countries. I left my only jacket on a bus in Nepal. I dropped my mobile phone somewhere at a Buddhist pilgrimage site in India (long gone by the time I went back). I misplaced my credit card in Thailand (I still don’t know how, when, or where). My travel clothesline in Varanasi, my favourite t-shirt in Guatemala, some rather embarrassing health supplements in Guanajuato. And the list goes on.

It’s impossible to never lose stuff, but you can reduce the risk. Make a checklist of everything you need to do before you leave somewhere. Keep each item in its own designated place in your pack or suitcase, so it’s more obvious when it’s not there. Store your most important items (passport, driver’s license, money) in the most secure place, like a security belt or hidden pocket.

If you do lose something, act as soon as you realise. You’re much more likely to get it back than if you leave looking for it till later. And always report important valuables as lost, especially passports and credit cards. Contact your bank or relevant consulate immediately.

Petty crime and robbery

A country’s crime rate isn’t necessarily an indicator of whether you’ll fall victim to theft. You can be mugged or robbed almost anywhere, which is why it’s so important to be prepared.

That said, opportunistic thieves such as pickpockets and bag snatchers are especially rife in busy countries. My mobile phone (yes, another one) was quietly lifted out of my backpack in the main street of China. My wallet met the same fate in the same city. I didn’t get the phone back, but my wallet-snatchers turned out to be a group of teenagers just metres behind me who proffered my precious cargo, grinning triumphantly. I thanked them profusely for ‘finding’ my wallet, only to see the same group with their hands in someone else’s bag a week later.

I had a much more frightening experience (with yet another phone) in Nairobi. While filming the street from a car window in heavy traffic, a hand suddenly shot through the window and snatched at the phone. It happened so quickly that I shrieked like a madwoman and dropped the phone, which turned out to thwart my would-be thief’s plan. He groped about madly while my driver hit the ‘up’ button on the car window. The thief ran off, and my driver calmly informed me that this happens all the time in Nairobi, which is why nobody drives with their windows down. Thanks!

Obviously, it helps to be vigilant. It’s also smart to leave your most precious possessions at home: take less-valuable substitutes when you travel. Avoid displays of wealth and keep your belongings close by. Most insurance policies won’t cover unattended items.

Lost or stolen passports are a much bigger deal. Be sure to make copies of all your travel documents so they can be replaced more easily.

Busy places are ideal for thieves to strike quickly and escape. Keep your guard up in airports, restaurants, beaches, tourist attractions, and on public transport.

Bad accommodation

There are dozens of booking sites online and millions of places around the world to book. But sometimes what looks spectacular online turns out to be quite the opposite in reality. Airbnb, Agoda, Trivago, and Booking.com are just a few of the most popular booking systems for backpackers and nomads. Each has its pros and cons, and I’ve had mishaps with all of them.

The Taipei Airbnb fail

I once arrived at an Airbnb in Taipei (after an hour of trying to decipher the host’s poorly translated instructions) only to find, well, a dump. The room was damp and dirty. The rubbish bins were full. The fridge stank of rotting food (milk? cheese?). The still-wet bathroom sported a few more black hairs than I was comfortable with. And the washing machine operated via a power cord that ran through the bathroom, across the toilet seat, and into the bedroom.

The good news is that I contacted Airbnb and they remedied the situation by refunding my following nights’ booking. The bad news is that, as it was already late in the evening, I had to spend the night with the hairs and the fridge-smell and the weird (dangerous) wiring.

The best way to avoid the nightmare of substandard accommodation is to check the reviews – thoroughly. Read the lowest and most recent reviews rather than the best. In my Taipei case, I had booked in a hurry, so it was only afterwards I found that other guests had had similar experiences.

Also remember that you have rights. Identify the problem/s with photos. Then, contact the booking agency. They’ll decide whether your issue can be fixed immediately or whether you’re entitled to a refund. If they refuse to act, you can contact the head office and make a formal complaint. Again, do your research and choose booking agencies with well-reviewed customer service.

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