Happy Monday, travelers! With apologies for the slow week in posts (if Congress can have a recess so can we, right?), we are pleased to bring you this week’s Top 5. When traveling in a new country it is always good to go with the flow and let your experiences guide the way. Every now and then though, even the most experienced traveler encounters that WTF moment when you stop and say “what was I thinking?” Hopefully these moments are few and far between, but fortunately they usually result in a few good lessons learned and some laughs in retrospect.
In the hopes of preventing some of your future WWIT moments (or at least providing an opportunity to laugh at ours), here are our Top 5:
1. Pack light. No seriously, pack light. (Kelly)
Not all travel moments have been my finest hour. I do not wish to implicate myself in any crimes though, so I’ll stick to a harmless story for my “what was I thinking travel moment”. My mishap relates to packing, or rather, who I pack with.
Four of us girls were studying in Europe together. We all went to Stetson and decided to go on a spring break trip around Europe. We had 2 weeks so we were determined to make the most of it. Allison came from the States, as she had been visiting her folks after being in England for the last few months. Evelyn came over from England, and Kristin and I were in France. We all met up in Avignon before we started our big adventure. We took the TGV to Paris, then after a few days, we flew to Frankfurt, then to Milan, took the train to Venice, then a flight to Barcelona, and then took the train back to Avignon. Now I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I’m a great packer. You can ask anyone. I can pack for 2 weeks in my handbag. I credit my great skills to my dad who always had us pack carry-on since we were always flying stand-by growing up. We had to be ready to jump on a plane at a moment’s notice. Allison on the other hand, packs like most people I know. She packed her ENTIRE life. She didn’t want to face the day without options on her attire, which I understand, and good for her to have those choices. The mistake was deciding we’d only take 1 bag with us and share the space. Why? I keep asking myself that now. I could have been fine with packing it in my little overnight bag, but she sold me the dream of not having to worry about too many bags when were jetting off from place to place. Her suitcase easily came up to my hips and it was so heavy, we might as well have been carrying around the next Stonehenge. Have you ever taken the subway in Milan? No? Well they don’t have escalators; we had to lug that thing up 3 stories just to get to the street. Ever decide to wing it on a hotel when you get to the city instead of booking one ahead of time? It sounded like a great idea, but after wondering the streets of Paris for 2 hours lugging that thing (and being extremely hung-over from having too much fun in Avignon), packing a heavy suitcase was just about the worst travel mistake I could think of. Never again I say, never again.
2. Peruse TripAdvisor or Yelp before making hostel reservations. (Scott)
My biggest “what was I thinking” travel moment took place when I was in Europe in 2006. I browsed through my Lonely Planet guidebook in search of a hostel in Prague. From the options available, most seemed like they were pretty distant from the Old City Center, where all the major sites were. Then one caught my eye: Pension Unitas. It was located in the heart of the city center. Moreover, it was a former convent, as well as a prison used by the secret police during the Communist era, so the building had some serious history to it. I was sold. The novelty wore off pretty quickly, though, when you get there and you find that your hostel room is, in fact, located in the underground rooms that were used as prison cells. The halls were dark and dank, the rooms hardly charming, and there was little natural light. It was easy to get cabin fever down there…at least it forces you to spend as much time as possible out in the city exploring.
Apparently I’m not the only one that wasn’t too keen on staying in jail while on vacation. The hostel closed down later that year.
3. Maybe listen to local law enforcement. Just sayin’. (Lexie)
My “what was I thinking” moment was in China and mainly to blame for this moment was Kelly. We were spending the day walking around Beijing with our local tour guide that we picked up earlier in the day. He had been showing us the sites including Tiananmen Square. Protesters were there and police had been arresting them throughout the day. Kelly was in her normal oblivious state and decided to whip out her camera and start looking through the viewfinder to find the perfect shot of her surroundings.(Who knew I was related to the next Terry Richardson) All of a sudden the police pounced on us and demanded we turn over the camera, for fear of her taking incriminating photos.
The next is the “what are you thinking” moment, do-do decided to stand up for herself and refused to give up her disposable camera! This only made the police even more angry and things got heated pretty quick. There was a lot of shouting and grabbing and I was sure we were going to be hauled off with the rest of the protesters. Our tour guide jumped the scene and was nowhere in site to play translator. Who could blame him? I wouldn’t want to go to jail for some dumb Americans either. In the end the police ripped out the film from another woman’s camera and gave back Kelly’s camera. We left the scene quickly before anything worse could happen.
Ohhh and did I mention all this drama happened on my birthday? Thanks for the present Kelly, we almost got to spend time in a real authentic Chinese jail!
4. Use alternative transportation at your own risk. (Leslie)
While a good taxi/train/bus/subway can be found almost everywhere these days, one of my favorite travel experiences is sampling the local, shall we say, “alternative” modes of transportation. In India the auto rickshaw is as common as the yellow cab in New York City, and on my first trip to Chennai as a student, we all relied on them almost exclusively.
On one of my last days in Chennai, my friend and I were feeling pretty confident after 4 days of haggling with the drivers and zipping around town like a local. We decided to stay behind after a group trip to a girl’s orphanage to spend some more time with the kids. “Why not just stay here and grab an auto-rickshaw back to the ship later on?”, we thought to ourselves smugly. Because clearly 4 days in a strange city qualifies a couple of 20-year old girls as experts. So our group and the air-conditioned van in which we came departed. When it came time to leave, we quickly realized that this part of town was not quite the same as the areas we had frequented. There were no other foreigners around, very few rickshaws, and even fewer English-speakers. After finally securing a ride, it became apparent that while the driver had assured us he knew where the ship was docked, he may have had a slightly different understanding of the word “know”. About the time we were on our third stop to ask for directions, I was in serious “what was I thinking?” mode, picturing my friend and I in some kind of Brokedown Palace situation.
But fortunately, the third time was the charm and the guy our driver asked for directions had driven some of our fellow students earlier that day and directed him to the harbor where our ship was docked. While it’s not exactly the experience I highlight with my mom (who usually bases her travel warnings to me off of movies like Taken or Brokedown Palace), the unexpected detour was certainly an exciting part of the trip!
5. Think twice before taking the advice of family/friends. (Leslie)
It never fails. You’re about to go on a big trip and a well-meaning friend or family member hits you with, “Oh, be sure and see ____”. I’m guilty of this myself, but if you’ve ever received similar advice from me rest assured, I only give awesome recommendations. True story. However, most of us are not so lucky. I’ll protect the innocent and the helpful Harriet shall remain nameless, but this particular incident relates to a trip to Germany. We were visiting an American friend who was “local” in a small town outside of Frankfurt, and looking forward to driving to see some of the sights nearby such as Heidelberg and the great Bavarian castles. “You want castles?”, this friend says, “I’ll show you some better castles right here!”
Needless to say, this was not impressive. While I appreciate this friend’s personalized recommendations, about the time I realized these ruins were the closest I was getting to a fairy tale Medieval castle, I was saying “what was I thinking?”