3 Things I’ve Learned the Hard Way

So many people are afraid to travel because they’re worried something might go wrong. Personally, I think that’s where the best stories come from, but all the same, there are a few mistakes I’ve made in my travels that I’ll do everything to avoid repeating during my RTW trip.

They can all boil down to that old carpentry adage: Measure twice, cut once. Because the trick to keeping things together in a foreign country is to double check everything.

6am Airport.jpg

Even when I’ve been up since before dawn, I will never leave a bag behind again.

Your belongings
aka the time I left my bag wide open in the middle of Charles de Gaulle

My first trip abroad was the summer before my junior year of high school. 9/11 was just a few years past, and gradually Americans were starting to get over their shyness of air travel. My French teacher arranged a nine-day tour of Paris, Provence, and the Cote d’Azur with an educational travel company, and, after some parent-directed begging, late June found me on my first airplane with five fellow students, my aunt, my teacher, and one other chaperone.

We landed at Charles de Gaulle airport in the morning and proceeded to baggage claim, where one by one we grabbed our checked luggage off the carousel. But one girl’s bag was missing. While we waited for her and our teacher to ask for help, we shuffled over to the far side of the room, our eyes glazed from the eight-hour flight, and sat. I set my carry-on on the floor and unzipped it to get out some hand sanitizer, and we waited for what seemed like hours.

When it was finally determined that Alexandra’s bag had been left behind in Washington D.C. and would have to be shipped to our hotel, we booked it out of baggage claim and caught the rest of our tour group – a mixture of middle school, high school, and college students – just in the nick of time. They had been ready to give up on us and drive straight on to the hotel.

And naturally, that’s when I noticed my shoulder felt light. I had left my carry-on sitting wide open in the middle of an airport.

My aunt and I were lucky. We managed to catch the sliding doors exiting customs just as another group of people came out, so we could retrace our steps and reach baggage claim. I spoke just enough French to reclaim my bag without too much trouble and we were on our way in a few minutes.

But Lord if that still isn’t one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done.

Now, before leaving anywhere – be it a hostel, cafe, or taxi – I double check that I have everything I need.

Danube by Night

Cabs are usually a safe bet for nighttime transportation, but I’ll always double check the rate before getting inside.

Your cab’s meter
aka the time I got swindled by a taxi driver

When I toured through Eastern Europe one spring, I had been warned by multiple people to exercise caution with taxi drivers. And for most of the trip, my travel mates and I were pretty good at avoiding any potential scams.

In Berlin, we only hailed cabs from recognizable taxi stands, usually outside a hotel.

In Prague, we stayed outside the vehicle until agreeing on a fair rate, and if we weren’t offered one, we walked away.

But in Budapest, we slipped up one night. We had gone out drinking on the last night of our tour, and a large group of us piled into a cab to get back across the Danube River to our hotel. The cab had a meter, so there wasn’t any rate to be haggled, but in our collective overexcited, late-night, tipsy haze, there also wasn’t anyone paying attention.

And so when we finally found ourselves in front of the hotel, that simple four-kilometer drive was charged at three or four times more than it should have been. “What route did you take – the fucking moon?!” someone yelled from the backseat. Had it been earlier in the evening, we might have considered making a run for it, but the hotel had locked its doors and we would need to ring for assistance and show our room keys to get in. So we had no choice but to fork over the grossly overpriced fare.

Next time I get in a cab, I’m checking the fare first, and staying alert during the drive.

East Side Gallery

I love a long walk, but I’ve learned the hard way that that’s better as a solo activity.

Your companions’ values
aka the many times my adventurousness set a relationship off on the wrong foot

I’ve been on a lot of wonderful group tours, but I’m looking forward to solo travel because for all the comfort we feel in numbers, companions can also weigh you down. It’s incredibly difficult to coordinate daily activity in a group, especially if they’re not people you’re already close to.

Picking travel companions is a tricky thing. Above all, you need to share similar values and interests. And I’ve historically been really bad at making sure that’s the case before inviting new acquaintances to join me wherever it is I’m headed.

When I first arrive in a new place, my favorite thing to do is to pick a direction and just go. I typically have some loose goal in mind, but mostly I just enjoy stretching my legs exploring the area around my hotel. I don’t mind getting lost – I always take care to arrive in new cities during the day and make sure I’m not staying in a bad neighborhood. However, to save money, these hotels are often just off the edge of the map, which makes navigation a little tricky.

And what I keep forgetting is that other tourists very much do mind winding up in an unexpected place.

In Italy, a new companion and I made a wrong turn on the way to the metro station and didn’t realize it right away. Rather than retrace the admittedly lengthy route we took to get to our current location, I saw a young mom pushing a stroller up a different street that would ultimately take us back in the direction of our hotel, and suggested we see where that street goes. It was broad daylight, this was clearly a family-friendly residential neighborhood. So what was it that made the girl beside me quake in her boots and insist that we needed to be “ca-wuh-ful?” The presence of a waste bin. I relented and followed her back the way we came to the hotel. We wrote the morning off as a wash, and never spoke of it again.

So it took a second mishap to convince me to stop convincing tourists I don’t know well to join me in my explorations.

In Germany, I met a member of my tour group at the airport and we split a cab to the hotel. Once we were settled in, I told her I was going to try and find my way to the East Side Gallery and invited her to come. She readily accepted, and regretted that decision almost instantly as I struggled with a map our hotel wasn’t on. I managed to steer us to the U-Bahn station without too much trouble, and we spent the next two hours tracing the length of the remnants of the Berlin Wall. I thought it was a great, if somewhat tiring, afternoon. We got back to the hotel in time for a late lunch and our tour group’s orientation. And then I spent the next two weeks overhearing her complain about all that walking to anyone who would listen.

It’s definitely something I’ve learned the hard way. Travel companions are best selected carefully, because there’s no accounting for taste.

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