Travel blunders are common, even for the most experienced travelers! This week, I’m sharing my top 10 travel mistakes, along with some tips to help you avoid them. If you want more travel advice, I recently wrote a post that outlines six rules to follow if you want to travel the world. You can also read some of my top travel tips here and here.
Travel better by avoiding these top 10 travel mistakes.
The goal of travel isn’t to do it perfectly or to see the most places or even to have the most fun. Instead, the goal is to expand your worldview, giving you a chance to connect to how vast and wonderful and expansive and varied our planet is. Try to always strive towards gaining perspective, instead of checking a box, and you’ll probably enjoy your travels more.
That said, there are some mistakes that you can try to avoid! Without further adieu, here’s the list:
10. Planning too much (or too little).
Trip planning is a skill. It takes practice and dedication to get better at it, and even if you’ve been planning trips for years you might still make a mistake here and there. That’s ok! Done is almost always better than perfect.
Think of trip planning as a spectrum, with one end being the rigid, “every day is planned down to the minute,” and the other end being the flexible, “I have a flight and that’s it.” You’re definitely going to want to be somewhere in the middle. As you research, look for posts like this guide to South Island, New Zealand–it lists a number of activities, so it would be easy to build into a flexible itinerary. Here’s a post that argues for staying as close to the “flexible” side of the spectrum as possible, if you need a little inspiration.
Personally, I like to know where I’m staying and for how long, as well as a several key activities I’d like to try to do in each place. For fun, I usually look through Yelp or Google Maps for some restaurants and coffee shops that pique my interest in the days and weeks leading up to my trip. The rest of the time when I’m traveling, I’m winging it. I sit up at night looking through attractions in the city I’m visiting, ask locals for recommendations, and let my curiosity guide me.
There are lots of things are perfectly fine to wing while you’re traveling. Where to eat? Eh, figure something out once you get there. Which museum to see? Ask around for advice after you settle in. Even, how long should we stay in Paris before moving on to Berlin? If it’s a long enough trip, figure it out when you get there!
If you’re planning to travel with other people, you can read my top tips for group travel here.
9. Over packing.
Over packing is one of the most common mistakes travelers make. I still over pack sometimes! The biggest issue with over packing is that it slows you down. If you have a big, bulky bag that you have to lug everywhere with you, you’re less likely to want to add another destination or push on to see one more thing. If your bags are mostly full when you leave home, you’ll have less room to store souvenirs and other mementos that you collect on your trip.
Strive to be a nimble traveler. Look for ways to pare down. I like to take everything out of my bag after I’ve packed and try to leave behind at least 5 items. Whenever possible, pack items that have multiple potential uses, like sarongs and leggings. The bag you choose will define, at least somewhat, how light you’re able to travel, so pick one that suits your needs. I typically travel with this bag, a Trader Joe’s tote bag, and a small backpack (I put the small backpack inside my tote bag–or vice versa–when I go through security so that, together, they count as my personal item).
One of my tips in this post is to buy a check bag for your return flight home so that you can fit all of the spoils of your travels. You can pack a collapsible duffel in your carry on and use it as a checked bag on your way home.
8. Packing clothes that you will not be comfortable in.
I learned this one the hard way… a few times. Traveling will not magically turn you into a different person with new preferences. So, if you don’t normally wear cargo pants, you’re not likely to enjoy them once you’re on your trip. There are exceptions here, but generally just try to choose clothes that make you feel comfortable and confident.
Another way to be uncomfortable in the clothes you brought is to wear outfits that are inappropriate for the destination. If you’re going to Amman, Jordan, you’ll likely feel uncomfortable in sleeveless summer dresses because they’re culturally inappropriate. In Italy, you’ll find that most people are pretty fashionably dressed, so you’ll want to have at least a few dressier outfits that you can wear to restaurants and events.
Don’t forget that you can always buy clothes when you arrive. H&M is popular in many countries in Europe, and the clothes they carry vary by country. Thus, it’s a good way to find affordable clothes that will blend in with the locals. Oh, and be sure that your shoes are up for the task of carrying you everywhere you plan to go! Uncomfortable shoes will make for a miserable traveler.
7. Not having a money plan.
Money is an essential part of every trip. No matter what your budget is or how you like to spend, make a plan for how much you will spend, which card(s) you will use, how you’ll withdraw cash, what you’re willing to splurge on, etc. Do some research online before making your budget so you know, roughly, what things cost in your destination. I also like to look at a few restaurant menus and then convert the prices to dollars–this usually gives me a decent sense of what food will cost (just be sure the menu is recent–within the last 6 months).
Plan to use a credit card for direct purchases, if possible, because it’s likely to have fraud protection in the event that the card is stolen. Here’s a post about using points to travel, and it has a roundup of some decent credit card options that you might want to consider.
It’s wise to also have a plan for what you’d do in the event that your credit card and/or wallet is stolen, as well as copies of the card number(s).
6. Not planning your arrival.
While you don’t need to plan every second of your trip, it’s worth your time and energy to figure out how–exactly–you’ll get from your doorstep to your pillow the first night of your trip. When you’re jet lagged and exhausted, the last thing you’ll want to do is try to figure out if you need a bus or a taxi or, worst of all, get on some sort of transit in the wrong direction.
Do yourself a favor and have a step-by-step plan for the first day. Who is driving you to the airport in your home city? What time will you need to leave? What time does your flight arrive? Will you take a bus or a train or a taxi to your accommodation? How long will the transit take, and how often does it run? Can you check into your hotel when you arrive, or will you need to kill some time? Will they hold your bags if you’re not able to check in until later in the day?
Trust me, this step doesn’t take long and it’ll save you a lot of hassle and weary, bleary-eyed frustration once you arrive. Sometimes I even go so far as to choose the meal I’ll order from a restaurant near my accommodation. When you’re tired, the last thing you want to do is try to make a bunch of decisions!
5. Not taking time to wander.
Some of my favorite memories from traveling are from the times when I took the time to simply wander around by myself or with my travel companions. Literally stop to smell the roses. Take in the architecture. Duck into a bookstore and take note of the types of books on display, are they about art? Food? History? Politics? Religion? If you feel so inclined, buy a book–local bookstores are struggling everywhere.
Next, stop at a cafe and stay a while. Sip an espresso or a cup of tea or a coffee or a glass of seltzer water. Look out at the people passing by and notice their pace. Do they walk quickly, like they’re in a hurry to get to the next place? Do they saunter, as if the sidewalk is exactly where they intended to be at that moment–not in the act of moving from one place to the next, but just wandering along their path?
Soak in the energy of the place and let it settle in your psyche.
There are some things you’ll only get to see if you’re going the right speed, so be sure that you spend at least a little bit of time in the slow lane. Even better if you can spend at least a tiny, precious bit of your trip wandering alone.
4. Not paying attention to your surroundings.
The easiest way to become a target of theft or other misfortunes is to seem inattentive. You can’t prevent everything, but you can ward off some negative attention by looking around and knowing where your things are and seeming generally clued in to your surroundings. As a general rule, never approach a protest in another country, be vigilant while in crowds, and try not to walk alone after dark, if you can avoid it.
One place to be extra attentive is in the airport. Other countries’ airports can sometimes have garbled audio or boarding announcements in other languages, so be extra careful and pay close attention to what the people around you are doing. Get to the gate early, double-triple-quadruple check that you’re in the right place, your flight is on time, and the people around you are going to the same place as you.
Once, I was in the airport in Bogotá, Colombia and I met a young American man who was in a full panic. His flight home had boarded and left–all while he was sitting at the gate! An unfortunate mix of being distracted, hard-to-hear announcements, and failure to notice his surroundings had cost him his flight home. The airline staff were not particularly sympathetic to his situation, and before we parted ways he told me that he needed to buy a new flight back to the US.
3. Playing it too safe.
Pay attention to your surroundings, yes, but don’t let fear guide your way. You were born to take risks! If you try to spend your whole trip seeing only the “safe” sites, eating at only the “safe” restaurants, and doing only the “safe” things, you’re sure miss out on some of the brightest experiences your destination has to offer. Don’t be reckless, but leave room for spontaneity. Trust your instincts, but still push yourself to try something new.
Don’t be afraid to go boldly into parts lesser known!
Look for little ways to see the places that others usually miss. There are so many places to see in the world, and so little time to try to see them. If you’re planning a trip to Europe, try to squeeze in some time to camp in Iceland on your way over. Don’t go to England for the fourth time when instead you could wander through the streets of Mexico City or Cartagena or Istanbul. If your destination makes you a little nervous but mostly excited, you’re probably on the right track.
2. Having the wrong mindset.
No matter who you meet on your trip or what you see while you’re there, you’re likely to have your experience dampened if you go in with the wrong mindset. You can read my guide for becoming a World Traveler and my rules for traveling the world before you go.
Put on your explorer-adventurer cap and search for intrigue. Look for all of the ways that your destination is different from home, then go back to the beginning and look for the similarities. Be kind whenever, wherever, and however you can. Remember, your destination doesn’t owe you a comfortable experience, you’re a visitor, after all!
Read about culture shock before you go, because it’s easier to spot if you know what you’re looking for. You can’t always fix your situation, but you can change your mindset. Travel so that you can better understand how your existence fits into the vastness that is the history of the world, not merely to “do” a destination. When I get a little stuck, I ask myself why I wanted to travel and what it means to me to visit a place. I find that this little check in usually helps me to feel more grounded and open-minded.
1. Not traveling.
If you want to see the world, the biggest mistake you can possibly make is not traveling. The rest is noise!
However, if you haven’t traveled much, or if you’re scared to travel, know that the only way to truly get better at traveling and avoid travel mistakes is to not travel. The most effective way to get better at traveling is to take a trip, and then another and another and then one more after that. Learn by doing. Trust yourself.
Everyone experiences fear. If you let it, fear will always be there to tell you what you’re (not) capable of, who you’re (not) able to be, and why you’re not good enough. Summon the courage to look fear in the eyes and do it anyway. Travel because it’s good for your soul and helps you feel alive.
I once had a coworker explain how practice makes us better. He gave this analogy: when you first start a job, you’re probably only going to be OK at it. After six months, you’re bound to be a whole lot better, because you just spent 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for 24 weeks doing it. That’s 960 hours. You’re bound to get better at something after doing it for 960 hours.
Travel is much the same, you’ll get better the more hours you spend doing it. The more time you spend experimenting with how you like to travel and navigating train stations and finding the best hostel, the easier it will come next time. Don’t compare yourself to people with way more hours of experience than you and feel guilty, just learn what you can from them and move forward. Life is all about getting better, because there is no perfect. The only way to get better, though, is to do. So don’t make the mistake of not doing.
As we learn and travel and grow, we’re bound to make mistakes! Once you realize your mistake, try your best to do better next time. The longer you dwell on the things that you could have done or should have done differently, the less time you get to spend enjoying the positive parts of your trip.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially if there are travelers that you trust. If you have a travel question that I can help with, feel free to reach out to me using my contact form.
Have you made a mistake while traveling? Do you have another mistake that you’d add to this list? Let me know in the comments!