13 Things You Should NOT Do When Travelling: MY WORST TRAVEL EXPERIENCES EVER

I had managed to grab about an hour’s sleep in a nearby park. It was about 5:00 am and I was heading back to the city center, tired and alone.   I was in Pamplona, Spain for the Running of the Bulls. I h

ad arrived without a reservation, naively expecting to find somewhere to stay.  The entire town was booked out, so I had left my pack in baggage storage at the station, with just a money belt on me.  I was now walking through the streets alone.

A group of teenagers came up to me and asked me the time in Spanish. I stopped and went to show them the time on my watch. They quickly surrounded me, and one of them pulled out a knife, indicating that I should give them my money belt (fortunately I had left everything else in storage).

This was definitely NOT a good travel experience! But a valuable lesson in things you should NOT do when travelling.


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13 Things Not to Do When Traveling

13 Things NOT to do when travelling!

Travel is my passion in my life.  I love the variety of different experiences that you can have as you interact with the people, culture, the environment and wildlife of this amazing planet we live on. 

BUT.  Travel is not always easy and not all of the experiences that I have had while travelling have been fun. 

But each of them has been a lesson learned.  Here are ten eleven terrible experiences that I’ve had – and from them, you can learn what NOT to do when you travel!  Many of these things seem like no-brainers now, but at the time, were definitely things I learned the hard way.

  1. I was in Pamplona and a bunch of teenagers had just pulled a knife on me. I shouted “Help!” in English (not much use in Spain), but they grabbed my money belt and slashed the strap with the knife, then ran away.  They got my camera, a train ticket and some cash.  Fortunately, I had most of my money, passport, etc. in an inside money belt, so it could have been worse.  And I had travel insurance, so I was able to replace my camera.  But it did mean a trip to the police station to file a report, which was a pain.

#1 Lessons Learned: Never arrive somewhere during a special event or festival without a reservation.

#2 Lesson Learned: Never walk alone through empty streets.

#3 Lesson Learned: Never travel without travel insurance!

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  1. It was very early in the morning. I was on the train from Prague in the Czech Republic to Budapest in Hungary. We had stopped at the border between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which we had to transit through briefly to get to Hungary. The inspector came around to check my passport. He looked at it, glared at me and gestured for me to get off the train.

It turns out I needed a transit visa for Slovakia, which hadn’t even crossed my mind! I had no cash in any currency, just a credit card and an ATM card. My traveling companion was Italian so didn’t need a visa. She lent me USD 200 in cash and continued on to Budapest with the train. I was left abandoned at the Czech border for several hours. 

Fortunately, I managed to get a train to Vienna in Austria, paying in U.S. cash, and then caught another train to Budapest. So, I got there in the end, but it was very stressful.

Train route Prague to Budapest

# 4 Lesson Learned: Never forget to look at visa requirements for countries you are transiting through!

  1. I was squashed on to a small, hard wooden bench with four other people. The “hard seat” bench was designed for three people, not the five of us who were squeezed on to it. Above us, someone slept on the luggage rack. In the aisle, dozens more people squeezed in, and a steady stream of people selling everything from cigarettes to roast chickens somehow managed to squeeze uncomfortably by.  At stations, people climbed in and out of the windows, clambering over me with their luggage, because it was impossible to get to the doorway.   

I was on a 19.5-hour train ride from Shanghai to Xi’an in ‘hard seat’ class – you can tell from the name that there is no lower ‘class’ than this.  The wooden seat was indeed hard. I was squashed and uncomfortable, hadn’t slept for over 15 hours and still had almost 5 hours to go. It was hell.

Why was I here? Because I hadn’t pre-booked my train ticket out of Shanghai until three days before I left and this was the only thing that was available.

China trains

#5 Lesson Learned: Never assume that transportation out of a major city will be available – book it in advance!!

  1. The Pyramids and the Sphinx in Egypt are amazing. Let’s get that out there. They truly inspire awe. But. Visiting them – and much of Egypt – is a pain in the butt. For two reasons: 1) relentless hassle, and 2) sand fleas. It seems like no one ever mentions the fleas. But they bite. Take insect repellent.

The touts are relentless. I took a camel ride just to stop the hassle, which didn’t really work because even though I told them I had already taken a camel ride, they still kept trying to sell me another one. 

My plan had been to spend the entire day there and see the sunset, but after a few hours I gave up because it was so unpleasant. I think if I went there now I wouldn’t mind it so much; I have learned to go with the flow and not get so upset, but at the time it was unbearable.

#6 Lesson Learned: Don’t let people hassling get you down.   

I find engaging in a short conversation while still saying no, can help pass the time more pleasantly than just angrily saying no all he time.  Tell them you have no intention to buy anything, but if they want to show something to you, then they can.  Embrace this as part of the experience, rather than wishing it wasn’t.

Be polite, but tell them that they are wasting their time. Try saying “no, thank you” in their language (“la shokran” in Arabic) – I have found that this often works much better than the same thing in English. It doesn’t always work, I know, but getting angry just makes the whole experience worse.

  1.  I was sitting in a restaurant in Myanmar and felt my tummy rumble. My food suddenly didn’t seem very appealing. I quickly paid and went back to my hotel room, where I spent the next three days comfortingly close to a bathroom. I will spare you the gory details – let’s just say those three days weren’t a whole lot of fun.  I had been careful and drunk bottled water and I hadn’t eaten street food, but I had somehow gotten a traveler’s bug. How?  I thought back and realized that the night before I had (a) had ice in a drink and (b) eaten a salad.  Both of these things use unbottled water.
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13 Things Not to Do When Traveling

#7 Lesson Learned: When traveling in countries with potentially dodgy water, never:

  • drink tap water;
  • eat salads or washed fruits or vegetables that you can’t peel;
  • drink anything with ice in it; or
  • brush your teeth with tap water.
  1. This is my second knife story. I was in Casablanca, Morocco.  My traveling companion and I were approached by someone who offered to be a guide and take us to a special market that few tourists knew about.  It seems incredibly naive of me now, but at the time, it felt like a fun adventure, to go to a special market off the tourist trail.  It started out well enough.   We caught a bus to get there, and there was indeed a small market selling handicrafts.  But as he took us into shop after shop, he became increasingly agitated and insistent that we buy something.   He earned a commission from the shopkeepers on anything we bought, so started to get upset that he wasn’t going to earn anything.

In the end, mostly to calm him down, I decided to buy some slippers and gave him the amount he told me they cost. Then when I went to get the shoes, he said that the price was higher. Then things got ugly fast.  We argued. He pulled out a small knife and waved it at me. I snatched my money out of his hands and we ran as fast as we could, jumping into a taxi that was – fortunately – nearby. I was lucky that time around.

#8 Lesson Learned: Never ever use an unlicensed guide you meet on the street.

  1. The bus was packed. Kevin was on my right and another guy was squeezed in on my left side. The aisles were also full. The guy next to me wriggled against me and leaned in as someone moved past him in the aisle. He looked at me and we smiled at each other; a shared moment of discomfort (or so I thought). I was on a crowded bus in Guatemala.

The bus stopped and the back door was opened behind us. He wriggled against me again and I thought nothing of it.   After a couple of minutes though, he got up and jumped off the bus out the back. It seemed strange that he would get off now, and not as soon as we stopped. I immediately checked my pocket. Yep. My phone was gone.

#9 Lesson Learned: Never keep valuables in your pockets.

Get travel safe gear for when you travel (including Safe packs, inside money belts and underwear with pockets for your valuables (yes, I wear them when I travel!).

  1. Three quick stories, also about buses:

(a)    I had decided to save some money and take an overnight bus from Cuenca to Puerto Caya in Ecuador. I was traveling on the cheap and figured I could save a night’s accommodation and still get a night’s sleep by taking an overnight bus. Unfortunately, the driver cared a lot less for the passengers’ sleep than his own love of loud music.  I arrived after having had about 40 minute’s sleep, exhausted.

(b)   Another night bus I took in China actually had beds. Unfortunately, for about three quarters of the trip the roads were under construction, so it felt like having a jack hammer for a pillow.

(c)    In the US, I figured I wouldn’t have any problems with an overnight Greyhound bus. I was wrong.  On the direct bus from Atlanta, GA to San Antonio TX, we stopped at 2:00am and the driver made us all get off the bus for an hour while they cleaned it. After I had just gotten to sleep. I again arrived exhausted.

#10 Lesson (finally!) learned: Never catch night buses!

You will NEVER get a good night’s sleep.  (The one exception to this was a sleeper bus in Japan from Kyoto to Tokyo – I slept like a baby).

  1. I was on a six-month trip traveling through parts of Africa. I had decided the easiest way to get around was on an organized trip. However, I spent most of the trip more focused on how annoyed I was at half of the people I was with than on how incredible Africa was.

#11 Lesson Learned: Never take a long organized tour.

This was something that I decided for myself, as I figured that it is always possible – and more interesting – to arrange travel myself.  Short trips, day tours and experiential activities are one thing – these can be awesome things to go that helps support the local tourist industry and economy.  And, of course, this doesn’t apply to anyone – some people love getting around on tours.  But longer organized trips are not for me. I’d rather spend my time enjoying where I am than waiting in line for the toilet.

  1. I looked up from the map in my lap desperately looking for a sign that said “Catedral” or “Centro”. The map of central Cordoba, Spain was totally useless at this point.  I has no idea where I was, and was not at all sure we were even on the map.  Kevin, who was driving, faced with yet another intersection and needing to know which way to turn, snapped at me to tell him where to go.  “I don’t know!”, I shouted back, totally stressed.  I was supposed to be navigating, and after I had lost our place on the map, had been following signs for the Cathedral, figuring that the cathedral was always near the center of town, and our hotel was somewhere in the center.  Unfortunately, the signs had stopped and we were heading out of town again. Half an hour later – after a great deal of stressed exchanges between us, we somehow found our way into the old town, where we could stop and ask directions. It was horrible.

#12: Never turn down a GPS when renting a car. 

The expense is worth it to save your marriage!

11. (Bonus) When I was in Japan, I knew that you didn’t wear shoes inside people’s homes, but I didn’t realize at first that this also applies to many restaurants.  I arrived at a restaurant and walked inside, and noticed the rows of shoes, so got that I needed to take my shoes off here also, which I did.  So far, so good.  However, when I went to the restroom, I walked into the room in just my socks.  A Japanese man in there looked totally horrified and starting talking loudly on Japanese.  Only when I followed his frantic gesturing did I notice rows of plastic slippers near the doorway – and realized that I needed to wear them inside the restroom.  It makes sense, of course, but I felt bad at how truly horrified he was.

toilet-slippers-japan

#13: Never go into a Japanese bathroom in your socks.


SUMMARY: 13 THINGS NOT TO DO WHEN TRAVELLING

1.      Never arrive somewhere during a special event or festival without a reservation.

2.     Never walk alone through empty streets.

3.     Never travel without travel insurance!

4.     Never forget to look at visa requirements for countries you are transiting through!

5.     Never assume that transportation out of a major city will be available – book it in advance!!

6.     Don’t let people hassling get you down.   

7.      When traveling in countries with potentially dodgy water, never:

  • drink tap water;
  • eat salads or washed fruits or vegetables that you can’t peel;
  • drink anything with ice in it; or
  • brush your teeth with tap water.

8.     Never ever use an unlicensed guide you meet on the street.

9.     Never keep valuables in your pockets.

10.  Never catch night buses!

11.   Never take a long organized tour.

12.   Never turn down a GPS when renting a car. 

13.  Never go into a Japanese bathroom in your socks.

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Subscribe to monthly updates with tips for planning, travel inspiration and trip ideas and get instant access to the free PDF of this
13 Things Not to Do When Traveling

Do you have any bad travel experiences to share – and lessons you have learned from them?  I’d love to hear them.

thirteen things not to do when travelling

Also check out 20 of the Most Common Travel Scams – and how to avoid them.


About the author 

James-Ian-at-Travel-Collecting

James Ian has traveled to 82 countries and all 7 continents.  He is passionate about experiential travel, i.e. meaningful travel that actively engages with the environment and culture.  He helps people have similar experiences that involve active participation in activities and festivals; engaging with the local food and handicrafts through lessons and food tours; and interacting positively with environment by hiking, riding, rowing, diving and low/no impact animal encounters. 

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