No matter how old you are, or how long you travel, you can always learn new things – very often from your own mistakes. So even though I published what I thought was a thorough list of travel lessons a few months ago, my recent travels have taught me some new ones that I thought I’d share.
Each of these travel lessons has a story attached. And in every case, what I learned could have saved me from having a close call, or kept me out of a sticky situation. I hope it can do the same for you.
Here are my five travel lessons, learned from painful experience.
Keep your valuables on you
I’ve always been an advocate of using a money belt when I travel, especially in Third World countries and places where pickpockets are common. But when I travel in First World cities, I sometimes don’t bother: big mistake.
On my recent trip to Europe with Viking Cruises, I decided to keep my passport and cash in a hidden compartment in my shoulder bag. But on the way to join my cruise, with suitcase in tow, I narrowly missed leaving the bag on a tram. I would have been left with no passport, no credit card and almost no cash – up the creek without a paddle.
The lesson: if at all possible, keep your essential documents and cash on your person, preferably in a money belt or hidden pocket. A bag or purse can be lost or stolen — a money belt can’t.
Do a dry run
While visiting New Orleans this year, I found that it’s possible to get to the airport on a special bus that leaves from the downtown core; the ride is even included in a transit day pass. In fact, the bus left from a stop very close the hotel where my nephew and I were staying. So we didn’t bother checking out exactly where the stop was the day before my nephew was to leave.
Bad move: when we arrived to take the bus, we couldn’t find the right stop. A kindly bus driver let us hop on while she drove us to where the airport bus stopped – just in time to see it pull away. My nephew took a cab.
The lesson: Always do a dry run. Even if you know which bus or train to take, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to find it easily when the day comes. And if you’re running a little late, it can turn into a last-minute scramble to get where you’re going. Better to cruise by the day before and locate the stop or station beforehand.
Double-check your reservations
On my recent road trip to Eastern Canada, my friend Dennis and arrived in Port aux Basques, Newfoundland without a hotel reservation. We stopped into a coffee shop, where I booked a hotel on Hotels.com. We drove straight over, but when we tried to check in, the clerk said he didn’t have our reservation.
The problem: the reservation was for September, not July. I had hit the “back” button to make a change while filling in the reservation, and the online form had somehow flipped ahead two months. Happily, the hotel clerk recommended a guest house nearby, where we got a two-bedroom apartment for half the price, so the story had a happy ending.
The lesson: Always check your reservation before you click the “reserve” button. In this case, I rushed through the reservation because my computer battery was about to die. But in normal circumstances, it’s well worth taking an extra minute to make sure you’ve got the right dates, the right room and the right number of guests. The hotel may be able to fix any mistakes when you arrive – or it may not.
Get a refundable room
The errant reservation in Port aux Basques could have cost me a lot of money, especially since I booked two rooms. But I did one thing right: I made sure the rooms were refundable. That way, I had an out in case of any screw-ups or changes in plans. This is my usual policy, wherever I travel. In some cases choosing the refundable room costs a little extra, but I’ll gladly pay it to give myself some flexibility.
The principle also applies to things like air and train reservations, especially if you’re not travelling on a strict schedule. You could be hit with a big penalty if you decide to stay an extra day somewhere. It’s tough to stick to your guns when you’re booking air flights, considering how much you have to pay for the refundable, or even more refundable, seat. Still, now and then it’s worth it.
The lesson: Choose a refundable room whenever you can. It will make things a lot easier, and save you from a loss if your plans change or there’s a problem with the reservation. You can even use the refundable room as a safeguard in places where accommodations are hard to find. Book it to guarantee you won’t be shut out; then, if you find something better, you can cancel without losing a cent.
Always ask twice
Returning from Newfoundland, Dennis and I decided to save some time and money by taking the night ferry. But spending the night in an economy-class seat is no treat, so we decided to book the larger, padded seats the ferry line offers. The problem was, the premium seats were sold out when we booked our passage on the website.
Dennis, however, had sailed on this ferry before. So on his suggestion, we went straight to the reception desk as soon as we got on board, and asked if they had any premium seats. In fact, they did: I guess they just kept a few in reserve to give themselves some wiggle room. We booked the seats, which were comfortable enough that we managed to get some sleep that night.
The final lesson: Don’t always take no for an answer, especially if you’re booking online. Hotels don’t put all their rooms on the web, and that rule obviously applies to ferry lines, too. So if you don’t see a vacancy, ask directly. There may be unadvertised rooms or seats available, there may be a cancellation – there are a lot of possibilities. And if you’re truly shut out, ask the clerk where else to look; they’re usually a treasure trove of information about the local hotel market, and know where to find the best deals.
Those are my five new travel lessons, but keep watching this space: the more I travel, the more things I learn. Meanwhile, do you have a travel story with a lesson to be learned? Share it in the comment section below so we can all benefit from your experiences. And if they’re funny, all the better.