As much as I love to travel, I’ve had my share of frustrations while on the road. Whether it’s a missed train, a cold just in time for my next vacation, a week of torrential downpour, or a city trip that ends up being a big letdown – there have been plenty of times when traveling has been frustrating to say the least.
But for the few times when something didn’t go as planned, there have been countless other times when traveling exceeded my expectations.
What’s more, looking back at some of my more unfortunate moments on the road, I realize now that they make for some pretty entertaining stories. And since you can’t have the good without the bad, and because nobody is immune to an occasional bout of bad luck while on the road, I thought I’d share my biggest travel flops.
1. Taking the regional trains overnight from Berlin to Stuttgart and trying to sleep in a photo booth while someone got arrested.
Back when I was an English teaching assistant in Stuttgart, I wasn’t exactly the richest kid on the block (not that I’m a lot richer now, either). I was in Berlin at a conference with a group of other teaching assistants, and I figured I’d get my return ticket the day before. But when I saw that the price for a one-way ticket on a speed train the next day was a fifth of my monthly salary, I nearly fainted. Why did I ever think Germany would be the place to entertain such spontaneity?
After going through every possible combination of trains at the ticket machine, I finally found a cheap alternative. The only catch was that I had to travel on the regional trains. At night.
Now, for those of you who aren’t familiar with German geography, a normal trip from Berlin to Stuttgart on a speed train takes roughly five and a half hours. And with the regional trains? Thirteen. Freaking. Hours. But the fun was only about to start.
Aside from the fact that my travel companion – let’s call her Lisa – accidentally poured half a liter of Fanta on the train floor as soon as we got in (yes, there was someone else as foolish as me who didn’t book their ticket in advance, and yes, we were off to a great start), I pretty much learned how to sleep upright with a scarf around my face while drunken teenagers blared Schlager music from their cellphones.
Oh, and another first: While trying to take a nap between connections in a photo booth somewhere in Sachsen-Anhalt, I watched as German police officers handcuffed and arrested some drunk guy. You see, a rather sketchy individual had stumbled into the station and fallen asleep right across from us. As we gathered from the shouting that ensued during his arrest a few minutes later, he had apparently just broken into a storefront (which would explain the blood all over his hands). Yeah, I pretty much didn’t get much shut-eye at that train station.
The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful (I know you’re relieved, Mom and Dad). But if there’s one thing I learned from that trip, it’s to never take the regional trains across the entire country again. Oh, and also that photo booths make for very uncomfortable sleeping areas.
2. Busting my knee by spontaneously hiking 23 kilometers, or 14 miles, in an afternoon while visiting Regensburg.
Two years ago, I got the dandy idea in my head to take a day trip to the Bavarian town of Regensburg. Despite the fact that Regensburg is a three-hour train ride from Frankfurt (which means time is pretty limited to begin with), I thought I’d make the most of my trip by visiting the nearby town of Donaustauf. Apparently, there was a pretty cool castle in Donaustauf (at least based on my Google image search results), as well as the Walhalla memorial – a hall of fame in the form of a Greek temple with busts of influential figures in German history.
Normally, there would be a bus connecting Regensburg to Donaustauf at regular intervals. However, I ended up visiting on Easter Sunday, and as anyone who has been to Germany on a holiday (or even on an ordinary Sunday) knows, pretty much everything shuts down.
So being the sort of rugged, outdoorsy person I am (that’s a joke, by the way), I figured I’d just walk the 23 kilometers there and back. After all, it was a sunny day, and the map on my iPhone seemed to indicate that there was a hiking trail all along the Danube. Sounds pretty nice, right? Well, it would’ve been nice had I: a) started out in the right direction, and b) had proper hiking shoes on. Instead, I ended up walking through an industrial park for a good thirty minutes, and after hiking halfway down the trail, I realized there was a pretty nasty blister on my left foot.
By the time I finally made it to Donaustauf, I only had 30 minutes to see the castle AND the Walhalla memorial. Well done, Danny. Well done. So after a few quick snapshots and a Facebook post, I nearly had to jog back to Regensburg, and the blister was only getting bigger (which meant I had to walk on the side of my foot the whole way).
The next day, I decided to go for a longer walk with a friend in Frankfurt despite the fact that my legs were killing me (dumb idea, I know!), until I felt a sharp and sudden pain in my left knee. I’m not sure what happened, but for the next four weeks, I couldn’t bend my knee and pretty much limped everywhere I went. Believe me, never have I wanted a functioning kneecap more than during that month!
3. Spending my 24th birthday stranded alone in the rain on an island in Croatia.
Two years ago when I was thinking of things to do for my 24th birthday, a trip to Croatia sounded like a pretty good present. I hoped on a plane bound for the seaside town of Zadar and planned to spend the next three days exploring the Adriatic Coast.
When I woke up on my 24th birthday, it was pouring rain, but I decided to brave the elements and take a ferry to a small island across the bay. But while the island sounded like an interesting place to visit in theory, the reality – at least in torrential downpour – was a different story. The island ended up being completely deserted (it was still the off-season), and I had to sit on a park bench shivering in the rain until the next ferry arrived a few hours later. Yeah, not exactly the best birthday I’ve had.
Before you point out that it was my fault for traveling alone, let me say this: I’m all about solo travel. In fact, I’ve written on this blog before about the lessons I’ve learned from traveling on my own. But since I was still relatively new to the concept of solo travel in Croatia, I naively thought that loneliness wasn’t something that would bring me down that much.
Now, though, I’ve learned that there will be times when I’ll feel lonely when traveling on my own, and I’m better prepared to deal with those feelings. For example, I create travel itineraries that keep me sufficiently busy, I seek out smaller hostels that cater to backpackers, I make sure to have a good book with me, and I try to focus on things that get me excited to explore a new place – like taking pictures or trying new food.
4. Getting evacuated from Egypt during the Arab Spring.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the story, I left for Egypt in January 2011 to spend a semester at the American University of Cairo. However, as fate would have it, I was evacuated two weeks later in the midst of the Arab Spring. I won’t go into a whole lot of detail in this post, since I’ve written about my time in Cairo here and here. But let’s just say there was some tear gas, there were curfews, and there was a whole lot of uncertainty.
In retrospect, my experience in Egypt taught me a lot about travel (see, at least I’m learning from these travel flops!). In fact, here’s part of what I wrote in a guest post for my friend Ginger at The Traveler’s Mindset:
Looking back on my trip to Egypt five years later, I realize that, at the time, there was one important lesson I hadn’t yet learned: While you may know your destination, you’ll never really know where it will take you.
Sometimes, this can be thrilling and exciting. But it can also be incredibly nerve-wracking, as Egypt showed me. At the end of the day, though, the only thing you can do is to stay open to the experience, be flexible, and let go of any expectations. And that, I believe, is one of the most important, but also hardest things to do when traveling.
5. Staying in a
log cabin garden shed near Venice with a serious ant problem and no hot water.
Remember my friend Lisa from the overnight train ride to Stuttgart? Well, it turns out that wasn’t the only travel flop we had. When we went to Venice three years ago, we thought we’d get past the high hotel rates by staying in a campground on the mainland next to a highway (don’t even ask me how we found this place). After all, it would definitely be warm enough there in late March to stay in a cabin (read: garden shed) and take a cold shower in the morning, right? Wrong!
As soon as the sun went down, we realized it was about to be a very long and cold night. After mixing cracker crumbs with some lettuce and calling it dinner (yep, we were on a budget), we put on another layer of clothes, dug out our hats and mittens from our suitcases, and got ready for bed. My bed was a bit stiff, but I wasn’t complaining. Lisa’s bed, on the other hand, was host to a colony of ants that had to be shaken off the sheets for half an hour.
I’m pretty sure neither of us slept more than four hours that night, either because we were constantly waking up afraid that there would be ants in our beds, or because it was so cold that we could see our breath. If there’s any way NOT to stay in Venice, I’m pretty sure I found it.
6. Missing my train to Brussels because it left EARLIER than scheduled and being forced to do what was probably the quickest city tour ever.
You didn’t think you’d make it through this post without at least one story about a missed train/bus/plane, did you? In my defense, I made it to the train station with more than enough time to spare before my trip to Brussels in November 2014. The only problem was that when I went to my platform, I saw a train for France, not Belgium.
A quick inquiry at the help desk revealed that my train had left an hour EARLIER than scheduled. Apparently, I had bought my ticket so far in advance that the departure time was no longer accurate (what is it with me and booking train tickets too early or too late?!). Of course, Deutsche Bahn didn’t think it was necessary to tell me that the time had changed, either. Dankeschön.
In the end, I got put on a train to Düsseldorf and then had to take a four-hour bus ride from there to Brussels with a group of six drunken teenagers in the seats behind me (it was the day after Halloween, mind you). By the time I arrived in the Belgian capital, it was already 4 PM, and since I was due to return to Frankfurt the next day at around 6 PM, I had a whopping 26 hours to explore the city. Yipee! I guess that’s what you call a whirlwind tour.
7. Getting campylobacter in India and being sick on and off for nearly two months.
Okay, so travel ailments aren’t very fun, especially when they leave you debilitated for almost two months. On my last day in New Delhi, I woke up feeling completely exhausted, but since we had spent the entire day before on a train from Jodhpur, I didn’t think much of it. As the day progressed, though, I realized something wasn’t right, and by the time dinner came around, I had narrowed things down to my digestive tract. Not long after that, I had the pleasure of visiting our hostel dorm bathroom at least twice an hour for the next thirteen hours.
Luckily, I was able to make it through the flight back to Frankfurt without any major accidents (Imodium works wonders, folks). But as soon as we landed, things got pretty lousy again. I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say I ended up missing a lot of work, couldn’t eat anything, and paid my local doctor quite a few visits until he found out that I had campylobacter, a foodborne illness similar to salmonella.
To make things worse, I came down with a cold at the same time and had an allergic reaction to cough drops (yes, cough drops!), which made me break out in hives EVERYWHERE for a week. And believe me, the hives were almost just as annoying as the stomach cramps and explosive diarrhea (I know, I know, I promised I wouldn’t go into detail). Oh, and did I mention that I somehow sliced open my right toe and couldn’t walk correctly for four days, too? Yeah, not the best combination of things. What’s more, right when I thought I was getting better, I had a relapse of campylobacter that landed me in the hospital for three days, and by the end of the ordeal, I had lost more than 10 kilos (or over 20 pounds).
It probably goes without saying, but it took me a good three months until I could stomach the thought of eating curry again.
So in the end, I guess that just goes to show you that as wonderful as travel is, there are times when it just plain sucks. Ultimately, that doesn’t make it any less amazing. But it certainly does help to be open to the possibility that things won’t always go as planned. Besides, if travel were always predictable, what would be the thrill of it anyways?