We all know things go wrong when we travel. We travelled for over a year through forty countries and were lucky we didn’t have anything really disastrous occur, but there were definitely some things we did wrong and other things that went wrong that were out of our control. Here are the ten worst things that occurred during our gap year. Laugh and learn!
We Went to Agra – But Didn’t get to Visit the Taj Mahal
This is the one that really gets to me, and it all went wrong because of lack of planning and some bad luck. On the spur of the moment we decided to go to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. We booked a flight from Mumbai to Delhi the next day, then booked a private transfer to Agra. We should have arrived there about 1pm, plenty of time to see the Taj Mahal in the afternoon. We would then travel to Jaipur the following day, a Friday, when the Taj Mahal is closed.
The comedy of errors began with a flight delay. It was only 45 minutes, but that, combined with a very long hour wait for our baggage, meant that when we emerged from the airport, our driver was no where to be found, even though we had emailed that we would be running late. We were now at a loss. I had no idea what other options we had and no internet to be able to search. If only I had done this earlier!
We figured we would just organise another car, but this was a very long, painful process. Families had to be discussed and much tea consumed, then the bargaining began – with ridiculously high prices! The first company was just so over the top and not willing to budge that we ended up walking away and starting the process again. By now it was getting into the afternoon, and we had a three hour drive to Agra! We still paid too much, but half of the first price, and finally were in a car and on the new highway to Agra about 3 hours away.
All was going well until there was a big bang, and pieces of shredded tyre were now all over the road. We jump out the car, unload all our luggage to get to the spare tyre, Simon changed it while the driver ran all over the road picking up bits of car and tyre littering the highway. We packed everything up again and got back in – and the car wouldn’t start!
A small discussion ensued as the driver was reluctant to let me behind the wheel so the two guys could be the ones who pushed the car to start it, but eventually he relented, and the car was soon running. Surely it couldn’t get any worse? Wrong. The driver now announces he can’t go any faster than 60km/h, even on the 100km/h highway, because the spare tyre was not pumped up enough and was therefore dangerous! So I watch the sun set, along with my chance to see the Taj Mahal, as we limp into Agra.
There was just one last twist of the knife. The guy checking us into our hotel took pity on us and upgraded our room to one with a view of the Taj Mahal so we would at least be able to have a view of it in the morning. So on awakening, I eagerly open the curtains – to see a vista shrouded in fog, and no Taj Mahal! Why was I surprised?
Ending up 200km in the Wrong Direction in Albania
We had really struggled while we were in Tirana to find information about how to get from there to Shkodër. It all seemed to come back to “get a furgon”. Basically these are minibuses (or sometimes cars) going to particular cities. Pretty much anyone can put a sign in their window, wait until the vehicle fills up then head off. We found what we thought was the furgon station and made our way there. As we arrived we were approached by someone who asked where we were going. On hearing Shkodër, he herded us into the last two seats in a van, and we took off.
A bit later I noticed us drive past the Shkodër turn off, but I thought maybe we were dropping someone off along the way somewhere else. Eventually we turned south not north, and after another ten minutes I said to Simon “We’re going the wrong way – I don’t think this van is going to Shkodër”. Another half an hour passes and we stopped for a break, and Simon spoke with the driver. Sure enough, we weren’t going to Shkodër but Vlores, in the complete wrong direction. Unfortunately no one on the bus – driver included – spoke more than a few word of English, so trying to find out how to get back to Tirana was almost impossible. We chose to stay on the bus until Vlores as it seemed like our only other option was to get off and wait by the side of the road and try to flag someone down going in the opposite direction for a ride back to Tirana.
In Vlores we found a car going back in the other direction, but again, we had to sit and wait for ages for it to fill up. At the end of the day we were back to where we started and about $30 worse off. We consoled ourselves by staying at a fancy hotel for the night, and started all over again the next morning.
(Further investigation revealed that where we caught the furgon was the Vlores Furgon Station, so all cars went to Vlores from there. Not quite sure how Shkodër and Vlores got mixed up when we asked – was it a mistake or done on purpose to fill up the car? The next day we found the Shkodër furgon station)
Being Pickpocketed on a French Train
Now this one we should have known better! It was exactly one year since we left home and we had been so careful until now, but we ended up with just the perfect pickpocketing conditions. We had just landed at CDG airport, and there was a train strike on, so only skeleton trains were running. Therefore the train was just jam-packed. Seriously, it was like a Mumbai train in peak hour, and we had all our luggage with us. We were pushed into a corner and pretty much couldn’t move. Simon was more in the traffic than I was, and at every stop people squeezed through the crowd to get out. Right after one guy squeezed past him, Simon says “my wallet’s gone!” Bugger! It was in the front pocket of his jeans.
Luckily I had been prepared for at least something to go wrong with our cards, so I had a backup plan, and all we lost was a few dollars on Skype calls to cancel the cards. We still had alternative ways to get cash, and since I had insisted Simon have two wallets – one with cash, one with his cards – there was not even one Euro of cash that was taken. So something that could have caused us a lot more grief luckily didn’t, instead it mostly left us kicking ourselves. Simon did finally admit though that yes, it was possible for a pickpocketer to get his wallet out of his front pocket, where he kept telling me it was safe. Take this on board if you are thinking that your front pocket is safe too! Consider instead an anti-theft bag – I loved mine and felt much more secure with it.
Booking a Flight on the Wrong Day
We took more than fifty flights during our gap year. We had a few small delays here and there, but all in all, we were very lucky. We were also very lucky when Simon booked a flight on the wrong day – because we found it in advance!
We were flying between Stockholm and Helsinki, and the flight was on Norwegian, so no chance of being able to change it. It was cheaper to stay an extra day in Stockholm than to re-book the flight, but it was not without inconvenience. Where we were staying was fully booked, so we had to move to another hotel for the last night. Stockholm is not a budget location anyway, and booking at the last minute does not help that at all!
We emailed our accommodation in Helsinki to let them know we would be arriving a day late, but strangely didn’t hear back from them. On arrival a day later than they had expected us we found out they had cancelled our whole booking since we no-showed, as our emails did not get to them. We showed them our sent items and even though they had given away our room, they were able to find another one for us – their last room!
We had already booked our ferry tickets from Helsinki to Tallinn, so it was one day of rushing around Helsinki to see as much as we could of the city. Moral of the story – double and triple check dates before booking flights!
Eating a Dodgy Burek in Bosnia & Herzegovina
This one also goes in the “we should have known better” file too. We were in Mostar when the Red Bull Cliff Diving Championships were held. There were piles of visitors in town, and it was late in the day. We were tired and heading back to our hostel, and thought we would grab a quick bite to eat. Simon ordered a pizza but I went for the local fast food, burek. When I got it, I noted that it tasted a bit like it had been reheated rather than the fresh versions of burek I had been eating for weeks. Did I stop eating it? No, instead I encouraged Simon to have a taste also to see how truely bad it was!
A few hours later this came back to haunt me rather badly. I normally have an iron stomach, and have never been sick before while travelling, but, skipping the details, lets just say this was three hours of hell. Just as I was able to leave the bathroom and head back to bed, Simon started having the same, ummm, symptoms! But he doesn’t have my iron stomach and he was much worse than me, even though he only had a small taste.
There was no more sleep that night, and the next morning I had to run around town in the rain finding medication for Simon (on a Sunday morning) while I wasn’t feeling great myself. He was adamant he couldn’t move, but we had a bus to catch to Croatia. I gave him a choice – we could stay here in this hostel with a shared bathroom, or we could endure a two hour bus ride, at the end of which was a whole apartment to ourselves! We slept in Croatia that night.
My Camera Died – the Day we Saw the Northern Lights
We all love to capture those real highlights of a trip, and definitely in the top five big things we did was see the Northern Lights. Unfortunately I don’t have much of a record of it because earlier that very same day my camera stopped working! I tried everything I could think of, and everything I could find on Google, but it was just dead. Wouldn’t turn on at all. So we went to see the Northern Lights with only my iPhone, and that just does not cut it at all when capturing the Northern Lights. I did try, but ended up with a whole pile of black photos and nothing else.
A consolation is that we did have a professional photographer on the tour with us, so we were able to purchase the photos he took of us. I really would have loved a whole pile more photos though.
We had two months left on our trip, and we were moving around quite quickly, so there was no chance to get the camera fixed until we got home. So the rest of our trip was photographed just on my phone.
(I have since heard there is an iPhone app called Northern Lights Photo Taker that people recommend for exactly this situation!)
Train Strikes x 3
We seemed to be train strike magnets on this trip. Three times, in three different countries, we had challenges due to train strikes.
In Italy we had a train trip from Lierna near Lake Como to Padua. We heard a couple of days before that the trains were striking on the day we wanted to travel. Luckily we hadn’t yet bought our tickets, so that at least gave us some flexibility. I couldn’t get a lot of information, but did find out they were running skeleton trains into Milan only between 6 and 9am, so by 6am we were sitting on the platform waiting for the train. It was almost an hour before one came along, but at least it got us to Milan. From there we had planned to travel on the slower, cheaper, local trains, but they were on strike, so we had to use the Frecciarosa instead. It’s no hardship to catch these fast, comfortable trains, but it does make a bit more if a dent in the wallet.
In Sri Lanka the trains were totally on strike and there was no way to know when they would be running again. To say this was inconvenient was an understatement, as I had planned to travel predominantly by train, including taking the iconic Kandy to Ella train trip through the highlands. Every day we would go to the train station in whichever town we were in to find out if the trains were running yet. It was looking more and more unlikely that we would be going from Kandy to Ella by train. We were surprised though, when one of the guys working at our hotel told us the night before we planned to travel that the trains would be running again the next day! We made our way to the station early in the morning to check for ourselves, and yes, the train was going to run that day and we could get tickets! As, it seems, did every other visitor to Kandy who had been waiting for the last ten days for the trains to run again so they could do this trip. It was standing room only in a very overcrowded train for the seven hours, but it was worth it.
The final train strike was in France. I’ve already mentioned the pickpocketing issue above, but we also had to change some of our plans around due to the train. We were going to cross from the UK on the Eurostar, but we were travelling on a strike day so we decided to fly rather than risk it. We had also planned to visit some other places in France after Bordeaux, but again, the days we had available were strike days, so we waited and went straight back to Paris on our final day in France instead.
Each of these cost us more than what we had budgeted and took many hours of extra planning and searching for information – but at least we got to where we needed to be each time.
Not Getting a Chinese Visa on Arrival
All the best laid plans….! We were in Hong Kong for Christmas, then went over to Macau on Boxing Day for a couple of nights and our next destination was Shenzhen in mainland China. As an Australian passport holder, we had read up on getting a five day Visa on Arrival at the border to allow us to visit just the Shenzhen area. We had booked our accommodation and planned our next flight. I had worked out the ferry and train journey from Macau to to the border post that processes the VOAs (not all of them do) and then from there to our hotel. All was in order.
The night before we left though I was just re-checking the information and came across a vague reference to the VOAs being denied if there was a stamp from Turkey, Iran or Saudi Arabia in the passport. On no! We definitely had Turkish stamps! Two lots even. I did some more searching and found more cases of being denied for Turkish stamps, and then more of being denied for not carrying previous passports, and even more if people had not previously had a Chinese visa. These were all strikes against us. I went to bed trying to decide what to do.
In the morning I had to decide – were we going to go to the border and pay $60USD each to find out if we caught the border staff on a good day and we were some of the lucky people to get let through? Or were we going to cut our losses now? And if so, where were we going to sleep tonight? It was between Christmas and New Years, and Hong Kong was almost fully booked – we couldn’t find anything in our budget (or even close to our top end price). Macau was just as bad!
We decided to go straight to Hong Kong airport, and try to find a flight out along the way. In the end we flew to Phnom Penh via Kuala Lumpur, and didn’t need anywhere to sleep that night – the KL airport was free!
Losing Luggage in Jordan
When is luggage mostly likely to be lost? When doing connecting flights on a budget airline! And that’s exactly what we were doing on Pegasus Airlines from Antalya, Turkey to Amman, Jordan. The flights went well, until it came time to pick up our backpacks in Amman. Simon’s came out – his ALWAYS came out first, I don’t know why this was – and the usual wait for my bag to arrive began. But this time it did not arrive. I was the only one lined up at the lost luggage counter, so clearly every other passenger got their bags too. After all the paperwork, we were off into town. Remember we are in the Middle East, it’s hot, and of course when travelling I am wearing my heaviest clothes – jeans, long sleeved shirt and hiking boots. I was melting.
I wasn’t too stressed about my bags, everything essential or expensive was in my hand luggage, but buying new stuff was going to be inconvenient if it didn’t turn up. I had a change of underwear in my carry-on, but not a change of clothes, so I was going to need at least a change of clothes the next day if my bag didn’t arrive. I looked up my travel insurance, and found that kicked in after 24 hours, so the wait was on to hear about my bag by then or go shopping.
My backpack arrived on the same flight but a day later, so I didn’t have to go shopping, but it was nice dreaming about having new clothes after six months in the same few things.
Standby Flight from Berlin to Krakow
Getting from Berlin to Krakow was causing us some issues. This was part of our first month when both of our children were with us, and most of it I had already booked before we left Australia. I couldn’t book this leg though, which we were planning to do by train, because the website would not accept my non-European credit card. When we arrived in Berlin, our first task was to head to the train station to buy tickets. We couldn’t get tickets, I think because part of the track was being repaired, but unfortunately the lady serving us didn’t speak much English and I speak even less German!
So I started to investigate flights – they were really expensive only a few days in advance, and there were four of us. Things were looking up though, because I could use my frequent flyer points to get flights so I didn’t have to pay the exorbitant last minute prices. We got to the airport to check in, only to be told the flight is oversold and we are on standby!
These things only ever happen when we absolutely have to be somewhere at a certain time. In this case the AirBnB that I had booked weeks ago was managed by an agency, and we had to get there by a certain time to pick up the keys before they closed for the day. I needed at least one of us on this flight or the next, and both were full!
Begging and pleading got Simon aboard, but myself and the girls had to wait. We ended up being very lucky, as there were three no-shows, so we got the last minute go-ahead to board. We rushed outside and jumped on the bus to take us to the plane and breathed a sigh or relief. As the bus door closed I looked back towards the terminal, to see two people running up to the gate agent. We had taken their seats, and if they were one minute earlier we would have still been sitting in Berlin.
Finally, our Very Best Travel Advice
So laugh at our expense, and learn from our mistakes. While we didn’t need it for most of these incidents, my biggest single piece of travel advice is GET TRAVEL INSURANCE!!! I cannot emphasise enough how even though we didn’t really need it for these, whenever anything went wrong, it lessened the stress levels to know that if things REALLY went wrong, we would be covered and would be okay.
We chose to use Cover-More Travel Insurance for our whole gap year. We had used them before, and I was happy to see they also provided cover for long-term travel. I originally had in my head I was going to go with a different company, but after I looked at the quote, what was covered, and called them to discuss a couple of small questions I had, I was convinced Cover-More was who we should go with. I have made two small claims for damage to my iPad and camera, and both were easily claimed online, and the money appeared in my bank within a couple of weeks. Cover-More currently also offer a free travel sim to use during your trip. (Note: Cover-More is an Australian insurance cover so may only be available to Australian customers)
If you are not in Australia, the other company we considered was World Nomads, and these guys are worldwide. World Nomads is often the choice for people who are travelling full time or who are digital nomads, moving regularly or living outside of their home countries. Their reputation is one of the best. They are also great in that you do not need to be in your home country to purchase a policy, you can take it out any time while on the road. There are choices of cover depending on what you are intending to do on your trip too.
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Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.