8 Travel Horror Stories – and Life Lessons Learned

Travel Horror Stories

Watching the Travel Channel is a great way to get a glimpse of the world without leaving the comfort of your couch, but they tend to put a glamorous spin on travel. Anthony Bourdain floats through exotic countries and makes it all look so effortless. Andrew Zimmern eats bizarre food and never gets sick. Few travel horror stories. But in reality, life on the road isn’t all sunshine and roses – sometimes roses have thorns and a trip turns into a travel horror story.

Travel takes effort, planning, money, and sometimes huge doses of courage. Sadly, despite careful planning, sometimes stuff happens and you fall flat on your face. But travel is a great teacher and the bad days may contain valuable life lessons – a silver lining in the dark clouds of epic failure .

Here are eight Travel Horror Stories and the valuable life lessons learned

1.) One day in Phnom Penh, I was in a meeting with the police chief discussing the creation of a procedure for fingerprinting of foreigners. I desperately needed to get thisbeating-head-against-the-wall (1) done in order to request an FBI background check required to apply for teaching gigs in Korea. The police chief and I talked in circles for a few hours before I finally gave up in frustration and bolted.

Running through the courtyard of the police compound, my foot clipped a tree root and I flew through the air and landed on my face in the dirt – a perfect face-plant. I got up, brushed the dirt off my face and the blood off my knee and ran to my waiting tuk-tuk.

Lesson learned – Later, on the bus ride from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, I had an epiphany – if I was frustrated by Cambodian bureaucracy I could just leave. So I crossed Cambodia off my list of countries I could relocate to. (Lovely country, I just couldn’t live there.)

2.) One day in Thailand, my friend and I were driving our scooters along the Mae Hong Son loop and took a side trip to visit the Long Neck tribe near Mae Hong Son. The road to the village crossed a shallow stream in eight places and there were signs warning “Slippery when wet”. We made it through the first four crossings without incident. Unfortunately, on the fifth crossing, we both went down hard. I clung to the ignition while my scooter and I continued to flop around on the slick, moss-covered pavement until we came to a crashing stop against the river bank. We carefully walked our scooters out of the stream and parked under a tree. After we stopped the blood flow seeping from my left knee, we walked the rest of the way into the village.

Lesson learned – Slippery when wet really means slippery when wet. Seriously.

Long Neck Tribe - Thailand
Long Neck Woman

3.) One early morning in Minneapolis, I arrived at the Hampton Inn after a long overnight flight from Honolulu. When I realized I was at the WRONG Hampton Inn, I went to the payphone in the lobby and called another hotel to confirm my reservation. As I was driving to the right hotel I realized I had left my purse in the phone booth. Returning to the booth, I found my purse – but my $700 cash was gone, the money I had withdrawn for my trip to London the following day. It was early morning and very few people were milling about in the lobby. There were few suspects other than the two young women working at the front desk. (Nothing was ever proven…)

Lesson learned: When flying overnight (or for a few days straight) I’m extra careful. I know I’m a mess when I’m exhausted and plan accordingly. And I don’t carry cash.

London phone
Photo credit: Aesum via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

 4.) One hot June day in Cambodia, I arrived at a remote “village” outside of Siem Reap where I planned to spend six weeks as a volunteer English teacher. They showed me to my room, which contained only a thin mattress on the floor covered by a dirty mosquito net. There was no air conditioning and only one rickety old ceiling fan. I spent that night killing the small black bugs that crawled through the holes in the mosquito net while I scratched the heat rash on my neck. I was tired and miserable and my “six weeks” turned into one night. The next day I returned to an air conditioned hotel in Siem Reap.

Lessons learned – A “free” volunteer opportunity is free for a reason. And I’m too old for THAT much roughing it!

5.) One day in Quito, I was sick. Many people get sick while on the road, but not Andrew Zimmern and not me. I’ve got an iron stomach and can eat almost anything- except that hard boiled egg on the salad I’d had the night before in Cuzco. Something didn’t taste quite right. To make matters worse, my friend Sara got bumped in Houston (for 3 days) and never made it to Ecuador. My bank canceled my credit card the day before I left on the trip (fraud) and I was running low on cash. Sick, broke, and miserable but determined to make the best of it, I took a shuttle bus to Otavalo and hung out with the indigenous people for a week.

Lesson learned – Go with the flow. Nothing worked out as planned but I have great memories of Otavalo. My Mother still uses the beautiful table cloth I bought there!

6.) One day in Istanbul, I cried in an alley. I had just taken an overnight bus from southern Turkey and arrived in Istanbul exhausted. I was searching the alley for a carpet shop where I could pick up the beautiful carpet I had purchased the previous week in Selcuk. The nice carpet seller had promised to ship it to an address in Istanbul, somewhere in this alley. I searched but there were NO carpet shops anywhere in sight. Exhausted, I started sobbing, assuming I had gotten ripped off by the carpet man. Then an old Turkish man stopped to help. He looked at the address and lead me into a car dealership…and to my beautiful carpet!

Lesson learned – Take a nap before searching through alleys in Istanbul. And trust in the genuine kindness of the Turkish people! They’re the best!

Cinque Terre view
Cinque Terre view – photo credit Pixabay

7.) One time in Italy, I spent the night on the train because I was homeless. Stupidly, I had arrived in the popular tourist area of Cinque Terre without a hotel reservation. It was a holiday weekend in Europe and everyone was going to Cinque Terre. Everyone except me. No hotels anywhere. So I took the overnight train from Pisa to Turin and got a few hours’ sleep. A few days later I returned to Cinque Terre with a confirmed hotel reservation.

Lesson learn – A little planning goes a long way – now I always book a hotel for at least the first night. After that I wing it.

8.) One day in Vienna, I arrived but my bag didn’t. This was my first travel horror story and was back in the day when I was required to dress up to fly (an airline employee perk). I was wearing my purple sweater dress and white pumps (seriously). And since I hadn’t packed any extra clothes in my carry on bag, I wore the purple dress for a few days. I walked through parks in Vienna barefoot when I discovered white pumps are not good walking shoes.

Lesson learned – I always pack extra clothes, try to avoid checking a bag if possible and never wear white pumps. Ever.

Do you have any Travel Horror Stories to share? And did you learn something from your epic failures?

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10 thoughts on “8 Travel Horror Stories – and Life Lessons Learned

  • November 7, 2016 at 2:21 pm

    Brilliant. Loved reading your Italy fiasco – what a long arrival journey! I always book 1-3 nights someplace. And I agree, for as much as you want to indulge in something free, I too, am too old for squishing bugs all night.

    • November 7, 2016 at 2:44 pm

      Yeah – I learned the hard way to ALWAYS book a hotel in Italy! And that FREE volunteer gig was an attempt to get more teaching experience before applying for a real job. After one night in that jungle-hell my priorities shifted a bit! 🙂

  • November 7, 2016 at 2:49 pm


    I so enjoyed this and DO remember some of these stories……the all nite train in Italy,
    the bed bugs in Cambodia, etc etc.
    You are my hero……off u go to another adventure…..

    Keep writing….

    • November 7, 2016 at 3:18 pm

      And do you remember the horrible time I had after leaving you in Cusco? Haha! That was a trip that just shouldn’t have happened. 🙂

  • November 8, 2016 at 12:36 am

    Ohhh! I wish I’m there so I could just lift my wand & make things right:-) Fairy GodMother will make sure everything will turn out great!

    Travel safe Andi! Hope to see you & do happy trails together with our TBEX Gang 🙂

    • November 8, 2016 at 1:06 am

      Thanks Fairy God Mother! I wish you could’ve been there to protect me! 🙂 I hope to return to your wonderful land in April! Hope to see you then!

  • November 8, 2016 at 3:54 pm

    Trying to get to Ecuador was horrible !!! I remember standing by for all flights headed South !!! Lived in the same clothes , luckily the airport hotels at the time were cheap cheap. I finally gave up and headed East , home to Mama. I don’t remember getting my suitcase back , hmmmmm. Ecuador is still on my list. Someday..,

    • November 9, 2016 at 12:47 am

      I think your bag somehow ended up in Lima while you were trying to get to Quito but spent time flying between Houston and Newark! Maybe we can try to meet there again someday?

  • November 21, 2016 at 12:19 pm

    Enjoyed the stories! Slipping seems to be a common theme 🙂

    Worse/stupidest thing I ever did – losing $3000 buying gems in Bangkok. Stupid. But happens to us all one time or another and in my defense it was in my early years of travel…

    Frank (bbqboy)

    • November 21, 2016 at 1:58 pm

      Haha! Yeah, I guess I’m a bit of a klutz! But at least I only lost $700 (stolen) rather than $3000! That sounds like a good travel story!


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