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. 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 I learned

1.) One day in Phnom Penh –

I’m in a meeting with the police chief discussing the creation of a procedure for fingerprinting of foreigners. I desperately need 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 talk in circles for a few hours before I finally give up in frustration and bolt.

Running through the courtyard of the police compound, my foot clips a tree root and I fly through the air and land on my face in the dirt – a perfect face-plant. I get up, brush the dirt off my face and the blood off my knee and run to my waiting tuk-tuk.

Lesson learned – Later, on the bus ride from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, I have an epiphany – if I’m  frustrated by Cambodian bureaucracy I can just leave. So I cross 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 Deborah and I are driving our scooters along the Mae Hong Son loop and take a side trip to visit the Long Neck tribe near Mae Hong Son. The road to the village crosses a shallow stream in eight places and there are signs warning “Slippery when wet”. We make it through the first four crossings without incident. Unfortunately, on the fifth crossing, we both go down hard. I cling to the ignition while my scooter and I continue to flop around on the slick, moss-covered pavement until we come to a crashing stop against the river bank. We pick ourselves up and carefully walk our scooters out of the stream and park under a tree. After the blood flow stops seeping from my left knee, we walk 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 arrive, exhausted, at the Hampton Inn after a long overnight flight from Honolulu. When I realize I’m at the WRONG Hampton Inn, I go to the payphone in the lobby and call another hotel to confirm my reservation. As I was driving to the right hotel, I realize I purse is still in the phone booth! I return to the booth and find my purse – but my $700 cash is gone, the money I had withdrawn for my trip to London the following day. It’s early morning and very few people are milling about in the lobby. There are few suspects besides 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 arrive at a remote “village” outside of Siem Reap where I plan to spend six weeks as a volunteer English teacher. They show me to my room, which contains only a thin mattress on the floor covered by a dirty mosquito net. There is no air conditioning and only one rickety old ceiling fan. I spent that night killing the small black bugs that crawl through the holes in the mosquito net while I scratch the heat rash on my neck. I’m tired and miserable and my “six weeks” turn into one night. The next day I return 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 am so 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 gets bumped in Houston (for 3 days) and never makes it to Ecuador. My bank canceled my credit card the day before I left on the trip (fraud) and I am running low on cash. Sick, broke, and miserable but still determined to make the best of it, I take a shuttle bus to Otavalo and hang 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 tablecloth I bought there!

6.) One day in Istanbul

I cry in an alley. Just off the overnight bus from southern Turkey, I arrive in Istanbul exhausted. I’m searching the alley for a carpet shop where I can 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 search but there are NO carpet shops anywhere in sight. Exhausted, I start sobbing, assuming I had gotten ripped off by the carpet man. Then an old Turkish man stops to help. He looks at the address and leads 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 spend the night on the train because I’m homeless. Stupidly, I arrive in the popular tourist area of Cinque Terre without a hotel reservation. It’s a long holiday weekend in Europe and everyone is going to Cinque Terre. Everyone except me. No hotels anywhere. So I take the overnight train from Pisa to Turin and get a few hours’ sleep. A few days later I return 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 arrive safely in Vienna but my bag doesn’t. This is actually my very first travel horror story, back in the day when I was required to dress up to fly (an airline employee perk). I’m wearing my purple sweater dress and white pumps (seriously). And since I fail to pack any extra clothes in my carry on bag, I wear the purple dress for a few days. I spend days walking through parks in Vienna barefoot when I discover 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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