Everybody loves traveling…until something goes wrong
Breaking out of the routine for a couple of days or even a few months just seems to be what most of us need whenever we feel weary and routine bite us hard. Just thinking of that lazy hammock next to an exotic turquoise sea, a soothing walk through foreign woods, or a rejuvenating hike to a far flung mountain trail, feels like the beginning of the trip already, doesn’t it?
When planning for a backpacker trip, there are so many details to sort out prior that otherwise would be taken care of by a travel agency or person in charge, it is not difficult to imagine that sometimes a few small details, or a big part of the travel experience can be overlooked or not thought of.
After being to places in different continents, and getting on planes heading to remote corners with different levels of comfort and convenience, I have gathered a few experiences where certainly the plan does not survive contact with reality. Thus, this post is not about the time, sweat and the tears that are often needed to get to that postal-worthy destination but about those times when, regardless of mindful planning, life just happens and active action is needed to see us through a rather stressful or hopeless situation, all aimed to get back on track and enjoy traveling.
1. Unable to board a plane due to the lack of visa for an intermediate country. Taipei, Taiwan.
Yes. Let’s begin this list with things that happen at the beginning. I had everything ready to embark on a journey through several countries in Southeast Asia starting in Yangon, a southern city in the fascinating country of Myanmar. With no direct flights from Taiwan, I had two choices: I could book a single flight with the transfer flights arranged by my airline of choice, and save myself the hassle of finding a connecting flight to my destination, or I could also do some research and book two separate flights with better fares, and save some considerable money this way. In the end, I went for the second option and planned a transfer in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Once in Taipei airport, ready to board my first flight bound for Ho Chi Minh, the airline clerk at the counter confirmed that my nationality indeed required a visa to enter Vietnam, even for transit. Since I had two flights with different airlines, she explained, I would have to go through the arrival customs with a valid Vietnamese tourist visa (“finish my first flight”), and then re-enter the airport terminal for my next flight. After trying many things, like convincing the airline clerk to let me board the plane, trying to get an “express visa” of any kind with the Vietnamese embassy in Taiwan (calling after working hours), none of them gave any positive results. I went back home with a hardship to solve.
With every other flight, boat and bus already booked for a whole month of traveling, giving up on flying to Yangon or just cancelling the whole trip was not an option. Thus, despite the high price of booking a flight for the next day, I went for the soonest flight, making sure this time that it was operated by the same airline from end to end.
My planning fell short when I assumed that when buying separate flight tickets to go somewhere, when arriving at the intermediate airport(s), all one has to do is walk out of the plane, and head to the waiting area of the next flight, without the need of going through the arrival customs at all. The reality is that every flight ticket is complete in itself, and includes departure from a country, and arrival to another. In contrast, a ticket bought with the same airline might include several stopovers, but will save you going through any customs until arriving at the final destination.
2. Unable to stay the night in the airport waiting for the connecting flight. Okinawa, Japan.
This might sound like the second part of the previous hardship, as a series of unfortunate events. And although that is not the case, this was also at the beginning of a trip. During my planning to travel across Japan from south to north, I found an affordable option from Taipei to Fukuoka, southern Japan, that implied two separate tickets: Taipei to Naha Airport, Okinawa, and the next flight to Fukuoka the next morning. After some consideration, including the lessons learned about buying tickets with different airlines, I went for it. I just had to stay in the airport, find some wireless internet, find a bench and spend the next few hours binge watching anything until the time of the next flight. Not so shabby, right?
With this plan in mind, it was my time to go through the Japanese arrival customs. When my time came, the question of the immigration officer revealed the flaw in my money-saving strategy:
– “Can I see the address of the place where you are staying tonight, please?”
– “I do not have one, sir. I plan to wait for my next flight inside the airport”.
– “The airport closes after the last flight of the day arrives, and that is very soon from now. You need to leave and come back tomorrow. Thus, I need to see where you are staying for the night”.
The fact is, most small and medium-sized airports anywhere in the world are not so busy to work around the clock. They operate based on the few flights per day they serve. Naha Airport in the Okinawa Prefecture in Japan is a good example of this. With no hostel booked for this stopover, I had to get out of the line and refill the form, this time with the address of my accommodation that I just did not have. With no WiFi, or any computer with internet access to check for options, there was one single thing that I could do: identify someone among the rest of arriving passengers who had a phone with internet, and break the ice to ask if they could let me use it to get the information I needed.
Without hesitation, a foreign resident was kind enough to lend me her phone, and I immediately typed “hostels near Naha Airport”. I wrote down the first address that came out of the search result. At that moment, it did not matter much whether this was the actual place but to make it through the customs. Once in Japan, I finally managed to find some free WiFi before they closed the airport, and searched again for an affordable option for a night.
Technically, although big airports remain open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, one must still provide an accommodation address on arrival, whether that is a relative or friend’s home, or an actual hostel.
3. Unable to get local money. Kathmandu, Nepal.
I had everything planned to have an epic, multi-day adventure in the Himalayan Mountain Range in Nepal, including a research about the currency to bring to make the exchange for the local Nepali rupees. Like many other countries, the US Dollar was widely accepted as an exchange. With all my camera gear, and warm clothes packed to visit the highest mountains in the world, my departing flight from Taipei, Taiwan was scheduled late at night. And although Taipei Airport is one of those gigantic international hubs that never sleep, many stores are closed after 6 or 9 in the evening, including the exchange counters, where I was planning to exchange my New Taiwan Dollars for US Dollars to start my trip. No big deal. I had a stopover in Bangkok, another huge air hub in Southeast Asia, anyway. I would be just fine by finding an exchange counter there the next morning and the hardship would be sorted out. Nothing like the convenience of airports, right?
Little did I know about the monumental scam I would be subject to if I had changed my money in Bangkok. Almost half of my money would be paid as exchange fees. Naturally adamant to fall for that steal, I carried on and assumed that once in Kathmandu, Nepal, I would either be able to exchange my now exotic Taiwanese currency or just withdraw fresh US Dollar banknotes from any ATM. After arriving in Kathmandu in the afternoon, I confirmed the obvious: no money exchanger in Nepal had even an idea of what a New Taiwanese Dollar was. To make things a bit more interesting, I found out that for some reason, the debit card I prepared for the trip did not allow me to get any money out of the ATM located before the customs. No money, no on-arrival visa. No visa, no trip at all. And yes, the Kathmandu Airport is one of those that close after 6 pm.
After some futile international calls to my bank in Taiwan to enable the card, I had my first encounter with the amazing Nepalese hospitality. The local that would later end up selling me a tour to the Annapurna Base Camp and also become my friend, offered me the exact money for my visa and a taxi ride to the city center. I had no choice but to accept this rather shady offer. Once a legal visitor to Nepal, and after a proper welcome dinner sponsored by my new friend’s travel agency, I made another call to Taiwan. This time to ask a friend to transfer some money to another of my cards that I knew I could effectively withdraw money from. The trip was saved.
Lesson learned: the exchange counters are ready to deal only with the international currencies of the majority of visitors to that place, and this is not always obvious to visitors. Evidently, the NTD is not a frequently traded currency in Nepal. Additionally, make sure all your sources of money (namely, credit or debit cards) are properly enabled by the bank for withdrawals and payments abroad before traveling.
4. I had an accident. The Himalayas, Nepal.
After my peculiar entry to Nepal, as described in the previous hardship that I encountered while traveling, I carried on with my journey to the Annapurna Conservation Area. This popular destination for adventurous hikers takes several days across jungles, mountaintops, lovely villages, and ends in the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC), nested by some of the highest and most beautiful mountain peaks I have ever seen. Here it is also possible to see ancient glaciers and witness epic natural scenery from sunrise to sunset, and the evening starry sky. I just had to see this with my own eyes.
On the day previous to our final approach to ABC, we went through our last checkpoint. Here, the local authorities briefed my guide and me on the weather conditions for the next couple of days. The panorama was not very encouraging with snowfalls forecasted for at least two full days. Exactly the same time we planned to spend at the top. However, knowing that it would be my only chance to achieve this goal during this trip, we pressed on to our final destination.
Just as the forecast predicted, nature had other plans and snow fell nonstop for two days in the higher regions of the Annapurna Conservation Area. The hiking trails were quickly covered by the snow, allowing us to reach the lower Macchapucchre Base Camp (MBC), but making it impossible to further advance to ABC. Eventually, for the sake of safety, we had to settle for MBC. With supplies and electricity running out meal after meal, we remained stuck in this base camp for two entire days with no sunlight whatsoever, and temperatures well below zero.
Suffice to say that we had no other option but to be evacuated by helicopters that were taking everyone in ABC and MBC down the mountain right when the sky finally cleared out, two days after. We could at least witness a pristine morning at 3700 meters above sea level and surrounded by summits of more than 8000 meters tall. Worth every penny. Of course, the helicopter ride was not free, and we had to pay around USD 300 for a 10-minute ride to a village down the valley and continue our trip back to the city. With the invoice claimed, I was able to deduct this “accident expense” from my travel insurance. You can follow my day-to-day journey to the Himalayas here.
Thankfully, I have never been in situations where my physical integrity has been compromised dramatically while traveling. I am talking about sprains, breaking a bone, and that kind of severe disability. But to include a comprehensive travel insurance package to cover any accident during the time of traveling is never too much.
5. On my way to the next destination without accommodation in place. Luang Prabang, Laos.
The trip through the mountainous and French-influenced southeast Asian nation of Laos started in the capital city of Vientiane. From there, the next stop was a fun-loaded little town next to the Nam Song River called Vang Vieng, and the final part was the ancient Laotian capital of Luang Prabang.
Everything on the plan was right on schedule, but after a plentiful dose of summer fun in Vang Vieng, our transport operator announced that there was a shortage of transports bound to Luang Prabang for the next day, the very same day I planned to head there. I had to either leave that very night or two days after. Not willing to compromise the time to explore Luang Prabang, and with a flight ticket out of Laos on schedule, I had to move through the dark of the night, across the countryside of Laos. Catching some sleep in a minivan crammed with backpacks and driving on the bumpiest road in Laos for nearly 4 hours was just wishful thinking. All that, however, could be eventually compensated with a decent hostel bed already waiting for my arrival. If I only had a booking…right?
It was because of the local sim card I bought upon arrival in Vientiane, and the available internet connection that I was able to book a last-minute accommodation for me and my travel party on the go. Due to the sudden change of plans, I had to act quickly during the high tourism season in Southeast Asia. After a tortuous ride, we arrived after midnight at a deserted Luang Prabang. After that, it was only a matter of walking to the hostel, knocking on the gate of the hostel (several times), and going directly to bed. Sleeping on a bed after such a long day never felt that good. The next morning, the batteries were charged for the next chapter of our Southeast Asian adventure.
The causes resulting in this hardship did not come from assumptions, bad weather, or lack of research, but from external factors beyond control. The high season and the shortage of transports caused this complication, but it was sorted out using technology and quick action.
6. Missed the next flight. Ho Chi Mihn, Vietnam.
Typical, isn’t it? This hardship is the kind one sees in the movies. The truth is that many things can get in the way of a passenger and the check-in time window for a flight. Moreover, after weeks of itinerant lifestyle, tiredness can easily become the normal state for those traveling only with a backpack. This is when anything from a dedicated sleeping room, to a bench, or even the ground can lure anyone craving for a power nap and forget about the world.
It was the end of a multi-week trip through many cities in Southeast Asia, and there I was, in Ho Chi Minh Airport, southern Vietnam, waiting for my last flight back to Taiwan. Me and my travel party decided to take a well-deserved nap inside the airport, near the airline service counter. Naturally, we set our alarms on our phones to not miss the flight.
By the time we woke up and headed to make the check-in, we were told the check-in time was over, and all the passengers for that flight were already in the waiting lounge. No matter how much we begged, threatened, or used any other method to get into that plane, nothing was effective to make the lady at the counter change her mind and make an exception for these weary travelers.
Our mistake was that we miscalculated the check-in time, by paying attention to the departure time of our flight instead. Call it weariness, inexperience, or just carelessness, but we just thought that one hour before the flight was just right, with no basis for that assumption. We did not read the fine line of the airline’s instructions about showing up for the check-in process two hours prior to any international flight. This is how our extended nap accidentally prolonged our stay in sweet Vietnam. In the end, we had to pay an extra fee to take the next available flight several hours later. At least I had the chance to drink coffee, have Pho (beef soup), and eat Banh Mi (baguette) for the last time in the airport.
Making every travel hardship a great travel memory
As the saying goes: “make a mistake once and it becomes a lesson. Make a mistake twice and it becomes a choice”. Looking back, these hardships might seem like silly mistakes, but I keep them present every time I travel in order to not find myself in those unpleasant situations again and improve my travel experience overall.
Although those were bitter and difficult situations where one has no other choice but to actively act one way or another, they become some of the most rewarding memories. They bring laughter to the present, and they are just the best travel stories for sharing.
Budget traveling is, in a good part, about encountering situations with no clear solution, or where difficult choices have to be made to sort them out. The gained problem-solving abilities and to know what one is capable of are great rewards of this kind of traveling as well. I do hope that by sharing these experiences, they can help you to not make the same mistakes, but others, and learn from them. They will become the best souvenirs you can take back home.