Photograph by Artem Povarov, Alamy Stock Photo
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Wooden toilet in the mountains of the Himalayas

Photograph by Artem Povarov, Alamy Stock Photo

10 Lessons to Avoid Travel Disaster

Avoid following in the footsteps of these National Geographic Travel staffers by soaking up lessons learned from their nightmarish travels.

My friend and I had just landed in Kathmandu, Nepal, after being trapped inside the airport in Delhi for 24-plus hours due to some issues with our visas. When we got to Kathmandu, neither of us had the appropriate cash and the only ATM in the airport was broken, so some fellow passengers lent us money to buy Nepali visas and pay for a cab to a hostel. The flight had arrived around midnight, and we knew nothing of our surroundings. As we drove, a random man threw open the door, got into our cab, and started talking nonsense. My friend and I began shifting in our seats and repeatedly asked the driver where we were going and when we were getting there, to which we received vague responses. We had been traveling for a couple months, but we had never found ourselves in a situation where we felt so vulnerable. Of course, a lot of traveling is about trust. But following that experience, I promised myself that I would always try to avoid arriving in a totally foreign city after dark. —Alexandra E. Petri, @writewayaround, assistant to the editor, National Geographic Traveler

A few weeks ago, I went to England. On my overnight flight from JFK to Gatwick, I ate dinner on the plane. It was chicken and rice—a safe choice. When my flight landed, I met the five other journalists I’d be traveling with for the next week, and we all boarded a small van to London. About 20 minutes into our ride, I started feeling nauseous. I politely asked the driver if there was a convenience store nearby where I could use the bathroom, but it was too late. I ran out of the van and puked on a sidewalk in the idyllic English suburbs, while everyone in the van watched—for about two minutes straight. Luckily, after I threw up, I felt a million times better, and my little episode didn’t stop me from enjoying afternoon tea later that day. I’m pretty positive the other journalists were wary of getting into a car with me for the rest of the trip. My advice? Stay away from midnight meals on red-eyes. That granola bar you packed will sit much better during your half-awake wait in the customs line the next morning. —Hannah Sheinberg, @h_sheinberg, associate editor, National Geographic Traveler

When I was a kid, my family took a weeklong cruise to explore Alaska. After arriving in Alaska, we needed to take a bus to the port. As we boarded the bus, we saw our luggage piled next to it. Apparently, that is as far as our luggage traveled! We went five days without our luggage and had to purchase sweatshirts from the ship's gift shop to stay warm. I will never forget watching my sister wash her clothes in the sink and dry them with a blow-dryer. Since then, I always carry my necessities, most valuable items, and an extra change of clothes in my carry-on just in case. —Becky Davis, @Beckylane123, associate producer, National Geographic Travel

I am a cautious traveler—almost OCD—and I have to double check and triple check that I have my passport and my wallet. I'm especially careful when I leave for a trip abroad; I forgot my passport a few years ago and my boss had to overnight it to me so that I could catch the first flight to my destination the next day. I promised myself that I would never get myself into another travel debacle like that again. 

Alas, for a recent trip to Europe, I checked into my flight, upgraded my seat, and left for the airport (an hour's drive in traffic) after triple checking for my passport and wallet. I walked up to the luggage counter to check my bag—all set to go!—when the airline attendant said, "I'm sorry ma'am, you can't board this flight. Your passport expires in two months." I responded calmly that I knew my passport had two months until expiration. That shouldn't have been a problem. But, in fact, it was a major problem. According to the U.S. State Department, "Entry into any of the 26 European countries in the Schengen Area for short-term tourism, a business trip, or in transit to a non-Schengen destination, requires that your passport be valid for at least three months beyond your intended date of departure." (Most of Western Europe is located in the Schengen Area.) I was turned away with condolences, a phone number for the local passport office, and my worthless boarding ticket. 

I spent the following day at the Washington Passport Agency and secured my new passport a few days later, but it arrived too late for my trip to Europe. Lesson learned: Make sure your passport is valid for at least a year before its expiration—otherwise you'll be sent home like me. —Andrea Leitch, @AndreaLeitch, digital director, National Geographic Travel

I heard the wail of a siren while sitting inside a shuttle bus in the middle of Tel Aviv traffic. Until that moment, it was a routine workday during my year living in Tel Aviv. We yelled for the driver to pull over once reality sunk in. Rocket fire reached Tel Aviv from Gaza for the first time in about 20 years. I followed throngs of students into the basement of the nearest building, a school dormitory, until silence fell upon the streets. For the rest of this eight-day offensive in 2012, life continued as normal, except for the shoes waiting by my bed for nighttime sirens. I met many of our neighbors while wearing pajamas in the building’s basement that week. —Christine Blau, @Chris_Blau, associate producer, National Geographic Travel

When my daughter Julia was six months old, she and I flew to Switzerland to my brother's wedding. On the plane I wore a brand-new outfit of white wool and felt pretty chic. Baby Julia was hungry, so I opened a jar of baby food. It was strained carrots. There was turbulence. I spent about an hour in the lavatory, baby on my hip, washing out my skirt in the sink. Lesson learned: Never try to feed strained carrots to a baby on a plane! —Marilyn Terrell, @Marilyn_Res, chief researcher, National Geographic Traveler

I managed to lock myself in the bathroom stall in a Russian propaganda–themed dive bar in Prague. It was a windowless room with a door that closed flush against the frame and had the tiniest of holes where the door handle was supposed to be. What did I learn? Always know how to say “help” and “please” in whatever country you’re visiting. And be grateful enough, even in your red-faced embarrassment, to buy the locals a round after they laughingly release you. —Nathan Borchelt, project manager, National Geographic Travel

"Don't drink the water" is a phrase most travelers have heard at one point or another during their journeys to distant locations. Last year I traveled to Nepal and I was able to spend 10 days exploring the country in the aftermath of its devastating earthquakes. Throughout the trip, I was careful to avoid consuming tap water, and even avoided eating local vegetables (which I was informed contained enough local water to warrant a nasty digestive response in foreigners). By the end of the trip I was fed up with the fact that in trying to keep myself healthy I was contributing to a larger environmental issue by buying bottled water, so before my departure I decided to test my luck and gather water from a small hut on the edge of the town of Jomsom. The hut displayed a sign that read "solar purified water" and inside there was a large vat of water attached to a faucet and a small electronic meter. I gathered two liters of water and walked confidently back to my hostel for the night. The next day I traveled between two cities feeling fully healthy and ethically restored, however, this confidence would lead to my downfall. The night before my flight home, after inquiring with my local guides, I decided to eat a full plate of local vegetables. After 10 days of consuming nothing but rice and meat, the colorful treats were a welcome addition to my last meal in town. 

The next morning I was heavy with regret. I raced between the hotel bathroom and the airport bathroom, all the while fearing I would miss my flight. After making a handful of bathroom trips while trying to make it through customs, I eventually boarded my plane home, vowing to be more careful next time. My advice to others: Bring a backpackers’ water filter to your next questionable travel destination. There are a number of lightweight, packable options to choose from, or you can try potable water drinking tablets.  —Tyler Metcalfe, @tylermetcalfe, associate photo producer, National Geographic Travel

When I was 21, I traveled to Brazil the day after Christmas to visit my boyfriend, who was living in Rio de Janeiro. After a few days of beachside bliss, we decided to rent a car and get out of the sweltering city with two of his friends. We drove a hundred miles to Sana, an off-the-grid Eden in the mountainous rain forests northwest of Rio that’s known as much for its rugged natural beauty as for the bohemian locals who call it home. 

As we hiked up the mountain through dense bamboo thickets, we soon noticed several people diving from the top of a waterfall into a pool of water below. Since we had cameras and backpacks with us, and were all eager to take our turn, we reasoned that we could trust the revelers and, after stashing our gear beside a rock in the jungle, were off and running. When we came back—shocker—we found our bags had been looted. Our cameras were gone, as were the keys to our rental. Lesson learned: While nice people abound in the world (including the Sana restaurant owner who taught us how to hot-wire our car), don’t make yourself an easy mark. —Leslie Trew Magraw, @leslietrew, digital editor, National Geographic Travel

I spent a summer in college studying in Barcelona, and my brother and a few friends joined me for a backpacking trip once the semester wrapped up. While I knew the trip would be one for the record books, I wasn’t prepared for the life lessons that awaited. On our final night in Barcelona (our first stop on the trip), one of our travel companions was mugged with a pocketful of euros and two passports. We were forced to delay our departure to Amsterdam while our friends worked with the embassy to get proper documents, and we learned our first lesson: Always keep copies of your passport tucked away in case something happens to the original. After a few unexpected days in Gaudí’s beloved city, we finally made our way to Amsterdam where we checked into the world’s hottest room. The only saving grace from the heat was a tiny window that opened at street level. Following our encounter in Barcelona, you’d think we would have been on high alert, but alas, we were not. We returned from our first day of sightseeing to discover that someone had climbed into the room through the unlocked window and stolen my laptop. Lesson two: Always double-check locks on windows and doors when leaving your precious belongings behind.  —Megan Heltzel Weiler, @MeganHeltzel, producer, National Geographic Travel