The 5 most common travel mistakes – and how to avoid them

The secrets to a hassle-free summer vacation seem simple enough: Keep a checklist. Read the rules, especially if you’re flying. Take photos of your rental car. Don’t make assumptions about your hotel. And remember your paperwork when you’re traveling overseas.

But simple as that sounds, in practice it’s not always that easy.

Let me say right from the outset that I hardly started out as the world’s smartest traveler. But over the past decade and more, I’ve learned, from my own wide-ranging travels and from the many problems I’ve helped resolve for readers, what not to do when you’re on the road.

So what are the most common mistakes that travelers make? And, more important, how do you avoid them? How, in other words, can you vacation like the world’s smartest traveler?

1. Be prepared

Bob McCullough, a sales representative for a cheese company in Hainesport, N.J., admits that he’s a serial procrastinator, so he decided to start packing for a recent trip a full week in advance. He even booked a flight leaving Philadelphia on a Sunday to avoid the Monday crush of business travelers.

“I got to the airport two hours before my flight, found the parking garage pleasantly unpacked, and parked in a spot I had never dreamed of finding on a weekday,” he says. “I opened the trunk and reached in to grab my suitcase — which wasn’t there. I realized then, in shock with a cold sweat building, that I had left my suitcase in its normal pre-staging area of my laundry room.”

The smartest travelers plan ahead, like McCullough, but they also have a fondness for checklists. Did you pack the right clothes? Remember all the power cords? Is your luggage in the trunk of your car? Lists are your friends. Smart travelers know when to wing it and when not to. Sure, your friends and family might poke fun at you for keeping a list for everything, but they’ll thank you when you’re the only one with a power adapter in France. Travelers who keep lists are far less likely to get into trouble on the road.

Related story:   We were heading to the Bahamas, but Air Canada left us in Orlando

2. Read those airline rules

Airline policies can be counterintuitive, even bizarre. For example, a one-way ticket can sometimes cost more than a round-trip ticket on the same plane. A change fee can exceed the actual value of a ticket. Also, “non-refundable” means non-refundable, except when it doesn’t.

Confused yet? If it’s any consolation, even airline employees sometimes get mixed up about their own rules. Don’t laugh, I’ve seen it.

Kelly Hayes-Raitt remembers seeing an unbeatable deal for a flight from Los Angeles to Tampa, Fla. But when she arrived at the airport, she noticed her itinerary. “The plane landed in Phoenix, Dallas, Houston and New Orleans before finally arriving in Tampa,” remembers the writer from Santa Monica, Calif. “I still groan when I think of how stupid I was.”

Based on the cases I’ve mediated, my best advice is to familiarize yourself with the always-changing, often Byzantine rules developed by the airline industry — rules that are often created for the sole purpose of “protecting” an airline’s revenue or, to put it in terms that everyone else can understand, to separate you from your money.

They may make about as much sense as a coast-to-coast flight with four stops, but you — and you alone — are responsible for knowing the rules.

3. Take photos of your rental car

Anna Arreglado didn’t do that when she recently rented a car in Bardonia, N.Y. “My mistake,” says Arreglado, who works for a pharmaceutical company in Ridgefield, Conn. Sure enough, the car rental company came after her, insisting that she’d damaged the vehicle. She couldn’t prove that she’d returned the car unharmed. It was her word against the company’s.

Fortunately, Arreglado reads this column and knew how to fight back. She disputed the claim in writing and copied her state attorney general on the correspondence. “Within an hour of sending my e-mail, I got the case dropped,” she says.

Related story:   Can you trust the cruise lines' new passenger "bill of rights"?

Listen up, campers: Take pictures of your cars before and after your rental. Some customers allege that car rental companies have built a profitable business around charging you big bucks for small damage, and the only way to avoid a repair bill is to show an “after” image of your undented car. That, and maybe having the e-mail address of your attorney general.

Actually, the takeaway from Arreglado’s story applies to more than rental cars. Sometimes, a brief, polite e-mail to any travel company will get the resolution you want — if you copy the right people.

4. Assume nothing about your hotel

No segment of the travel industry — except perhaps the airlines — profits more from our collective ignorance than hotels. They would like you to think that they’re the only lodging option in town, but they’re not. Today’s accommodations cover the spectrum, from glamping to vacation rentals. Don’t lock yourself into a traditional hotel or resort, at least not without first shopping around. You might be able to find a bargain on with a better location and fewer hassles.

Travelers make other assumptions about their accommodations that aren’t necessarily true, too. For example, you’d imagine that the room rate you’re quoted is the room rate you’ll actually pay, maybe not including sales taxes.

But when Tom Alderman recently tried to book a room at his favorite casino hotel in Las Vegas, he was broadsided by a mandatory $14-per-night “resort” fee, which supposedly covered in-room wireless Internet access, use of the fitness center and “printing of boarding passes.” He was particularly outraged because the resort had repeatedly promised on its Web site to “never” charge a resort fee, like other Vegas resorts. “I’ll never stay there again,” says Alderman, a retired documentary filmmaker.

Related story:   Bing Travel's Crean: "We save the average couple $50 per trip"

Resort fees are normally disclosed just before you push the “book” button, so don’t thoughtlessly click through. If you see a fee you don’t like, stop what you’re doing and look elsewhere for a room.

5. Don’t forget the paperwork

Having the right visas and permits and an updated passport is your responsibility, no two ways about it. That’s a difficult message for many travelers to hear. They rely on the advice of a travel agent or what’s posted on a Web site and believe (incorrectly) that those third parties should reimburse them when something goes wrong. This is especially common in the case of cruises, where a birth certificate, instead of a passport, is often enough to board a ship.

The consequences can be heartbreaking. A worried mom from Sacramento recently contacted me because her daughter and son-in-law, en route to their honeymoon in St. Lucia, had been stopped at the airport and denied boarding. The reason? The bride’s passport was due to expire soon — too soon for her to be allowed into the country. Some countries require your passport to be valid for six months from the date of your entry. An alert travel agent might have caught the problem, but now it was too late. And without travel insurance, the entire trip would be lost. “Can this trip be salvaged?” the mom wrote to me, with only hours before the vacation was to have begun. Sadly, it couldn’t be.

Point is, the most common travel mistakes are easily avoided with a little planning and by taking common-sense precautions. It looks easy, and sometimes it is easy. But the truth is, in many cases, there’s often a lot more to it, and questions arise.

And that’s what this column and I are here for.

Does the travel industry profit from our mistakes?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at

  • TonyA_says

    Are you recommending Airbnb over a traditional hotel booking for a better location and less hassle? Are you kidding? I can’t believe this :-)

  • teddybeargraham

    my travel agent has never seen my passport in 40 years of travel, i don’t think saying a good travel agent would catch that is possible.

  • backprop

    Maybe he’s drumming up future travel mediator business! :)

  • $16635417

    In my travel agent days, I used to ask if the client is familiar with the entry requirements for the country they’re visiting and also offer to look up the current entry requirements. I rarely saw a passport unless it was the requirement of a tour company to have a copy beforehand or to verify spelling for travel documents.

    Most people took a few minutes to have me look up entry requirements, but occasionally I’d get the “That’s all right, I’m all set.” response. I remember one of the “I’m all set.” clients spent the night in a holding cell in Caracas because he did not have the right documents. He tried to claim it was my fault for not telling him what was needed. After reminding him that I offered to look it up at the time of purchase, he changed his tune.

  • Common sense

    #1 should have been “get insurance”.

  • Laura616

    Weather, don’t forget weather which you can do nothing about. Jet Blue cancelled a flight one hour prior to departure and couldn’t rebook anyone for 8 hours. I had to pay out hugely to get on another flight and while that was also delayed it did leave. Based on this experience I doubt I will fly Jet Blue again.

  • naoma

    I never stay in hotels. Some are “pet friendly” and I have allergies. Can smell a dog a mile away. I stay in timeshares where there is NO SMOKING and no ANIMALS permitted or you will pay a very heavy fee for fumigation.

  • omgstfualready

    Rule 6 : Relax. Odds are you forgot something. A planned destination may be closed unexpectedly. The weather could not be ideal. People may be rude and unhelpful. Just roll with it and make sure you can have fun wherever you are, otherwise you will have fun nowhere.

  • jerryatric

    BUT a good travel agent would comment like,ensure your passport is up to date & not be expiring shortly. My agency always advises me of this & other possible “restrictions”. like updated vaccination shots, visa requirements etc.

  • Charles

    I consider insurance a risk/reward decision. I always buy travel insurance when traveling internationally, because the risks are medical costs where insurance may not be valid and/or medical evacuation. Those are huge risks that you should certainly protect against. But, I’ve never bought insurance for a domestic trip. I know my health insurance is good anywhere in the US and evacuation is not nearly as much of an issue. So, then it is a question of losing the airfare and/or any non-refundable costs. In general, if you save what you pay insurance for a few trip you have a kitty to cover those costs. So, why worry about it. Yes, I might lose a couple thousand dollars on a domestic trip someday (not sure how, most hotels are not non-refundable and flights can be changed at a price). Or, I could have spent that much over the years on insurance where I would not have made any claims (been lucky, I guess). I just don’t worry about a few thousand dollars lost due to a cancelled trip. I do worry about $50,000 lost if my wife or I were to get sick on a trip.

  • TonyA_says

    I do keep a copy of the passport, FQTVs, and credit cards of my repeat clients. They expect me to remember their private information and provide advise.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Agreed. Insurance is fundamentally a risk/reward decision and rarely a good deal domestically for air, car, or hotel travel. Now, if your travel includes prepaid car or lodging, then the numbers might change depending on the policies.

  • John Baker

    @carverclarkfarrow:disqus At least both you and @disqus_P4F1ueCK2Y:disqus understand that you always have insurance for a trip… Sometimes it just self insurance and you have to eat any loses if you miss out.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    For the laundry room forgetter, I found it easiest to make my “staging” area also my “departure” area. I put everything together by the door so I can’t leave without it. Literally. Same thing with my car. When I need to set something down on my car, I don’t put it on the roof (where it will fall off when I drive away) but rather the hood in front of the driver’s seat. (Tip from traffic school.)

  • John Baker

    @mikegun:disqus … Its always someone else’s fault…

  • Lindabator

    I always go over this with my clients – and even check the number of pages they have in their passports when applying for visas. No excuse why you could not email or fax the information for her to have on file (I even remind mine when its time to renew!)

  • Lindabator


  • Lindabator

    They cannot control the weather, you know. And this is something that every airline experiences, especially nowadays, with most flights booked to capacity to begin with.

  • TonyA_says

    Good idea. I think I’ll make a google calendar just for that. Since they need a minimum of 6 mos., I put it in for 9 months prior.

  • TonyA_says

    Some people I know registered for Amex automatic insurance. I think that is a good idea.

  • innchfromnj

    Passport and documents….DUE DILIGENCE.
    Car rentals. After being a subscriber to Elliot’s column, I trust NO ONE. When I rent cars, I take pics of the four sides, roof, hood and the area below the front grille. Also, I will not accept the vehicle or release the vehicle back to the rental agent until the representative has done a walk around with me then signs off that there is no damage to the vehicle.

Get smart. Sign up for the newsletter.