Even smart travelers do stupid things

Even the best travelers can have bad days.

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Scott Long knows. He’s a veteran road warrior and doesn’t think twice before booking a car online. But he says he should have thought twice when he rented a set of wheels in Columbus, Ohio, recently and selected “12 a.m.” for his pickup time.

“The day of the trip, I realized that midnight was actually 24 hours earlier than I was arriving,” remembers Long, a magazine publisher from Clearwater, Fla. “So my rental car sat at the airport for an entire day.”

He had to pay for the extra day, too. Ouch.

Autumn is the time when the herds of tourists thin and the “experts” return to the airports, train stations and hotels. They sure look like they know what they’re doing in their blue blazers and designer dresses. But looks can be deceiving.

Even the most experienced travelers have “D’oh!” moments, just like the rest of us. Their mistakes range from simple screw-ups to unhelpful attitudes, but they are all teachable moments for those of us who travel less frequently.

“One of the worst mistakes an experienced traveler could make — and I know, because I’ve made it — involves your passport expiration date,” says Kimberly Ramsawak, the founder of Tourism Exposed, an online travel community. It’s the return date that matters, and for travel to some countries if your passport doesn’t have a three- or even six-month cushion before your return, you won’t be able to board your flight.

Jared Blank, the chief marketing officer of DealNews.com, says he’s shown up at the wrong hotel — going to the Westin Boston Waterfront instead of the Westin Copley Hotel in Boston. He’s also headed to JFK when his flight was leaving from LaGuardia. It’s particularly important to check your confirmation when you’re booking on a mobile app. “You have to triple-check your confirmation,” he says.

Helen Maffini describes one of my favorite travel mistakes: carrying the wrong credit card. This can come in several flavors. “Not getting a credit card that gives you favorable (terms) abroad,” notes Maffini, who runs a family travel website in Nepean, Canada, “is a mistake lots of domestic travelers make.” The moment they cross the border, they start receiving notifications from their bank that there’s a fee on every transaction, and that can add up quickly.

Of course, plastic can lead to all sorts of mischief, and frequent travelers are particularly susceptible to it. Take all those credit cards pushed by travel bloggers that let you earn miles or points for every dollar spent.

What they won’t tell you is that you’re likely to spend six times more with these high-fee, high-interest rate cards than a typical credit card, and they might gloss over the fact that they’re being generously rewarded for each new sign-up. They may also forget to mention that if you carry a balance on these cards, it basically negates any benefit you’ll get from the card. They win, bank wins, you lose.

“If you must participate in one of these cards, be smart about it,” says Randall Reinwasser, a money manager and author of the book “Underground Savings.” He has a high standard for points-earning cards. To be worthwhile, they must offer a sign-up bonus worth at least $500 — value an airline mile at 1.5 cents and a hotel point at 1 cent — along with a minimum of three months to meet the required spending amount to trigger the bonus. Everything else goes into the trash.

Three things you should never do:

• Not considering the source. Some blogs that revere loyalty programs and extol the value of certain credit cards may be making money if you sign up for them. Pay close attention to who’s offering you travel advice.

• Not asking for help. Whether it’s a know-it-all attitude or being intimidated by a new place, failing to ask for directions can be a serious mistake. Anne Marie Herring, a yoga instructor from Austin, is grateful for having overcome that fear of asking for help in unfamiliar territory while she’s traveling. “If you are polite and thankful, more often than not, the local you’ve approached will be happy to help you on your way,” she says. And it sure beats getting lost.

• Not counting your money. Channon Dade, an agent for a major airline, didn’t pay attention when she bought $300 worth of rupiah for an upcoming trip to Bali. Turns out, neither did the bank employee who issued her rupees — the currency of India. Oops. She had to re-exchange the money when she returned, incurring more fees. “Don’t assume the person at the money exchange counter knows the correct type of money needed,” she says.

5 thoughts on “Even smart travelers do stupid things

  1. Few things are more annoying to me than making a stupid travel mistake. Making travel plans is kinda like a game … no mistakes equals a win. My fave is booking two separate tix SFO-EWR-Albany with 2 hours between flights at Newark … to save a few dollars on airfare. The outbound flight was late and about an hour from EWR I realized that I hadn’t checked the bags through to Albany, so we would have to go get them and recheck. Turned out we were so late we missed the last flight to Albany completely so I never had to admit my mistake to my husband. I think that you have to be a really good bean-counter to win the travel game, and I’m only pretty good.

  2. Just a few days ago I did something maybe not stupid, but forgetful. I am in graduate school and I have to stay in a hotel every other Friday night in another city. This city has several weekends that have events going on where hotels get scarce and expensive. I got the class schedule for the spring semester and jumped on making my reservations. I chose nonrefundable because the class weekends are set in stone. Less than half an hour later, I realized one of the weekends I was going to be in Europe. I called Hilton immediately. The lady nicely but firmly told me nope, nyet, no exceptions and sorry. I try not to take no for an answer, especially from the first person I talk to. The next day I called Home2 rather than Hilton. “Oh, it’s a good thing you called. They should have told you last night to call our Advance Reservation number. If you call them within 24 hours, they will cancel your reservation without a problem.” And I called that number, and they did cancel the reservation. Whew!

  3. I too have made dumb mistakes such as not “getting” a departure at 12:05am is NOT the same as a few minutes after noon (figured that out with less than 4 hours to make the flight, then spent hours in the hotel lobby waiting for a room to open up since I arrived in the early am), to missing boarding my flight because I was so involved in a book I was reading. I think anyone that travels will eventually find themselves in the “oops – stuff happens” column. The real trick is in how you deal with it.

  4. Which rental company is that? Those that I use don’t charge if you don’t pick up the car. Also I would never book a reservation starting at 12:00am for this exact reason, because I am never 100% certain whether it means the beginning or the end of the day.

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