These are the worst travel mistakes you can make

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By Christopher Elliott

Even the best travelers can make the worst travel mistakes.

I ought to know. In the last week, here’s what I’ve done:

  • I filled out a visa application incorrectly, jeopardizing a trip to Vietnam.
  • I rented an Airbnb in Chiang Mai, Thailand, that I thought was an apartment but turned out to be a hostel.
  • I found myself in a city in northern Thailand without a way of paying for groceries — or anything else.

Details on my errors in a minute. But the point is, even the best travelers can make travel mistakes. And I’m the guy who wrote the book How To Be The World’s Smartest Traveler.

So if I can make these rookie mistakes, anyone can. (By the way, here’s my complete guide to avoiding fall travel mistakes.)

How I made these travel mistakes

My travel mistakes were so easy to make. I had asked my 18-year-old son to fill out his Vietnam visa. He indicated his port of entry was Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), but it was actually Da Nang. At the airport, an AirAsia representative told us we couldn’t enter the country. (If I’d only read my guide to visas, passports and travel paperwork.)

Our Airbnb looked like a home, but it was a hostel. How did that happen? The owner did not indicate his Airbnb was a hostel. But if we had looked up the address, we would have known. (Always ask for the street address of the property before renting. Here are a few more tips on finding a vacation rental.)

How about the money? Had I done my homework, I would have realized that northern Thailand is a cash-only place. Unfortunately, my bank card doesn’t play well with the ATMs in Chiang Mai, so I didn’t have money to pay for our groceries in the market or to pay for entry to some of the bigger temples. (Here’s everything you need to know about travel and money. I should have read that before I traveled to Thailand!)

So how did I fix each one of these problems? I’ll tell you in a moment.

You’re not alone

If you’ve made a travel mistake, you need to know this: You’re not alone.

You’re in the same boat as Scott Long. 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.

The travel mistakes get much worse

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 an online tourism 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 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,” says Blank, a marketing executive.

Beware of credit card mistakes when you travel

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.

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.

“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.

How I resolved my travel mistakes 

Fortunately, most travel mistakes are relatively easy to fix.

For example, on our Vietnam visa, AirAsia called customs in Da Nang. An airline representative asked if it was OK to allow us to fly to Da Nang with the wrong port of entry. They said yes. 

Problem solved.

Our Airbnb had one of the best hosts we’ve ever worked with, and he made our 10-day stay in Chiang Mai an incredibly positive experience. Whenever we needed something, he was there for us. I’d rent from him again, although I think he might benefit from some new mattresses.

And, although we couldn’t use an ATM, we found a workaround. We found a nearby mall with businesses that accepted credit cards. And we learned to use Grab (like Uber) to order our groceries — and pay with a credit card.

Whatever your travel problem, chances are there’s a solution. And if there isn’t? Well, you know how to reach my advocacy team. We’re always happy to fix your problem if we can.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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