I’ve made a lot of mistakes while travelling. A lot. I’ve been ripped off, I’ve lost things, I’ve spent too much money, and I’ve wasted valuable travel time on things that could have been avoided. There are certain mistakes I don’t think are worth making at all – things like spending too much on credit card fees, not checking if your phone plan covers data roaming, and drinking that damn glass of orange juice in Morocco – but there are a lot of mistakes I think are OK to make once or twice, or even ones I think that we should all make quite a bit in our travels. Here are a few of the “mistakes” I’ve enjoyed making over the past ten years of travelling, and some stories detailing when I’ve made them myself.
Loving Pollensa, Mallorca
1. Assume you know what you’re going to experience. Don’t get me wrong – I think that, in most cases, it’s really bad to assume you know anything. I believe that it’s important to travel with an open mind, and to not let your presumptions about a place affect what you actually see and experience.
Once in a while, though, I think it’s really interesting to – despite knowing you shouldn’t – assume you know what you’re going to experience in a place. The reason I say that is because it is so wonderful to have all of those assumptions shattered. Maybe you’re certain you don’t like Mexican food, only to be introduced to a whole new world of flavours once you’re there. Maybe you think the Canadian prairies are boring, but it turns out there’s a wicked music scene there and the sunsets are some of the best you’ve ever seen. Maybe – like I did, up until a few days ago – you think Mallorca is just a party island, only to find out it is full of rich culture, beautiful landscapes, and plenty of peace and quiet. Because as much as I try to keep an open mind whenever I travel, I can’t help but be influenced by social media, blogs, movies, books, guidebooks, and other traveller’s tales. And that’s why it’s all the better when I discover that my assumptions were wrong.
Trying (and probably failing) to speak Turkish in Istanbul, Turkey
2. Screw up the local language. I can’t even imagine how many idiotic, ridiculous, garbled sentences I’ve spouted out in my travels over the years. My pronunciation has been horrible, my verbs basic… but I’ve tried. I have never – never – had somebody act insulted when I’ve tried to speak the local language (though I have gotten some laughs). I think it’s so important to try to learn at least a few basic phrases and words in the local language when you travel; it’s a sign of respect, and it helps you engage in more meaningful exchanges. Who cares if you make a few mistakes in the beginning? You’ll only learn if you keep trying.
This is also something to keep in mind if you encounter people struggling with English in your hometown – don’t laugh or ridicule, be patient and help them out.
Just a bit of repacking to do in Bangkok, Thailand
3. Pack too much or too little. I have been guilty of both, though my biggest mistakes have been when I’ve packed too much. This is one of those mistakes that I think everyone needs to make – it’s the best way to learn what you really need when you travel, and what you can do without, because everyone will be different.
I made a huge packing mistake when I was 22 and backpacking around Europe; I took tons of travel clothes that all the gender-netural guidebooks told me to bring (this was before you could look up what to wear in countries around the world in three seconds online). The end result? My travel wardrobe left me totally insecure and completely uncomfortable – I just didn’t feel like myself. I ditched most of my clothing within the first month and bought a whole new wardrobe that was much more my style. Since then, I’ve realised that I need to always bring clothes that make me feel stylish, no matter what kind of trip I’m taking. Making that mistake ended up helping me for years to come.
I don’t know who could possibly hate fresh pasta in Cinque Terre, Italy but hey, you never know
4. Try a food you think you’ll really hate. You know what? You could be totally right, and you could totally hate that food. But you also might not hate it, and it might not be a mistake after all. I’m of the mind frame that trying something new is rarely a mistake (as long as you’re taking proper precautions, of course). I’ve tried lots of local cuisines that I thought I might not like, and sometimes I was right – sometimes they weren’t for me. Sometimes I thought they were downright delicious. All of them, however, were memorable.
Biking around without a plan in Pokhara, Nepal
5. Get lost. I’ve had some of the funniest, best experiences while getting lost on my travels, and some of my favourite photos are of those little side streets I never would have found if I stuck to the map, and some of the best meals I’ve ever had are when I’ve just wandered into a place, not knowing what to expect. It’s definitely not fun if you get lost when you’re tired or sick or hungry or scared, but if you’re up for an adventure, I think it’s great to just put the map/phone away for a while and go out and wander. As long as you have a rough idea of where you’re going (and you know you’re wandering around a safe part of town), I absolutely love doing this, and have uncovered some amazing restaurants, markets, parks, and shops in the process, and sometimes even waterfalls, lakes, and so on. As for getting back home, well, I didn’t tell you to throw away the map all together…
All right… maybe not that particular landmark (in Moscow, Russia)
6. Skip the most famous landmark. I’m not telling you to skip out on seeing the Eiffel Tower or the Great Wall of China. But travelling doesn’t always have to mean seeing the biggest and most famous spots in a place – in fact, I think I’ve had much more meaningful and rewarding experiences when I’m not near any sort of famous landmark. I think of experiences in small markets, in family-run restaurants, in the countryside, lying under a sea of stars.
What I always try to do when I arrive in a new place is to spend one full day doing all the sightseeing I really want to do… and then spend the rest of my time just enjoying the place, letting everything else come naturally and organically as the days unfold. While I try to see some of the better-known landmarks, I don’t beat myself up if I don’t see them. Let’s face it – they’re often crowded, sometimes expensive, and once in a while, they really let you down.
I think of my recent trip to Italy; I was in Bologna, an absolutely beautiful place, and I had it in my mind that I wanted to climb one of the towers overlooking the city. By my last day, I still hadn’t managed to do it – I had been busy eating and drinking and making friends – but I realised that I was still having an incredible time, and to feel guilty for not doing something touristy wasn’t going to ruin my trip. Besides, it gives me a good reason to go back.
We had no idea these mud baths existed outside of Cartagena, Colombia until we got there
7. Don’t do any research on things to do. I’m exaggerating a bit here. Of course you’re going to want to do some research, but I think it’s totally OK to show up in a new place and not really know what you want to do. Unless you’re after something that would take a long time to plan or book, I think it’s a fantastic idea to arrive with a couple of free days in the itinerary, as in, you have absolutely nothing planned for those days. And then? Ask around, either at your accommodation, at a local restaurant, at the tourist office, or when you speak to other travellers.
I’ve often discovered really cool things to do just by chatting to others when I was already in a location. Or, who knows, you may also find out that you really fall in love with something – scuba diving, for example, or a set of hiking trails – and decide to devote more time to that. At the end of the day, not researching every single thing about a place doesn’t spell a disaster. Leave your schedule open to flexibility and spontaneity.
Literally carrying a giant bag from the tourist board around with me in Margate, England
8. Make sure everyone knows you’re a tourist. I often advocate buying local clothing and accessories, but I do that because I think it’s cool to support the local industries and because I think it shows an interest in and a respect for the culture. I understand that a lot of guides and websites say to blend in to your surroundings as much as possible, and to avoid looking or acting like a tourist at all costs; I agree to an extent, especially if you’re in a more dangerous location.
However, I see nothing wrong with acknowledging your tourist status and embracing it. I mean, I’m never going to blend in to every place I visit, so it’s pretty clear that I’m a tourist in many cases. So yeah, I’m going to take lots of photos. I’m also going to look at my map, and consult my guidebook, and clumsily ask someone for directions. It’s always important to be aware of your surroundings, absolutely – i.e. don’t whip out your expensive camera in a place that’s known for muggings – but I’ve never understood this whole, “I’m going to hide the fact that I’m a tourist” thing. For the most part, as long as you’re respectful and considerate, people aren’t going to fault you for wanting to see their country – quite the opposite. Don’t be embarrassed of your tourist status, be proud of it. You’re out there exploring, discovering, and learning, and what could be embarrassing about that?
A picnic (and a kiss) with these guys near Bergamo, Italy
9. Trust strangers. We learn this from a very young age – do not trust strangers. Listen, I get it. I’m not just going to blindly trust the word of every single person I encounter, and I’m not going to do something dumb like hand over all my money and valuables to a random person I don’t know. But the fact of the matter is, when you’re travelling, you often have no idea where you’re going or what you’re doing, even if you’ve done your research. Sometimes, you just have to trust people. As I’ve written about before, I truly believe that the majority of people in the world are good. They will look after you and out for you. I have put my trust in so many people over the years – hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands – and I can think of only a handful of situations where it was a mistake (see: getting ripped off. I write about a few of these experiences in this post, if you’re interested. See also, because it kind of relates: the time I hitchhiked in Colombia).
Bottom line, go with your gut instinct. If something feels strange, it probably is. But, 99% of the time, my gut has told me that everything was OK, and that it was safe to trust the people I was relying on for directions, a ride, for safekeeping my bag, for taking a deposit, or whatever it was I was doing at the time. I know that every single list of travel mistakes talks about putting too much faith in strangers, but in my experience, most people are just like you and I – we want to help each other out, and we want to do good by the world.
Have you ever made any of these “mistakes”? Was the result good or bad?