5 Great Things Learned from my Worst Travel Experience

worst travel disaster broken boat patagonia

Everyone has a worst travel experience. Sometimes they turn in to your funniest stories. Sometimes you can only hope to learn something from them so they don’t get repeated.

My worst travel experience

My worst travel experience occurred when we were traveling through South Africa on our way to a safari vacation. Our checked luggage was ‘lost’ and took 5 days to ‘find’ and finally catch up with us.

The game parks we visited were remote and didn’t have gift shops or stores nearby, so we had to make do with what we had. For days we wore the same clothes, washing our socks and underwear at night. Sometimes our clothes were dry before we had to put them on the next morning. Sometimes they were not.

By being creative with what was on hand, we were able to handle our most urgent hygiene needs.

Between game drives, travel to new locations, and intermittent access to phone coverage, contacting the airlines and travel guides to track down and receive our missing bags took many frustrating hours and consumed all free time on our schedule.

By day four a game drive was skipped for a trip to a village market more than an hour away. The options were limited, but a few pieces of clothing were purchased. Some spare batteries for the camera were also bought, but they were far more expensive than at home and quantities were limited.

When our luggage finally arrived we found that a number of items had been stolen.

  • Battery powered travel alarm clock
  • Spare batteries for the clock, our camera, and flashlights
  • Flashlights
  • Some toiletry items
  • Swiss Army knife

Some of my clothes also had nail polish spilled on them and were ruined. This polish came from a bottle I had packed which was still tightly closed, inside a Ziploc bag, packed inside my toiletry kit, in a different, outside pocket.

worst travel experience Safari luggage with lion What I learned from my worst travel experience

Everybody loves to talk about their best travel experience, but their worst travel experience is often reduced to complaints.

While it may be hard to find the silver lining, it’s rare that I can’t learn something from a bad experience. Maybe it’s just me, but I like to reflect when things go bad. Hopefully, it helps to reduce and head off problems in the future.

Below are the 5 simply gr8t things I learned from my worst travel experience.

#1 Know the dangers along your journey

Going on safari in Africa carries a number of health and safety risk. We had spent a great deal of time addressing these and planning this vacation. However, we were unaware of the rampant theft problems in the Johannesburg airport.

Unfortunately it was, and continues to be, common for luggage to be ransacked during transit in the South African airport. Which is common knowledge across Africa and can be quickly found through an internet search if you are looking for it.

Insider Tip: Look into fraud, theft, and corruption problems that are common in each of the locations and countries you will be traveling through.

When compared to natural disasters, political uprising, and medical emergencies, loss of luggage is not a major problem and would generally fall under ‘theft’ or ‘sh!t happens’.

For every trip, one of the first things you should do is check out the travel.state.gov website for the country you are visiting.

#2 Your carry-on is your lifeline

Experienced travelers know that certain airports have a high incidence of delayed baggage. Connections also increase the risk of problems. While lost luggage on a direct flight is rare it still does happen.

Since this experience, I bring everything in my carry-on that could be difficult to replace and that would have an effect on my trip. My definition of everything has also expanded to include:

  • medications and prescriptions
  • feminine hygiene products – not just a few, but all I’ll need
  • electronic charging devices including batteries, cords, and adapters
  • toiletries and makeup
  • complete change of clothes including socks and underwear
  • specialty clothing items or equipment like hiking boots, ski outerwear, or dive mask

These things are in addition to valuables and other travel necessities I routinely bring in my carry-on.

Insider Tip: While it may be difficult to find the style and brand of feminine hygiene product you usually use as you travel internationally, any products may be difficult to obtain in some countries. This is especially true for tampons. Some women have started traveling with a diva cup, but this may not be practical for some trips.

When I say your carry-on is your lifeline I mean the bag(s) that will never leave your side!
With increasing luggage fees and restrictions people are packing lighter, and carry-on only travel is a growing trend. For most trips I travel with just carry-on, but this still means two baggage items. In smaller planes your larger bag may be gate checked.

If you have to gate check your bag it’s not a carry-on. Problems with gate checked bags is a whole other post. I’ve even had a bag I’ve gate checked end up on the luggage carousel with the other checked bags.

It may be tempting if you’re checking a bag to pack it with as much of your travel items as possible, especially the heavy ones, but don’t do it if you’ll need it.

#3 Value varies by country and occasion

Since this experience I’ve redefined what is valuable based on the type of trip and location. While I’ve routinely packed things that were ‘valuable’ in my carry-on to prevent theft, this was limited to my papers, expensive items like jewelry, and electronics.

In poorer or developing countries, batteries hold great value. Many don’t have electricity and when they do it may not be reliable. A battery powered travel clock is a luxury. In these countries, and in rural locations, medications can be difficult to obtain and expensive. If these items are lost or stolen they can be difficult to obtain. These things become valuable.

Insider Tip: Not all medicines and toiletries we routinely use in the USA are available in Europe, and filling prescription can be a problem outside the country. If you have a favorite or necessary product it should be considered valuable.

When we travel in the USA I don’t worry about electronic charging accessories, medications, or a change of clothes. I’m confident that these things can be easily replaced and hold minimal value to others.

However, depending on the trip the value will vary dramatically. On a skiing vacation our ski wear is valuable. While it could be replaced, the time and cost to do so often means losing a day of skiing. On the way home it loses its value and gets packed in our checked luggage.

If you have something where fit or function is important consider it valuable. This includes things like ski boots, dive mask, and hiking boots. It also includes a dress or suit for a special event.

#4 Read the fine print

travel experience ticket to travel passportWe were never compensated since the luggage was found and no allowance for delayed baggage was required. It’s difficult to prove something was stolen and that the damage experienced was not due to poor packing so we were not compensated for this either.

In situations where we have been compensated for lost or delayed luggage, it is often significantly less than the cost involved. Even with insurance depreciation is often applied. That $120 pair of running shoes that you bought during a sale six months ago and just started using is only worth half.

Insider Tip: Each airline has its own policies regarding passenger rights for flight delays, canceled flights, and lost or damaged luggage compensation. Policies can vary by country. Read the fine print. Know your rights and what you need to do to protect them.

Amounts and services can also depend on which airline actually provided the service. If your ticket has you flying on a partner or alliance provider, the policies may vary.

#3 Don’t let setbacks ruin your travel experience

With travel, as in life, things will go wrong. Adaptation is an important part of the travel adventure.

It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters. – Epictetus (Greek Philosopher)

Arriving at a location with no luggage for several days requires significant adaptation. While we were trying to track down our bags it would have be easy to get angry, complain, and generally be in a foul mood.

We did get frustrated, especially as time went on. Nerves began to fray. I might have even been on the verge of a melt-down at some point. But things didn’t get ‘ugly.’

Fortunately, Steve is a great travel companion. One of the things I love most about him is his ability to stay calm and keep things in perspective. If you’ve ever been around someone who could find drama in the smallest of things, like my father, you’d understand what a truly valuable trait this it.

While we’ll never get back the time we lost dealing with the luggage, the problem never overshadowed the experience. It didn’t taint our time with our guides but actually seemed to connect us. They became our allies.

Put your setbacks into perspective. Embrace ‘minor’ issues as part of the adventure – they make for some of the best stories. And as the saying goes, “Keep calm and carry on.” (Pun intended!)

What are some of your worst experiences and what have you learned from them?

Please share in the comments section.