2016 was an amazing year for us: we got married, quit our jobs, and left for a year-long traveling adventure. I know, it sounds picture-perfect. It sounds like a magical travel montage of tropical drinks and sunsets and smiling selfies captioned with inspirational quotes and emojis. But we’re not the type to be dishonest, and you deserve the truth: More often than not, our travel doesn’t go as planned. In fact, it goes disastrously, horribly, completely wrong, usually with hilarious results. We collect travel fails the way some people collect passport stamps. It’s why we have an entire category on the blog just for Travel Fails. In fact, so many things have gone wrong this year alone that we decided to make this list of 2016’s biggest travel fails. We hope you’ll find them as funny as we do now that we’ve had some time to recover from the embarrassment!
What Are Travel Fails?
Travel fails can be small annoyances (like being late and missing your bus), panic inducing situations (like the first time Lia tried surfing), expensive losses (like our Mono Hot Springs fiasco), and anything in between. Sometimes our travel fails occur because of a planning oversight. Sometimes (ok, most of the time) they’re due to stubbornness. Occasionally we completely misjudge our own abilities. Whatever the root cause, travel fails account for 99% of our adventures, and by this point, we’ve learned to laugh at them along with you. So without further ado, we present our 16 biggest fails, missteps, annoyances, rage quits, and other assorted travel fails for the year 2016.
16. The Longest Bus Ride in Colombia
We knew that backpacking in South America would involve long bus rides. What we didn’t realize – until it was too late – was that our longest trip could have been avoided. We wanted to squeeze in Salento, Bogota, and San Gil in the last half of our Colombian leg. Since we were flying out of Bogota, we thought going straight from Salento to San Gil was smartest, because we would end up in Bogota for our flight. Unfortunately, that is a straight up stupid idea. From Salento, we had an eight hour bus ride to Bogota (…which meant we’d be going back to Bogota and retracing our steps…) where we were supposed to transfer to another bus for a quick”five hour” ride. What we didn’t realize was that Bogota has 2 bus terminals, which are completely across the city from one another. Salento buses arrive at one station, and San Gil buses depart from the other station. Of course, there’s no easy way to get in between the two stations. We hailed a cab and slogged through Bogota rush hour – and by that I mean we just sat in traffic for an hour. Finally, we found the correct bus station and hopped on a bus to Salento. Which then proceeded to spend 2 hours sitting in rush hour traffic. Our “five hour bus” took 8 hours, and we arrived exhausted in San Gil miles away from the city center (and our hostel) at 2am. Two buses, a cross-city cab ride, and another taxi later, we were finally at our hostel.
- Total Cost: Way more than necessary.
- Total Time: 17 freaking hours.
- What we Learned: Proximity on a map does not equal public transportation time. Also, Bogota has 2 bus stations. Surprise!
15. Accidentally Booking Four Tickets to Amsterdam
When we planned to go to Europe, Lia couldn’t stop talking about the trains. We had visions of riding through scenic landscapes filling out postcards and writing (and after 5 months of bumpy bus rides, trains sounded like heaven). So when I found out the train ride from Bremen, Germany to Amsterdam was five hours and beautiful, I grabbed us some tickets. Then, a day before our voyage to Amsterdam, Lia got an email to check-in for our flight. I’m sorry, what? Apparently, in our planning frenzy, we bought plane tickets when they were on sale and…forgot about it. So we had four tickets to Amsterdam and only two bodies to go. We decided to pay the fee for the train cancellation, take a bus 2 hours away to the city, hop on the metro to the airport, fly to Amsterdam, and take a tram from the airport to our hostel. We would have saved money throwing the plane tickets away and taking the train. Womp womp.
- Total Cost: At least $100, if we had just taken the train and not bought a stupid plane ticket. Not to mention the extra taxis/buses/metros we had to take to get to the airport and back.
- Total Time: About 4 extra, unnecessary hours of travel and transit.
- What we learned: Never let Lia make transit decisions. Also, write down everything we book ASAP.
14. The Cocaine Hostel in Medellin, Colombia
One of our worst hostel experiences actually had almost nothing to do with the hostel. We went for the cheapest hostel with a high rating in the bustling neighborhood of El Poblado. Everyone says “Oh you’ve GOTTA go to El Poblado!” Why? Well that’s where the gringos party, duh. As a result, we were subjected to inauthentic cuisine (read: shitty food), thumping techno until 3 AM, and a hostel filled with dudes on all of the blow. There was the guy I had never seen who came up to me with his fingers in a gun shape yelling “I’M IN F—IN’ ISIS BRO!” and laughing his head off. Then there was the guy who spent an entire conversation with Lia stuffing tiny wads of tissue up his bloody nose and forming them into a giant bloody tissue pile (which then spilled onto her bed when he disappeared in the middle of the night). Of course, there was the guy who only ever wore a towel during daylight hours and organized all of his belongings neatly on everyone else’s beds, then got aggressive when politely asked to remove it. And who could forget the guy who always returned to the hostel at 4 AM, at which time he turned all the lights on, caught up with his social media, showered, filed his taxes, and whatever else. The bathroom was constantly clogged with vomit and nobody seemed to differentiate between daytime and nighttime hours. But hey, we hear the cocaine was really great.
- Total Cost: Not cheap enough to make waking up to a blanket full of bloody tissues worthwhile
- Total Time: 5 days of being the only Gringos in the hostel not on copious amounts of cocaine.
- What we Learned: The Gringo zone is typically the zone to avoid. Also, being the only one not on drugs in an area filled with people on drugs is the least fun thing ever.
13. The Hanging Redwoods Tent in Healdsburg, California
We were browsing AirBnB when we found a tent suspended by a rope hanging from a redwood tree for under $100. It sounds like some sort of Northern California gypsy dream right? We had been to the nearby super cute wine-centric town of Healdsburg before (it’s one of our favorite Bay Area weekend trips) and decided to take a chance on this strange AirBnB experience for a night. When we arrived at the property there was no one there and apparently the gate code had just changed. There is no reception in the hills out there, so we had to double back into town (a 20 minute drive) to ask the owner what was happening. Once we were finally in the property, we found our tent. The pictures must have been the AirBnB version of “Myspace Angles,” because this thing was looking ROUGH. The plastic cover – which was just draped casually over the tent, and in no way secured – was full of holes and bugs. The electronic pulley system for the tent was jumpy and completely sketch. And despite the fact you had to be in a rock-climbing harness the whole time, there was the feeling you could fall out or flip at any moment. After some sleepy deliberation, we decided to apologize to the owner, take a hard pass, and go back home. This isn’t our first (or last!) sketchy Airbnb experience and we no longer recommend Airbnb. Now we recommend booking directly through VRBO because it has fewer fees and more flexible cancellation policies than Airbnb – also, we’re not fans of Airbnb’s unethical track record and lax security.
- Total Cost: We were only out the cost of the rental car on this one, not too shabby.
- Total Time: 3 hours of unnecessary driving, plus a 40 minute round trip just to get cell reception.
- What we Learned: If you’re going to put your life in the hands of a rope and a tarp suspended 200 feet in the air, it shouldn’t be cheap. Next time we want to live life on the edge, we’re going to pay top dollar because our safety is worth it!
12. Saying Goodbye to Lake Tahoe… Painfully
With about a week left in California before we left for South America, we had the great idea to say goodbye to one of our favorite places, Lake Tahoe. We weren’t even halfway packed yet, but we’d had the campsite reservation for months (and anyone who has camped at Lake Tahoe knows you have to make those well in advance). We loaded up our camping box into the rental car and took off – at this point, we’d been hammock camping so many times we didn’t even bother to double check what we’d packed (oops). Our first sign of trouble was we realized we’d neglected to bring our hammock quilts – dutifully hung up in our closets the way down quilts are supposed to be – so we were completely blanket-less. Lake Tahoe is freezing cold at night even in the dead of summer, so that wasn’t going to work for us. We pulled over and rented sleeping bags from an outfitter in Tahoe City: crisis averted. When we arrived at our campsite, we set up our hammock between the only two suitable trees, which happened to position us directly above a small hill filled with sharp, jagged rocks. I’m sure that will be fine, I thought. Our next issue was our last minute food packing. We were still hungry after we cooked dinner, so we decided to head into town for food. As any camper knows, eating dinner in town is cheating, so the camping magic was somewhat dulled (but not enough to ruin the delicious pie we ate while watching the sun set over Lake Tahoe). The final (and biggest) thing to go wrong happened in the middle of the night. We’ve been hammock campers for years now without incident. But our streak was short-lived. We’d decided to share a hammock to stay warm in our rented synthetic sleeping bag, and our hammock straps weren’t up to the challenge (thanks a lot, pie). In the middle of the night as we slept peacefully, we were awakened with a loud CRASH and the intense pain of smashing hips first onto jagged rocks. My hip and elbow felt broken. Lia couldn’t move her leg. We were completely tangled up in our hammock, each other, and the stupid jagged rocks. Luckily our camping box happened to include extra straps, so we re-strung and were able to salvage the rest of our night. Had it not been so late, we would have just given up and gone home. As a result of our stupidity, Lia had a nasty bruise the size of a small child on her hip the entire first half of our South America trip.
- Total Cost: Sleeping bag rental: $35; Pie: $10; Our injured pride (and hips): Priceless.
- Total Time: We managed to pack this fail all into a single night.
- Lesson Learned: Check the maximum weight of your hammock straps BEFORE doubling up in the hammock. Also, don’t be cavalier about what you pack, no matter how frequently you go camping.
11. The Ridiculous Mud Bath in Colombia
We had a full post on this day trip already. Long story short: dad butt, oily muck, hidden hands grabbing places, aggressive abuelas. Give it a read here!
- Total Cost: $20 each, which is a bargain, all things considered
- Total Time: 3 hours driving around picking people up from various hotels, 1 hour standing in line in the sun, 20 minutes being aggressively cleaned by abuelas, 30 minutes walking back through Cartagena wet and muddy
- What we Learned: If something sounds ridiculous, chances are it’s going to be ridiculous.
10. Ziplining in Banos, Ecuador
Banos is awesome. It’s the adventure sport town in Ecuador (read more about it in our Banos post) with a ton of exciting, thrilling options. Lia learned the hard way that if it isn’t paragliding or gently floating down river, she doesn’t want it. After our rappelling disaster (more on that later), she wanted to try an adventure sport one more time. Ziplining seemed easy: not much hiking, plenty of thrills, safe in theory, and cheap. My zipline experience was what I expected. I hung upside down or did the Superman, screamed in excitement, watched the scenery around me, and couldn’t wait for the next one. Lia’s experience was something like… “This can’t be safe. Why do I keep spinning? Where does my hand go? AHH something just broke I think! What was that noise? How are we supposed to stop?! Do I just run into the guy?!” And then once the scenery opened to a beautiful open canyon, “HOLY ****! WHY? WHY!? WHAT IS THE POINT OF WEARING A HELMET IF I PLUMMET A THOUSAND FEET?!?!?!?! THIS IS TERRIBLEEEEE” … repeated times 5.
- Total Cost: $15 each and a lifetime of doing adventure sports together.
- Total Time: Lia’s estimate: “Hours and hours and hours.” Actual time? Under an hour.
- What we Learned: Lia should never do adventure sports. Even the tame ones. Ever.
9. The Rudest AirBnB Host in Brugge, Belgium
A lot of this list is entirely our fault. This one, I’m not so sure. We spent Christmas in the fairy tale town of Brugge, Belgium. Since it was Christmas, we wanted to get out of the hostel grind and find a cozy place we could have a relaxing day and cook a big meal. We found an affordable place with a shared kitchen and 3 rooms. Everything seemed fine until the owner, who lived next door, thought 11 PM on Christmas Eve was a good time to bang on our door and demand that we follow him downstairs. He pointed to a pre-existing stain on the couch and started yelling his head off insisting that it was our fault (it wasn’t. The stain was here when we arrived. Also, there were 3 other people sleeping upstairs who weren’t accused… rude). Next, he yelled at us because the whole house smelled like bacon from our breakfast (yes, our host was the only non-vegetarian in the universe who finds the smell of bacon offensive). His last grievance was that there were dishes on the counter…clean dishes….which we washed…and left to dry. After screaming at us for an hour straight, he left in a huff and didn’t return for days to refill the toilet paper or soap in the shared bathroom. It really put a damper on Christmas, since we were walking on eggshells the remainder of our stay.
- Total Cost: $250 for the room, but we got $75 back from AirBnB for our troubles (thanks Airbnb! Again, get that $20 credit here.)
- Total Time: A very uncomfortable 5 days.
- What we Learned: Hmm. Honestly, this one was kind of just bad luck. I’m not sure we learned anything here, except that our AirBnB host was a dick.
8. When We Got Robbed in Ica, Peru
I like to think we’re a little overcautious. We went three months in South America without incident following basic safety precautions and I guess I got a little cocky. Best believe we have rectified that after our stop in Ica, Peru. We were traveling with this little day bag carrying put all of our electronics (Kindle, laptops, cords, GoPro, etc). It’s like Mark Twain said, “Put all your eggs in one basket, and then watch that basket.” Well, I took my eyes off of it for five seconds at a bus station. In that 5 second window of opportunity, a guy carrying a bunch of bags swooped right next to me then took off with our bag. In a split second, I realized it was gone and made the decision to run after the guy (debatably idiotic or heroic, I’ll let you decide). I had him in my sights as we both pushed our way through a giant crowd. Someone (his partner in this coup) tapped me on the shoulder to get my attention. I turned my head before I realized it was a trap and looked right back at the guy I was chasing. At the last second, I saw him stealthily drop our bag behind a trash can and bolt. I figured he thought I’d take off after him, while his friend behind me actually nabbed the bag. Instead, I retrieved the bag and hurried back to the bus station. We got INCREDIBLY lucky. It would have been one hell of a pull for them and a huge loss for us.
- Total Cost: None! Crisis heroically averted.
- Total Time: It took exactly 1 split second of looking away from our bag for it to get stolen.
- What we Learned: Never, ever, ever take your eyes, hands, feet, etc off of your bag – ESPECIALLY if you’ve put your valuables in that bag. Our day bag has been firmly strapped to me ever since that incident.
7. Disappointment in Peru
This failure is twofold. First, Peru was our least favorite country that we visited in South America. We’re not shy about that. But it’s not totally Peru’s fault. It’s ours. We wanted the cheapest way to get into the country and we wanted to avoid party towns. As a result we crossed the border in a chicken truck from Ecuador (read all about that adventure in this post) and ended up spending almost two weeks in San Ignacio, Chachapoyas, and Cajamarca. These places (to put it nicely) aren’t my first recommendations for backpackers or visitors to Peru. 2 weeks of misery got our spirits down and set a negative tone for the rest of our 2 months in Peru. The second part of this failure was how vocal we were about our opinion of Peru. We published a post about it and it received…well…not exactly a warm reception. We were called all sorts of things, from bad planners to straight up racist. After some reflection we realized while our opinion might be valid – you don’t have to like every country you visit, and chances are you won’t – it was also a dick move of us to write a whole post bashing a perfectly lovely country that just didn’t agree with us. So we took the post down.
- Total Cost: A lot of self-reflection. Plus, our time in Peru ended up in the decision to cut our South America journey short, so we missed out on exploring Chile and Argentina. Read more about that decision.
- Total Time: We spent 2 months in Peru, and it was the low point of our trip.
- What we Learned: First of all, that you can’t fall in love with everywhere that you visit. Second of all, to have some tact about knocking the places you don’t love. We would never discourage anyone from visiting Peru and forming their own opinions. There are many beautiful parts of Peru and had we planned things better, we would have enjoyed ourselves more!
6. The Disastrous Valle de Cocora Hike in Colombia
This is another one of the travel fails that comes with a full post. To summarize: we hiked through the stunningly picturesque Valle de Cocora in Colombia, then up into a cloud forest. The cloud forest bit … well, it was less of a hike, and more of a mudslide. Oh, and it started raining. What was supposed to be a lovely 4 hour hike turned out to be a 7 hour hell fest. Read about it here!
- Total Cost: We ended up missing out on the most scenic part of the hike.
- Total Time: 7 hours almost exactly: 2 hours of gorgeous valley hiking and 5 hours of miserable mud slogging.
- What we Learned: If we’d started our hike earlier, it would have been less muddy, we would have had more time, and the entire hike would have gone differently. This one was entirely our own fault.
5. Hiking the Cataract Falls Loop in Marin County, California
Oh look, hiking again (you may notice a theme here…) Once upon a time earlier this year, we had dreams of hiking the Appalachian Trail on the tail end of our year-long honeymoon. Hilarious, I know. After we bought our packs and began training for our backpacking trips (both travel and backcountry), we decided to our loaded packs for a test drive and see what our speed would be like once we added about 25 pounds of weight. Our hiking speed without packs is a very modest and comfortable 2 MPH. The trail we decided on for our test run with our packs was a beautiful but hilly loop that was 8 miles long. Back in the day (earlier this year), we were hiking weekly, training 4x a week in the gym, and were overly confident about our hiking abilities (see #’s 4, 7, and 1). We figured the packs would slow us down so our estimate was 5 hours for 8 miles. Like the idiots we are, we arrived at noon to start the hike. At 3PM we took a snack break and thought we must be about half way based on the loose instructions we were provided. Luckily I had one bar of 3G cell reception so I consulted Google, who said “Nah bluhd. You’re like not even a third of the way. Turn back!” Stubbornly, we decided Google didn’t know what it was talking about and we trudged on. Our reward for such hubris? Hiking in the dark, tripping over wet rocks on cliff faces, and coming up with “What if we have to stay overnight?” solutions. This was a rare case where we actually felt like our lives were legitimately in danger. (They weren’t, though. Our packs were fully loaded with first aid, snacks, headlamps, and hammocking gear. The worst we would have faced would be a fine for illegally camping.)
- Total Cost: We popped our “hiking in the dark” cherry. Honestly, now we’re less terrified of it – which is good, because our slow pace means we frequently find ourselves hiking later than we ought to be!
- Total Time: 8 hours. Yes, our pace with packs on is exactly 1MPH. Even with training, this has yet to improve.
- What we Learned: We’re slow hikers. Really, really slow hikers. As such, we must always be prepared to potentially hike after dark. We always bring extra water + a way to filter it, plenty of snacks, and first aid.
4. Injuring my Knee on the Quilotoa Loop in Ecuador
The Quilotoa Loop is a 3-day trek in the high Andes Mountains in Ecuador. The trail connects homesteads and farms between three enormous canyons, each populated with a village. The trail has been used for centuries by locals, but is just being discovered by adventurous hikers and travelers. We made the genius decision to do the route in reverse, because the elevation would be decreasing each day, which we imagined would be easier (spoilers: NOT EASIER). At the end of day one, after 10 hours of getting lost on the unmarked path, literally crawling on our hands on knees up a mountainside, and sliding on our asses in and out of a canyon, we had trouble even standing. Things got worse and worse until they abruptly ended a mile from the final village, when I could no longer actually put weight on my right leg. I hid the extent of my pain from my wife (because I am
heroic stubborn and stupid) but as soon as we hit an actual road, I flagged down a truck and we hitchhiked into town. Read the full story here.
- Total Cost: $30 to taxi instead of hike on day 2… oh, and the health of my knee for the rest of my life.
- Total Time: 2/3 days of hiking. So close.
- What we Learned: We’re just not very good at hiking. Particularly at high elevations and in foreign countries.
3. The Amsterdam Hostel Creep
We’re not sure what brought this on but we have theories (alcohol, drugs.. sleep-creeping?). At our enormous hostel in Amsterdam, the bunk beds lie foot to foot. One morning, Lia awake suddenly around 4 AM and was horrified to find the man who was sleeping in the bunk adjacent to hers was now sitting IN HER BED. Like…he was fully awake…sitting casually…with his blankets…on the end of her bed. Without a word, as she stared at him, he crawled back to into bed, taking his blankets with him. After lying awake terrified for an hour, she eventually woke me up and we went down to reception to get a new room. We quickly packed our essentials and slept for a couple hours in new beds until we could grab the rest of our stuff. After 6 months straight of staying in hostels, this was the first truly horrifying experience we’ve had (Medellin Cocaine bros notwithstanding).
- Total Cost: 1 sleepless night, but we did get a small refund from our hostel for the trouble, which was nice.
- Total Time: We spent another 4 days in that hostel, trying to avoid the Bed Creeper!
- What we Learned: Hostels aren’t generally sketchy, we just got unlucky. We did learn that hostels take this kind of thing VERY seriously, and we’re pleased with the quick assistance we received in being moved and making sure that we were taken care of.
2. Waterfall Rappelling Hell in San Gil, Colombia
You know what’s super not fun? Having a panic attack while you hang from a rope 200 feet in the air at the edge of a waterfall. Oh, and by the way, you’re holding yourself up…so if you loosen your grip, you die. That was Lia’s own personal hell one rainy afternoon in Colombia. Read the full story here!
- Total Cost: Around $20 and Lia’s ability to talk for several days after screaming for so long.
- Total Time: It took me 15 minutes to rappel myself down the waterfall. It took Lia 30 minutes of screaming bloody murder and holding on for dear life before she was rescued.
- What we Learned: Lia should never, ever, ever, EVER do adventure sports. EVER.
1. The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Our biggest and worst of the travel fails of 2016 holds the crown not only for the figurative slap in the face, but also for the money we lost by failing. You can read the whole story here, but here are the Cliff Notes:
We signed up to do the difficult but rewarding 4 day trek on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. The first day is a “warm up” and Day 2 is an intense all day uphill climb at 13,000 feet elevation. After Day 1, we realized we were too slow to keep up with the pace required (at this point, nobody should be surprised by this) so we were presented with two options: on Day 2, we could start at 4 AM and hike into the night… OR, we could turn back and meet the group in Machu Picchu via bus. We took the latter option. Not only was the money we spent wasted, we had to then pay for two nights of hostels, multiple meals, and transportation for ourselves and a guide who accompanied us back. The worst of all was the magic of Machu Picchu was ruined because instead of working our asses off to earn the experience, we rode a bus and strolled in amongst a huge crowd of other tourists. Machu Picchu is a Wonder of the World, as in “I wonder WTF we were thinking when we assumed we could do this trek.”
- Total Cost: $1,200 for the trek, plus $200 for the additional days of not trekking. Ouch.
- Total Time: 1 day of hiking, 1 day of hiking back, and 2 days of sitting around miserably in Ollantaytambo.
- What we Learned: No matter how much we want to pretend that we are expert hikers, we are incredibly slow. And being slow is a limitation on our ability to do certain hikes with time limitations, like the Inca Trail. After this massive fail, we revised our Appalachian Trail thru-hiking dreams to “do some of it, maybe.” Sigh.
As for 2017…
The travel fails we’ve experienced this year have taught us many things, but the grand takeaway is this: things go wrong, and that’s okay. Sometimes your planning is totally off. Every now and then you’ll panic during a “fun” activity. You might not be cut out for something you thought you’d like. Sometimes your car gets destroyed … or you lose out on $1,200. What’s important is that you’re OK, and that you do your best to learn from your screw-up.
Part of what makes us such great travel companions is also what makes us such a great couple: every time we experience a major disappointment, we can rely on each other to remind us to take things in stride. We have a rule: only 1 of us is allowed to freak out at a time. When we both freak out, that’s when things go from “stressful” to “a complete nightmare,” so one of us must always remain calm (the role of which one of us that job falls to honestly changes with every varying challenge we face – it’s a pretty even split). At the end of the day, all things considered, we are on an amazing adventure and every misstep along the way – no matter how awful it feels at first – is just another great story to laugh about and share later. It’s all part of the adventure! We wouldn’t change it for a minute. Every mistake we made was another good learning opportunity to make us better travelers in the future (… we hope).
Don’t worry; I’m sure there will be plenty of travel fails in 2017.
Happy New Year!
What was your biggest travel fail? Commiserate with us in the comments!
Did we make you laugh?
Or maybe just laugh AT us? (Either way, we'll take it.) Subscribe! We'll send you our most ridiculous travel stories & semi-regular monthly(ish) newsletters.