Dear Nora: 19 Mistakes People Make When Starting to Travel

Saturday 21st, March 2015 / 19:06 Written by
Dear Nora: 19 Mistakes People Make When Starting to Travel

Everybody does it. They make mistakes when starting to travel. And the learning curve is a long and often bumpy one; this month’s reader question will help you up that curve with grace and style.

Dear Nora,

I’m terrified of my upcoming trip. I’m so worried I’m going to do something wrong, or forget something, or just screw things up! I loved your checklist of things to do before you travel long-term – can you give me a checklist of mistakes and how I can avoid making them?    – Micky

Micky, I made so many mistakes when I started to travel, I’d be hard-pressed to recall them all! Then again, it’s kind of half the fun – to cut your teeth and earn your travel stripes, and sometimes you even get a good story out of it to tell.

But in the spirit of minimizing the mistakes that aren’t fun and/or can be avoided, here is a list of 19 mistakes people make (including myself, and other professional travellers that I interviewed) when starting to travel:


The most common mistakes people make when starting to travel are gear and packing-related. For example:

Bringing Camping Gear

I did it when I started traveling full-time: I had a sleeping bag, mosquito net, sleep sack, and little bits of camping gear that I strategically sloughed off as I realized I’d never use them.

I’m not the only one either: Tim Leffel of The World’s Cheapest Destinations has circled the globe three times, dispatching travel articles from five continents. “I bought way more gadgets and gear than I needed, including a tent and mosquito net that I lugged around the world. I used the tent two nights out of 364 and when there wasn’t already a mosquito net, there was nowhere to hang one so we ended up using mosquito coils anyway, which you can buy anywhere.”

Packing too Much Stuff

The rule of thumb when it comes to packing is that you should actually take about a quarter of the things you initially want to pack. But we still never listen to this advice, and typically bring more than we should.

I’m embarrassed to say that on a recent two-month trip, (despite my expertise in traveling with carry-on luggage only), I packed too much stuff. Not only did it make my luggage cumbersome, but it also didn’t leave enough room for the new acquisitions I really wanted.

Remember: not bringing enough stuff could actually be an opportunity to acquire a practical souvenir on the road – and at least you’ll have enough room in your bag for it.

(See also: 26 Things you Shouldn’t Travel With)

Bringing Gym Equipment

I hadn’t heard of anybody doing this before, but Sean Keener of the BootsnAll Travel Network and Airtreks (worldwide leaders in complex airfare and long-term travel) knows somebody who did it: “A mate of mine went to Malaysia on a two month trip for his first overseas experience. He brought barbells with him to workout while he was gone. We still laugh at it to this day realizing that less is more and there are other ways to keep fit, including barbells in Malaysia if we really need them.” Check out BootsnAll’s Around the World Travel Guide to avoid bringing barbells on your next trip.

Buying “Travel-Friendly” Clothing That you Hate Wearing

When I started travelling, I bought almost a whole new wardrobe of “travel-friendly” clothing. I didn’t particularly like the style, but it was practical: convertible pants, special materials that don’t wrinkle and dry quickly, etc. I hated it so much I could barely drag myself out of bed each day.

You can find practical travel clothing that suits your style without buying overpriced specialty items that don’t float your boat.

(Ladies, you might want to check out my favourite travel clothing that’s designer quality and incredibly stylish: Anatomie).

Not Taking Extra Batteries That are Expensive/Irreplaceable Abroad

Chez Brungraber of LowKeyAdventures founded Gobi Gear, which makes my favourite piece of travel packing gear: The HoboRoll. She’s also traveled through Asia, Africa, New Zealand, the USA, and Central America. “I left my extra camera batteries at home. In Nepal, they cost $85 instead of $20 in the USA. Oops!”

Expecting to Buy Certain Items Abroad (Like Technology)

A friend of mine needed a new phone but didn’t get around to buying one before he left Canada, figuring he could pick one up abroad, probably for even less money. This backfired on him in South America, where he discovered that the cost of electronics was double, and getting things shipped in was almost impossible.

This has also happened to me; who knew that buying a Kindle in Vietnam would cost so much, or that a new iPhone in Switzerland or London would be so pricey?


Don’t be surprised if you find yourself planning your finances for a trip as much as you’re planning the trip itself. Not doing so could make your trip expensive, or at worst, a disaster. Consider the following mistakes:

(See also: How to Manage Finances While Travelling Long-Term)

Not Budgeting Properly

You don’t have to budget your trip to the last cent before you leave, but you should have a ballpark for costs and cash flow and keep track of your balances as you go. When I started travelling full-time, I did so with a partner (at the time), who had an arbitrary amount of money saved and no budgeting skills whatsoever. Imagine my surprise when he announced with no prior warning – in Australia no less – that he had totally run out of money; we were stuck there for way longer than intended while he got a job and replenished his savings.

(See also: How Much Money do I Need to Travel Long-Term?)

Not Checking Unpaid Bills

Put your financial house in order by ensuring all bills are either pre-paid or automatically paid, and/or that you will receive online statements and have the funds and infrastructure in place to pay those bills from the road. While you’re at it, don’t forget about irregular or intermittent bills and payments that might come up while you’re away.

A friend of mine forgot about her quarterly insurance payments, and came home to a lapsed policy that was murder to reinstate.

Not Automating Your Finances

You don’t always have easy access to view and pay your bills while abroad, so automate everything you can, and sign up for paperless statements so you can manage ongoing bills online.

Not Setting up Your Debit Card/Online Banking Correctly

I was emailed by a reader who was stranded abroad when she realized her debit card couldn’t access her savings account abroad (and that she couldn’t use a foreign ATM to transfer funds between accounts like you can at home), and she didn’t have online banking to do the necessary transfer. Don’t assume that your debit card can do everything abroad that it can do at home; set yourself up with multiple ways to access cash and manage your money.

(See also: 11 Tricks to Using ATMs Abroad)

Not Getting a Bank Account With Foreign Withdrawals

When I landed in Peru, I didn’t realize that cash was king, credit cards were rarely accepted, and most ATMs had restricted withdrawal limits such that I needed to do three separate withdrawals just to get a few hundred dollars (e.g. to pay for accommodation). In my first month there, I paid over $50 in foreign ATM withdrawal fees.

Since then, I upgraded my bank account to allow for unlimited free foreign withdrawals, and I maintain a certain balance so that the monthly fee for that kind of account is waived.

Having the Wrong – or Not Enough – Credit Cards

If you’re quitting your job or changing your lifestyle/career to travel, make sure you have all the right credit cards before you go. Once you hit the road, if you don’t have the same sort of income you did before you left and you apply for a new credit card, you might get a rude surprise in the form of a declined application. That happened to me two years after I started travelling, when (despite a stellar credit rating) I was declined for a new frequent flyer mile card.

(See also: Tips for Travelling With Credit Cards)

Travelling Without a Wee Stash of Cash

This travel mistake has bitten me a few times; once I was on a train in Slovakia and had to pay an extra fee (my Eurail pass apparently didn’t cover Slovakia). They didn’t accept cards and I had no cash; thankfully the kind soul sitting across from me paid my fare to ensure I wasn’t kicked off the train. I’ve also been burned by departure fees when leaving a country (with no co-operative ATMs in sight). Now I carry $20-$50 in US Dollars as my stash of emergency cash, and it has come in handy a few times.

(See also: 14 Ways Travel Experts Carry Cash While Travelling)

Planning and Preparation

In addition to financial planning and packing, here are some other travel planning-related mistakes to avoid:

Planning too Much

I met a girl in Peru who had planned her whole trip so much so that when she arrived and made friends and discovered other things she wanted to do more, she couldn’t. While it’s good to know about the things you’d like to do and places you’d like to stay, most seasoned travellers agree that you should leave some space in your itinerary for plans to change, because some of the best travel experiences end up being impulsive ones.

Not Knowing How to Get From the Airport to the City

Since 1999, Derek Baron has travelled and lived around the world nonstop, spending time in over 85 countries, blogging at WanderingEarl and leading unique, small group tours to his favourite destinations. “One of the biggest mistakes I made in the beginning was not figuring out how to get from the airport (or land border crossing) into the city where I was headed. I was ripped off by taxi drivers, fell victim to scams, and ended up in sketchy situations.” He additionally commented that starting off with a bad experience in a new country created bad impressions that were difficult to overcome.

Avoid this mistake by researching how to get to the city or your hotel from your point of entry.

(See also: 16 Things to do Before Arriving at a New Destination)

Travelling Without Insurance

Did you know that once you leave Canada, you can’t even apply for most travel insurance policies even if you wanted to? This is not an item for procrastination, or saying “oh nothing bad will happen to me.” Because when it’s too late, it’s too late. And you never plan for things to go wrong, but they can; trust me – I know from experience. (See also: The Ultimate Travel Insurance Guide for Canadians)

And if you’re planning on driving while abroad, plan on insuring yourself properly as well. I was in a near-fatal accident in the Caribbean (the other driver’s fault), and with only third-party liability insurance, I received no compensation for medical bills, lost income, nor my totalled scooter. Click here for a plain-English guide to auto insurance

On the Road

Most mistakes people make when starting to travel are wrapped up in the planning and preparation phases. But that doesn’t mean you can let your guard down once you hit the road; here are some more mistakes that have been made:

Not Being Brave/Bold

LaMesha of Fakefrenchgirl has been to a variety of countries in Europe, Africa, and beyond. But she has some regrets when she recalls her first trip to Africa: “I was in East Africa (Uganda and Kenya) and didn’t really venture far from the city to see the wildlife or go to Zanzibar in Tanzania. I think I was afraid of managing the logistics of everything by myself, having so much luggage to carry, and all those travel warnings about safety in Nairobi.” In retrospect (and with some travel experience under her belt), she realized that travel isn’t as scary as she thought, and she could have been braver.

Getting Overwhelmed on Arrival

As soon as you leave that train station or airport in many developing countries, you’ll likely be bombarded by taxi drivers, tuk-tuk drivers, tour operators, souvenir vendors, and many others who have a product or service to offer travellers. This happened to me in a lot of different places before I learned how to deal with it.

First of all, don’t let these people overwhelm you! Secondly, the best way to avoid getting mobbed is to ignore them all (even though it may seem rude); if you humour one (or even make eye contact with them), you could be in for a rough ride; in some countries over-eager taxi drivers will even try to take your bags so you’re obliged to follow them to their car.

Research your transportation options before you arrive, so you know exactly where to go and how to get there and can bypass the mayhem on arrival.

Not Thoroughly Knowing Your Travel/Transportation Arrangements

When dealing with foreign airports and transportation options, it’s hard to understand what you’re in for. Check all the fine print before you’re on your way.

Manu Grieco of My 1st Impressions is a globetrotter of 12 years, currently living in Iceland. When she first started travelling, she accidentally went to the wrong airport: “I passed the security check without any problem, drank a coffee and bought some stuff at the Duty free before realizing, when it was time to board, that my flight was not on the screen. I checked my paper and yes, I had gone to the wrong airport. It was even more difficult to exit the airport than to enter!”

Have you made any travel mistakes? Please share in the comments!

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8 comments on “Dear Nora: 19 Mistakes People Make When Starting to Travel”

  1. Jamie Newman says:

    I ended up going to a pawn shop in Prague to unload some of the gear I thought I needed… Got next to nothing compared to what I paid in Canada… Lesson learned! Thanks for the great reminder!

  2. G Hubbs says:

    My biggest travel mistakes started young, fortunately.

    At age 16, while spending a month at a volunteer workcamp in France restoring French monuments in the way they were constructed, I met a Parisian woman (for 10 years all my girlfriends were Parisians) and went on with her to Paris.

    Well, I had to buy a wardrobe to be “chic” enough to hang out in her quartier, and took her out to several very expensive meals. Then she went off on vacation with her very wealthy family. I was left with no money, but a fortuitously prepaid lovely hostel.

    So I lived on the breakfast provided in the morning as part of the stay, and ate loaves of bread while reading Nietzsche on the banks of the Seine, “self-overcoming” and becoming quite spiritual, and yet scheming on how to earn money. Unfortunately I did not play an instrument, and never figured out how to become a gigolo at 16 in Paris, so I lost a lot of weight, even by local standards, and learned a lesson:

    Budget… no matter how much you love to live “La Dolce Vita,” since “Joie de Vivre” is hard to experience on an empty stomach and not very “chic” at all. Also, be wary of people who expect you to pay for everything… Those who moochers come in all forms and are often met on the road.

    • Nora Dunn says:

      Ha ha – you paint a brilliant picture; a broken-hearted 16-year-old with no money, eating baguettes and reading philosophy on the banks of the Seine while contemplating life…..I’m there with you!

  3. Michael says:

    After three years of travel, I still almost always forget to find out what airport terminal I need to go to for departure.

  4. Wonderful post!

    I have done few of them, but doing them taught me how to do it right next time and that’s where I hopefully corrected it and not hoping to repeat any of them.

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