My Biggest Travel Fails (How To Avoid Strangling Yourself and Being Kidnapped)

When travel fails, the adventure begins.

As you scroll through whatever social media feed, it can be easy to get the impression that travel is a glamorous series of beautiful, perfectly curated moments. It’s possible, though unlikely, that I’m the only one who instead encounters a series of chaotic, fumbling travel fails. Honestly, I’m a bit of a shitshow when I travel. I like to think that’s just the life of an adventurer. Failure, setbacks, mistakes, and blunders are all part of the adventure, right?

If I can’t laugh at these travel fails, I’d cry (like ugly cry). I choose laughter, and I hope you’ll laugh along *with* me.

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1 | Being Almost Kidnapped By a Taxi Driver in Sydney

Coogee Beach, near Sydney, is where I lived when a taxi driver tried to kidnap me.
The Coogee Beach Surf Club has two natural pools to swim in, located in a suburb of Sydney.

A much younger version of me liked to play a fun game when I got drunk. This included me telling my friends I was going to get another round of drinks and, instead, leave the bar. I was a master at this while studying abroad in Sydney, Australia.

On one particular night, I grabbed a cab in Bondi Beach, agreeing to split the fare with some guy who was headed in the same direction. To drunk Me, this was a safe choice. Although the other guy lived past where I was going, the cab driver dropped him off first. I didn’t think much of it until I saw signs for the airport. I asked the driver where he was going and, despite being quite talkative when the guy was in the taxi, he remained silent, looking forward. After asking again and getting the same response, I panicked.

At the next stop sign, I jumped out of the cab and started running. When I finally stopped, I tried to call a friend, only to realize my prepaid cell phone had run out of minutes (this was in 2002). I was in the middle of nowhere, completely alone and incredibly drunk.

One thing I knew for sure, is that I lived near the ocean. So, when I heard the waves crashing, I walked towards it and continued walking for hours until I reached home. To this day, I’m convinced something very bad would’ve happened to me that night had I not realized what was going on.

Travel Fails Lesson: Don’t separate yourself from people you trust when you’re drunk. 

2 | Crashing My Scooter in Remote Vietnam

I had to smile while our group tried to get our scooters through the mud near Mai Chau Vietnam.
Navigating through muddy trails on scooters somewhere near Mai Chau, Vietnam.

If you’ve been to Vietnam, you probably have a travel fail related to scooters. While volunteering in Vietnam, we rode scooters every day from Mai Chau to a small village about 45 minutes away. The ride wound through villages and mountains as we shared the road with water buffalo, ducks, wheelbarrows, and everything else.

It had been years since I’d driven a scooter, but I was adamant that I drive my own scooter instead of sharing. Typical me. On the first day, we set out on the first section of our route, which was covered in gravel. I was still getting the hang of which hand to use to brake.

As we approached the first turn at a “busy” intersection I completely blanked and freaked out. Instead of braking, I accelerated diagonally across the intersection directly in front of a vehicle. As I narrowly dodged the oncoming vehicle, I threw myself forward to protect my camera bag. My camera survived unscathed, but my hands, knees and pride were not so fortunate. The shop and fruit stand owners stared curiously at the foreigner bleeding and nervously laughing.

Travel Fails Lesson: Always carry a first aid kit in your daypack. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice or take a moment to practice when trying something new. 

3 | Chasing Waterfalls in Costa Rica

The long walk downhill on the road to access the trailhead near Monteverde Costa Rica.
The start of the long downhill walk to get to the trailhead near Monteverde.

While in Costa Rica in 2008 my friends and I decided to hike to a waterfall near Monteverde. For the life of me I can’t recall the name of the waterfall (possibly San Luis), but I remember that we took a bus from Monteverde and hiked downhill on a road for several miles to a woman’s house.

When we left on the trail, she wished us well. For several hours we made our way through the forest, crossing several streams as we wound our way to the falls. As the sun started to dip low in the sky, we came upon a waterfall with a pool of water. We had finally reached our destination! Yay! We jumped in, played around, took photos, and then gradually made our way back.

When we returned to the woman’s house, she invited us inside, there was little daylight left. She kindly offered to call her brother to come and drive us back up the hill to the bus stop and we obliged. As we waited, we came upon a photo of this gloriously tall waterfall and asked her where it was. She looked at us in surprise and said, in Spanish, well didn’t you see that today?! Through our broken Spanish, we came to understand that we had stopped just short of this magnificent waterfall.

On the left, the woman whose property has access to the waterfall hike near Monteverde Costa Rica, rocking in her chair on the porch. One the right, the very small waterfall we played in.
Left: The woman sits in her rocking chair watching birds while we wait for our ride. Right: The waterfall we actually saw which was much smaller than the one we expected to see.

We sat in silence while she rocked in her rocking chair on the front porch of her home. I could feel us all seething with embarrassment at this mistake. As I look back on this experience, though, I’m proud of our resilience. We embraced the small waterfall we came upon and loved our moments splashing in the water. To this day, this memory  makes me smile.

Travel Fails Lesson: Enjoy every moment, even if it’s not what you expected. Also, ask for details before heading out on a trek.

4 | Trapping My Luggage in a Lift in Frankfurt

Romerberg, the main square in Frankfurt Germany, where one of my biggest travel fails took place.
The Fountain of Justice in Römerberg in Frankfurt, Germany.

While traveling with cousins through Europe, our first stop was in Frankfurt, Germany. On our final morning at our AirBNB there, my four cousins and I were preparing to walk to the train station. Our flat was on the 4th floor of a building that had a tiny elevator in it. The elevator was not much larger than one, normal sized person. When we had arrived, the landlord showed us how to use the elevator to transport our bags up, while we walked up the stairs. We thought this was genius as it saved us from lugging everything up ourselves.

So, when we went to leave that morning, we did the same thing. We put all of our bags into the lift and hit the button to send it down to the first floor. The only difference is that we had more bags this time since two of us had our luggage lost on the way there.

Well, the lift had a weight limit and the extra bags put it over that limit. The lift alarmed and locked in place with the doors shut. Our bags were locked inside, it 7am, and our AirBNB owner lived on the other side of Frankfurt.

Panic set in as we realized that we may not make our train to Paris. We tried all the normal troubleshooting techniques. You know, pushing buttons multiple times, attempting to pry the doors open, banging on the doors, etc. Shockingly none of these were effective.

The hilarity escalated as my sweet younger cousin emerges from the basement with a crowbar and a crazed look in her eyes. To this day, I’m unclear what she planned to do with the crowbar, but as we approached the elevator for a final time, we heard a click. And the door just opened. Needless to say, we grabbed our bags, ran down the stairs and all the way to the train station just in time to make our train to Paris. Crisis averted.

Travel Fails Lesson: Don’t bring more than you can carry.

5 | Submerging Myself in Jellyfish-Infested Waters in Zanzibar

Underwater view of dolphins in the Indian Ocean near Zanzibar. What you can't see are the jellyfish!
Dolphins swam underneath and all around me off the shore of Zanzibar in the Indian Ocean.

Then there was the time I jumped out of a rickety boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean to see dolphins in the wild, only to discover that the water was filled with hundreds of tiny jellyfish. Imagine, for a moment, being submerged in water while feeling bursts of electricity all along your body.

In order to get out of the jellyfish infested waters, I had to attempt to climb up a roughly welded rusty metal ladder that was banging on the side of the boat in the waves. I’m certain I mooned everyone in my attempt to get back into the boat but all I could think about was getting away from those jellyfish.

Back in the boat, I took stock of the situation. I had red stripes all over my body, scrapes on my legs from the ladder and a seriously damaged sense of pride. Hours later, safe on land, my legs started itching horribly. Assuming jellyfish stings don’t itch, the group leader and I agreed that my legs appeared to have bed bug bites. After a thorough inspection of my bed, though, we found none.

So, we decided to walk through the village and see if anyone recognized the marks. The ladies who harvest seaweed took a look at my legs and, after some hushed conversation, explained that I was having an allergic reaction to my jellyfish stings. Luckily, their seaweed creme worked wonders to help the itching!

Travel Fails Lesson: Always bring antihistamines for allergic reactions when you travel. Also, ask for more safety details when you’re embarking on a boat into a large body of water.

6 | Getting Stranded on a Long Boat in Laos

When the long boat captain's friend came to save the day on his own long boat near Luang Prabang in Laos.
Our long boat on the Mekong River near Luang Prabang Laos, was tethered to another boat nearby while we waited for it to be repaired.

The Pak Ou caves in Laos are one of the most holy sites in the country, filled with more than 4000 Buddha statues. To get there, you can take either a tuk tuk or a long boat on the Mekong from Luang Prabang. While my cousin and I were there, we decided to go by boat and enjoy the views from the water.

Laos was a level of hot and humid I’ve not experienced before, so I welcomed the slight breeze as the boat made its way down the river. The journey there was uneventful, just the two of us with our boat captain. He dropped us off to enjoy the caves and waited for us to explore.

The woven floating boat dock at Pak Ou caves on the Mekong River near Luang Prabang in Laos.
The dock at Pak Ou caves in Laos, located on the Mekong River.

Upon returning to the boat, we discovered that there was a problem. While the boat captain worked on it, we sat in the shade and played games with some children who were nearby. No problem, things happen.

The boat captain seemed frustrated and decided to begin floating back towards Luang Prabang as the sun was beginning to get lower in the sky. He made several seemingly frantic phone calls. Our level of concern began to rise.

In the distance, we see a long boat approaching us and realize he had called a friend to come and help. The friend comes onboard and there is a lot of banging as sunlight continues to slip away. We began creating our exit plan.

But then we hear the motor start! The captain emerges with a big smile, takes his seat and drives towards Luang Prabang. As we approached the dock, we got to enjoy a beautiful sunset from the boat. 

Travel Fails Lesson: Be patient and make the best of the way the adventure unfolds.

// Here’s a great list of tips for backpacking in Laos!

7 | Avoiding Strangulation While Bungy Jumping in Australia

A very young and hungover me preparing to go skydiving over the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns, Australia.
Getting the safety instruction from my skydiving instructor in Cairns, Australia.

One of my favorite experiences in Australia was a 10-day adventure trip up the East Coast. This trip culminated in a day of skydiving and bungy jumping back-to-back near Cairns. I was still on an incredible high from skydiving over the Great Barrier Reef as the van drove us to bungy jump. 

Pro Tip: Is scuba diving more your thing? Plan the ultimate Australia liveaboard diving experience while you’re there!

In one of my biggest lapses of judgement to date, I decided to tell the bungy jumping operator that I’d jumped before. My adrenaline-infused logic was that I was a springboard diver, which is practically the same thing as bungy jumping, right? Because I said I had jumped before, the operator let me jump however I wanted. I decided I’d do my favorite backward swan dive.

Now, in my mind, I envisioned a very graceful Me arching my back as I fell down towards the water. The reality is that as I arched my back, I started flipping and not in a good way. I realized that things were not going as planned just in time to grab the rope before it wrapped around my neck. I threw myself away from the rope, overextending my back but probably saving my life. As I fell, I could hear the people watching me gasp as I came so close to getting stuck in the rope.

Travel Fails Lesson: Don’t be an idiot.

Travel Fails Make the Adventure

My list of travel fails is so long, it was difficult to pick the best! Adventure means something different to each of us, but for me, adventure starts when travel fails. What’s your biggest travel fail? Drop a comment below!

Ready for more laughs? Check out volume 2 of my biggest travel fails, including an unfortunate encounter with a kangaroo and getting trapped inside the Eiffel Tower.

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Text: My Biggest Travel Fails (including how to avoid strangling yourself and being kidnapped)
Image: Women in yellow jacket stands on rocks with mountains in the background. Her hair is blowing across her face.

14 thoughts on “My Biggest Travel Fails (How To Avoid Strangling Yourself and Being Kidnapped)

  1. This Big Wild World says:

    Thanks so much, Kristie! Yep, the mishaps are all part of the adventure – I love it all 🙂 I appreciate you following along AND being a big part of my adventures over the last 2 years!

  2. Kristie Gurrola says:

    Your adventures blow me away! These crazy stories haven’t slowed you down at all. Thanks for sharing, Susan. I’m looking forward to hearing all about your next experiences. 🥰

  3. This Big Wild World says:

    Ah, so glad to hear you liked me getting a little real! I think it’s important to be transparent about our travel experiences 🙂

  4. This Big Wild World says:

    Thank goodness I’m not the only one 😉 Sounds like you’ve got some great stories to tell as well! Glad you made it through safely!

  5. This Big Wild World says:

    Thank you 🙂 You’re not alone when it comes to travel not being perfect or glamorous! It’s beautifully messy 🙂 I still can’t believe we missed out on that waterfall after spending all day trying to get there ha ha. It just wasn’t meant to be I guess!

  6. This Big Wild World says:

    Thank you! I’m so glad I’ve been able to learn these lessons… and can laugh about these situations now 🙂 Hope it’s the same for you!

  7. This Big Wild World says:

    Thank you! Dealing with travel fails is one of the major ways that travel helps us all grow and learn about ourselves!

  8. This Big Wild World says:

    Thank you! I’ve definitely had some close calls, but try to just learn from each one and make more informed decisions 🙂 The driver in Sydney really shook me as it happened when I was fairly young. In retrospect, I’m glad it did because it taught me to really rethink my drinking and choices when I’m traveling solo. Glad to here you are safe as well! Happy adventures 😉

  9. Claire says:

    Good to read an article about the other side of travelling! So often its about the glamour, I love these more real posts 🙂

  10. Josy says:

    Oh dear! I am glad you made out of all these adventures unscathed! I have done similar things (cutting up my knees on a scooter, stopping too early on a hike and making terrible drunk decisions!) Those are embarrassing moments, but they make the best stories later!! 😉

  11. Julie Boyd says:

    I love the honesty and openness in this post. So many people make travel look perfect and glamorous, and it rarely is for me when I travel (and I suspect for most other people as well). I am so glad that you made it home safe in Sydney, and my heart broke a little when I read about you missing the actual waterfall. As you said though, it is all part of the adventure!

  12. Teri says:

    Love this. There is so much to be learned when it all goes wrong. Most importantly to make the best of it.

  13. Christina says:

    Oh my goodness I am glad that you are okay and these make for some epic stories to tell! You’ve definitely have an adventurous life! Your driver in Sydney story definitely reminded me of several similar situations I found myself in when I was younger, all involving alcohol. It definitely pays to be aware at all times!

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