9 Lessons I Learned From My Trip Abroad That Went Horribly Wrong

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When I was 20 years old, I had the most horrifying travel experience of my entire life. I was en route to Mallorca, Spain via Barcelona when I went to go reach down into my bag for my wallet. I stood bleary eyed in front of the Cafe Nero after having caught a red-eye flight from Newark, and I was in dire need of coffee. I knew if I didn’t get caffeine into my system quick I was going to implode in a fit of anger, desperation, and exhaustion. As I stood there, I shoved a few personal effects out of the way: an oversized scarf that was taking up roughly 80% of the bag, a makeup case, a bottle of lotion, etc. Many things made contact with my prying fingers, but to my dismay, my wallet was not one of them. I stood there for a few minutes rummaging through my purse while I looked for my wallet in vain.

My body grew rigid. My stress panic-induced hormones set in, and I felt a cold sweat coming on as I slowly realized my wallet was missing. I was in a foreign country, alone, with not a dollar on me. No credit cards, no debit cards, no cash. Just the odd sensation that I was about to experience something that I feared — I would be in over my head and unable to handle a situation my dumb ass landed me in. My sense of security had vanished, and I was afraid.

I conducted a quick mental once over of what I had to do next. When I was 20, I didn’t have a smart phone, so accessing email and writing home to my mom and dad wasn’t an option. I didn’t have Skype, I didn’t know what WhatsApp was, and I didn’t have access to any social media platforms to use as a cry for help to friends back home. I couldn’t make a call, because I had no money for the pay phones or for the computers in the business lounge. I had to hop on one more fight that would take me to Mallorca, but I knew that once I got there I would have no idea where I was going. The older friends I was meeting in Mallorca had booked everything and had all the information. I never thought to ask them to send details through — I was happy as a clam letting everyone else take care of travel arrangements.

By my lucky stars, my Australian friend who was also attending the trip caught an earlier flight out of the city she was flying in from. This meant she would be arriving in Mallorca roughly six hours after I got there myself, as opposed to a full day after me. I managed to bum a few dollars off of a sweet older woman to check my email, and I was able to reach out to my parents to ask them to wire money to my friend’s account. I realized that I am insanely fortunate to have parents that will wire money to their irresponsible daughter halfway around the world. For the next week, I meticulously counted out each dollar I spent so I would have enough to last me the duration of the trip.

To this day, I still don’t know whether my wallet was lost, stolen, or misplaced. The events that unfolded after the initial realization that my wallet (and any access to my money) was gone taught me a hard lesson I will never forget. I really undervalued the degree to which someone should be independent when traveling, have everything they need, and have a Plan B. Between that horror experience and the many other times I’ve made stupid mistakes while traveling, I’ve been able to compile a short list of travel tips that I’ve learned (the hard way), which can benefit anyone looking to travel smarter.

1. Pack the appropriate chargers and converter for your electronics.
There’s nothing like having to spend $30-$50 at the airport on extra converters/chargers because you might have rushed while packing, and forgot them. I’ve been there many times, and it sucks to have to bite the bullet and purchase them. It truly is the least fun thing to have to purchase on vacation. Check the country electric requirements beforehand, and pack what you need.

2. Streamline packing into one suitcase (carry on if you can).
I wrote a post about packing smart here. Over the years, having streamlined my packing process has saved me tons in baggage fees. It makes transferring flights infinity easier and significantly decreases the chance of lost luggage. (thumbs up emoji)

3. Have a hard copy of your itinerary including addresses, phone numbers, country codes, etc.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from experiencing what I did was learning the value of being self-sufficient and independent. Nowadays, if someone else books a reservation, I get all the important information I would need from them before we leave. I feel secure knowing if for some reason my travel companion didn’t make it to the airport, got sick, or their flight got canceled, I would have everything I needed to go it alone. I once synched up arrival times to Portugal with a friend from Denver, Colorado. She ended up missing her flight, and I was left totally clueless as to where were staying because she booked everything. #mistake.

4. Pre-load a city guide and city map to your phone.
Use these great apps to pre-load the information you’ll need to navigate the foreign city you’re visiting.

You won’t have a constant stream of WiFi to rely on, so being able to at least make your way around with some sense of clarity is key.

5. Have enough local currency on you to survive for a few days.
It’s useful to have enough cash on you to survive for a couple of days in case you are waiting for a bank or wire transfer to come through. It’s useful to store cash in different places in your luggage. This way, if one piece goes missing you haven’t lost everything. For example, I’ll put $100 into my purse, $50 into my makeup case, and another $75 into my camera bag.

6. Learn key phrases in the local language.
While there will most likely be a tourist office when you’re inside the airport, once you leave the confines of the terminal you’ll rely on the world’s ability to speak your language (rather than it being the other way around). There’s nothing more debilitating than feeling like you can’t communicate with people when you really need to. Learn essential key phrases regarding food, travel, and money, and life will be a LOT more pleasant.

7. Call credit cards to place travel alerts on your account.
Ever since I had activity on my credit card frozen while I was traveling to France, I’ll never leave for vacation without making sure all of my credit cards and banks have been notified. Being on the phone for hours with customer service for multiple cards is not something you want to do in a foreign country.

8. Be smart about how/where to find WiFi.
WiFi is a godsend, so use it and know where to find it.

9. Make copies of your important documents like passports, IDs, tickets, etc.
Keep them in a folder, and tuck them away someplace safe. I once knew a girl who lost her passport and was able to get a new one from the consulate because she had all the paperwork she needed for proof. It might seem like an overzealous precaution, but it’s one that’s a great backup and will make you feel safer.

Fortune favors the prepared, so do what you can to plan ahead. Make sure that the next time you head out to explore the world you have everything you need and a Plan B in place. Don’t be like 20-year-old me — we can all learn from her mistakes.

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  • What a nightmare situation!! At least you didn’t lose your passport in all that, though – I imagine that would’ve caused an even bigger headache!

  • becker

    Yikes! This would be absolutely terrifying. All of your tips are great! When I travel, not only do I have a photocopy of my passport (kept somewhere besides your wallet), but I leave a copy with my parents or someone else I can get a hold of while abroad.

  • These are all super great tips, and they are things you wouldn’t think of if you’d never traveled abroad before. Sorry you had to learn the hard way, though 🙁

  • chelster759

    I definitely did all of these things when I studied abroad, because I’m super type-A like that, but it saved me serious hassle on several occasions.

  • George Town

    It is useful to scan and email important documents to yourself also.
    https://twentysomethinglawyer.wordpress.com

  • Kaile

    These are great tips! One piece of advice I would add would be to write down the local address and phone number of the US embassy in whichever country you’re visiting and keep that piece of paper on your person at all times. If you truly get into a bad situation (lost ID/passport, money stolen, can’t get in contact with folks back home, etc.) and don’t have many options you could always go to your embassy for help. Obviously this is wont be much help if you find yourself in a little village somewhere in the countryside, but it’s still good info to have when you’re in a tight spot.

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