I recently read a brilliant blog post that had me in absolute tears of laughter. It was concerned with the topic of travel fails, and I started pondering my own. At the outset, I was quite smugly thinking that I had very few, but once I started a little list, I came to the conclusion that I probably should have protection when I leave the house.
So here for your amusement, education and possibly on the odd occasion even horror, are my favourite travel fails. I’d say don’t try this at home, but it’s probably more important not to try it away from home.
I generally have a good relationship with beasts of the furry or feathery variety. There have, however, been a couple of notable exceptions. The first was on a brief stay with my dad, not long after my parents separated. We’d taken a walk through the beautiful Devon countryside and arrived at some salt marshes, where I started on the path of calamity by sitting down, very firmly, in a marshy pool.
As the water rose over the tops of my wellies and a dampness permeated my nether regions, my dad gave a resigned sigh and pulled me up. A few steps later, with my pretty lilac dress slapping wetly against my knees, I was transfixed by a donkey calling from the nearby fence. Presenting myself to talk to the animals – husband has called me Doolittle for many years – instead I found myself without a big chunk of the front of my dress. My last memory is of a set of large and powerful teeth munching away on a lot of 1970s finest polyester and lace.
Then there’s the matter of the hyacinth blue macaw. He was a fine and handsome beast. The only problem was that he had love on his mind. According to the local expert, anyway. Why the target of his lust should be a trainee accountant with a bad perm is unrecorded. There was much wing beating, flapping, and many attempts to become one, while everyone nearby helpfully found themselves in hysterics. But his enthusiasm was probably more extensive than that I encountered from any suitor before or since.
I’m someone who loves the great outdoors. It has to be said that this love is not always reciprocated. I’ve managed to break my arm on a swing in a park, again trying rollerblading and more recently on a muddy country footpath, requiring me to present myself at Accident and Emergency like a creature from the swamp. (The consultant kindly let me go home to get clean before sending me to surgery.)
But perhaps my finest misadventure, although one without injuries, was caving on Dartmoor. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, and one designed to push my boundaries. Donning my boiler suit, I started to feel a bit of trepidation. I’d been in a few show caves in my time, but they did nothing to prepare me for the adrenaline anxiety of a proper caving system. Rather naively, I expected there to be a cave into which I’d walk. Instead, there was a little gap in the ground, into which I was asked to drop my feet, sit on the edge and push off. Fortunately, I had no idea of the length of the drop.
Time has mercifully obscured most of the journey. I remember having to ease the battery pack for my headlamp to the small of my back in a section called The Cheese Press. I remember retiring early, and heading back to the surface while other people were still enjoying the beauty of the cave system. And most of all, I recall still finding small chunks of grit lodged in various parts of my anatomy many days later, despite plenteous showers.
Tonsillitis isn’t much fun. It’s particularly not fun when you are enjoying the beauties of Bilbao, and when you’ve just bumped into Ronaldinho in your hotel lift, hours before kick off. But over dinner, I had to acknowledge that things were hurting more than a little, and my ears were actually leaking something deeply unpleasant. By 4am, I could take it no longer.
Despite comments to the effect that no one had ever died of earache (I think my partner was sleep deprived at the time), we put a somewhat surreal process in motion. A call to reception resulted in the visit of the duty manager, the receptionist for translation purposes, and then the medic.
A conversation in Spanglish about the woes of mis orellas resulted in a muffled conversation, and then the arrival of a waiter at our door. He was bearing one of those silver domed plate covers, which he opened with a flourish to reveal…
…a dessert spoon. Tongue suitably depressed by the spoon handle and prescriptions written, by the next evening I was feeling considerably more human. Travel insurance, folks. Don’t leave home without your own access to a silver salver and a dessert spoon.
Ambulance Ride in Chicago
It was our second night in the city. We’d been to meet some friends, and were snuggled in for some sleep. Waking at 4am local time, I could see that husband was in distress. He’d got a pounding heart, and was seriously worried. By that stage, so was I. A call for advice brought the night duty manager, an Army medic, up to see what he could do. An ambulance was duly called, and we made our way downstairs.
I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so frightened as I was in the three minutes I sat in the hotel reception while they wired him up in the truck. When I was summoned in, I was relieved to find him still chatting. As we rounded the first corner at speed, the trolley shot across the truck, hitting me vigorously in the knee as it went. I was too pumped with adrenaline to notice at the time.
Some three hours later we had a diagnosis. Stress, and an overdose of caffeine. So if you’re in the land of endless refills, mix in a few non-caffeinated versions. And again, be wildly grateful for travel insurance.
A love of travel helped to bring us together. So for our honeymoon, we’d decided to make the most of our childhood memories and travel the places where we grew up or went on visits: Somerset and Devon. Part of that trip saw us book into a holiday cottage in a small village that shall remain nameless. We were there for less than 24 hours.
It didn’t begin well. We’d circled the village for a good half hour, until eventually we spotted an ankle-height wooden sign with the name of the cottage. Turning onto the rutted track, I saw new husband gritting his teeth as bits of the car’s undercarriage made contact regularly with something harsh and stony. Rounding the corner, we saw the marked parking space. It was at a rather extreme angle. In fact, the kind of angle where you wonder if you should be hanging the car up, rather than parking it. A very big amount of blue smoke emerged via the clutch as we pulled the handbrake to new heights.
“You’re late” sniffed the cottage agent, as we mounted the back stairs. It was 3.15, and the check in window was between 3 and 5pm, but I didn’t plan on arguing. We were given strict instructions about never leaving via the front of the cottage, as the path was shared with the house next door. And we should never dare to park the car in the space at the front of the house. Which was, of course, flat. And not approached via the track of doom. Fortunately the agent was keen to be on her way. We walked the cottage.
Holiday cottages tend to have basics, such as salt and pepper, tea, a pint of milk, cleaning supplies. This had nothing at all. I started to wonder about the agent’s life, surrounded at home by little leftovers from other people’s shopping. There wasn’t even a sheet of loo roll. “Glad we stopped at the shop” said new husband. “And I don’t think I’ll be leaving anything behind.”
He sat down on the bed to change his shoes, and promptly disappeared into a cloud of mattress and bedding. Once I knew he was alright, it was difficult to stop laughing. We lifted the mattress to find a slatted base with only three planks across it: two at the foot and one at the top. It was going to be an interesting honeymoon. And a somewhat chaste one.
We started to explore further. The visitors’ book had stealth gaps, where pages had been carefully razored out, possibly to hide any signs of dissatisfaction or dissent. There was one quiet reference to needing wellies to reach the village across the weir. In the absence of any wifi, we called a friend, who gamely searched for an alternative.
When we left the next morning, the agent sat us down and demanded to know what she had done and why we were going. “I have to know,” she said. “You can’t just leave.” I pointed out that we were on honeymoon, not incarcerated. “Ah”, said the holiday company manager later, “she’s a bit feisty”. By that time, we were happily staying on a farm with fresh baked scones and flowers on the table. And a bed suitable for sleeping.
Anyone with any form of ongoing medical condition will have tales of the road. I was eventually diagnosed with coeliac disease once I also became lactose intolerant. On the plus side, I’m proudly multilingual in matters of wheat, milk and associated items. On the minus side, some places aren’t quite as safe for eating as you were promised.
Feelings of what might euphemistically be termed “digestive discomfort” hit me at the gate in O’Hare. By the time we’d taken off, and the seatbelt signs had been clicked off, I’d made my first of many trips to the airplane loo. It was a long and painful trip. I’m not sure that the air crew whose jumpseat backed that rear loo were enjoying it much either, and I can only apologise. The trouble lasted through a two hour layover in Paris CDG and a final connection home. But perversely ceased once through my own front door. There are times when all you can do is laugh. And apologise. And plot imaginary but satisfying revenge on the place that served you stealth milk.
A close encounter of the customs kind
Picture the scene. Your mum, not long divorced, and her friend, in a similar situation, decide to hit the road. The two of them and we four kids, plus a blue VW combi have just spent more than a month road tripping through France and Spain. We’ve explored everything from royal palaces to aqueducts, castles and isolated beaches. Aside from the unfortunate loss of a pair of glasses in the sea, a wrong way turn at a roundabout and the sad explosion of a bottle of rose mid-Spain (fortunately while we were all out of the van), it’s been pretty uneventful.
Then we arrived back at Dover from the late night ferry. I don’t know whether Border Control had just had a bad day at the office. Maybe the van smelled a little ripe. Maybe two women and four children aged from 7-13 looked like prime smuggling suspects. He chewed his lip and barked at us. “I want everything out of the van. This is a full search.”
Over the time we’d been on the road, we’d accumulated a lot of stuff. It covered six parking spaces by the time we’d laid it all out on the ground. Then he just nodded his head. “Ok. Now pack it back again.” Strangely I remember neither my mum nor her mate making any noises of protest. Everything was randomly thrown in the direction of the van, and we spent the three hour drive back home with our feet on the seats above a tidal flow of stray flotsam and jetsam of van life. Thinking back on it, I have to assume that he’d got a rather different impression of van lifestyle than the one we’d been experiencing. And never leave a bottle of wine unchilled in a warm vehicle. Unless you like a lingering smell, and new pale pink decor.
Don’t Go Back To Roswell
I love flying. In fact, I had flying lessons for a while, as I love the sensation of freedom so much. But I’ve not always had the best experiences in the air. From the hydraulic failure on the way to Boston, requiring a corridor of fire crew through which we exited a very large plane via airstairs, to a big storm over Singapore with a lot of skysurfing, I’ve had some interesting flights. But the most momentous was a small trip from Albuquerque to Roswell.
We’d decided on a whim to go see the aliens. So a last minute return flight had us leave a chilly Albuqueque early in the morning. What I thought was white cloud turned out to be snow, and rather a lot of it. When I say our plane was teeny, I mean that I could read the sectional on the first officer’s lap. And I have pants eyesight.
We came in for a first landing attempt. It was aborted with a swift push forward on the stick, and we swooped up to try again. Coming in for the second approach, we heard that sound that inspires dread. A whooping noise. Followed by “Pull up, pull up. Terrain. Pull up, pull up. Terrain.” It seemed a much more sluggish shaking of the bonds of earth this time. The approach plates flew off the first officer’s lap into the aisle. A bag of ski gear shifted uneasily down the back. And when we finally landed, there was an understated. “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Roswell”.
That wasn’t the end of it. We tried to get a taxi, but there was apparently too much snow. We asked about a hire car, which would only be forthcoming if we had snow chains. That’d be a no then. Walking a few miles in snow that was more than knee deep was out of the question. We hunkered down in the cafe. Read two copies of Flight International cover to cover. Ate, over a few hours, grilled cheese and apple pie. Drank a lot of coffee. And were pleased to get the first plane out at 5pm. Bearing a small badge with the lie “I saw the aliens at Roswell”. I’d swear a grey thumbed what passed for its nose as we approached take off speed.
Travel Fails Inspiration
You really should go and check out the post that inspired this collection of my own epic fails. Hazel Sunshine of Things We Learnt In also has tales of parrots and caving, plus larcenous cats, misadventures of the kayaking variety and failed efforts at romance. Read ’em and weep; she’s a fabulous storyteller and narrator.
And all these fails taught me something, right? Here are my thoughts on 50 travel hacks that I’ve picked up over 50 years of travel. And a bit of advice for everyone traveling with allergies. Stay safe out there – and remember to laugh about it later.
If this made you smile (or wince in empathy), why not pin it for later!