We have a well-traveled friend who prides herself in finding the best deals and discovering the finest experiences around the world. A while ago, when she arrived overseas — weary, jet-lagged, and laden with bags — she caught the wrong train to her destination. Long story short: she ended up on an express train going 45 minutes in the opposite direction. She waited another 45 minutes to catch the train back to where she started. Exhausted and stressed, she finally hailed a cab to her hotel.
"I was trying to save a few bucks," she admits. "Now, if it's a long-haul flight, I hire a driver to meet me at the airport when I arrive. How nice to be met by a local who knows exactly where I'm going. Usually, it doesn't cost that much more and saves a lot of hassle."
As travelers, we know that even the best-laid plans can go awry. Sometimes things happen that are out of our control. And sometimes, we just make stupid mistakes. We talked to travel experts about the most common travel blunders, and here's what they said.
Being penny wise and pound foolish
Sometimes, as our aforementioned friend can attest: it doesn't pay to pinch. "Obsessing over the lowest price is a common mistake," says Gail Grimmett, president of Travel Leaders Group. "It's important to look at the value of the experience and consider spending a little more to get a much better one."
Other penny-pinching mistakes:
• Not booking a seat assignment, even if it costs extra. "Never walk away with an airline ticket without a seat assignment," advises Jack Ezon, president of Ovation Vacations. "Not only does it mean you will get the leftover middle seat near the bathroom, but passengers without a seat assignment are the first to get bumped off."
• Booking the cheapest lodging. "Searching for the lowest hotel prices usually means inferior locations, and you'll end up spending more time getting to the heart of things," says Dan Ilves, senior vice president of TravelStore. "Spending a bit more for city center hotels means more flexibility and a greater time window for enjoying the city."
• Always opting to see the sights on your own. Have you ever waited in a long, time-suck line to get into a major museum or sight? "While arranging for a private guide and car for a day can be a luxury, it can also enable you to do more and see more in less time," says Ilves. "Plus, a local guide will most certainly enhance the experience." His suggestion: Do some things on your own, but splurge on a private guide and driver for at least one day to optimize your time and experience.
Packing too much
Make this your mantra: I will pack the absolute minimum. If something comes up — like a seismic weather change —
you can always buy what you need. Weathered travelers suggest these tricks of the trade: don’t wait until the last minute to pack; make a list and plan your outfits for every day; color coordinate so you can put together several outfits with fewer pieces and buy a smaller carry-on bag.
Planning too much
Overscheduling and not allowing time for spontaneity is a common blunder. It's great to have tours and activities planned but be sure to leave time for special, unplanned, on-the-spot experiences, like discovering a special café in Paris, or chatting with a friendly vendor at a street market. "Today's traveler wants more immersive, special experiences that provide insight into a culture or a place, but that's hard to do when you don't allocate sufficient time to just let things soak in and happen," says Ilves.
Wasting your time
The last time we arrived at Logan's Terminal E, the customs line was enormous. A three-hour-plus wait to get through passport security and customs is not unusual. Stop wasting your time standing in lines: sign up for Global Entry or get a membership to CLEAR. Other ways to avoid common time-sucks: Check in online before your flight; buy tickets to attractions and events ahead of time and plan to visit the attraction early or late when crowds have thinned; and look into special access tickets, line-skipping privileges and private tours. And never again waste precious vacation time waiting in line for your rental car. "Sign up for a rental car program in advance, and you'll be able to just hop in your car and go," says Ezon.
Not getting your documents in order
"By far my biggest travel mistake was arriving at the airport with my daughter to travel to Spain and realizing her passport was expiring in two months," says Amanda Klimak, president and owner of Largay Travel. "Since you must have at least six months' validity on a passport, we were denied boarding. Now I check in advance every time."
Nonrenewal of passports in a timely fashion happens a lot more than it should, experts say (passports must be renewed six months before expiration.) Other documents may also be required, like visas, medical immunizations, and international driving permits. You may need to let your bank know you'll be traveling so they don't suspect fraud and freeze your account, and set up international cell phone coverage to avoid exorbitant roaming charges.
Travelers should also take smart precautions against the unexpected. Make copies of your passport and store them separately; make a hard copy of your reservations and bookings — your computer or phone may not work when you land; pack what you need for two days in your carry-on bag in case your luggage is lost; bring your own small, essential pharmacy, and make sure you have health insurance coverage while traveling abroad.
Finally, several experts recommended buying trip insurance. "Not taking out travel insurance is one of the most common mistakes and one of the costliest," says Klimak. "Most travelers have all intentions of traveling when they make reservations. However, life often gets in the way, and insurance will save you when it does."
Trusting your friends, family, and the Internet
"Our friends raved about the cottage they rent on St. Croix each year . . . charming, quiet, cheap. We took their word for it and booked it last year for our family vacation," says Mark Albrecht of Elgin, Ill. "The house was in an out-of-the way, slightly seedy neighborhood, with stuck-in-the-'70s décor. We left after two days." Obviously, not everyone's idea of "charming" is the same.
And, we all know you can't always trust what you see on the Internet. Photos lie. People lie. "We booked a studio apartment online for a weekend visit to New York City. The photos looked good and the price was right," says Dan Rawling of Kittery, Maine. The place didn't exist.
But even if things go well, planning your own trip is not always the best idea. "Thinking you can do it yourself online for less money is the biggest mistake of all," says Klimak. "Using a professional travel adviser doesn't mean you can't be part of the planning and research process. It means you have an expert to help you vet things you find and make sure you're getting the best value for your money."
Matthew D. Upchurch, chairman and CEO of Virtuoso, a network of luxury travel agencies worldwide, agrees. "The most common mistake I see people make is being lured into the falsehood that booking their own travel is more advantageous," Upchurch says. "Collaborating with a professional travel adviser comes with peace of mind, and results in a better experience and often better pricing."
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com.