I was listening to a recent podcast about travel horror stories. Anyone who has traveled for any length of time probably has their own stories too. Here’s a few of my own:
1. Booking the wrong flight
Shortly into my first year of the points and miles hobby, I was excited to attend the Chicago Seminars. It’s still relatively popular, but roughly a decade ago before the advent of Slack, Discord, Reddit, Telegram, and other resources that digitally connect people with similar interests, in-person meetups were pretty special. I remember showing up at the MSP airport for my flight to Chicago, only to find out from the check-in agent that I had booked it for an entirely different weekend (can’t remember if I booked it for the previous or following weekend). Either way, the flight wasn’t for the correct dates so I had to book a last minute Southwest flight and pay cash for it. I can’t remember if I paid cash or used miles for the original flight, but do remember that it was a total loss. The conference was a good time, but one oddity I remember was talking to a guy at the bar one night that looking back, am pretty sure was a federal agent of some kind based on his travel stories. He talked about travels in Central and South America and confronting drug gangs, etc. The stories he shared weren’t exactly what I’d call normal travel. I assume he was gathering some intel on what exactly these travel hackers were up to – likely on the shenanigans side of things.
2. Emergency Room, Cape Town
South Africa is a beautiful country. It’s a bit dangerous in spots, but still beautiful. A few years before the pandemic, I had a great boss who let me take a full month off work to travel to South Africa. On my second day there, I remember walking around the town and coastline but by the afternoon, feeling my health steadily deteriorate. By the time the evening rolled around I had a fever, was extremely weak, and my heart was racing. I was staying at a hostel at the time and hoped that the illness would pass. I told the hostel manager I wasn’t feeling well at all. She was nice enough to put me in a room by myself, but things only got worse. By 3am I walked downstairs and asked the night watchman that a taxi be called for the nearest, best, hospital. It was the was the first time in my life that I actually feared that this might be really serious. I don’t remember the taxi ride, just a bit of checking into the emergency room at Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital. The man outside doubled as the check-in clerk and punched in what seemed like a dozen numbers into a calculator, then turned it to me so I could see the final tally and said “this is the amount you will need to pay”. At that point I would have paid just about any amount to feel better and handed over my credit card. I stayed in the ER that night and most of the next day with an IV and some drugs. I had an infection, maybe from the water or food. Nothing would stay down or in. First time visiting a hospital overseas. Unfortunately it wouldn’t be the last visit overseas to an emergency room 🙁
3. Getting pickpocketed in a Paris metro
Starting off as a backpacker before getting into points and miles has its pluses and minuses. My first trip overseas I backpacked Europe for 6 months. A few months into the trip I was traveling on the Paris metro with a girl I’d met a month before in northern Spain. We were traveling at a busy time and the metro car we were on was full with no seats available, so we stood and held one of the vertical steel poles near the front of the car. I had a messenger type bag that was strapped across my chest and was resting on the back of my right hip/lower back as I talked with my friend during the ride. When it came for us to exit the train, I slid my messenger bag around to my front and quickly noticed it was open, which I thought was odd. It took just a second later to realize that I’d been robbed. I remember that when we entered the train car and just before the train doors closed to depart, a group of people clamored into the metro car. They all had to stand as well, since there were no seats available, and some were clustered closely around us. One thing about a moving train is that people move too, and that movement becomes very advantageous for pickpockets . Thieves also often work together. In this case, there was a group that gathered around my friend and I, blocking the view of others on the train while someone unzipped my bag, reached in and took my wallet. I filed a police report after the theft, but the wallet and money inside it, along with my student ID and license were all gone. I worker at a fancy hotel let me call my credit card companies to lock the accounts, but that sort of backfired too. After the theft, I had only seven French Francs left and lived off French peanut butter and bread for the next 2 days before a relative could wire me money (circa 2001 before sending money was simple). Luckily, or so I thought, I still had my passport and secondary ATM/debit card back at my hostel. I got back from the ordeal and filing the police report, grabbed my passport and other ATM card, and went to the famous Louvre art museum. There I inserted my debit card into the ATM machine where I hoped to get some cash. Unfortunately I never saw that debit card again. The banks froze my credit card accounts, but somewhere along the way, those actions also froze my checking accounts at my home bank. In short, I couldn’t withdraw money, had no way to access money, and was a long way from home. It was a pretty rough couple of days.
4. Flying but not actually on the passenger list
On the way to Australia, I had a trip within a trip and a stopover in Fiji. Scuba diving, island hopping and more, it was going to be a great trip. I booked the flight using Alaska miles and arrived at MSP airport, checked in and was ready to go. The first stop was Los Angeles where I’d fly business class to Fiji on Fiji Airways using Alaska miles. I can’t remember when the error was noticed – if it was during the boarding process or before that, but at some point the gate agent told me that I “wasn’t listed as being a passenger on this flight”. So at hours before this at my initial check-in with Alaska Airlines everything was fine, but somehow before boarding my second flight on Fiji Airways, I had magically vanished from the passenger list? I told the Fiji Airways agent there must be some mistake and pulled out my printed documentation of my flight details complete with confirmation number, seat assignment in business class, etc. She did some checking and said that at some point I was on this flight, but that the reservation had changed and that I had been removed. I don’t know how it happened or how I managed to convince the agent, but I was let on the flight from Los Angeles to Fiji. I remember her saying, “you’re lucky, a seat opened up so we have one extra seat in business class”. I’m guessing that “extra” was my seat to begin with, but whatever the case, I was relieved to be on the flight. That wasn’t the end of the circus either. I had 5 separate flights on that Fiji trip, and on 3 of the 5 segments – a couple of island hopper prop-planes and the flight from LAX to Nadi – I wasn’t listed as a passenger on the flights. It was amazing. I wrote to Alaska Airlines and Fiji Airways during the trip and after I returned, but it turned into the blame game merry-go round. Alaska said the error was Fiji Airway’s fault, and vice versa. Ultimately, Alaska did give me some frequent flyer miles as sort of an apology, but it wasn’t many miles. It was a good trip, but there was a lot of added stress from the flight errors that didn’t need to be there. Even now I have no idea what happened.
5. Emergency Room in Delhi
I have friends that are married who are very free spirits – the peace, love and harmony type. Off the grid, married in public park, loving plants and herbs and craft beers of all kinds, etc. One of the two spent significant time traveling around Asia. He had backpacked around India for an extended period too. Before booking my flight to India, I asked him about his time there and to my surprise he said, “I’ll never go back” and “it’s a shithole; the most unsanitary place in the world”. Talking with him was the first time I’d heard that India really stands for “I’ll Never Do It Again”. His description of India gave me a little pause about going, but nonetheless went ahead and booked the stop as part of a round the world trip. The round the world routing went Japan –> India –> United Arab Emirates –> Belarus –> USA. Waking up on my last day in Japan before leaving for the airport and heading to India, I felt a sore throat coming on. By the time I was on the Etihad business class flight heading to Delhi I didn’t feel well at all – a fever, sore throat, and very weak. I pressed the service button for the attendant to come over showed her a pre-written message on my phone that I didn’t feel well and asked for a cold towel or ice pack for my forehead. This message created a mini-panic and she came back and forth a few times before providing a cold compress. I do remember her saying during the flight that I may not be able to enter India.
We landed and I was met by a representative from the airport just as a departed the plane. She asked how I was feeling. I said a little better and that the cold compress on my head, and some sleep helped – all true. She said I could see a medical professional at the airport if I wished before leaving, but I passed. It was midnight already, and I was too worried about missing my pre-arranged ride to where I was staying – a hostel in the old part of Delhi. My driver ended up being nearly an hour late, and the hostel turned out to be a dump. I remember waking up and feeling terrible. I had a fever, was weak and even a little dizzy at times. I was so hungry and thirsty too and tried to make a go of the first day in Delhi, walking outside the hostel in an attempt to find an ATM that worked to get some fruit and water, but had no luck. By the end of the morning the illness was full-on and my body was breaking down. I asked the staff about quality hospitals in the area and the owner of the hostel volunteered to drive me there. The owner said he had a “contact” at the hospital too that could help. The hospital parking lot and inside were both packed with people. Just getting a parking spot in the tiny lot took almost 30 minutes. In the end I saw a well dressed, well spoken doctor who gave me several prescriptions for drugs, one being a heavy antibiotic dosage. The visit and drugs was something like $40 total, maybe less I can’t remember, but very inexpensive. I didn’t fully get over my illness until after I returned to the U.S. Something got me in Japan, and it ramped up in India. India is cool, but it’s a filthy place. If you go there for any length of time outside a few days, there’s an extremely high likelihood you’ll get sick too. Hopefully you won’t end up in the ER though.
6. Chased in Argentina
Between jobs, I backpacked South America (Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil) for 5 months. Excited to see a new city, after arriving at my hostel close to the bus station in Cordoba (Argentina), I tossed my backpack into storage and grabbed a map of the city. I asked one of the workers at the front desk what I should see, and he circled an outdoor market down by the center of town. It was late afternoon, but a clear, warm day, so I headed down to the market. The market was in a cool spot, along side a small river/stream that flowed through town and plenty of people, artists, food, crafts, and other things you’d normally find at a local market. I walked through the market, and saw that on the other side of the river there were some cool murals on some of the buildings that looked interesting. I left the market and walked over the bridge to explore more of the city. A few blocks into the walk I remember realizing how quiet it was. Back over the river there were lots of people and activity. Where I was there were no people – zero – and very few cars too. I found a really nice, large mural of Mother Teresa on the side of a building and took a few photos of it. As I was snapping the last photo, I heard a loud whistle from in back of me. I stepped back down off the street curb and looked back. About a block away there were 2 younger guys walking towards me and they were approaching pretty quickly. Just as soon as I had turned around and the guys got a better look at me, they started running towards me and it wasn’t to hand out candy. I immediately took off running down the side street angled away from them. My heart was pounding and half way down the block I turned back for an update and saw they had reached the corner. They didn’t turn and follow me down my street but headed back down the street they had came from. I knew I needed to get out of that neighborhood and back to where people were. I kept running to the street corner, turned left, and headed back toward the markets. I made it to the markets and was a little relieved, but still really unsure if I was totally safe. Were the guys who chased me at the markets too? Were there others working with them? After walking through the market crowd, I headed back to the hostel. When I returned there, I told the manager there what happened. He brought out a map and asked me to show him exactly where I was. I pointed to the spot over the river and he said, “that is a bad place, you should not have gone there”. Oh great, thanks for telling me now! No harm no foul. I got away unscathed, but that wasn’t the introduction to Cordoba that I had in mind.
Other Travel Stories
Some travel stories I experienced were not my own, but were still part of my travels. It’s not to say that if you stay at the Ritz Carlton you won’t have interesting or unique travel stories, but there’s a higher likelihood of stories when staying at lower budget places like hostels. Part of it might be the location of the hostel in sometimes nonprime real estate and neighborhoods, and the other part is the naivety of younger travelers who make mistakes while traveling.
Hit by a car
At a hostel at Foz du Iguacu (town by Iguazu Falls on the Brazilian side), I met a girl in her late 20’s who was doing a year long trip around the world. In her first month of travel in Asia she was hit by a car and suffered head trauma and internal bleeding. There was no ambulance, but some local people put her in the back of an truck bed and drove her to a hospital. She doesn’t remember any of that. She was in a coma for a period of time too (can’t remember if it was days or weeks) but she eventually woke up and recovered. She also continued her trip and South America was part of it. It was a pretty incredible story.
I met a beautiful Canadian girl in Dublin who before she left on her trip, worked at a bank in Toronto. Her dad was the head of the bank and she was a manager. She told me that one day at work one more person than normal asked if they could go to lunch. It was a slow business day and she told them it was ok. “Go ahead. My luck we’ll get robbed today,” she said. Sure enough, that day the bank did get robbed. During the robbery, she was hit in the back of the head with the thief’s revolver (gun). The robbery was sort of an awakening for her, and she felt lucky to be alive. Not long after the robbery, she quit her job at the bank and headed to Europe for six months. We hung out for another week in Ireland in some of the small, scenic towns on the West Coast and probably should have stuck together, as had good chemistry. She invited me down to Greece with her, but I had a different route I wanted to do and suggested meeting up later on the trip. She met another (South African) guy somewhere into her travels and they ended up marrying.
While sitting at a train station somewhere in middle Europe during my first backpacking trip overseas, I was on a bench with my backpack waiting for the train. A girl walked up and set her back near mine and had a seat close to me. We were both waiting for a train. She looked up and me and launched right into it with, “So what’s your travel story?” I asked her what she meant, and she responded with, “Everyone who’s a backpacker has a travel story of some kind, so what’s your best story?” I can’t remember what I shared with her, but asked her about her story. She said that while on an overnight train in Italy she was gassed and robbed. She paid for a sleeper car on an overnight route in southern Italy. I remember her saying she was nervous about an overnight train because she was solo female. The sleep car also had other beds in the cabin that could be occupied by strangers, and who knows what they might be like. To her delight, another young female traveler also booked the room and that was it. Just the two of them. The girls got along well, and things seemed to be going just fine. The girl told me that after departing the train station, she remembers a train worker came to their door and asked to see their passports. However, not long after that another person knocked on the door and also asked to see their passports again. She thought this was odd because not much time had passed since the first ticket agent came to their door. She didn’t think about it again and figured that she probably didn’t realize how things operated in Italy. After that, she said that she remembers them talking a bit but that when they woke up she had a headache and her things were gone (I can’t remember if her entire backpack was taken or just her valuables). She said that someone pumped sleeping gas into their carriage, and then came in and took their things. I had read a bunch of bad stories about night trains in Italy, but nothing like that!
At a hostel in Argentina, a Finnish couple joined a group of us in the dining area. They were at the tail end of their 6 month backpacking trip in South America, and went through some of the brilliant places like Patagonia that they had visited. Sometime the next day, an African thief walked into the hostel (checking in under the name “Michael Douglas”) and ended up stealing some things out of one of the dorm rooms. The Finnish couple lost their camera with basically all of their photos from their epic trip. They did have a few photos on their phone, but they didn’t have very good camera phones at that time, plus they did have a nice DSLR that they used a ton. They were sad, but not angry. “We have our memories. He can’t steal those,” they said.
Also at a hostel in Cordoba, a group of half a dozen backpackers were sitting around talking and having some wine. One of the guys at the table wanted to go out to a bar or club and dance. He asked if any others were up for going out, and I figured sure, why not. So three of us piled into a taxi with no clear destination in mind. Only one of us spoke Spanish well enough to communicate properly with the taxi driver, so he sat up front. During his initial conversation I heard him say “bailar” (dance in English) and “discoteque” (nightclub bar in English) to the driver, and they seemed to come to an agreement on a destination. The traveler turned around to me and the other guy in the backseat and said, “The driver is taking us to a bar called La Rosa – they have dancing there”. We were dropped off to a place that seemed like it was out of town a bit far and an odd location for a dance club. We paid the taxi and walked into the entrance. Inside the entrance area, there was a large black coffin on supports like you’d see at a funeral home. As if that wasn’t weird enough, on the entrance floor there was a large piece of glass where you could see through to the basement, and in the basement there a dozen or so additional coffins lined up in a row. WTF.
Once we got into the “bar”, there was a large stage where a woman was dancing without any clothing. “Oh great, the taxi guy brought us to a strip club,” I thought. Not a huge fan of them in general, and from the looks of the girl on stage, this wasn’t an exception. We rambled up to the bar pretty quickly as none of us really had a clue what we walked in to. While ordering a drink, I noticed that we were the only gringos (caucasians/non-locals) in the place too. I also saw that off to left of of the dance stage there were several showers and above those on the second level – a bed. After 10 minutes or so of absorbing the atmosphere and trying to sort it all out, it seemed strange that none of the dancers were approaching us for “private dances” like at most strip clubs, especially considering the fact that we were obviously foreign. After about 20 minutes one of the female workers came up to our group and starting chatting to our team lead – the only guy who spoke Spanish. During their discussion I could hear “dinero” and some amounts in Spanish, but the negotiation wasn’t for a dance. As the female walked away, I realized that this wasn’t a strip club, it was a brothel. As little interest as I had in a sub-par strip club, I had even less in a foreign brothel. The other two guys had their fill – more for them I guess.