Lessons learned from your worst travel gaffes

By | May 15th, 2010

Forgetting to read the fine print. Not packing a change of clothes. Confusing a.m. and p.m.

In a previous column, I asked you to tell me about your worst travel mistakes. Did you ever!

And if I could generalize about the types of screw-ups most common to travelers, I’d say they’re not errors of commission as much as they are errors of omission: leaving something out, forgetting to verify a reservation, or just making an incorrect assumption.

Full disclosure: I bristle when anyone calls me a travel “expert” because the more I travel, the less I realize that I know. But refer to me as an expert on mistakes, and I’ll agree. I’ve made more than a few big errors during my career as a writer, and as a traveler. I even wrote my college thesis on errors.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that in discussing your travel mistakes, I’m well aware that I’ve made my share. Hey, it’s what makes us human. And after all, it’s not so much the error that matters — it’s what we learn from it.

That’s why you’re reading this.

Here are some of my favorite mistakes:

Show me the rate
When David Emery returned his rental car in Sweden, an agent handed him a receipt for $120 a day, or $360. “The rate I’d been quoted was $120 for three days,” he says. Emery had a printout of the guaranteed rate, and was in a hurry to catch a plane, so he didn’t argue.

Too bad he didn’t learn from that mistake. It happened to him again. Now he doesn’t go anywhere without a printout of the car rental rate, and he never leaves the rental office unless he pays the price he expected.

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Assume nothing
Chris Sandberg got a notice that his United Airlines miles were about to expire, but was told he could preserve the miles by earning points by staying at a Starwood hotel. You’d assume that it’s as simple as that — but no.

“After my stay, I was credited with points in the Starwood program, but not with United,” he says. Why? Turns out Starwood could only “convert” blocks of 1,000 points at a time. The hotel was happy to sell him another 200 points so that he could rescue his miles.

If he’d made arrangements with United beforehand, that might have been avoided. Which is exactly what Sandberg now does before making a reservation: he calls to find out if he should expect any surprises.

The Mexican car insurance surprise
If you don’t know about the Mexican car insurance scam, here are the details. Basically, insurance in Mexico is a “requirement” and added to your bill over and above the agreed-upon rate.

Haven’t heard of it? Neither had Kimberly Williams when she rented a car in Cancun through Travelocity recently. “We got the cheapest policy, but it cost an extra 15 bucks a day for a compact car,” she says.

On overseas rentals, no matter what your travel agent tells you, always check with the car rental company to find out if there are any additional requirements.