As much as we all love to travel, sometimes things don’t always go as planned, and the best plans can turn into the worst ones in an instant. Most of us have at least one (or two, or three?) terrible travel stories that are worth sharing – if not just for the horror factor, but as a learning experience.
Many of us on the CLEO team love to travel, but that can lead to all sorts of disasters, with missed trains, lost money or just generally bad scamming situations. Here are a few of our worst travel stories, experienced across the globe and reproduced here for your reading pleasure. Just make sure you don’t end up like us on your next holiday!
I went to Japan with my sister after graduating from junior college. My sister had just graduated from polytechnic, so it was literally two broke graduates going on a trip. We stayed in Kanazawa to watch a concert, but decided to visit Tokyo on a day trip to see the sakura.
At that time, you had to rent a phone in Japan because Singapore phones couldn’t work there (GSM compatibility or something), so there was no way we could just Google (or Yahoo!, at that time) things on-the-go. We missed our train back to Kanazawa (the journey would have taken five hours), so we were effectively stuck in Tokyo, without a hotel, broke. We had no idea what to do because there were no 24/7 cafes around Shibuya (at least at that time), so we explored the shops till closing time, and then walked around. We also ate naan at an Indian restaurant at 2am because it was the only restaurant that was opened. We saw a hotel nearby and asked for the rate, but it was too expensive for our broke souls to afford (USD250 per night, if I remember correctly).
We had to wait for the first train, and then proceeded to take a few rounds of the Yamanote line before the first Shinkansen back to Osaka started running. By the time we got back to Kanazawa, it was 1pm. What I learned from the trip: Don’t go on a holiday if you’re dead broke. At least have money for a night’s stay at a random hotel.
Mine was definitely when I was in Egypt, and we spent a night on a felucca, which is basically a flat boat that sails down the Nile. You sleep communal style under the stars in sleeping bags, and it was super fun… until halfway through the night, when I got struck with terrible food poisoning. For the next four hours, every 20 minutes, I had to navigate the maze of bodies to get off the boat, shivering cold and head into the bush on the side of the cliff, praying that I had moved far enough away from where I was last time to stand in anything. I have never appreciated a bathroom more than I did the next night.
It was me and my boyfriend’s first major holiday away and we were heading to South Africa to meet his family. Our flight was overnight – we stopped first in Paris before catching our connecting flight onto SA. First, our flight to Paris was delayed; they only told us once we were in the air that we were going to miss our connecting flight (along with everyone else).
Once in Paris, there was a stampede to get to the desk to try and rearrange flights, so priorities were dished out: babies, old people, etc. Not us. We ended up stranded in Paris at 2am with nowhere to go and no flight. They put us in a horrible hotel where I slept in my clothes as I was so scared of the creepy hotel they’d put us in. We eventually caught a flight back to the UK and then waited 12 hours to catch a flight back to South Africa. The trip was totally worth it in the end and considering the stress, we didn’t argue once with each other, which put us in good stead. Seven years on and we’re still together! What doesn’t break you makes you stronger, right?
Upon entering the lobby of a no-star hotel in Kuala Lumpur to check-in (we were on a super tight budget), my friends and I noticed an anxious guy pacing about. Drenched in sweat, he walked up to us and said a guy barged into his room an hour ago and robbed him at gunpoint.
For some reason, this didn’t dissuade us from staying at the hotel. But we didn’t sleep a wink that night.
I was making my way to the entrance of the Grand Palace in Bangkok when a Thai man stopped me to say that it wasn’t open to foreigners on that day. I thought it was really nice of him to let me know and chatted with him for a bit.
He then whipped out a map (it didn’t occur to me how strange it was for a local to be carrying one) and insisted that I check out some other temples instead. I told him I’d just head to a mall, but he told me malls there don’t open till 2pm (which, as any Singaporean worth their shopping salt would know, is bulls**t).
The more I declined going to the markets, the blacker his face got. I found it bizarre that he would be so offended, but I put it to him taking things personally. I was also tired of being told what to do, so I walked away and flagged a cab to a mall.
I didn’t suspect a thing, and it wasn’t until I was bored one night that I Googled “Bangkok scams” (yes, I should have done it in advance). As it turns out, the oldest trick in the book is the “Grand Palace is closed” scam. There are many variations to it, but basically scammers work in a group to rip you off. After convincing you to check out the other attractions instead, the “helpful” dude would get you a tuk-tuk driver (accomplice #1) to ferry you to the temples. This is where the driver earns your trust. You’ll very coincidentally meet another “helpful” guy (accomplice #2) at one of the temples, and he’ll recommend you some good local markets to check out.
If you’re undecided, accomplice #1 will convince you that they’re really worth checking out. You trust him by now – he’s been a pretty cool guide – and you probably think there’s no harm. Except he’ll drop you off at tailor or jewellery shops where they use all sorts of tactics to coerce you to spend. Some stories have even involved violence.
The moral of the story? Never listen to a man. OK, jokes aside: Don’t be lazy – always make sure to confirm the things you’re told at the visitor centre.
We went to Zhujiajiao Water Town, one of the most popular water towns near Shanghai. It’s a beautiful ancient water town built over 1,700 years ago, similar to Venice in Italy. There are many well-preserved bridges and a boat ride is available. As with attractions like these, there are loads of scammers lurking around.
My devout Buddhist friend wanted to enter a temple along the river to pray. Hence, we hopped off the boat and paid our entrance fee to enter the temple. We were handed some joss sticks, incense paper and told to kneel, pray, and place the joss sticks on the altar. Sounds normal enough, right? The next thing I knew, we were asked to pick up a small pouch from a box. I took it and asked what it was, the monk mumbled some gibberish, blessed us and asked us to proceed to a table where an elder would attend to the both of us.
Singaporeans are obedient and rule-abiding folks, so we followed his instructions and walked directly into a trap. The monk took the pouch, and took out a slip of paper. He read our fortunes for the year. Turned out that both of our fortunes were going to be extremely bad as we had offended a deity.
To break that curse, we had to make generous donations to the temple in exchange for blessings. He then took our a book of records to pressurize us into giving at least $9,999 CNY. At that moment, I knew he was trying to scam us. He refused to let us leave and said if we did not even make a donation, misfortune would be upon us.
Fearing the worst, we gave $500 CNY, which was equivalent to a total of $100.
After giving that, the monk continued to hold us hostage by telling us if we do not make another donation, our parents would suffer misfortune and that we should be filial by donating more to break the curse. I stood up and left immediately, but my poor friend who was superstitious decided that he needed to be a filial son, and so he donated all that he had on him.
That day, we walked out of the temple almost $300 poorer. The two of us had planned to go to a cafe for coffee, but since we had no more money, we decided to share a bowl of dumpling noodles with whatever change I had left. We had to end our day trip prematurely because we were too broke to visit the rest of the attractions.
This wasn’t actually a bad experience for me, but it’s a testament to how gung-ho my parents used to be when we were kids. In the era before mobile phones, AirBnB and Booking.com, my parents decided to take their two young kids on a road trip around the South Island of New Zealand, making reservations at just the first hotel. After that, we road-tripped around the island, booking on-the-go. As a teenager, none of this phased me, but they recently reminded me of how we drove into Dunedin after midnight with nowhere to stay, having to go hotel-to-hotel asking for a room, and finally ended up in a weird motel with a jacuzzi in the room. I don’t know how they managed to stay that calm because if it had me driving around at midnight trying to find my family a place to stay in the night, I’d have had a heart attack.