According to one of Murphy’s laws, you can never run out of things that can go wrong. Add in flights, foreign foods, language barriers and culture clashes, and you have the recipe for some fine travel tales. I’ve taken two round-the-world trips, lived overseas as a digital nomad for 6 years and been a full-time travel writer for 14 years. Consequently, I’ve totted-up more than my fair share of travel experiences. Here are 33 of my best, worst and funniest travel stories.
1. Breaking my ear tube on a flight from St Lucia
You know when your ear pops on the plane? Mine decided to stay that way for 18 months because, flying back from St Lucia with a cold, my right Eustachian tube stopped working. Many doctor appointments later, I found out I had an underlying problem with the structure of my nose. Apparently, my septum had been pointing 90 degrees in the wrong direction since my mum got trapped in an elevator door when I was in her tummy. I ended up having surgery but in the 18 months before that I had serious balance issues that made it look like I turned up to work each day on the back of eight Bombay Sapphire gin and tonics.
2. Risking sky-diving in Hawaii with a broken ear tube
Years after my septum surgery, I decided to go sky-diving in Hawaii. Irresponsibly, I skipped over the bit where I was supposed to disclose my ear tube problems because I didn’t want them to say I couldn’t jump. But then I lost my cool and decided to confess to my skydiving instructor right at the open door of the plane. “I have ear tube problems so you might need to take me to a hospital if my head falls off,” I yelled. “Haha. Me too, the instructor,” shouted back as he jumped us out of the plane door.
3. Turning up at the wrong airport in Milan
It wasn’t the first time I’d missed a flight (that happened in New York and it wasn’t exactly my fault because someone else had taken responsibility for the tickets and timings). But going to the wrong airport in Milan was my fault. It’s a heart-sinking moment when you realize you’re at the airport with more than enough time for your flight, but you’re at the wrong airport. Despite time being on my side, the distance to the correct airport, around 90km south through rush hour traffic meant I missed my flight. Expensive mistake.
4. Stepping on a Brazilian mosquito plant
“Whatever you do, don’t let this plant touch your skin,” my guide said, “it’s like being bitten by 1,000 mosquitoes“. We were deep in the Pantanal in Brazil. “Which plant?” I asked. “That one,” he replied, pointing at the plant I was standing on. Oh. That one. Cue a week of an ugly, itchy rash that made people stop and stare. Thank you to my Brazilian friend who played down how horrifying my legs were, took me to a pharmacy and helped me buy some calming cream.
5. Landing in Quito days after an attempted coup
My first round-the-world trip got off to a rocky start. A few days before I was due to fly to Quito, the opposition party was accused of staging a coup against President Rafael Correa. Neighboring countries closed their borders, a state of emergency was declared and planes were grounded. On the day I was due to fly, the flight ban was lifted and I was left with the decision of whether to fly to this highly disrupted country. It was a hard choice but having checked the UK’s travel advice, which told me I’d be safe (enough), I boarded the long-haul flight.
Landing in Quito, the tanks had barely cleared from the streets and even the military were hanging around in packs. The tension was palpable and all in, it was the least inviting introduction to South America. Of course, things got rapidly better and Latin America went on to become one of my favorite places in the world.
6. The Mexican B&B lady who let me sleep for days before asking me to pay
I was close to delirious when I crossed the border from Guatemala to Mexico. I’d spent weeks traveling through Centra America through Bocas del Toro in Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Guatemala. It was too many nights spent on frigid cold buses. Consequently, I arrived in Mexico with a fever, severe muscle aches and other symptoms that convinced me I was dying of malaria. Out of fear, I took a taxi to my B&B rather than a doctor and promptly lay down for three days. Fortunately, it was just bad flu. Little did I realize that the lady who owned the B&B checked on me daily. She didn’t even mention the fact that I hadn’t paid her a peso until the first morning I was able to get up and go for breakfast. I remember feeling very alone, but the whole time this kind Mexican lady had been keeping an eye on me.
7. Bed Bug Bingo in Kuala Lumpur
Landing in Kuala Lumpur I was looking forward to staying in a hostel I’d been to before, but my excitement soon passed when I was greeted by unwelcome friends – bed bugs. Not in one bed, but 3 beds across 3 different rooms. These things are usually discovered in the middle of the night and at 3 am I found myself traipsing my belongings from one room to another as each new inspection revealed more bugs. I trudged out the next day, exhausted, as men with a chemical killing spray arrived. It turned out to be the year of the bed bug. I met them again in the Philippines, and twice in Italy (Pisa and Florence). The upside? I’m now fully proficient at dealing with bed bugs.
8. Tsunami evacuation in Hawaii
“There’s a tsunami coming” are not words you ever want to hear, yet that was the message one evening when I was on Kauai in the Hawaiian islands. A full-scale evacuation took place and although the tsunami warning never actually translated into a full-scale issue, they were some pretty intense hours holed up at the evacuation center wondering “what next” as the time ticked down to the tsunami’s ETA.
9. My barefoot volcano climb in Nicaragua
I went to Isla Ometepe in Nicaragua to climb the volcano. My travel friend found a ‘guide’ on the ferry on the way over but it quickly became apparent that he was just a local who’d climbed the volcano before. So, when he looked at my trekking sandals before we set off, he said the Spanish word for mud (lodo), shrugged and off we went. The problem was, I didn’t understand what he’d said and didn’t know that my shoes would be less than adequate. Inexperienced at hiking, I assumed the volcano would be rocky, but it quickly became calf-high mud. My shoes broke and I ended up having to climb back down the volcano barefoot. Not recommended. Lacerations, lost toenails, swelling and pain, here’s the full story of my shoeless volcano climb.
10. Getting invited to the crew lounge at the airport
Missing a flight is one thing but turning up a day early is a different kind of annoyance. Facing a $60 round trip fare back into Tokyo City, I booked a $50 airport hotel instead. Since check-in wasn’t until 3 pm (5 hours away), I wandered the hotel lobby and halls until an English father figure took pity on me. It turned out he was an airline captain and with the swipe of a card, he let me into the crew canteen. With a new person to ‘play with’ (read: taunt), the pilots bought me a pot of nato, a snot-like fermented bean that tastes even worse than it looks. Not one to be ungrateful in the face of hospitality, I readied my chopsticks. It ingratiated me enough into the crew team that they extended an invite to a birthday party some of them were having that night. It sounded like it was going to be a fun evening and I was on the brink of accepting when I realized it was the fastest way to miss my 7 am flight. I reluctantly declined and slinked off to my room at 3 pm, the taste of nato still fresh in my mouth. Not my favourite Japanese food.
11. Escaping from a burning bus in Brazil
I was on a bus traveling from Mato Grosso (near the Pantanal in Brazil) to Sao Paulo when I noticed people pushing and shoving to get off. Assuming we’d reached another bus terminal, I closed my eyes and tried to return to sleep. Then I smelt the burning.
To this day it saddens me that not a single person tapped me on the shoulder to suggest I might want to evacuate the vehicle that was possessed with a fully flaming engine (the shouting was in Portuguese, a language I don’t speak). As the situation dawned on me, I tried to get off the bus, bags in hand, but by this time the rest of the bus was trying to get back on to rescue their possessions. Thankfully, the driver managed to extinguish the flames. We then faced 5 hours sitting at the side of the road in the unsheltered Brazilian heat while we waited for a replacement vehicle.
12. Getting shigella in Myanmar
I’ve had food-related stomach illness more than once on my travels – Delhi belly in India, oyster poisoning in Scotland and food poisoning in a Michelin-star restaurant in Florence. However, the shigella I got in Myanmar was the worst of it since it hung around for nearly 6 weeks. In Mandalay, I remember looking at the U-Bein bridge and feeling so utterly unwell I couldn’t enjoy it. Back home, I crossed my fingers (and legs) hoping things would get better – there’s nothing more terrifying than your doctor requesting a ‘sample’ – but things didn’t improve. By the time my doctor got my results back from the said sample (I’ll spare you the collection details save to say, don’t use cling film as the internet suggests), I’d started to form antibodies and I was advised to ride it out if I could. The worst being over, I did just that but it’s not something I’d want to do again. Ever.
13. Stuck without money in the desert in Chile
When I turned up in Chile after exploring the Bolivian salt flats, I was dealt a blow when the ATM gobbled up my last remaining bank card (I’d lost my other one in Peru weeks earlier).
For a whole day, I panicked as I counted that I had less than $10 to last me 5 days until my pre-booked bus left town. By some amazing quirk of luck, I managed to track down the man who serviced the ATM once a week and got my Visa card back. However, with no functioning ATM in the town, I was still unable to get my hands on any cash. For my entire time, I ate in the only restaurant in town that accepted Visa. From water to snacks to main meals, everything I bought was from that restaurant. It was a stressful 5 days.
14. One-way ticket fiasco in the Philippines
As a full-time traveler, I’d been hopping around the world on one-way tickets – I never knew where I was heading next. That method of travel bit me on the backside at the airport in Malaysia when I tried to board a flight to Manila. As it turns out, the Philippines has strict entry requirements that are regularly enforced. Panic set in as the check-in staff told me I couldn’t board the flight without an outbound ticket. What followed was a stressful 40 minutes as I tried over 3 devices – laptop, iPad, iPhone – to panic buy a random outbound flight, all conducted over the airport’s 1980’s internet speed with one eye on the soon-to-close check-in desk. Fortunately, I made it, but not without losing a kilo of sweat.
15. Losing my sight in Colombia
I never got to the bottom of what happened to my eyes in Colombia but it was certainly related to my contact lenses. Within a day of arriving in Cali (the salsa capital of Colombia – the dance, not the sauce), my eyes became painful. At first, I thought it was conjunctivitis but the goo (sorry for the visual) didn’t arrive. I was just afflicted with a burning pain that made my eyes red and sore while constantly streaming. Sunlight made it worse, which isn’t something you can generally switch off in Colombia.
For two days I lay in a hammock unable to move or do anything of any real use. Sightseeing was out, as were daylight activities. I napped a lot, discovered the benefits of Audible (given I was unable to read) and discovered that pizza is one of the easier things to eat when you can barely see. Luckily, the problem cleared up on its own and I headed to Medellin but it was a scary couple of days.
16. Chased by a gang of men in India
I genuinely believe everyone should visit India at least once in their lives but, wow, is it a challenging country. I could write an entire article about the mishaps in the country but the worst moment was actually the scariest moment from all of my travels. It’s something I’ve never written about. And, I’ve no particular desire to write about in detail except to say there were four guys on two motorbikes with very bad intentions who pursued me through the dark streets of India. I made a very lucky escape but it made me realise that your world can turn on a pinhead. It was the only time I felt the need to pull out my knife in self-defense. And it’s the only time that travel has made me cry from terror.
17. A diarrhoea-cursed cow in India
And for a lighter story about India, walking down one of the narrow alleys near my guesthouse, I was met with a cow blocking the way. I was prepared to turn back and re-route but the cow didn’t give me the chance. Instead, it barged past me. It was unpleasant enough until I realized the cow had a seriously disgusting bottom and it had smeared the remnants of its backside over my arm, my clothes and my handbag. Once the offending animal had disappeared, I doubled back to my guesthouse for a ‘bucket’ shower (tap and bucket rather than full showers in India’s basic accommodation). The handbag could not be saved. I needed my Vipassana meditation retreat after that.
18. Underwear malfunction in Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City is one of my favorite cities in Vietnam but it’s crazy humid. So, I decided to wear just shorts and a strappy vest top to explore the city. Underneath my top was a new bra I’d bought from Victoria’s Secret. I’m only telling you that said bra was bright pink because it became very relevant very quickly. Stopping at a cafe, I made my way to the bathroom. There, I was greeted with the fact that thanks to heat and sweat, the color from my bright pink bra had leached through my light pink top providing two large ‘smiles’ where the bottom of my bra ended. It looked like I had leaned in two glasses of Strawberry Margarita.
Returning to my coffee with full knowledge of how I looked followed by a further two hours of walking before I finally found my hotel (yes, I was lost) was an exercise in humiliation. I guess that particular bra wasn’t color-locked?!
19. Taking a street taxi in Mexico City
The street taxis have a bad reputation in Mexico. So much so, there’s a standing joke amongst tourists that you have a 50% of getting robbed and a 50% chance of getting shot. In reality, the main risk in Mexico with the street taxis is express kidnapping – you’re taken to an ATM and forced to withdraw cash. Of course, it’s not all taxi drivers but as a rule, I avoid them. Apart from one night, for complicated reasons, in a time pre-Uber, I took one after drinks with a friend. We were both traveling in different directions and she took a taxi, too. Weighing up the risk, promising to message as soon as we got back, and taking pictures of each other’s taxi, we set of.
For the 20-minute ride, I almost held my breath. When I got out of the taxi, the fare was about 25% more than it should have been and I’ve never been so happy to be overcharged in my life.
20. The steroid shot in Hawaii
I’d wanted to visit Hawaii forever yet I spent my first days on Oahu in bed with a case of severe tonsillitis. It had been another case of too much travel lowering my immune system. Last minute, I’d flown from Mexico’s east coast to Mexico City, onto the west coast of the USA and then to Hawaii, with a bunch of airport hotels and changes in climate in between. My throat swelled with each new destination so that by the time I landed in Hawaii, I knew I needed to see a doctor. In fact, my throat was so severely swollen I’d acquired puss-filled pustules in my throat. Yep, I wasn’t thrilled to hear that either.
“We can admit you to hospital to have them syringed,” the doc advised me, “or we can give you a steroid shot.”
I bent over, pulled down my shorts and readied myself. Which was a bit awkward because shots in the posterior only happen on TV.
“In your arm in fine.”
And fortunately, it was fine. I don’t think I’ve ever gone from so sick to so well in such a short space of time. Two days later, I hiked Diamond Head. Flying on to Big Island to inhale the volcano smoke wasn’t the smartest follow-up activity but that’s another story.
21. Being nearly robbed then actually robbed in Belize City
I was in Belize City before heading to the Caribbean Island of Caye Caulker. Traveling with my brother and a friend, we booked into a local guesthouse. Coming back from lunch, we were approached by a man who demanded money. Making a split-second assessment of the situation – he didn’t have a weapon, there were three of us and it was daylight (not that that necessarily means much in Belize), I firmly said no. It was the right decision but the man shouted at us with escalating anger until we were nearly back to our guesthouse.
We were relieved to get back to the safety of our room without being robbed. Except, while we’d been out, our room had been burgled. Of most value, my brother’s iPod had been stolen. You can never know for sure but we’d (foolishly) used the padlock the guesthouse had supplied. That week, the guesthouse owner’s son had moved in, having just gotten out of prison. He’d been in our room to fix a fan. When we asked for help reporting the missing item so my brother could make an insurance claim, the guesthouse owner threatened us. To quote the Latin phrase I learned as a lawyer: res ipsa loquitor – the facts speak for themselves. We left the city the next day. Funny to get actually robbed while you’re escaping being nearly robbed.
22. The ruptured knee ligament in the British Virgin Islands
Limbo dancing in the British Virgin Islands, that’s how I tore my knee ACL. I don’t have many travel regrets but as it took me nearly two years from injury to surgery to recovery to get about 90% function back in my knee, I kinda wish I could go back and undo this one. On the plus side, there is no finer place to bust your knee than in the Caribbean on a boat. Every day the scenery changed and with an inelegant flop, I could get into the water for a swim. I also had some very epic shipmates who helped me out each day. Thank you, BVI team!
23. Drain overload – Vietnam and China
Being up to your knees in rainwater from a flash downpour in a tropical country is one thing. Being up to your knees in a combo of rain and overflowing drain water is quite another. And not one I’d recommend. Yet, I’ve had this experience twice. The first time in Nha Trang in Vietnam, a beach area I’d read about in a travel novel set during the Vietnam War. The rain came down in buckets so large that I inhaled water as I breathed and attempting to head out for dinner I found myself wading knee-deep through the flooded streets. I was okay with the water (a girl’s gotta eat) until I felt something momentarily wrapping itself around my leg. I flicked at my leg to find it was a used condom. Dinner plans cancelled.
The second occasion happened years later on a trip to China. This time, I was at Shaolin Temple when the clouds emptied. Walking uphill back to my room, water rushed downhill bringing floating turd after floating turd with it. The whole thing was like a gross 1980s doge-it video game. I’ve never scrubbed my legs so hard when I finally reached a shower. Well, perhaps that time with the cow in India.
24. The epic hot tub tumble in Mexico
A picture speaks a thousand words so I’ll let the bruise picture above do the talking on this one. All I’d like to say is that wooden steps with no safety tread in a hot tub are a bad idea. I had only consumed one beer. And I will forever be cautious when I have wet feet. The outline of this bruise was still visible on my leg months later. This was an especially memorable trip to Cancun.
25. Getting Dengue Fever in Mexico
Speaking of traveling in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, on a return trip, I picked up more than tasty tacos. As a frequent traveler to tropical climates, you hear a lot of stories about travelers who get malaria and dengue fever. I’ve heard a few especially sad tales of travelers who went to bed and were later found dead. I was still a newbie traveler when I first got flu in Mexico on my RTW trip. But this time, years later, when I got flu-like symptoms, I headed to the doctor. And yes, he confirmed it had finally found me: Dengue fever. There is no treatment and it can kill so it was a scary couple of weeks all in. Fortunately, with plenty of rest and water, my body fought it off. You can read my full dengue experience.
26. Snake in my room in Vietnam
I was in Hoi An to buy some silk dresses. It had already been an amusing but frustrating day where I’d check into and out of 8 rooms in 3 hotels. The problems ranged from broken a/c to a hotel door that came off it’s hinge and fell on me. That might be story enough except it was all eclipsed by the appearance of a snake. Having finally settled in my 7th room that day, I sat down to do some work. But, something caught my eye and I looked across the room to see a long, green, slithery snake that had reared up and was eyeballing me with its beady stare.
Forgetting my survival training in the moment, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to make myself look big, or small, make eye contact, look away, or try to find a mongoose to feed it. Instead, I made a slow, calm escape. Once I reached the hotel corridor, the room door closed behind me, hysterics kicked in “Snake, snake, snake!!!” I shrieked like I’d been bitten.
The hotel dealt with my feedback with professionalism and I was evacuated for several hours. When I returned to the room, I saw the remains of a scene I wouldn’t have wanted to witness first hand but on the plus side, I was given a wonderful upgrade to a snake-free room. My eighth room that day.
27. Pushed into a fire in Indonesia
The Gili Islands and particularly Gili Trawangan was one of my all-time favorite spots on my around-the-world trip. Ruled by a chief and with none of the usual trappings of modern life, the island was idyllic in most ways. However, during my stay, the downsides of such an informal island hit home a full row of houses and shops caught fire.
People travelled from all over the island to help and every passing tourist pitched in. But, with nothing more than bin lids, buckets and beer cups to carry water from the sea to the fire, it took the entire night to put out the flames. During that time, several properties were destroyed.
In the panic, some silly drunk tourist staggered into me and pushed me into the smoldering flames. As well as acquiring some scorches and a hefty bruise, I twisted my ankle, which left me unable to leave the island for about a week. It was a lonely time as I spent most of that week confined to my bed. But that was not nearly as upsetting as it must have been for the locals whose homes and businesses had burnt down. There was a palpable feeling of displacement on the island – an emotion I hope never to be witness to again.
On the upside, knowing that I got injured while helping, a group of local men came to fetch me each day and transported me by horse and cart to get food. The kindness of strangers.
28. Booking a ‘Romance Hotel’ with my dad in Japan
I was so relieved to find any hotel near Mount Fuji (last-minute booking) that I didn’t read the small print. Arriving at the hotel my dad and I were greeted with a not-so-subtle pink illuminated sign declaring that we were at a ‘Romance Hotel’ (the exact words). My face turned brighter than the neon sign as a torrent of profuse apologies to my dad spewed from my mouth.
Sharing a surname didn’t help as we corrected that we were father and daughter. Fortunately, the hotel staff found us a twin room and even more fortunately, my dad laughed off the whole experience even though post-coital couples joined us at the bar wearing nothing more than their kimonos. Awkward.
29. Sharing a room with rats on Lombok Island
If ever there was a lesson in trusting your instincts, it was when I turned up at a grotty-looking guesthouse in Lombok (me and the Southeast Asia Lonely Planet writer did not share the same view on what made a place good). Still, I decided to stay the night and look for somewhere new in the morning. But I didn’t make it through the night. Woken around 2 am by a loud rustling, I opened my eyes and saw a gleaming pair of eyes shining back at me. As I screamed, the owner of a second pair of eyes leaped across the room, scrambled over my bed and climbed up the walls. I heard the scurrying of around three more friends. Switching on the light, I saw that the rats had been dining out on a packet of crackers that had been triple-bagged and stowed in my backpack.
For the rest of the night, I slept upright, hugging my knees to my chest in the middle of my bed with my mosquito net draped over my head (what exactly I thought it would do in terms of protection even I don’t know). The next day I left at 6 am.
30. FujiQ Highlands – An Expensive Bowl Of Ramen
The trip to Mount Fuji where I’d booked the ‘romance hotel’ was a bit cursed all-round. I’d booked the hotel for the views of Mount Fuji, except the mountain hid behind a curtain of clouds the whole stay. And, outside the hotel, the entire town was shut down since it was the end of the ski season. Trying to make the most of things, Dad and I took ourselves to the FujiQ Highlands theme park to try out Japan’s record-breaking roller coasters. The sky looked threateningly grey, but we were told that rain wasn’t scheduled until 9 pm when the park closed. And, because that is how impressive the Japanese usually are, we believed them.
We hit the queue for the first roller coaster we could find and after a 2hrs 45 minutes wait, we were next in line, the empty seats tantalizing us with their proximity. But then there when an announcement – the rides were closing due to rain. We stood, frozen, for several minutes in a state of denial and genuine frozenness before traipsing over to the uninspiring food court. During the next two hours, the rides remained closed and we eventually admitted defeat, heading back to the Romance Hotel (yes, still cringing). At $50 each for completely unused and non-refundable theme park tickets, it was the most expensive ramen I’ve ever eaten.
31. Watching my bus drive off with my bag onboard, Chile
Taking the bus to Santiago de Chile was my first solo bus ride in South America. It was a pretty epic journey stretching for 23 hours and came immediately after I’d been stranded in Chile with no access to cash. In short, I was fairly on edge. So, when we stopped at a place for food about halfway into the journey and I watched the bus sail off without me but with my bag, I went into full panic mode. With practically no Spanish to assist, it took two bus company guys to calm me down and reassure me that the bus was coming back. It had only gone off to refuel. Still, it was a good less. These days, I always take my daypack with me when I get off the bus.
32. Banged-up in a prison in Panama
Fortunately, this story belongs to my travel friend Tim who ended up in prison in Panama when he didn’t get his border crossing right. It was a shake-down and a terrifying experience which he tells best in his own words: Banged-Up in A Panama Prison – Tim’s Backpacking Story.
33. Vitamin D deficiency in England
You don’t expect to come home and get sick from NOT traveling, but that happened to me. After six years of chasing the sun around the globe, my body reacted to my location change by presenting me with a vitamin D deficiency. Less than a year after coming home and settling in Liverpool, I was drowning in fatigue and pain in my bones. When I flew to Johannesburg that winter for some sun, I spent the first 2 days in bed. Funnily enough, my energy increased and my pain lessened as I traveled through South Africa by Baz Bus on to Cape Town.
When I returned to the UK, the exhaustion slowly returned and I visited the doctor. Vitamin D deficiency was diagnosed and pills were given. I took them, but also booked another trip: to Miami and the Florida Keys! (Interestingly, I have since been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, so it’s hard to know how much of my pain was Vit-D versus fibro pain, but the sun helps me feel better in every way).
So, there is some of my crazy travel experiences and stories. Share yours below.