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The Embarrassing Travel Fails of a Seasoned Solo Traveler

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You’d think that after 50 years of solo travel, I’d always get it right.

But no, life isn’t like that.

I get it as wrong as the rankest of rookies.

And while I kick myself when that happens, deep inside I’m rather pleased that there’s an opportunity to learn and improve.

While I should be able to guarantee a seamless and perfectly planned trip for myself, the reality is that experience can breed over-confidence. If I know it all, I don’t really need to plan, do I? Things will just… work out.

I write this in the midst of a one-month Eastern European trip during which I’ve probably managed to make every beginner mistake in the book of travel. Why am I telling you this? Because a reminder is always a good thing, and sometimes we all need a refresher, myself included.

So DON’T follow my example and do any of the things I did below. Or go ahead and experiment – and prepare for some interesting consequences.

Don’t think you can always wing it.

I don’t plan out every step of every trip but I at least map out where I’m going and how long I’ll stay there. This time I didn’t. I knew where I was landing (Serbia) and leaving from (Ukraine) but the bits of travel in-between remained shrouded in mystery, mostly because my trip had been on and off several times so I never got around to doing any meaningful research. I’m not saying you have to plan, but I am saying don’t expect things to turn out perfectly when you’re not even sure which country you’re headed to next. On the other hand, flying by the seat of your pants when you’re a planner is incredibly empowering!

Don’t wear your smooth-soled well-worn shoes.

You know, those super-comfy ones you wear around your hometown, which are so broken in they feel like slippers and so old there’s no pattern on the soles anymore. Because if it rains or you need to walk through mud, you might – like I did – have to spend a fortune buying a pair of Eccos (the only shop open on a Sunday) simply to avoid sliding across the cobblestones around Sibiu Square like a skater at a hockey game.

Don’t assume it’s summer, because – climate change.

I’m traveling in June and July and in Central Europe, that means heat, the hot and hazy kind. Except when the seasons refuse to change. I thought I was quite clever packing my wool pashmina, in case the air conditioning was too strong in rooms or shops. The rest of the time I’d be shedding layers and mopping my brow. Instead, a winter chill set in, with average nighttime temperatures of 10ºC (or 50ºF). To go with my nice new Eccos, I am now the proud owner of a stylish grey and orange fleece I also won’t need when I get home (where another perfectly fine grey and orange fleece is waiting in my closet).

Don’t leave your umbrella at home.

Because there’s something nice about summer rain, isn’t there? In truth, my umbrella is sitting on my kitchen counter, waiting patiently for my return (not too far from my fleece and hiking shoes, in fact). I forgot it, plain and simple. I’ll add my new one to the growing collection.

Don’t get a non-refundable room.

Because the second you’ve confirmed your travel dates, they’ll change. I was planning on spending two nights in Budapest until train tickets for my preferred dates weren’t available and I had to curtail my stay by a night. But I still paid for two. Had I booked something slightly more expensive with a cancellation guarantee, I would have stayed in a more upmarket place, and paid less.

Don’t skip the supermarket just because you’re tired.

Because your plans to go shopping the next day might not materialize. Getting off an exhausting 11-hour train journey seemed justification enough to postpone shopping, and it might have been. Except it poured and thundered the next day, as I huddled in my room trying to remember the shop’s whereabouts (not that I was remotely tempted to test out my brand new umbrella).

Don’t take the train everywhere because you don’t like to fly.

Because “the train is soooo romantic”. It is, most times, and I love train journeys, but that love was sorely tested by a short 100km (62mi) journey that took six hours because “the train is broken”. The next day, an 11-hour journey presented itself but I was prepared: there was no restaurant car, no food or water for passengers. I came armed with sandwiches and drinks, which I shared out with a clutch of hungry Hungarians. But a short flight might have been worth it.

Don’t get any local currency before you arrive.

Because you can change a bit at destination, right? That’s fine when you don’t arrive on a Sunday morning when everything is shut. And there’s nothing wrong with a 40-minute walk down early morning deserted streets in a city you’ve never been to before.

Don’t end up with empty pockets on your last day in a country.

Because you’re leaving the country in a few hours, and you won’t be needing their money anymore so you might as well change it into the next country’s currency (see previous point). Except that you forgot you had to take the bus, buy breakfast and water… and there isn’t a change office around. At least this time you know the way to the train station (it still takes 40 minutes). At least the rain has stopped.

Don’t forget to print out your guesthouse’s address and number.

Because you can just grab it from your phone. Except that you decided not to buy local SIM cards and you’re in a country where it costs one dollar a minute to download data. Writing an address down in a notebook the old-fashioned way guarantees you’ll have access to it when you get into town late, without wifi and with no local money.

None of these mishaps or gaffes were major. Some were even fun, or at the very least challenging. But they shouldn’t have happened, not when I have this many years of travel under my belt, and especially not when I’m convinced I’ve got it all in hand.

As my dog trainer used to say, “This is a learning moment”.

So here I am, writing this from a café in Braşov, Romania – the heart of Transylvania.

I’m having a grand time, visiting castles and sampling outlandish desserts and talking to people about politics. I’ve been to the supermarket, I have money for the next country I’m visiting, and I even reserved the overnight train leg online. I’m armed with an umbrella, new shoes and a cozy fleece.

Things are clicking along nicely.


  1. Gloria Grady on July 3, 2018 at 6:48 pm

    Great writing! I loved every word! And have done the same things myself!

  2. Cindy Blakeslee on July 3, 2018 at 6:59 pm

    Leyla, you make me feel better! I’m sorry you had so many unexpected difficulties but it sounds as though you weathered it (well). I’m an unseasoned traveller gathering courage from your adventures.

    I do have a suggestion about the phone — if you have written yourself a note a phone app and saved it locally to your phone (rather than to the Cloud) you shouldn’t need either wifi or a sim card to access it. I use the “notes” app which came with my iPhone, but it depends on what capability your phone has. I also like to print things out so that’s a good backup (such as if your phone dies!)

    Thanks for sharing, and the next time something goes wrong I’ll remember that I’m in good company!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 3, 2018 at 7:03 pm

      Yes, absolutely – and I have plenty of workarounds but I just didn’t… THINK! Too much in a hurry 🙂

  3. Laurelee on July 3, 2018 at 7:30 pm

    I’m a young 67 year old with great health. But I do weary of the actual flight and security checks. I want to travel to the Mediterranean and Africa. Do you add on extra days to compensate or do you get used to it? The longest flight I’ve been on was five hours.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 3, 2018 at 7:41 pm

      Figure that it takes one day to get used to one hour of jet lag. So if you’re crossing six time zones, it’ll take you six days to get your body used to it without doing anything more. I do add on a few days at the start of a trip so I don’t spend my first few days crawling around in exhaustion. But when I can’t, I make do. My most important trick is to move into my destination’s time immediately. So if I land at 3pm local time, no matter how tired I am, I stay up until 9 or 10pm, just as I would if I lived there. Next morning, I get up around 8 or 9am, so I do oversleep a bit, but that throws me into the right time zone in spite of myself.

      • Brianne on July 3, 2018 at 10:09 pm

        About jet lag…a few years ago I discovered a homeopathic remedy for jet lag, called Jet Zone (think there are other brands). I took it for my trip to Turkey, and Morocco, and have taken it when flying across country here in the States. I have friends using it now, too. All but one person has found it has been helpful Maybe it will be for you, too?

  4. Beverly Dawn Simpson on July 3, 2018 at 8:08 pm

    Wonderful commentary, thank you. Always good to know we are not alone when we do or not do dumb things haha. Because we always come through ok. And in retrospect, look back and say if I hadn’t gone through all that crap I just put myself through, the present moment would not look so delicious. Love your stuff. Thanks x

  5. gina on July 3, 2018 at 8:32 pm

    Very small glitches methinks!
    Do you use ATMs? I’d have thought they’d solve the cash problems in most situations.
    I always use the notepad function on my phone for addresses etc. And I carry a small power pack to reload the phone in emergencies. I often buy umbrellas. In many countries umbrella sellers spring up like mushrooms when it starts raining. I love to buy from them and they appreciate it too! Similar when I have to buy clothes- I usually donate the surplus pieces that accumulate. Someone, somewhere, will be happy with an orange fleece… And the shoes – Truth.-Slippery shoes are a no-go!

  6. Ann Randall on July 3, 2018 at 8:45 pm

    I’ll be in Moldova in December so am looking forward to your writing about it.

  7. Karen on July 3, 2018 at 10:28 pm

    This is a very timely post for me! I just returned from a trip on which I finally — after years of dodging this particular bullet — got mixed up about the dates of my reservations because of the European habit of putting the number of the day before the number of the month, as opposed to the U.S. practice that is the reverse. Luckily for me, my hotel was able to let me stay the additional night that I thought I had already booked — and in the same room — but I sure felt foolish!

    I would like to comment on the jet lag thing, too. So many people recommend just staying up until local bedtime on the first day, and for years I did that. But in the last year, I have been giving in and taking a nap that first day. Lo and behold, it helps me adjust better and faster. So conventional wisdom is not true for everyone. My advice is to experiment and find what works for you.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 4, 2018 at 5:27 am

      You’re absolutely right – there’s a different solution for everyone when it comes to jet lag. I’ve tried them all and the staying up is the one that works for me – but might not for everyone!

      As for the dates, I believe the US is the only country that uses month-day-year, which confuses me whenever I read anything US-based. I’m always on my guard because I know the dates will be reversed! So I know the feeling…

  8. Amei on July 3, 2018 at 11:10 pm

    I kept on laughing and remembering. Many thanks

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 4, 2018 at 5:24 am

      I’m starting to really like my new shoes! 🙂 (and the trip is only half over!)

  9. Betty George on July 3, 2018 at 11:30 pm

    Thanks for your great article. I can relate to a couple of them myself. Number one; thinking all areas will take my credit card and not having any of their money for restrooms, restaurants and buses. Brought a smile to my face thinking about several encounters in Venice, Italy and Amsterdam.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 4, 2018 at 5:23 am

      Exactly! Mind you, this is what gives you stories to tell when you get home… 🙂

  10. Merry Grimmett on July 4, 2018 at 6:15 am

    The thing I have found most handy on the road is a like a deflated pool raft but with small holes on one side that can be used by placing the nozzle of a hair dryer into the hole at the end and can thus be used as a clothes dryer. it is nylon and folds into almost nothing. Also, a rubber sink stopper is invaluable when washing clothes in the sink. I don’t even know if you can buy them anymore and once when I thought I lost it I was very distraught. It had been loaned to friends who forgot to give it out and who found it when cleaning out a closet.

    Everyone has some “stupid” days on vacation. I spent 4 hours in the Johannesburg airport and still missed me flight. The check in wasn’t open when I arrived from my previous flight so I ate, looked around the airport, etc. By the time I went to check in, I was too late for their check-in cutoff which was much longer than the in the US.

    In Turkey, I was looking for the women’s bathroom at a gas station and wandered into the prayer room by mistake.

    The worst experiences make the best stories!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 7, 2018 at 8:13 pm

      Those adventures are the best, aren’t they! And thank you for the tip!

  11. Rachel Biles on August 22, 2018 at 6:44 am

    I am sorry to hear about your fails…and it will be help for me in future!!

  12. Adria on September 10, 2018 at 10:05 am

    Very true. It is good to be spontaneous, but sometimes life can get spontaneous too, and not always in a pleasant way.

  13. Floria lena on October 23, 2018 at 12:15 pm

    I have always admired your site, Thanks for the great tips and work .

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on October 28, 2018 at 7:42 am

      Lovely to hear that!

  14. June Edwards on January 1, 2019 at 6:58 pm

    Thanks Leyla – have had quite a giggle about your self made pitfalls – have encountered many myself so it’s great to hear that even the ‘experts’ can get tangled up with their own mistakes. The main thing learned from it all is that you kept your sense of humour throughout & then had fun sharing it all with us amused followers. Thanks.
    June (back of beyond of North Wales, UK)
    🙂 🙂

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on January 1, 2019 at 8:40 pm

      Oh yes… my latest one: I leave for Malawi in five weeks but my passport runs out too soon for my trip (making my planning 10 times harder than it should have been!)

      • Linda on February 28, 2019 at 8:04 am

        Very true. It is good to be spontaneous, but sometimes life can get spontaneous too, and not always in a pleasant way.

  15. Alexia Francis on March 13, 2019 at 4:16 am

    Ha! I reckon I’ve done more than half. And it took a chipped bone in my wrist to make me remember to wear decent non-slip walking shoes for the wet stone streets in Europe.

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