Worst travel mistakes of the 2000’s: Kuala Lumpur passport shenanigans

Back before my days as a Gadling blogger I used to travel on an extremely tight margin. As a starving college graduate, travel was my main priority — debt, work and rent, well, those were ancillary.

My usual modus operandi involved saving up a few hundred dollars in cash and clearing another few hundred on my credit card prior to departure. I could spend and accrue debt in parallel until I returned home. And if I engineered things right, I would be hitting zero dollars and maximum debt by the time I touched down at home.

The success of the above plan was obviously predicated on my travel going flawlessly — no outrageous expenses, disasters or errors on my part. And for the first 99% of my trip through Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Hong Kong, everything worked like a well oiled machine. Until I left for my homeward bound flight from Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok to Hong Kong to Los Angeles to Dallas to Detroit.

The night prior I had spent my last dollars short of train fare on a couple of delicious Tiger Beers on the streets of KL, the hotel expenses already covered and my last meal consumed. We had opted to stay in a nicer hotel than usual for our last night on the road, a $20 cell with two lonely single beds and dank, flowing curtains. It was a setup so trustworthy that I hid my passport under the mattress and kept my other valuables clutched in my front pocket.

Waking up at 6:30 for my 8:30 Air Asia flight to Bangkok I groggily collected my belongings and shuffled towards the door, my last ringgit going towards an express train ticket to KLIA nonstop.

Few feelings on the planet beat the dread of realizing that you’ve lost your passport. I can only compare it to swallowing a baseball-sized rock or perhaps getting punched in the stomach — the feeling of “Oh no. Something is terribly, terribly wrong,” and a deep, sullen weight inside of your stomach. Reaching the airport I checked to find that I would indeed miss my flight without my passport, but that there was another, later flight with which I could connect. But I had to hurry and get back to that hotel before they cleaned the room.As it turns out, those ringgit that I spent the night prior were indeed my last. Dipping my ATM card into the train station kiosk, the LCD blinked “declined” back at me, slowly, scoldingly. Trying my credit card yielded the same result. I was out of money — completely — in Kuala Lumpur Airport without a passport.

Herein lies the worst feeling that I have ever had in my years travel. No money, no phone, no safety net and no passport in a foreign country. I did two laps around the departure terminal staring at the ceiling and getting my shit together — then put my backpack down and rifled through the gadget pocket. Twenty dollars. I had stashed a twenty in there when I left the states in case of emergency. It was still there.

Back at the hotel my companion had already left and the room had been turned down — the front desk didn’t understand why I needed to get back into the room so urgently. But when they followed me into the room and saw me pick up the mattress they knew why: my passport was still flattened between the slabs. I would make it home, barely, with the last $20 to my name through five different airports, twelve time zones and a lifetime of stress.

As it turns out I wasn’t out of money, there was a problem with all international bank transactions that morning and nothing was making it through. But the lesson of a young, foolish traveler is still seared into my memory: have a backup plan. Have several. You’re not that far from totally cutting loose and falling off the map.