The Travel Conundrum: Does Misery Make the Best Travel Companion?

Ask almost any seasoned traveler (or travel writer) about their most memorable journeys and you’ll likely get a tale of pain and suffering. “The best trips are the worst trips,” is a quip I constantly hear coming from travel writers’ mouths. And they’re right. Not only because, after the fact, it makes for good verbal consumption at a party but because it does something deeper to us. It almost feels like in those moments – smack in the middle of a desperate what-the-hell-am-I-going-to-do-now? moment – we’re really living. We don’t realize it at the time but being out of our comfort zone – even in such dark places we’d never willingly put ourselves – we become human.

As travel has become more accessible to people around the planet and the machinations of the travel industry have grown, experiencing pitfalls along the way are sometimes impossible to avoid. If you have a passport, if you’ve ever stepped on an airplane or a train or a bus, if you’ve journeyed beyond your backyard, then you too have had a bad travel experience. I asked a few people for their tales of travel misfortunes and here were some of my favorites:

Magazine editor Dana Dickey wanted to give herself a birthday present: a short trip with her friend to one of her favorite cities, Lisbon. She was late boarding the flight in New York and flashed her passport at the gate agent before quickly boarding the Lisbon-bound plane. But when she was standing in line at the passport check at the Lisbon airport, she noticed something was wrong: it was a few days after her actual birthday and her passport was expired. “The immigration officer unfortunately noticed, too,” said Dickey, “and he took me into custody, while my friend went on his merry way and checked into our suite at the Four Seasons.” Meanwhile Dickey was escorted to a dodgy antechamber in the customs office where she sat (with “suspicious looking chaps” who lounged on mattresses on the floor) for hours. The hardest to take for Dickey, however, was what her friend did – or rather, didn’t do – next. “Rather than enlisting the Four Seasons or someone to help me in my plight, my friend opted to call our mutual friends back in New York so that I could become water cooler jest while still in detention.” Six hours later, Dickey’s passport was extended a few more days and she was free to explore the city.

Nithin Coca, a 28-year-old San Francisco resident, also had passport issues, but of a different kind. While in Paris, he left his backpack at a bus stop. He was actually relieved to learn his wallet, passport and cellphone turned up at a police station, but was in for quite a surprise when he went to fetch it and learned his possessions were found on the body of a murdered person. Coca was brought into an interrogation room and suddenly realized he was being investigated for murder. “I was worried that, as a wide-eyed foreigner, I was being accused of a crime, or forced to go on trial, or worse,” said Coca. Fortunately, after 30 minutes of questioning, they gave Coca back his belongings and told him he could leave.

When writer Alexander Zaitchik was traveling to see a friend in the Czech Republic, he wasn’t so lucky. Tired from his travels, he did the one thing he could not afford to do: fall asleep on the train. With no money on him, he woke up and realized he’d missed his stop. He got off at the next town, the winter cold blushing his cheeks, and boarded the next train headed back to his friend’s hometown in the center of the country. Because he didn’t have a ticket – at least not one for this train journey – he’d hoped a forgiving ticket checker would look the other way. Not so. When he couldn’t produce a ticket (or the equivalent of $1.50), the train slowed to a stop and, in the middle of a snowy forest, Zaitchik was unceremoniously tossed off the train. So he walked and walked until he found a road and stuck his thumb out until a generous driver stopped and, as luck would have it, was headed to the same town Zaitchik need to go to.

Travel wouldn’t be travel without the occasional misfortune. Yet, we don’t stop that from keeping us going. We continue moving to explore our own personal uncharted territories. It’s, at first, a human thing – we charted the planet and now we’re going further, into space. And it’s also a human statement: that no matter how hard life becomes, no matter what pain and suffering and discomfort our travel experiences serve us, we keep on trekking, putting one foot in front of the other, until the pain turns into joy, which (eventually) turns into pain again with the next bad experience. And so on. But in the end, what we’re left with is something a five-star resort or a Michelin-starred restaurant or an upgrade to first class cannot ever deliver: a lot more wisdom than we began with. And, in the end, that will be the one thing we’ll never forget to pack.

It’ll also provide one more thing: a damn good story to tell.

What are some of your travel horror stories?