5 lessons re-learned from recent travel

The hotel I didn't stay at in Barcelona.
The hotel I didn’t stay at in Barcelona.

No matter how much you travel, there’s always a chance you’ll forget that sometimes things just don’t go right. I had to re-learn five valuable lessons from my recent trips, so here they are as good reminders.

1. Things will go awry

Travel may look like it’s always glamour from the highlight reels that are social media, but it isn’t. And just people don’t post pics about the mishaps doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

When I arrived in Barcelona, eyes all aglow as I fell in love with the place between the airport and the hotel, I was fully prepared for everything to be perfect. But when I walked into the perfect little boutique hotel in the perfect neighborhood with the perfect, old, distinctly Barcelona architecture, the lady at the desk said she didn’t have a room for me. I’m sorry, what? She said she’d called Hotels.com days before to tell them there was a leak in the room and she couldn’t accommodate me and didn’t they call to tell me so? No. They hadn’t. So there I was, tired, hungry—angry now—with all my luggage in the perfect hotel that couldn’t accommodate me.

Then began the phone calls. I had to get on the phone with Hotels.com while they rebooked me in what they promised was an “upgrade.” But when I got there, it was a good 15-minute drive outside of where we wanted to be, with nothing near it but graffitied dive bars. That meant cabs or other transport to get everywhere I wanted to go (also known as more money), and no popping out for a late night coffee sipped while sitting at sidewalk bistro tables.

The room itself left everything to be desired, there was no Barcelona balcony like the first place, no ornate Colonial characteristics and no quaint lobby that looked like a personal library. So the phone calls continued. Me using Skype to dial Hotels.com, explaining my discontent to one person and then another and another and another. Then getting cut off. And calling back to begin the whole thing again.

I tortured myself like this for nearly two hours before I realized my aggravation was taking away precious Barcelona time. Crappy things are going to happen when you travel. Always. The only things that will change are the extent of the crappiness and how much it bothers you. The best thing to do is take it in stride, as part of the experience, and press on. Hotels.com will eventually pay for this injustice, but at a time when I’m not missing out on Barcelona.

2. Tours aren’t all bad

I’m typically not one to recommend bus tours, or any tours, really. I tend to prefer picking what I want to see and going to see it on my own time and in my own way. But since I was trying to max out on a work trip to China and had only two days for Beijing with seeing the Great Wall a must, I decided to book a tour.

After a good amount of Googling and review reading, I found a tour on Viator, which I now think was pretty much an amazing deal. For $65, a van picked me up from my hotel, bound for China’s great wonder of the world. There were three others on the tour with me, which made it nice and intimate, though I don’t know whether that would change if there were more people who booked for that day. The tour included a jade factory visit, a walk on the Great Wall, an A+ Chinese lunch, a tea ceremony and a silk factory visit. For $65. But more on that in next week’s post. The point is, if you’re short on time, a tour (a good tour, that is) can be a good way to see highlights.

3. Reviews aren’t everything

Speaking of reviews, most of us have been trained to check them (live by them even), but we have to unlearn that habit sometimes and function without them.

In pre review life, people just walked around and found places that looked good, or asked locals what they thought was the best thing around to eat (almost always the best way to find the best food). I am really a fan of reviews when it comes to picking restaurants because I don’t want to risk not eating the greatest meal ever, according to what a few hundred strangers collectively told me on a website that may or not reflect true opinions from real people. Either way, risk, I had to remember, is part of the adventure of travel. Sometimes you’ll pick the wrong restaurant and sometimes you’ll stumble upon a find that maybe doesn’t have reviews because it doesn’t even have a website or proper signage outside or a real address. But it might be the meal you’ll drool over years later. So go review-less sometimes!

4. There’s a difference between paying in your currency or local

Credit card machines and the companies that use them are getting more sophisticated. The credit cards are getting savvier too. I now have a Bank Americard Travel Rewards Visa that earns travel rewards points (or cash) and doesn’t charge fees for foreign currency conversion. It’s the best, get one.

Anyway, some stores abroad will ask whether you’d prefer to pay in your own currency or theirs. It felt like a trick question, a test I wasn’t sure I’d pass, when the cashier at Zara asked me. So after some very quick assessing, I decided to pay in euros since the dollar is stronger than the euro right now. I had no real basis for this assessment, but I was under pressure and felt like it was an intelligent choice. After coming home to do some investigating on this matter, that was the right call. But not because of the currency strength. Anytime you’re given the option, pay in the local currency. Companies offering you what seems like a considerate service, will often slap a 3 percent fee on you for the convenience, which just made what you bought 3 percent more expensive, and ain’t nobody got time for that. Plus, if you don’t have a credit card that doesn’t charge you a fee for converting foreign currency, you could be spending even more. Moral? Pay in local and get a cool fee-less travel credit card.

5. Sometimes, it’s all about the people you meet

There’s travel where you’ll meet tons of people, like euro trips with hostel stays or excursions organized by travel groups, but outside of those things—like with work travel, for example—it’s possible you won’t meet many locals outside of those in taxis, restaurants and hotels. And though they may be really nice, they’re not likely to have time to befriend you or any interest in doing so.

When I took that tour around Beijing, two girls close to my age were in the group. And after spending the day together and taking photos of each other and laughing at the same things, we had hit it off. When the tour was done, we all went to Wangfujing street to shop, finding finds and squirming at the wiggling beetles on a stick waiting to be fried. We had dinner together at Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant and worked out how to order the Peking duck when no one spoke English. Having them to spend time with, in some ways, made the trip even better, and opportunities like that are all around when we travel if we can just keep our eyes open to see them.