Know Before You Go / gap year horror stories
Replies: 5 - Last Post: Feb 22, 2013 3:04 AM Last Post By: DurhamTravelBlog
Feb 13, 2013 9:42 AM
Know Before You Go / gap year horror storiesHi
I wrote an article for my uni newspaper which I think would be relevant here, so I'm pasting it below. I spent 6 months travelling in Asia, Australia and the US before starting uni (a pretty standard gap year route) and have used those experiences to write an article which I think provides some pretty good advice to anyone (especially students or other gap year travellers like myself) planning a long trip abroad for the first time.
I used Thorn Tree a lot before I went so I hope someone else who is planning a similar trip right now will find my experiences and advice useful.
I'm at Durham so all the quotes are from university friends here - but you'll find they're all related to pretty common travelling experiences!
Travel disaster= great story?
Why is it that the horror stories from our travels are always the ones we love to tell? Have a smooth flight, get through customs, find a cab and get to your hotel with no problems and you probably won’t mention it to anyone. But face a ten hour delay, get ripped off by a cab driver and find out your passport expires the day before you fly home, chances are you’ll spend longer telling that story than you do talking about the rest of your holiday.
Some of my favourite stories include the time a friend was held for three hours at US customs, along with a Costa Rican pimp, as he’d changed his hairstyle since having his passport photo taken (both were eventually let into the country), me personally being mouse-clicks away from booking seats on an airline the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) described as ‘unable to meet international safety standards’, and the guy who arrived in Bangkok to find the photo page of his passport had been cut out by a dodgy official at Indian customs. There are also, obviously, the gruesome skiing accidents, summer camp jobs that turned out to be more like sweat shops and the girls that had an awesome time in the four star hotel they were sent off to after their airline cancelled their flight... only to later have all their expense claims refused as they didn’t have the right sort of receipts.
The FCO helped countless British nationals abroad this year – be that pointing people in the right direction of legal advice or liaising with families looking to repatriate a loved one back to the UK after a stay in a foreign hospital.
Obviously there are limits to what they can do – don’t expect your own personal Mark Darcy flying over to rescue you if you get pulled up on a drugs charge in Thailand (see the FCO’s YouTube for some pretty harrowing videos of British Citizens who are currently being held in South American jails if you want to see what the experience of getting caught drug trafficking is really like) – but being aware of what they can help you with and reading their travel advice before you go can help you avoid some potential disasters.
The FCO provides constantly updated advice organised by country on their website (www.fco.gov.uk/travel) and is useful both before you go and whilst you’re away. They remind you to buy comprehensive travel insurance, get your jabs and check you’ve got all the right visas.
“I got mugged at gunpoint whilst on a night time coach trip in Guatemala. They took each of us off individually, made us empty our pockets, and then tied us up and left us” , says Tom, a Cuth’s second year. His advice? “I’d say if you get told not to travel at night, then don’t.”
On a longer trip, like a gap year or a year abroad, you can easily go weeks without turning on the TV or picking up a newspaper to get any sort of news, so it can be hard to keep up with travel advice. Luckily pretty much everyone has a smartphone these days though, so you can follow the FCO (@FCOtraveladvice) on Twitter for quick updates when you are on the go. For those with a smartphone, there’s a free app called Plan.Pack.Explore that will give you access to handy tips for travellers, the FCO’s Twitter updates as well as contact details for the nearest British Embassy so you know who to contact if things do go wrong. You can get your hands on a hard copy by visiting the website at www.fco.gov.uk/publications.
Sometimes it feels like the traveller’s mantra is ‘there’s no such thing as a bad experience as long as it’s a good story’. When I asked a few people what their worst experience abroad had been, we all inevitably ended up trying to outdo each other with our horror stories. A Chad’s third year had her laptop and all her cards stolen in the first week of her year abroad in Argentina, spending the next three months living off money wired to her each week by her parents, whilst a boy from Aidan’s (who will remain unnamed) said that ‘Without a shadow of a doubt, the worst thing that happened to me was getting an STI in Australia’. He had to shell out $400 on treatment. Then there are the so-close-it’s-scary ones, including the fresher who was admitted to hospital with suspected malaria after she got back from Indonesia. She only found out she should have been taking malaria tablets after she came down with suspicious symptoms (luckily it turned out not to be malaria and she made a full recovery). Exploring the unknown is part of the fun when it comes to travel (and even more fun when you’re laughing about your experiences afterwards). Let’s face it, after getting comprehensive travel insurance and making sure all your vaccinations are up to date – which the Plan.Pack.Explore app can help you with as it allows you to set reminders for the essentials such as taking out emergency money supplies or copying your important travel documents – reading up on and respecting the laws and customs of your destination and just relying on your common sense will help you navigate through whatever situation you are presented with whilst away.
You can also go to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website at www.fco.gov.uk/travel and follow them on Facebook (www.facebook.com/fcotravel) or Twitter (www.twitter.com/fcotravel).
Feb 13, 2013 7:29 PM
1Exactly! This is the philosophy I live by and that I often try to promote on this forum. Some people plan their trip obsessively and end up with.... guess what... a 100% predictable and 100% boring vacation!!! and whenever there is a problem or hiccup in their trip, they immediately consider the vacation ruined. What a boring attitude!!! I sometimes plan to NOT plan. I always consider a problem a challenge and a potential good story. For example, the moment I was taken to secondary screening when flying into the US and inspectors revealed 10 small bags of white powder in my backpack, I knew it was going to be good!! I still get to tell this story every month or two!!
Feb 15, 2013 3:54 AM
2Nice article. A couple of niggles though.
#1. British embassies abroad are practically useless - a joke. Don't expect any help from them. Even if you just visit to say hello you'll be treated as a nuisance at best.
And if you need a (photocopied) letter of introduction in order to get a visa expect to pay around £50 or more for one saying they don't give such letters (which is, however, enough to get you a visa.)
#2. If you took on board the foreign office advice from almost any country - including or maybe evern especially Britain - you'd probably never go anywhere. Use your own common sense and remember bad things happen at home, too.
Feb 17, 2013 9:26 AM
3The "Travel Disaster" genre is well established...and practiced by many major travel writers...
We don't want to hear about the delicious food... the friendly natives...the bars and the beaches...
Misery is interesting as long as its happening to someone else... If you are the one going through it...its not fun at the time...but it tends to stick with you...and may make a story your friends will want to hear...to justify their notion that your trip was a big mistake from the start...
What really happens in travel is long periods where nothing much happens...traffic jams, sitting in airports and train stations....riding in taxis....trying to figure out how the next thing happens...avoiding touts... booking rooms and flights...checking in and out...securing safe baggage storage...
But disaster travel is not the only genre... Nothing bad ever happens on a Rick Steves Trip...
Feb 22, 2013 2:56 AM
Feb 22, 2013 3:04 AM
5Oops! Sorry for that last post, it sent by accident.
I was going to say that I actually think FCO travel advice pretty much can be followed to the T without restricting you too much. They're really good at providing guidelines rather than saying 'don't go here - and we won't tell you anything about it because you shouldn't be there at all'.
I totally agree about the common sense thing though - and I think the FCO emphasise that too, as they often say to monitor local media etc. I suppose the key thing is, even if you choose not to follow advice, that you know what the advice is in the first place, because that way you can make an informed descision.
Whilst I'm travelling it's pretty much what I do - in Bali for example, we got into a non-Bluebird cab in Kuta because we knew that they weren't as reliable, BUT the only other option was to wait in a dark street late at night (2 girls) so we decided getting ripped off a bit for the fare would be worth it in that case. I'm glad we knew that the cab was potentially dodgy though, as it wasn't so much of a suprise when they charged us a lot more than we had been before (and we were super-alert for the potential risks of the driver to do worse...).
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