Everyone makes mistakes when they travel: visa problems, booking on the wrong day, running into problems at the rental car desk, or having a ticketing nightmare. Aviation journalist John Walton explains how to avoid (or at least minimise) them.  

A travel agent hands over tickets to two people who are preparing to go on holiday from across a desk. A laptop and stationary are visible to the left.
It's important to ensure you have the relevant documentation - both physical and digital © VGstockstudio / Shutterstock

Not getting (or renewing) an electronic visa or travel authorisation

For many travellers, the rise of visa-free travel has been a liberating experience, and the growth of electronic visas has reduced the need to go in-person to an embassy for an interview. People from a fair part of the world are now counted as “visa waiver country” travellers as a result.

But in recent years, more and more countries have started using electronic travel authorisations (also known as electronic travel authorities) that must be arranged in advance of travel, replicating the US’ ESTA, Australia’s eVisitor and ETA, and so on.

While these aren’t visas, they’re still mandatory, even if you’re from a visa waiver country. They tend to be valid for a year, which is convenient if you’re travelling to visit family who’ve moved somewhere, but it’s easy to forget if you’re returning to a destination. 

Read more: Is it better to book long haul connections with the same airline when planning a trip?

The thing is, it’s not a particularly memorable process: you do it in front of a computer or even on a smartphone, and most systems won’t send you a reminder that your electronic travel authorisation is about to expire.

Airlines aren’t especially good about explaining what you need either — until you get to the check-in desk and discover you can’t travel without one. There may be an airline or ground handler desk that (with a fee for their help) can submit an urgent request for one, but sometimes this won’t come through in time and you’re out of luck.

So, whenever I receive one of these authorisations, I tend to add a reminder to my calendar to renew them one month before their expiration.

A related mistake: paying third-party companies for electronic travel authorisations if they’re free. There are loads of scammy companies out there buying up online advertising, so check somewhere reputable like Lonely Planet to see whether there’s actually a fee before forking out any money.

A man is using his phone outdoors at a desk. To his left is a notebook and a half-empty cup of coffee.
Double, triple, quadruple-check your dates © Chz_mhOng/Shutterstock

Booking the wrong dates — especially checkout date

With the wildly different ways booking calendars work, it’s all too easy to get mixed up with your dates, especially when organising accommodation.

Some places ask you to click on your last night with them, others on your checkout date. Always do a double-check.

And like many travellers, I’ve certainly booked hotels for the wrong month by mistake. Normally, if you catch any problem like this within 24h of booking the travel or accommodation provider will be able to help, although you may be out a small fee. 

Read more: The dos and don’ts of flying etiquette from a frequent traveller

That’s one of the reasons I always input my flights and accommodation into my calendar manually as soon as I get the booking email in: it’s a handy check.

And don’t forget that the US uses the month-day-year format for dates, which is the opposite to most of the rest of the world. Booking for the 1st of December rather than the 12th of January can be a bit of a surprise… 

Forgetting about manual transmissions in rental cars 

If you’ve never driven a manual (stickshift, or standard transmission) car before, the airport rental car parking lot is very much not the place to learn.

Even in some countries where automatic transmissions are the norm, the lowest price cars can sometimes be a manual, so always double-check the details of any car you book — especially if it’s from a discounter, third-party site or not from one of the name brand car rental places. 

A man's hand is placed on a steering wheel in a car. The glare of the sun is visible through the drivers' seat window.
Your license may be valid at home, but not necessarily abroad © welcomia / shutterstock

Not thinking about an international driving permit 

Many of us are used to just turning up at a rental car place and whizzing off in a car with our licenses these days. But there are still quite a few countries, even among the most frequently visited, where an international driving permit is needed.

An IDP is a small booklet you usually purchase for a small fee from a motoring association in your home country, which basically translates your licence into one of three international formats. 

Read more: How to make the best of a long-haul flight

There are some countries that officially require an IDP but where you’ll almost never be asked to show it, and some countries vary the requirement based on the length of stay. You’ll likely need one if your licence isn’t in English, and make sure you get the one with the right format — known as the 1926, 1949 or 1968 convention formats.

(Frustratingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, some of the companies where you buy your IDP tend to say “yes you need one” in some cases where you don’t. Check somewhere reputable like Lonely Planet while doing your research.) 

Close-up of a woman holding a smartphone.
Online booking requires a lot of diligence to make sure you don't get ripped-off © Towfiqu Photography/Getty Images

Booking flights via a third-party website or online travel agency 

Last tip: never, if you can avoid it, buy your airline tickets through anyone but the airline itself. That’s especially true for the various “cheap deals” kind of online travel agent.

Saving a few bucks might seem appealing, but if anything at all goes wrong with your journey — a missed connection, a cancelled flight — you may well end up having to call them direct, non-collect, and wait for their customer service team to get around to answering the phone. Even then, they’ll probably have to talk to the airline themselves, which can take days.

Read more: 20 tips on travelling solo from people who have done it

The one exception to this rule might be your friendly local travel agent, if you know them personally, and they are definitely available in the middle of the night when you’re stuck in Shanghai or wherever and need to be rebooked, and you can call them for free via Skype, WhatsApp or something similar. Otherwise? Find your best price, then visit that airline’s website. 

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