Travel advice for dummies

Arizona Landscape

I’ve travelled to a new place every other week for the past 9 months. That should make me a seasoned traveller. And it does to a certain extent. Getting to any location by public transport in a city I’ve never been to and whose language I don’t speak doesn’t scare me anymore. I know how to pack light and how to look less like a tourist.

But when it comes to airports, immigration and paper work, I’m useless. I don’t do any research; just get the absolutely essential stuff done if I’m lucky.

If you’re a seasoned traveller, go do something else in the next 5 minutes, this post is not for you (unless you want to have a laugh). But if you’re a dummy at certain aspects of travel like myself, read on.

In-flight Costa Rica to Mexico

17 May  2014


I arrived in my hostel in San Jose at 11 pm after a 6 hour bus ride from Cahuita last night. It’s supposed to be 4 hours normally, but we had some trouble on the way.

I’ve got up at 5:30 this morning to catch my flight at 9:30 at San Jose airport only 15 minutes away from my hostel. That might seem overly cautious, and it is. I don’t normally go that early. But I’m glad I did this time.

The bus came 5 minutes after I got to the stop and I was at the airport little after 7. Plenty of time, I thought. So I immediately wasted 20 minutes looking for the entrance. You’d really have to try hard to miss the entrance of an airport you might think… and you’d be right.

Once in, I go to the self-check-in kiosk. I’m well prepared, I have my code printed so I just scan it along with my passport to get a boarding pass, but I get this instead: “Unfortunately, we are unable to fulfill your request.” No big surprise there…

High in spirits, I join the check-in queue. A good 10 minutes later, still in the queue, an airline agent tells me that I can’t check in without paying the departure tax first. Nice. At least they told before I actually made it to the counter.

After 10 minutes in another line, I get to pay $29 for leaving the country, I guess. I don’t care at this point, just let me get on that flight.

So I join the check in queue for the second time. Another 10 minutes in line and I’m finally about to check in.

Only, the airline agent tells me he can’t check me in without completing an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) application.


I’m about to check in and you tell me now?

(I know it’s my responsibility to check the requirements of the country I’m travelling to. I just don’t see why airlines don’t take the trouble to send out an email – which would cost them close to nothing – warning idiots such as myself to double check. If they only spent 1% of the money they spend on fancy videos showing us how to buckle up the seat belt on informing people, we’d all be better off.)

So he writes the website URL on a piece of paper, I connect to the airport Wi-Fi, which is painstakingly slow, and start filling in the form. All the usual personal details first. And then questions like: Have you ever been criminally convicted? Are you a pedophile or a rapist? Do you have any communicable disease? Are you a spy?

No. But if I was, I’d be sure to tell you.

So I complete the form, click next, and wait minutes for the page to load.

Some required information is missing. For fucks sake…

The form loads again, I put my country of residence for the 5th time and proceed to pay the $14 fee.

I would, but nothing happens. I wait. Then I wait some more. Nothing happens so I go back to the airline agent to seek help. He tells me to start over, which doesn’t strike me as a good idea as it took 20 minutes to get where I am.

Another airline agent warns me that I mustn’t leave my luggage unattended so I go back to my bag, grab it along with my passport and bunch of papers, I have my laptop in my other hand and I walk back to the check in counter looking like a fully decorated Christmas tree.

I only have 15 minutes before boarding at this point.

I suddenly remember I have pop ups blocked in my browser, so I unblock them to see if it helps. I go to the ESTA home page again and retrieve my application. I fill in my name, date of birth, country of residence and passport number for, what feels like, the 1000th time. I enter my card number, expiration date and security code and click pay now.

„Please wait, this transaction may take a few minutes.” It does.

But finally, it goes through.

After two hours of standing in line, filling in forms and paying fees, I’m finally checked in.

The airline agent tells me I should feel lucky that this application can be done online now. It’s a new system and without it, I would not have been able to check in at all. So I am feeling lucky.

Only a few minutes before boarding time, I rush to immigrations, my passport is checked quickly and I stand in line at security. I remember to take off my belt, but forget to take my laptop out of my bag so they ask me to. They also ask me to take off my shoes.

I rush towards gate number two and see that boarding is already in progress and I know I’m going to make it. I join the queue, flash my boarding pass and passport and have my bag searched manually for the final time just to make sure I’m not carrying a bag of coke or a live tortoise.

The flight is now airborne and I’m looking down at what I think is the pacific coast of Costa Rica as I’m writing this. And I’m thinking, there must be some lessons I can take away from all this.

Lesson No. 1.

Don’t be an idiot. Don’t assume anything.

If you make an assumption, also assume that your assumptions are going to be wrong more often than not.

The process of entering into a new country has been exactly the same for the past 7 months. So I assumed it would be the same this time as well. The only thing I forgot was that my connection was in Dallas, US territory, which changed everything.

I was asked for my yellow fever vaccination certificate as I was boarding my flight from Brazil to Costa Rica. Luckily I had it on me. Just because I never needed it before I assumed I wouldn’t need it.

Assumptions are not helpful for travelling.

Lesson No. 2.

Go way early.

Unless it’s a trip you’ve taken several times, go to the airport much earlier than you are supposed to. Take a good book and if everything goes to plan, you’ll get some quality time reading. But if you’re going somewhere new, there is always going to be another form to fill, another tax to pay and another line to stand in. Just go there way early. This is going to help tremendously to stay cool.

Lesson No. 3.

Stay cool.

When shit happens, you can choose how you react to it. Getting (or rather staying) aggravated rarely helps to resolve any situation. Certainly easier said than done, but reminding yourself of the worst thing that can happen helps a great deal. What if I hadn’t been allowed to board this plane? Change my plans, lose some money, and spend some more time in one of the most beautiful countries of the planet. It’s almost never as bad as panic makes you think.


On a bus between Los Angeles and San Francisco

1 June 2014

I usually don’t shy away from sharing my mistakes but this one was so dumb that it made me hesitate.

I booked 5 individual flights at the same time about three months ago, some involving three different airports.

I stayed in Chihuahua city in a state of Mexico also called Chihuahua for the last two weeks. The day before my flight, I wanted to check in online and print my boarding pass, but the site didn’t work. I called the airline. They said it’s because another airline was operating one of the connections. Whatever, I thought.

I asked my friend to take me to Chihuahua airport at 4 am on Saturday, which he did. The same airport I landed at. On the way we joked about missing flights and told stories when we almost did. I said I was always scared about messing up my flight and going to the wrong airport. He said this time I was all good as long as my flight departed from the airport CUU. That’s when I got worried. I seemed to remember CDJ.

I checked my booking. I went to the wrong airport. The right one was also in Chihuahua state, only 3 hours north from Chihuahua city.

After a few seconds of disbelief mixed with anger, panic and frustration, I realized I was not getting on that flight. There was nothing I could do.

Admitting and accepting that, actually calmed me down fairly quickly.

I asked the airline what it would cost to reschedule my flight: $500. Booking a new flight would cost the same. Other airlines would charge the same. It wasn’t looking good.

I knew that my only other option was going by bus (I had to be in San Francisco before Monday), which I dreaded.  I’d done a 14 hour bus ride in Ecuador and didn’t like it one bit.

Trying to minimize the damage, I took the bus still.

I left Chihuahua Saturday morning 9 am on Saturday and spent the following 22 hours on the bus. I had a window seat, a fat man next to me, and didn’t sleep one minute. When I arrived in Los Angeles Sunday morning at 7 to catch a connection to San Francisco, I felt and probably looked like the walking dead.

It’s 5 pm now, and I’m only an hour away from San Francisco. It’ll have been a 30 hour bus ride by the time I get there. This second bus has been much more comfortable, boasted a wifi that worked most of the time, and the people sitting around me proved to be great company.

I’ve been up for 40 hours now and am trying to think how I could avoid cock-ups like this in the future.

I broke rule number one. I assumed that I was flying out from the same airport I landed at, because it also had Chihuahua in its name and because why would I not fly from the same airport?

Wrong. Don’t assume anything.

I broke rule number two, didn’t go early enough. It was an early flight so I had to choose between essentially not getting any sleep the night before or going to the airport just in time. If I’d gone way early, I might have had a chance to go to the other airport.

Rule number three I didn’t break. After a short episode of losing it completely, I pulled myself together. And probably that’s why I’m thinking of this whole incident as an adventure rather than a  nightmare.