Learning from your travel mistakes

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Forgetting to read the fine print. Not packing a change of clothes. Confusing a.m. and p.m.

In a previous column, I asked you to tell me about your worst travel mistakes. Did you ever!

And if I could generalize about the types of screw-ups most common to travelers, I'd say they're not errors of commission as much as they are errors of omission: leaving something out, forgetting to verify a reservation, or just making an incorrect assumption.

Full disclosure: I bristle when anyone calls me a travel "expert" because the more I travel, the less I realize that I know. But refer to me as an expert on mistakes, and I'll agree. I've made more than a few big errors during my career as a writer, and as a traveler. I even wrote my college thesis on errors.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that in discussing your travel mistakes, I'm well aware that I've made my share. Hey, it's what makes us human. And after all, it's not so much the error that matters — it's what we learn from it.

That's why you're reading this.

Here are some of my favorite mistakes:

SHOW ME THE RATE

When David Emery returned his rental car in Sweden, an agent handed him a receipt for $120 a day, or $360. "The rate I'd been quoted was $120 for three days," he says. Emery had a printout of the guaranteed rate, and was in a hurry to catch a plane, so he didn't argue.

Too bad he didn't learn from that mistake. It happened to him again. Now he doesn't go anywhere without a printout of the car rental rate, and he never leaves the rental office unless he pays the price he expected.

ASSUME NOTHING

Chris Sandberg got a notice that his United Airlines miles were about to expire, but was told he could preserve the miles by earning points by staying at a Starwood hotel. You'd assume that it's as simple as that — but no.

"After my stay, I was credited with points in the Starwood program, but not with United," he says. Why? Turns out Starwood could only "convert" blocks of 1,000 points at a time. The hotel was happy to sell him another 200 points so that he could rescue his miles.

If he'd made arrangements with United beforehand, that might have been avoided. Which is exactly what Sandberg now does before making a reservation: he calls to find out if he should expect any surprises.

THE MEXICAN CAR INSURANCE SURPRISE

If you don't know about the Mexican car insurance scam, here are the details. Basically, insurance in Mexico is a "requirement" and added to your bill over and above the agreed-upon rate.

Haven't heard of it? Neither had Kimberly Williams when she rented a car in Cancun through Travelocity recently. "We got the cheapest policy, but it cost an extra 15 bucks a day for a compact car," she says.

On overseas rentals, no matter what your travel agent tells you, always check with the car rental company to find out if there are any additional requirements.

WE DIDN'T NEED A CAR, AFTER ALL

Sara Rueben thought she needed to rent a car when she visited Sydney, Australia. She thought wrong. "We stayed at the Wyndham, which is pretty much in the heart of the city," she remembers. "Then we got to the resort and realized that not only did we not need it because the public transportation was more than adequate, but there was also a $30 per night fee to park."

That ended up being a $100 mistake. Next time she visits a big city, she vows to phone the resort ahead of time to find out if she really needs a vehicle.

YOU SAY CHUCK — I SAY CHARBEL

When Chuck Andary booked a ticket from Detroit to Los Angeles, he never considered that his legal name — Charbel — might render his ticket useless. But then he saw the Transportation Security Administration's new Secure Flight rules, and called his online travel agent, Expedia, for advice.

It couldn't change the name on his ticket, and his airline wouldn't either. "Is it possible that I can get through TSA?" he wondered.

The answer is: yes. TSA is phasing Secure Flight, which requires that the name on your ID match your ticket, in over this year. But next time, Andary might not be so lucky.

A.M. OR P.M.?

Cyndi Russell booked a flight for her son to attend summer camp, but she confused the initials "a" and "p" on the airline site. Big mistake.

"The week of the flight, I received a "time to check-in" e-mail, and I was horrified to see that I had purchased a ticket for 8:40 p.m. instead of 8:40 a.m.," she says. "I should have seen the mistake, but the difference was very tiny."

Her airline wanted $500 to fix the mistake — a change fee, plus the full fare ticket." She'll pay closer attention next time, I'm sure.

CHECK FOR ADDITIONAL FEES WHEN YOU RENT

Britt Skrivanek didn't. "I got socked with a $13 a day fee from Hertz for a recent rental for adding my spouse as an additional driver," he says. "The rental agent told me there was no fee for spouses. After returning the car three days later I got a bill with the fee on it."

Extra fees are the lifeblood of car rental companies, airlines, hotels and cruise lines. If you're traveling, chances are someone isn't too far away with an outstretched hand, asking for more money. Don't get broadsided by that scheme.

ALWAYS EXPECT DELAYS — AND PACK ACCORDINGLY

Maryann Portone made this rookie mistake when she started flying: "To avoid carrying a lot on to the plane, I put all of my clothes and sundries into my checked luggage," she says. But when her luggage was delayed for 24 hours, she had to go on a shopping trip to buy shampoo, toothpaste and other necessities. "I had to sleep in my clothes for one night and couldn't go to the pool or the beach until the third day of my five-day vacation," she adds.

Since then, she always packs a spare pair of underwear and travel-size sundries in her carry-on bag — just in case.

This list of errors is by no means complete. In fact, I'm willing to bet you have a few of your favorites to add. And that's not a bad idea.

Making a list of your mistakes, or at least remembering them, will ensure you learn from them. It will turn you into a better traveler.

(Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org, or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org).

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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