The 15 Mistakes First-Time Travelers Often Make

Are you worried that when you go traveling for the first time you will have no idea what you are doing and you will do it all wrong?

Don’t stress out too much about it. I felt the same way when I started traveling. It’s totally normal.

After all, as I often mention on this blog, travel is not something you have to have a special talent for. It’s a skill that anyone can learn if they take the time and put in the effort, like learning to drive a car or speak Spanish. So, it makes sense that the first time you do it, you’ll make a few errors.

I must confess that I was absolutely useless on my first solo travel adventure to Paris and I made so many mistakes. I’m only good at traveling now because I have had so many years of experience – and even now I still make mistakes and do things wrong.

15 Mistakes to Avoid as a New Traveler

This is a list of things that first time travelers often get wrong on their early trips. Consider this a cheat sheet of all of the major mistakes that I have made throughout the years, or I have seen other travelers making. You can learn from them and avoid them in your travels and hopefully have a more enjoyable and successful trip.

Cramming Too Much In

Basílica del Voto Nacional, Quito, Ecuador

As I have written about before on this blog, squeezing too many destinations into your trip is a big mistake. I often tell the story about the young Canadian traveler I met in a hostel in Quito, Ecuador. He was at the very start of a big trip around South America and he had pages and pages of typed itinerary with all of the places he wanted to go.

The countries he wanted to cover included Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. So, pretty much the entire continent.

I asked him how many months he had set aside to travel.

He answered, “Six weeks.”

WHAT?

I tried to explain to him as best I could that you could NOT cover all of those countries successfully in 6 weeks. South America is BIG and he would have to be on long bus journeys every other day to reach all of the destinations he wanted to see. He would be stretched too thin and wouldn’t have enough time to see it all.

I understand why people make this mistake – after all it’s easy to get excited when adding places to your itinerary and go a little bit overboard. But remember – you’re only human and you can only see and do so much within a finite amount of time!

My recommendation was to cut down his list of countries by half, so that he could actually travel at a relaxing pace and enjoy himself in each one. I’m not sure if he took my advice, as he left the hostel early the next morning for his next destination. However, perhaps you will take my advice – it’s better to actually enjoy 3-4 countries than to rush around like a maniac through 6-7 countries.

Being Pretentious About Being A Tourist

I hear this all the time with travelers all over the world. It seems to be the trend to look down on the “tourist” label and call yourself a “traveler” instead.

The tourist sees only what he has come to see.

The traveler sees what he sees.

 

Tourists don’t know where they’ve been.

Travelers don’t know where they’re going.

 

A tourist sticks out.

A traveler blends into the local culture.

 

A tourist eats at McDonalds.

A traveler only eats the local cuisine.

 

We get the idea that tourists are bad and travelers are good… and you know what?

 

I think it’s a bunch of bullshit.

 

It doesn’t matter if you call yourself a “tourist” or a “traveler.” It doesn’t matter if you visit an obscure destination or the world’s most famous landmarks. It doesn’t matter if you go on your own or with a guided tour. It doesn’t matter if you stay in an independent hostel or an all-inclusive resort. It doesn’t matter if you eat food you are familiar with or if you eat the most exotic dish you can find.

I’ve done all of the above at one time or another and I don’t label myself a tourist or a traveler, just a person who goes and enjoys things that interest me in other countries.

Falling Into The Party Hostel Trap

I’ve written about the party hostel trap before – I really think that it’s a mistake that many new travelers make. Party hostels can be a lot of fun, but they can also be an environment where you end up drinking all night, sleeping all day and not really experiencing the destination you came to see.

Don’t get me wrong, it can be really fun to party in a hostel for a few nights. However, it’s sometimes too easy to get sucked into the rhythm of the perpetual party, end up hungover every day and not end up doing anything in your destination. If your only goal for your travels was to get hammered, you could have saved a lot of money by just having some friends over and playing drinking games in your living room.

I love to find a quiet and laid back hostel that is located close to a bigger and more social party hostel, so that I can take advantage of the best of both worlds. When I am in the mood to have a big night of partying I can head over to the hostel bar and make lots of new friends. When I want to get a good sleep and go exploring the next day, I have a quiet space where I can retreat and rest.

Going For The Cheapest Rather Than the Best Value

This hotel room in Kep, Cambodia cost us around $12 per night
This hotel room in Kep, Cambodia cost us around $12 per night

Another mistake that first time budget backpackers often make is choosing the cheapest option rather than looking for the best value.

I can understand this completely. When you are backpacking on a budget, you want to make your travel funds stretch as far as possible, so you choose the cheapest accommodation, transport and food. However, sometimes that can involve you suffering needlessly when you could have had a much better experience for not much more.

I saw this a lot in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam when Lee and I were looking for hotel rooms. Often, we could find a hotel room for as little as $5-8 USD per night. However, it was often a poorly maintained hotel room, or in a bad location, or the internet didn’t work, etc. We found that if we paid a little bit more and looked for hotel rooms at $10-$12 per night, all of those issues were solved and we could find clean, comfortable rooms in good locations with (relatively) reliable internet. For the extra few dollars, these hotels offered much better value.

Additionally, you’ll want to consider value when choosing transport as well. When the cheap bus will take 12 hours and the slightly more expensive minibus will get you there in 8 hours, you have to consider what those 4 hours (and your comfort) are worth.

It depends on your budget and what is important to you, but do consider that the best value isn’t always the cheapest option.

Not Trusting Your Instincts

If you get that feeling in your stomach that something is dodgy, it’s a good idea to listen to it!

Unfortunately, I have heard many stories about travelers who felt like a situation sounded suspicious, but went along with it because they didn’t want to offend anyone or they were not confident enough to speak up. These stories often end badly. I’ve also heard many travelers say that then they end up in a bad situation, they had ignored a nagging gut warning beforehand.

Your instincts can be a powerful thing if you learn to listen to them. Wandering Earl has some amazing stories in this blog post about paying attention to his gut feeling (there’s also some great insight in the comments.)

He mentions leaving Istanbul the day before the attack happened in Sultanahmet, where 10 tourists were killed right next to where he was staying. He left because something just didn’t feel right. “My gut started telling me,” he says, “quite clearly, to get out of town.”

Your travel instincts don’t have to be this dramatic – it could simply be that you have the feeling that a taxi driver is lying to you about how far away your destination is, or that you shouldn’t walk down a particular street at night. Your subconscious mind picks up on a lot of danger cues that your conscious mind isn’t even aware of and that “gut feeling” is how it sends you a signal that something isn’t right.

The key is to listen to your gut and pay attention to how the situation feels. The great thing about this is that you’ll get better at it the more you travel and your instincts will become more and more accurate.

Overpacking

I have to admit, I am completely guilty of doing this on my first trip. I went traveling around Europe for three weeks and I took a HUGE suitcase. In retrospect, I should have taken a backpack, that suitcase was way too big for a three month trip.

I filled it with all sorts of useless stuff, including nearly ALL of my art supplies because I was a pretentious little art student and I wanted to sit on the banks of the Seine in Paris and paint the reflections of the moon in the water. I also brought way more clothes than I needed – I’m sure there were outfits in there that I never even wore! The suitcase was stuffed to the brim and I had trouble doing up the zippers.

I learned my lesson when the metal extendable handle of the suitcase broke as I was trying to lug it up the stairs in the Metro in Amsterdam. There was just too much stress on the handle due to the weight.

If I were to do it again, I would take about half of what I took with me on that trip. I would choose basic clothing items, like simple dresses, t-shirts and pants and then make them look distinct by adding different scarves and accessories. I would also take a smaller notebook and a travel-size set of coloured pencils for sketching!

Not Understanding That You Can Use An ATM

Here’s another embarrassing story about yours truly, when I was a newbie traveler. When I went to Europe for the first time, I didn’t really understand that I could simply use my Canadian bank card or credit card in an ATM and take out local currency.

I was freaking out about how I could take money with me on my trip. I knew that I shouldn’t carry thousands of dollars worth of cash with me, but what was the solution? I did some research by reading guide books from the library and many of them suggested travelers checks. Now I realise just how silly this was and how outdated many of these books must have been.

I put all of my travel savings into travelers checks and took them to Europe with me. I looked like an absolute idiot when I tried to cash them in Paris. I also felt like an idiot when I realised that I could have just taken my credit card and used it to withdraw Euros from an ATM. That’s what I did for the entire trip – my travelers checks sat unused and I put them all back into my account when I got home.

Not Getting a Local SIM Card

Getting a local SIM Card for your phone is one of the most convenient, money-saving things that you can do on your travels. It’s one of the first things that Lee does when we arrive in a new country. It offers so many advantages, such as:

  • We can use Google maps to find our way around the city and understand the public transport system.
  • We can read Tripadvisor reviews before we walk into a restaurant, so that we can choose somewhere good to eat.
  • If something sounds dodgy, we can Google the business right away and find out if it is legitimate.
  • If necessary, we can call a hotel and make a booking while we are on the road.

In order to do this, you’ll need to unlock your phone. You can find instructions for this online by simply Googling, “How to unlock (your type of phone.)” You’ll also need to know what size of SIM card your phone uses, as some of them will have the regular size while others will use those itty bitty micro-SIM cards.

Not Googling Common Scams

Before you go somewhere new, type “Common Scams in (Your Destination)” into Google and see what you find.

If you have been reading this blog for awhile, you might think that I am starting to sound like a broken record with this advice. I really do say it a lot. However, I think it’s one of the easiest and most effective ways to avoid scams.

Think about it – the internet is a powerful resource. If anyone has experienced a scam or been ripped off in your destination, there is a chance that they are going to write about it online – whether on social media, their own blog, a review website or a forum. When you find that information, it will inform you on what to watch out for so that you don’t fall victim to the same scam.

Assuming That if No-one Says Anything, What You Are Doing is Acceptable

This is a big one. I’ve seen many travelers do things that are considered quite inappropriate in other countries and then assume that they haven’t done anything wrong because no one has come up to them and told them, point blank, that they are being rude.

This often happens in Asian cultures and in order to understand why, you have to comprehend the concept of “saving face.” In many Asian countries it is more acceptable to let someone do something wrong rather than point out that they are wrong.

So, let’s imagine that you are wearing a short skirt and a crop top at a Buddhist temple in Thailand. Yes, what you are doing is highly inappropriate. It’s a place of worship and you should cover up out of respect. However, if you were in the Western World and doing something equally inappropriate you would expect to be told that you were doing something wrong.

In Thailand, chances are no one will tell you and they will just smile politely at you. It’s not in their culture to be confrontational with strangers and they will avoid mentioning it so that everyone involved can “save face.”

Because of this concept of saving face, which is prevalent in a lot of Asian cultures, you cannot use, “Well, no one has said anything to me so this must be acceptable” as a reliable way to judge how you should act. Wearing short shorts to a temple and dining shirtless in a cafe is disrespectful, whether or not someone calls you out on it.

Don’t rely on the locals to tell you when you are doing something inappropriate – do your research first and find out how you can be respectful to the local culture.

Not Reading About Local Tipping Culture

Tipping is part of the local culture in North America

The rules for tipping are different all over the world. The restaurant staff won’t usually ask you for a tip (unless they are incredibly straightforward) – it’s just something you are expected to know. If you haven’t done your research, you could get it wrong and leave a bad impression. Make sure that you read about the local tipping culture before you go – here’s a helpful guide.

In some countries the tip may already be added to your bill. In other countries, it’s generally given as an option on the credit card machine when you make your payment. In some places, you are expected to leave a tip in cash on the table after you eat your meal. In some countries you are also expected to tip the person who helps you with your bags at the hotel, the cleaning staff at the hotel, your taxi driver, your tour guide and nearly everyone you encounter in a service profession.

In some places such as Australia, New Zealand and the UK the wait staff are paid a livable wage and they don’t rely on customers to supplement their wage with tips. You can leave a tip if you really want to, but it’s not expected.

In fact, there are many countries around the world where tipping just isn’t a thing. In Japan if you leave extra money on the table your server will wonder why you’ve done so. They might even find it slightly insulting, but they would never mention it to your face (see above point).  

In the USA, wait staff are only paid a few dollars an hour and rely on tips to make up their wage, so tipping is expected. In America, leaving a restaurant without tipping is a big “Fuck you” to your server and they will be left thinking that you are a cheapskate or wondering what they did to offend you.

Incredibly, by not tipping you may be leaving them out of pocket. Tips are shared among the cooking and service staff and are calculated as a percentage of the total billed, so if you omit the tip the server can even end up owing the restaurant!

Personally, I hate the tipping culture in the USA. I think that restaurants should pay their servers a fair wage and not expect customers to pay 20% more on every meal they eat. However, when I am in the USA I still tip the expected amount. It would be rude not to. When you’re in another country it’s best to respect the local culture, even if it seems strange to you.

Overpaying for Airport Taxis

One of the most common situations where I see travelers overpaying is when they get a taxi from the airport to their hotel after arriving in their destination for the first time. Taxi drivers around the world have a tendency to charge inflated prices for those who have just arrived, as they will assume that you don’t know the typical price that you should be paying. (Also, since you will have no idea where you are going, they also have been known to take you the long way around to increase the cost of the journey.)

It’s pretty simple to avoid overpaying for airport taxis. One tactic is just to avoid taking them. Nearly every airport in the world will have an alternative service for getting from the arrivals terminal to the main city, whether it is a bus system, shuttle service, underground metro or other form of public transport. This will often be much cheaper and more reliable than a taxi, so it’s worth looking into it.

If you do decide to take a taxi from the airport, do some research in advance. If you know what the taxi is supposed to cost, you’ll know whether or not you are being ripped off. Also, find out how to tell the difference between official and unofficial taxis and how to choose one that is safe and regulated. It will be different with every country you go to, but thanks to the internet the information is available to you.

Not Haggling

Another one of the big mistakes that I see first-time travelers making is not haggling over prices. I get it, if you are from a culture that doesn’t haggle it can be strange and intimidating. It’s tempting just to accept the first price that someone offers you, especially if it still seems relatively cheap.

However, there are some cultures where haggling is the norm. When you are negotiating the price of a taxi ride or buying something in a local market, it is expected that the first price someone quotes you will be wildly inflated. Your role is to know approximately what the item should cost and counter the seller with a lower offer. You’ll go back and forth a little bit, then reach a price somewhere in the middle that makes you both happy.

This can feel really uncomfortable for people who aren’t used to haggling. It feels like you are undervaluing someone’s products or services when you try to pay less. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. Rest assured that the vendor is deliberately inflating his or her price and they are expecting you to argue them down.  

Lee and I saw a German girl who ended up paying more than twice what we did for a tuk tuk ride to the Killing Fields. It was because she simply took the first price that the tuk tuk driver quoted her. She could have easily negotiated him down and he wouldn’t have been offended.

The person that you are haggling with is not the enemy, they are just doing their job. If you leave emotion out of it, haggling doesn’t have to be stressful. Here is a great article about the art of haggling and how to do it with grace, so that it becomes a positive cultural interaction and not a stressful confrontation.

Wearing “Travel Clothes” in Cities

Ernest and Mary Hemingway on Safari in Kenya, 1923.

Your khaki-coloured vest has 24 pockets, is made of lightweight breathable fabric, is water-resistant and quick drying and has UPF sun guard. It would be a great thing to wear while on safari in Africa or camping in the Outback… but why are you wearing it while on a walking tour in the historic centre in Prague?

Wearing special “travel clothing” and gear looks really strange when you are in a city and it will immediately make you stand out as a tourist. Of course, as I mentioned before there’s nothing wrong with being a tourist. However, there’s also no reason to look so ridiculous when you are sightseeing.

When you are in an urban environment, you can simply wear the same normal clothing that you would wear back home. You don’t have to have a safari vest or khaki trousers when sightseeing in Rome or London – just a normal outfit of jeans and a t-shirt will do just fine.

The only thing you should be thinking about is whether your outfit is appropriate to the level of religious modesty in that country. For example, if you are a woman sightseeing in Marrakech, Delhi or Saudi Arabia or anywhere similar, you’ll want to cover your shoulders and legs so you don’t shock the locals or receive unwanted attention.

Comparing Prices to Home, Not The Destination

Even when the price of something in your destination seems reasonable compared to the prices you are used to at home, you could still be overpaying.

Let me explain this one with an example.

You are on Khao San Road in Bangkok and you flag down a taxi to take you to MBK (the main shopping centre). He quotes you a fixed rate of 250 Baht. That’s only about $8, which would be a cheap rate for a cab journey of that length back home in the Western World. So, you pay it without thinking.

However, if the taxi driver used his meter for the journey (as he is legally required to do), then the trip should only cost around 80 baht ($2.50).

You were happy with the inflated price of $8, because it seemed like a cheap price compared to what you would pay back home. However, the real price is much cheaper still. You’ll need to adjust your thinking and compare the prices to the economy that you are in, so that you can understand them within the context.

Don’t make these new traveler mistakes.

These are a few of the mistakes that I see travelers making again and again when they are on the road for the first time. Now that you know about them, you can try to keep them in mind when you travel and avoid making these mistakes yourself.

Don’t worry too much if you have already made them. Travel is a skill and it’s something that we learn with practice – and sometimes by trial and error.

Have you made any other mistakes that you would like to add to the list? Let us know in the comments below!

Kelly Dunning

A Canadian freelance writer with a love of art, culture, literature and adventure, Kelly loves exploring foreign lands and expressing her experiences through the power of the written word.

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12 Comments

  1. Great list! We’ve made our mistakes along the way while becoming more savvy over the years. There is a huge difference between experienced travelers and tourists. Being pretentious, arrogant even, overpacking, and not respecting local customs are well stated. This should be a must-read for anyone getting ready to head-out for the first few times.

  2. omg so many good points!!! I am actually about to write a post in defence of mcdonalds/big chain eateries because while I am *of course* a traaaaaveler and not a stinking tourist 😛 sometimes Maccas or Starbucks is the best option.

    I also love your point about, just because no one says anything doesnt mean it’s ok. Travel with respect <3 <3 <3

  3. Those are some wonderful tips and even as a seasoned traveler, we’re guilty of some of them. A little research on the destination before the trip can be very helpful in avoiding most of these pitfalls.

  4. Some great tips. I particularly like pointing out the ATM trick. It makes it so easier that you don’t have to worry about carrying too much cash but having easy access to it.

  5. Brilliant post – I think we’ve all made these mistakes >< and even after 8 years of travel, I still make them sometimes! Definitely recommend getting a SIM card, trying to avoid overpacking and just making sure that you give yourself some goddamn rest! Travel is tough – take a break on your break <3

  6. Love this post, not least that you call out the whole bullshit about travellers versus tourists because, unless you are moving permanently somewhere, or there longterm for work, yup, you’re a tourist. For sure there are ugly tourists and considerate ones, but we’re all tourists! Loved the rest of the tips too, like not cramming in too much, making sure you’re aware of common scams in that destination but that point stood out!

  7. I enjoyed reading through your comprehensive list of mistakes to avoid. It’s apparent that you learned some good lessons the hard way and I’m sure many will appreciate you steering them clear! I could really relate to not cramming too much into your itinerary and not packing too many items in your bag!

    1. Thanks Tami! Yes, I am still sometimes pretty bad about gathering too much stuff in my bag. I have to periodically do a “clear out” where I try to pare it down to the essentials again – otherwise I end up with a very sore back!

  8. Great post! We’ve all been there; the over packing and getting ripped off in a market store. It’s all part of the process and learning experiences that come with being a traveler.

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