Cliffs of Moher in Ireland seen on a misty day by the ocean.

18 mistakes to avoid when traveling abroad

(Last Updated On: March 30, 2021)

When I first began traveling overseas, I had no idea what I was doing.  I was not the same person I am today – the type who does due diligence on the places I visit.  No, I went in blind, every time.  And I made all of these mistakes.  Every. Single. One.  Not once, but multiple times.  So I’ve compiled some lessons I’ve learned along the way – 18 mistakes to avoid while traveling abroad.

mistakes to avoid when traveling abroad

Amsterdam buildings reflected on a canal.
Amsterdam, Netherlands, 2018

This is especially important if you have limited time, or if it’s your first time in a new city and you’d like to see all of the major attractions it has to offer.  Depending on where you are and what attraction you’re visiting, the lines can be UNREAL.  Try getting into the Louvre without a ticket in July and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Or Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam – it ain’t happening, particularly in the current situation with the pandemic.

There are a couple of ways you can go about pre-purchasing your tickets.  One option is to invest in a ‘city pass.’  In my experience, all of the major European cities have them.  These passes include admission to a number of tourist attractions as well as the benefit of not having to wait in line.  

Personally, I have never purchased a city pass.  Your best option is to check out what sites are included in the pass, figure out whether it’s financially worth it, and go from there.  

Another option is to compile a list of the places you’d like to go, visit their respective websites, and purchase online.  Not every attraction is going to sell their tickets online, but the major ones certainly will.  This is generally what I do.  It saves a lot of stress as well as time waiting in queues. If you plan on doing a lot of sightseeing, this is one of the most important mistakes to avoid when traveling abroad.

2. not getting a local SIM or International Phone plan

This is a mistake I’ve made too many times.  It will save you time, frustration, and maybe even some tears.  I recently changed my phone plan (on T-Mobile) to include international text and data.  My monthly bill only went up by about ten dollars (taxes and fees are included in their international plan).  It was such a weight off of my shoulders to not worry about getting lost or missing things. If you plan on traveling long-term, this option is only valid for 3 months – getting a local SIM is the best option.

For the most part, getting an international SIM is easiest. Simply swap it out (or add it, if you have dual SIM slots). For 30 days of unlimited high speed data and text in Romania cost roughly 12 euro.

3. not bringing appropriate shoes

Bernina Express passing by turquoise lake
Bernina Express

Most major cities in Europe are, for the most part, easily walkable.  Even in the cities that are less walkable, you will undoubtedly be on your feet a lot.  And likely for long periods of time. 

I’ve made this mistake more times than I’d like to admit.  Partially because I think that shoes are comfortable (and they are!) until I’ve walked in them for days on end, hours each day.  Partially because I just made poor choices when packing. Regardless -this is one of the top mistakes to avoid when traveling abroad. Nothing is worse than being consumed with how badly your feet ache.

My most recent trip was to Central Europe in February.  Knowing my luck with shoes, I tried a new method.  There are a few brands of shoes that my feet have no problems in, so I searched for that brand on Amazon.  I wasn’t sure of the weather, but I figured I should be prepared for cold weather and precipitation – so I also searched ‘waterproof.’  Any other filters to your search could be applied.  The result?  I had no problems with the shoes for 7 straight days of walking, even wandering the hills of the Buda side of beautiful Budapest. I wound up with this pair of boots.

4. only speaking English

I’m not going to bullshit you, this is one thing tourists do that really irks me.  I used to do it all the time when I was younger and a ‘less seasoned’ traveler.  When I’m in a foreign country, I’m taking in their food, music, traditions, their culture.  The people there who I encounter – hospitality professionals, tour guides, Airbnb hosts, whoever – are facilitating the experience I want to have.  It’s common courtesy to try to say a phrase or two in the home language.  Who cares what you sound like!  

I’m not suggesting you bust out the Rosetta Stone or Duolingo for every new country you visit.  But learn a few key phrases – hello, thank you, please, goodbye.  That little bit of effort goes a long way in making a good impression, both for yourself and for your country of origin.  I’m American, and we have a bit of a reputation when it comes to our tourist tendencies (spoiler alert – it’s not good).

I used to work at a popular restaurant in NYC.  One of the biggest tourist destinations in the world, you can imagine how many different languages I heard day-to-day. 

The tourists who said ‘thank you’ made a huge impression and always left me smiling.  Even if you have to point at everything you order on the menu and cannot say another word – ‘thank you’ is very much appreciated.

Row of champagne glasses half filled for a tasting at Taittinger Champagne House in Reims, France.
Reims, France 2018

You know those restaurants with the big signs and a lot of English?  Those are the ones I’m talking about.  Next to the cheap souvenir shops and biggest tourist attractions.  The food will be overpriced and underwhelming.  This is one of the most important mistakes to avoid while traveling abroad, particularly if you want quality food for a decent price.

I like to research in advance where I plan to eat before or after a major attraction.  This way, I have a plan and won’t feel the need to wander aimlessly in to the closest restaurant.  This is exceptionally helpful when the hanger starts to set in and I already know where I’m going.

Check out my list of travel essentials here!

6. staying outside of the city

If you relish the thought of wandering the nooks and crannies of the less touristy areas, staying in a central location is key.  Not only do you spend less money on public transportation, but you see so much more.  Try researching some neighborhoods before you go to see what area best suits your personality.  Each street has the potential to become a painting, the neighborhood could become your own personal museum.

Besides, there’s not much worse than an arduous commute ‘home’ after a long day of sight-seeing and exploring.

7. over-planning/over-scheduling

Woman walking into a field in Cajas National Park, Ecuador.
Cajas, Ecuador 2019

This is a big one I’m still (sometimes) guilty of.  I’m a huge advocate of maximizing time efficiency, almost to the point of neuroses (hah!).  I also tend to underestimate my need for sleep and sitting.  My itineraries have loooong days, generally starting around five am and ending around ten pm – this never happens.

When I plan my days now I like to have a few things on the agenda that aren’t imperative.  That way, if I’m too tired or there’s simply not enough time, I’m not going to beat myself up over the fact that I couldn’t do everything.

8. staying in a hotel

With the advent of Airbnb, couch-surfing apps, and the like, it’s unnecessary to overspend on a hotel these days.  Most hotels are plunked right in the center of busy tourist areas – meaning the prices of nearby restaurants and bars is likely to reflect that.

Airbnb and other similar options will, more often than not, be located in a more residential area.  This is great for a couple of reasons.  It gives you a taste of what it’s really like to be a local in the area, and it is more likely to be surrounded by the neighborhood favorites – the hidden gems that no one wants the tourists to find out about.

9. not bringing a power adaptor

Irish Castle by the seaside
Ireland, 2018

This one isn’t such a huge deal, but it’s nice to remember.  Many countries abroad require an adaptor to use things like your phone charger, hair dryer, etc.  You can most likely find them where you’re staying, but they’ll probably cost a lot more.  Many Airbnbs have one available for use.  

Another option is to purchase a phone charger in the country you’re visiting – depending on the country, they may be super cheap!

One essential item I’ve begun traveling with is a portable charger – usually with a few USB ports. This thing has been an absolute LIFE-SAVER. I use my phone for everything from photos to Google Maps and more, so my battery depletes quickly. This Anker charger is lightweight and can charge my Samsung Galaxy 3 whole times before needing to be charged itself!

10. unnecessary tipping

Check the local customs before you go – oftentimes, the gratuity is already included, or it is only custom to round up the change.  As a veteran hospitality professional, it’s always been tough for me to ‘turn off’ that mindset.  It definitely took getting used to.  But, it will save you money and prevent you from looking like an arrogant, flashy tourist. In general, rounding up is appropriate – but again, check!!

On the other side, be sure you are tipping when it’s expected! In Romania, for example, it is custom to tip around 10-15%. This is one of the most valuable mistakes to avoid when traveling abroad if you want to make a good impression with your waitstaff.

11. playing it safe when it comes to eating and drinking

Red pot of coq-au-vin on a wooden table, a traditionally French dish to eat.
Paris, France 2012

You’re in (insert exciting, new destination here)!!  Eat what the locals eat, drink what the locals drink.  The immersive experience is the most complete way to travel – and food and drink is a HUGE part of that.  Life in most societies is centered around food, our most vital connection with the universe.  Go all in.

This goes hand in hand with fast food or chain restaurants – skip them!  Go to the food stand or sandwich shop the next block over instead, you’ll be glad you did.

12. not having at least a little cash on you

As an American I take it for granted that I’ll be able to use my debit card everywhere.  Sadly, this is just not so.  In major cities you won’t have a problem, but in small villages and for taxis, I’d definitely recommend keeping around $50 in cash tucked away on your person – in SMALL bills. Breaking large bills is tricky in many countries (in my experience it’s best not to try to pay with anything over a 20).

13. not wearing appropriate clothes to churches, mosques, etc.

Two Hungarians on horseback riding away in Hortobagy National Park in Hungary, a day trip from Budapest.
Hungary, 2019

Most (if not all) places of worship abroad require a respectful dress code.  This rule is most widely applied to women – big shocker there.  While the specific rules vary from place to place, here’s a general guideline:

  • Don’t have anything above the knee showing (nothing above the ankle, if you want to play it safe)
  • Nothing sleeveless, men or women
  • No midriff (duh)
  • Shoulders and chest should be covered
  • Some places require women to cover their hair (stick a light scarf in your bag for such cases)
  • Oftentimes you will be required to remove your shoes

Again, the rules vary depending on the religion and the location.  Check before you go – you’ll be more prepared and feel more comfortable.

14. not validating train or bus tickets

In some countries and territories, there are specific protocols to purchasing and validating train tickets.  Some countries require that you not only buy a ticket, but validate it as well.  Some countries require two validations.  Be familiar with the specifics in your destination and you should be fine.  Otherwise, you could be fined up to 200 euro.  Definitely one of the mistakes you want to avoid when traveling abroad!

15. not observing local customs and civilities

Rocks jutting out of the waters by the Galapagos Islands
Ecuador, 2019

Now, I’m not saying you need to become an expert on your destination, but you should go knowing some basic things about their culture.  Things such as etiquette, tipping protocol, what is considered ‘rude behavior,’ etc. For example, in Hungary, don’t clink glasses together when toasting, or in Asian cultures, don’t stick your chopsticks in a dish of food between bites.

It goes a long way, not only in showing your character as a human being and as a guest in a foreign place, but also in the reputation of your home country. 

16. being careless with valuables

Pickpockets!  Sneaky little bastards, they’re so good!  I had my wallet stolen on a bus in Rome one night (after having already lived there for 6 months!) – getting my debit card back was a nightmare, to say the least.  

A different night, also in Rome, my roommate and I were having dinner in a piazza in Testaccio.  A homeless woman came up to our table with a large sign in English.  

She placed the sign on the edge of the table, motioned for some money (I can’t remember if we gave her any), and then went on her way.  At some point before we left, my roommate realized her phone, which had been sitting on the table, was gone.

Lesson learned. Put some thought into the safety and accessibility of your things. Definitely a mistake to avoid when traveling abroad.

17. going to major cities in the summer

Overlooking the Danube river in Budapest from one of the city's many hills.
Budapest, Hungary 2019

OK, this is definitely a personal preference.  Gross!  Crowds of people (who generally have no regard for personal space), overflowing metros, walking miles for hours in the sun, little-to-no breezy reprieves from the stifling city heat.  I’m getting hot just thinking about it. Don’t get me started on the smells.

18. only exploring within the city limits

This was one mistake I made constantly when I first began traveling.  Leaving the city seemed preposterous to me.  But as I got older and my tastes developed, I became further drawn toward the peace and quiet of life outside the more urban areas. Day trips are a great option.

The most magical places are usually those that are least touched by tourism.  

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Looking for a way to stretch it out before (or after) your long journey? Here’s a pre/post flight yoga sequence you can practice at home.

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