Travel Horror Stories and What I’ve Learned
I’ve been to all 50 states and 140 countries at this point, and I’ve had my share of travel horror stories. I’ve also learned a great deal about travel from these bad experiences and want to share them with you. These aren’t about points & miles so much as they are about staying safe and/or avoiding headaches when traveling.
Police Shakedown – Maputo, Mozambique in July 2018
In July 2018, I was in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. I know 3 other people who went to Maputo in 2018, and all had serious problems. One woman had a police officer expose himself and make sexual gestures towards her in broad daylight. A male friend had police rob him at gunpoint while he was there working for an NGO. Unrelated to the police, but another friend had items stolen from his suitcase at the airport, including a credit card they used for $20k of fraud. It’s a city I learned is best to avoid. Go literally anywhere else in this country.
I was taking this picture of a statue of their first president on a quiet Saturday morning. A police vehicle pulled up nearby and waved at me. I understood it as a wave and nothing more. I started walking to my next destination, and a minute later they pulled up in my path. They demanded my passport, which I didn’t have on me and isn’t a legal requirement there. I had a picture of it on my phone and also my driver’s license.
After lots of back and forth, they said I could get in the car voluntarily, or they could force me into the car. We started driving with no purpose while they told me I could go to jail or pay them $500 each to not take me to jail. I knew this wasn’t legit and told them we should go to their station to speak with their Captain. I was in no position to withdraw $1500 from the ATM.
However, I’d made a huge mistake: never get in a car. Telling me they were going to beat me until I could be forced into the car likely was a bluff. It was a con to get me to choose to get into the car. My senses came back to me, and I knew being in that car was the least safe option. At a red light, I opened the door and ran for a nearby park. Get into a public place, shout for help, and draw attention. Corruption crimes thrive on a lack of public scrutiny. I was lucky that the door didn’t have a child lock. I also wouldn’t try this in a country that has a propensity for cops shooting unarmed people. These cops didn’t want the attention and drove away.
When I called the U.S. Embassy later and reported the names and vehicle number of the officers, the embassy basically said they weren’t surprised and this would go nowhere, but they reported it.
Even in countries where you aren’t required to have your passport on you, a copy of it AND a copy of your entry stamp/visa can help prove that you’re in the country legally. Carrying your passport isn’t a bad idea, but losing it sucks, so balance your options. Also, never get in a car if you’re still conscious. A friend of a friend in this same situation told the police, “You’ll have to kill me here on the sidewalk, because I’m not getting in that car,” and the extortion attempt ended. If you don’t think that person really will kill you where you stand, you’re better off outside the car.
A Night in Immigration Detention Jail – Luanda, Angola in May 2018
In early 2018, Angola started a new online application/visa on arrival system. I planned a trip to a few countries in Africa, flying TAAG from São Paulo to Luanda to take advantage of their new easier access.
On arrival, I was told to complete the visa on arrival even though I was first passing through in transit. This is because I had separate tickets. They wanted me to pick up my visa before passing through the airport to do check-in for the 2nd flight.
When I returned to Luanda a week later, I went to passport control with the visa in my passport and was told it wasn’t valid. It turns out the border control agent had marked it as ‘used’ in the computer system when I passed in transit the week before.
The funny thing is that I’d had a suspicion there was something wrong, and I went to the Angolan Embassy in São Tomé & Principe during my time there to make sure my visa was still valid. I wanted to make sure they hadn’t counted my transit visit as my 1 visit on the visa. The Embassy employees swore up and down that my visa was still valid. When I mentioned this to border control they said the worst thing imaginable: “You can’t trust the info at the embassies. Only we know if your visa is valid.” Let that digest for a bit.
I asked if I could apply for a new visa on arrival immediately, and they said no, because I hadn’t filled out the pre-arrival paperwork online. I spent a night in the Luanda airport immigration jail before they put me on a flight back to Brazil the next night with TAAG. All of my possessions were held in a police locker during that time, so my wife and friends were freaking out wondering what was going on with no way to contact me. The kicker was that I didn’t eat anything for almost 24 hours, bought a snack at the airport before boarding, and then the cop escorting me stole my change from the cashier.
This is difficult to quantify. Remain skeptical about new visa systems. Pay super close attention when transiting an airport. If the border agents look through your passport, watch for a visa being marked off as used/make sure you don’t get stamps. That’s hard to implement, obviously. And obviously this mostly applies when you have a visa that only allows 1 entry. Dealing with incompetence that ultimately becomes your fault makes for bad travel horror stories.
I reported what happened to the U.S. Embassy who said they’d been very worried about the implementation of this system. They had a sit-down with the immigration agencies in Angola and discussed what happened (as well as protesting that a cop stole money from me). To make things smoother, the visas are now multi-entry, avoiding this problem in the future for other visits. So…you’re welcome, I guess? Also, the silver lining is that I don’t have any “deported” marks on my immigration status or on my passport, which is huge. That can really make future travel difficult.
An Illegal Ticket From United – Victoria, Seychelles in July 2018
I wrote an article about this, but it’s worth mentioning that United’s system was allowing illegal tickets to be booked on award points. These tickets violated Fifth Freedom laws. I couldn’t get on the flight with my never-should’ve-been-booked ticket. It was the most headache-inducing travel day of my life. Sorting out airline screw-ups of this magnitude probably count among travel horror stories, and it was frustrating, but my safety was never an issue.
If you’re using company A to book flights with company B and the flights are in country C, pause. Go check if you can buy that ticket in cash on something like Google Flights or Kayak. If you can’t buy that flight in cash, you can’t fly it on points. Look up and learn what Fifth Freedom flights are, and make sure yours is on the list of approved flights.
Forced to Come Home When Accounts Locked – Oslo, Norway in July 2007
This one reaches back, and this problem likely could be overcome today. In July 2007, I was in Norway. I was at an internet café in Oslo looking up plans for my next destination. The café only let you buy something like 15 minutes of internet use at a time. I swiped my credit card, and then swiped again for another 15 minutes.
Bank of America found this suspicious and shut off my credit card. I’d been in Europe for 3 weeks and had notified them of my travel in advance. I figured out my card was off when I couldn’t buy the next 15 minutes with my credit card or debit card. With the remaining change in my pocket, I bought 15 minutes more to check my account online. With my cards deactivated, that meant I couldn’t use an ATM now, either.
I got hold of my girlfriend at the time by instant message and had her call my mom, and together they called Bank of America. They pointed out I’d sent in a travel notification and that the charges were real. Between them, they could answer everything Bank of America asked, but they demanded to talk to me. This was 2007. Having no credit card or ATM card to pay for it, no more cash in my pocket, and no smart phones at that time, calling wasn’t possible.
Bank of America refused to turn on my accounts until they talked to me. I couldn’t call. The only option was my mom changing my ticket home (I couldn’t pay the change fee, since my cards were off). My internet time ran out, so I waited 30 minutes then took the train to talk to the ticket agencies at the airport. My plan was to ask if anyone could find a ticket in my name departing that day. I got lucky that it was the first desk I went to. I came home 10 days earlier than planned, thanks to Bank of America.
I learned not to trust Bank of America, and they seem to hate me anyway. I learned that travel notifications aren’t everything. Also, I learned to never swipe the same card at the same spot in a short time if you’re not at home. Don’t use the same ATM twice in a short time. Don’t buy with the same card twice in a row in a short time when in another country (especially for the exact same price). This can be more easily resolved these days, but I’m paranoid about having accounts locked out while overseas.
I’ve had my share of travel horror stories. The rest of the Miles to Memories team was surprised by some of these, so I wanted to pass along lessons learned from these experiences.
There are also some general travel tips that are worth restating:
- Don’t display signs of wealth, which can make you a target for thieves
- Pay attention to your surroundings, and don’t space out
- Don’t touch other people/their stuff or let others touch you/your stuff; their hands are too fast for you to notice the crime immediately
- If the taxi has a meter, insist on using it; if not, find out the right price from someone who isn’t a taxi driver
- You can send money to yourself through Western Union if you are concerned that ATMs at the destination might not work with your debit card; cancel it later if not needed
I definitely carry copies of my passport now and have extra copies in my backpack. Double and triple check rules about flights during booking. I triple check odd rules about currency exchange or ATMs before arriving in a new country. Notify and then re-notify banks before traveling to other countries. I never swipe the same card at the same place twice in a short time. And I ask questions to immigration police about anything that seems confusing or out of sorts. I no longer care if I hold up the line for an extra minute, because it’s worth not spending a night in jail.
I hope others can learn from these, and I love learning from others. If you’ve experienced any travel horror stories and have lessons learned to share with me, I’m all ears.