5 Travel Mishaps & Cultural Faux Pas

9 minutes

Stories from staff (learn from our mistakes!)

One thing InterExchange Career Training USA staff all have in common is that we love to travel and we have all lived abroad. So we know firsthand that when you go out into the world and find yourself immersed in a new culture or in the midst of a logistically complicated trip, you are bound to run into some unexpected problems. To remind you that you are not alone, we thought we’d share some of our travel mishaps with you…and perhaps you can learn from our mistakes!

The Grocery Store


Image courtesy of Pixabay

Lynne, Program Director:

I studied in Italy when I was in college, and the first time we went to the grocery store was a bit of an ordeal! We went shopping on our second day in Italy, and to start, we didn’t realize the store was going to be closing for two hours in the middle of the afternoon, so we showed up and the store was closed. When the store reopened and we could finally do our shopping, we really thought that things were going well. We found everything we needed, collected an enormous amount of groceries to stock our fridge and cupboards, and made our way to the checkout line. We got all of our groceries unloaded from our cart and up on the checkout counter, and this is when things started to go wrong.

First, we didn’t realize that we were supposed to weigh our own produce and print the price sticker for each of our bags of produce, so we had to take all of our produce back to weigh and price. Meanwhile, the line is growing behind us, but we had too many groceries to take everything off the counter and get out of people’s way. Since we were all new to Italy and had very limited Italian language skills, it then took us forever to find all of our produce in the computer so that we could find the correct information. And since it was only our second day in Italy, we were buying tons of food to stock our kitchen, so we were weighing and pricing produce for quite some time. When we finally returned to the checkout, the line had grown and all the people waiting were NOT very happy with us. But the cashier was able to quickly scan our items, and we thought we’d be on our merry way.

Not so fast! It turns out, the store doesn’t provide you with any bags! Not knowing we needed to bring our own bags, we had now paid for a bunch of groceries with no way to transport them home. And we were taking up the entire end of the checkout line with all our groceries, making it extremely difficult for the other customers in line to pack up their own groceries. One of my roommates ran back to our apartment and brought two huge suitcases (having no small bags) back to the grocery store with her so we could load up our groceries and get out of the store. People kept giving us not-too-pleasant looks and saying things in Italian that we were too new to the country to understand, though judging by the tone, we didn’t think they were saying anything all that nice.

It was a very embarrassing trip to the store but one that was never repeated. You never think that something as simple as buying groceries is going to be so different from your home country, but sometimes it is. You just need to go through the experience, learn from it, and try to learn more about the local culture for next time!

Travel Documents (Part 1)

travel documents
travel documents

Image courtesy of Joseph Nicolia

Signe, Participant Services Coordinator:

It was the first week of my new job and I was flying to China with my boss. To keep flight costs down, we had several connecting flights: San Francisco to Taipei to Beijing to Xining. I consider myself to be a very organized traveler, and had prepared all my travel documents in advance, keeping everything, including my passport with visa and all boarding passes, in one folder. I kept this folder in the front section of my carry on luggage.

While waiting in San Francisco to board the flight to Taipei, an airline employee approached me and asked if I would like to check my carry on luggage for free, as overhead space in the airplane was at a premium. Delighted at the opportunity to lessen my load and travel even lighter, I enthusiastically agreed, and handed over my luggage, with travel documents inside.

Moments before landing in Taipei, I had the terrible realization of what I had done. I still had two flights ahead of me, and everything I needed to successfully navigate arriving in Taiwan, and then flying to mainland China was safely secured in the bottom of a plane. Upon arriving in Taipei, I rushed to the gate for the next flight, and frantically informed airline personnel of my mistake. Miraculously, they were able to contact someone on the tarmac who was then able to find my bag, and bring the folder to me, moments before boarding. Cheers were exclaimed, pictures were taken, and dignity mostly restored.

Travel Documents (Part 2)

Nabil, Admissions Coordinator:

A few years ago, I took a trip to Europe that I was super excited about. I even began packing for the trip a few days before my flight (I usually pack the night before). I was so excited that I did not get any sleep the night before. I was determined to get to the airport extra early to avoid the usual stress of being stuck in traffic with a flight to catch.

As I was leaving my home I realized that it was raining. This reminded me that I had totally forgotten to pack a raincoat for my trip! I decided to go back inside and switch out the fleece I was wearing for my raincoat. This decision would end up haunting me. With so much time to spare I decided it would be more economical for me to take the subway to JFK airport. I arrived to JFK with just over 3 hours until my scheduled departure. My plan was to check-in for my flight early and head to the gate to people/plane watch.

As soon as I got to the check-in counter I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. I realized I had forgotten my passport in the pocket of my fleece! Why did it have to rain?! I realized that taking the subway back home would waste way too much time so I desperately took a cab. I live around 30-45 minutes from JFK airport depending on traffic by car. After retrieving my passport, I took the same cab back to the airport. The cab driver provided me with the consolation of knowing that “this happens all of the time”. The ride to the airport ended up being stressful anyway but I made it on time for my flight!

Moral of the story: double-check that you have packed your travel documents before you leave for the airport!


baggage claim
baggage claim

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Allison, Program Manager:

One summer my parents sent my sister and me to Italy to meet our Italian cousins. I had just turned 15 and my sister was 12. This was the first time I would travel abroad without an adult. I was nervous but excited. I thought I had done absolutely everything to be prepared and organized– packed everything we both would need, bought gifts, copied down addresses for those I wanted to send postcards, and even purchased pants I named “plane pants” because of all of their different pockets that would so perfectly hold all our travel documents.

Upon arrival we found out that the airline lost our luggage. After talking to baggage claim, we were told that IF they found the bags they would send them to my aunt and uncle’s apartment. Fortunately I had the address written down in one of my plane pants pockets. My aunt and cousins picked us up at the airport and were shocked to find two American teenagers that traveled so lightly for two weeks in Italy. We spent the first couple of days sightseeing in the clothes we wore on the plane. It is important to mention that Rome was having one of the hottest summers in recent years, so this added to the unpleasant experience of being without our suitcases.

We made the best of it and our bags arrived a few days later. We had a fantastic trip, despite the rough start. Traveling teaches you that no matter how much you prepare, you will always encounter the unexpected and have to adapt– it is part of the experience. Since that summer, though, I never forget to keep a change of clothes in my carry on. Oh, and the airline lost our bags on the way home, too.



Image courtesy of David Bjorgen

Liz, Outreach and Recruitment Coordinator

I started studying Modern Standard Arabic in college, then spent a semester in Jordan to study intensively. I was so excited to be going to a country I’d never been to before, and a little nervous about finding my way around with a language I’d studied for only a year. But I had traveled in countries whose language I did not speak before, so I was not too worried.

What I had not considered was that the Arabic that I had studied in school was a formal language that is not spoken at home by anyone. Because it is a language primarily used in government, religion and on the news, that was the only vocabulary I had learned. While I knew such words as United Nations, president and computer specialist, I had almost no practical vocabulary that would help me settle into my host city. What made it even more difficult is that the Arabic dictionary that I had brought with me was entirely Arabic to English, with no English to Arabic section. So I had no way to look up the words I needed.

My first morning in the country, as I registered for classes and started to look for an apartment, it dawned on me that I would not get very far if I didn’t know the words for apartment, kitchen, bedroom, etc. I was walking around trying to find a Wi-Fi signal or Internet of any kind so I could look everything up, when I noticed that in the area around the university were posted signs that advertised a variety of items to students. Soon I found one that had a picture of an apartment on it and set to work with my dictionary translating all the words in it until I found what I needed.

In the end, I was able to find a place to live, but the panic I experienced when I realized that I was completely unequipped for the very necessary task of finding housing still haunts me. Since then I have learned to prepare for each trip by making sure I have the language skills to find a place to stay before I leave home.

Elizabeth Cummings Elizabeth Cummings

Liz got the travel bug as a teenager when she volunteered in Mexico. After extensive travel, interning and studying abroad, she is excited to help others fulfill their dreams of experiencing another culture through InterExchange’s Career Training USA program.

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