Worst travel experiences: The 10 people that can turn your holiday into a nightmare

They say it's better to travel hopefully than arrive – with the journey there often more than half the fun of the destination itself – but that's certainly not the case when you encounter one of those nightmare border officials, ticket sellers or taxi drivers along the way who seem hell-bent on ruining your trip. They can be obnoxious, obstreperous and obstructive to the point that makes you either see red – or despair.

And while having awkward encounters with difficult people while travelling can make for great stories after the trip when you're safely back home, at the time they can be annoying, infuriating or, occasionally, downright scary.

Bored customs officials, grumpy hotel receptionists and grasping taxi drivers are all in a position of power when you're not on familiar turf, don't know the culture and maybe don't even speak the same language. Tricky situations, if not dealt with effectively at the time, then have a horrible habit of developing into something much bigger and badder that can overshadow your whole holiday.

So Traveller has compiled a handy guide to cope with those troublesome times when the locals you meet aren't quite as thrilled to see you, and welcome you to their wonderful country, as you might hope they'd be.

But, at the same time, are we really so perfect ourselves? We asked experts within the travel industry to reveal their favourite tales of difficult travellers they've encountered on their trips, and how they coped.

Illustrations by Simon Letch



Cover story illustrations for TRAVELLER

THE IMAGE He has possibly the worst reputation of any taxi driver throughout the world for overcharging after "forgetting" to switch on the meter, taking the longest route possible through traffic-clogged streets, being grumpy or downright belligerent, short-changing you or taking you to a different hotel or restaurant than the one you asked for.

THE REALITY The bad publicity around the taxi companies has forced many to up their game and service has improved over the past few years, but there are still plenty of bad ones out there on the lookout for a naive new arrival.


HOW TO HANDLE THEM From the airport, only take a taxi from the official rank, not from one of the touts roaming the airport or a private car driving around. In the city, only hail a taxi with its sign illuminated. Have a look at a map or Google Maps before your journey so you'll have some idea of the route you should be taking, ask at the airport or your hotel what the fare should roughly be and, once inside, check he's turned on the meter. If you're really not feeling confident, pre-book a cab or opt for public transport.


Cover story illustrations for TRAVELLER

THE IMAGE He is invariably rude to the point of bristling hostility, he seems to resent having to serve such an obvious minion and, you fear, if you complain or are just as impolite back, he might well spit in your Soupe a L'oignon on its way to the table.

THE REALITY It's a cultural thing. In Australia, waiting on tables is often something people do to earn extra cash on their way to a "proper" job. In France, it's a proud career choice. As such, they don't appreciate foreign tourists treating them with off-handed disdain; they are professionals and demand to be treated as such.

HOW TO HANDLE THEM Treat them with unfailing politeness, bordering almost on a cowering servility, and you'll be astonished how much more civil and helpful they'll be. It's not the French way to rush through your order, either; food is to be savoured and enjoyed at leisure. If you want a fast meal, go to a McDonald's. And French waiters rarely hover around you during your meal. If you want to attract their attention, it's acceptable to raise your voice.


THE IMAGE S/he is domineering to the point of rudeness because, if you want to enter The Greatest Country In The World, you should be patient, and very very grateful that they're even considering letting you in. Because you do look a bit Mexican/Middle Eastern/different.

THE REALITY Securing America's borders has never been such an important job as it is under the current US President, and guards have rarely before enjoyed so much indiscriminate power, nor been under so much stress.

HOW TO HANDLE THEM With kid gloves. Once, when I flew into Chicago, the customs official went through my bag, took out a copy of a book I'd written, and asked if she could have it. How could I have refused her? You just have to smile, trying to look as though butter wouldn't melt in your mouth, and do everything they ask of you, even if that does involve a cavity search.


Cover story illustrations for TRAVELLER

THE IMAGE They may feel like they're being an enormously entertaining diversion and making the hours just slip away for you.

THE REALITY You may feel your teeth grinding, your knuckles tensing, your ears hurting and your head throbbing and, while that might be tolerable on a London to Paris flight, if you're on anything approximating Qatar Airways' 17.5-hour odyssey from Auckland to Doha it can make life seem not worth living any more.

HOW TO HANDLE THEM Tell them, after the first 10 minutes, that you've enjoyed the chat, but be unequivocal: now you need to get some work done/watch a movie you have to review/read a book you have to write a report on/get some shut-eye. Then open your computer, put your headphones on, pull out your book or close your eyes.


Cover story illustrations for TRAVELLER

THE IMAGE You might think they'd only be present in the poorest, most trouble-torn countries of the world but, according to the annually published Corruption Perceptions Index, crooked public officials are sometimes in the most unlikely of places.

THE REALITY Near the top of the blacklist are a few favourite Australian traveller destinations such as Cambodia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Guatemala, Russia and Mexico.

HOW TO HANDLE THEM If you're approached by an over-aggressive officer, never overtly offer a bribe – that could escalate the situation. But if you're accused of some obviously trumped-up offence, and you suspect they may be after cash and you're being cornered, ask if there's a fine you should pay, or if there's a permit you need to buy to smooth over the situation. If so, avoid pulling out large wads of cash; always make sure you have a pocket or wallet in which you keep a few smaller notes.


Cover story illustrations for TRAVELLER

THE IMAGE A snarly woman who demands you take off your coat and leave it, and your bag, with her, in such an unfriendly manner that you wonder if you'll ever see either again.

THE REALITY They're some of the most feared officials in Russia who brook no argument at all when you say you're cold and want to keep your jacket on, or your bag contains vital medications you might need at a moment's notice.

HOW TO HANDLE THEM Smile, smile, smile and try out your few Russian words: "Zdravstvuyte!" (a formal hello) and "Spasiba" (thank you). Russian is such a difficult language, you'll see their faces light up that you've made the effort, and they'll make sure they hand you back your possessions as soon as you come back.


Cover story illustrations for TRAVELLER

THE IMAGE The bored man or woman sitting at the front desk who really can't be bothered with foreigners who can't speak their language and don't understand the transport system, routes and tickets.

THE REALITY Once, I queued up at the train station ticket window for 40 minutes before I got to the front of the line – only for the clerk to take one look at me, slam the shutter down and move to another window. By the time I twigged what was happening, I was back at the end of the queue at the new window …

HOW TO HANDLE THEM Buy train, coach and airline tickets online or find a friendly Chinese student who wants to practise English and do a swap – you'll buy him lunch and talk to him for an hour if he'll come with you to help buy the ticket.


Cover story illustrations for TRAVELLER

THE IMAGE He wants you to think he knows everything but has been doing exactly the same tour for 20 years.

THE REALITY He refuses to deviate from his pre-set itinerary, even though most of the people on the tour want to go to authentic local restaurants rather than the bland Western ones set up for tourists; market stalls instead of the big store where he gets commission; the evening sound and light show at the Amber Fort outside Jaipur rather than to the elephant rides.

HOW TO HANDLE THEM First, make sure you have the numbers for a successful revolt by asking around the rest of the group to check they feel the same way as you do. Then elect a small group to approach him away from the others so he won't lose face by having to back down on his plans. If he still refuses, contact the tour company and explain the problem.


THE IMAGE You think it's one of the loveliest places on Earth but so, unfortunately, does the rest of the world. The hotel receptionist knows it and really doesn't mind if you stay or go.

THE REALITY Even if you think the hotel room you booked at enormous expense from Australia is a disgusting, dirty hovel, the receptionist doesn't care. She can re-let it in a couple of minutes to someone far more grateful.

HOW TO HANDLE THEM Be as polite as you can manage while being specific about what's wrong with your room and asking if there's another, more suitable, one you can move to. Stay calm and reasonable, and use the receptionist's name from her name tag. If necessary, put the TripAdvisor page for that hotel on your phone and make sure it's just casually visible. If all else fails, ask to speak to the manager and, if even that doesn't work, complain to the travel agent or website through which you booked.


THE IMAGE The expat cultivates a cool, all-knowing, superior image which you know can't be true, otherwise s/he'd never be hanging around tourist bars.

THE REALITY They'll often offer advice on what to see and where to go, but that usually reflects exactly what they'd like to – and what you'd normally – do at home: taking you to an Australian bar, a restaurant that does European food and places where other expats hang out, often bitching about the locals.

HOW TO HANDLE THEM "Great to meet you, but is that the time? My tour group will be waiting for me!"


Sarah Higgins, operations manager, World Expeditions

"After the 2015 Nepal earthquake [which killed nearly 9000 people and injured 22,000], there was one client who demanded to be evacuated. The truth was, no amount of money or desire could deflect from the reality that there were those in greater need of helicopters. Those able bodied and capable of walking had no option but to do so. The concern this traveller had came from a place of fear, and reassurance was needed, and communication about the magnitude of the situation, to allow her to mentally move though the reflex to escape and to continue the trek out. She was then able to take ownership of her situation."

Kate Baker, general manager, UTracks

"I recall a client who became irate and complained bitterly and at length when we insisted he see a doctor before we accepted his booking. It is a standard requirement that all travellers aged above 70 see a doctor to take part in an active adventure in Europe and he was not happy. He prided himself on almost never going to a doctor because of his continued good health but he eventually went to his doctor, who discovered a heart condition which required urgent surgery. He returned the following year and booked the same trip."

Tara Kennaway, regional product manager for Asia, Intrepid Travel

"When I was leading tours on the Trans-Mongolian railway, I had an 18-year-old who was on her first trip outside the UK, and was completely out of her element. One day, she found 'milky tea' on the menu and was delighted that she could have a British cup of tea. When it arrived – salty, with mutton fat around the rim – she burst into tears. Another time we had an Australian man who'd ignored all our advice on packing for Siberia and insisted on wearing shorts and sandals all the time on the ice. I was worried he'd get hypothermia but he was very stubborn. The locals found it entertaining!"

Scott McGregor, founder and CEO, Railway Adventures

"On one trip through Scandinavia, I had a lady who wouldn't stop talking all the time, and people from the group complained they couldn't handle it – or get away from her. I just had to talk to her, and try to nip it in the bud. In Sri Lanka, someone complained that there was too much curry on the menu, and in Japan another person said they couldn't eat rice, noodles or fish. In Greece, a woman complained that her husband was upset seeing topless women on the beach."

James Hewlett, head of marketing, Collette

"Someone complained on a trip to Italy that there was too much pasta in the country. Another person said there should be more English-speaking TV channels in European hotels, as didn't they know that English is one of the most widely spoken languages? Expectations are much higher these days and people want access to much more information about tours and hotels than they ever did before."

Sharleen Wright, sales and marketing, Beyond Travel

"We had a couple once who went for Christmas to Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland at the Arctic Circle, the official home town of Santa Claus, with its Santa Village, reindeer safari and husky-sledding. They returned to complain there were lots of children there, and it wasn't so good for their honeymoon when they wanted alone time. Another client went to Siberia in the winter, when we warn it can be as cold as minus 20 or minus 30. He returned to complain it was too cold. Someone else chose to go on a cruise, despite getting seasick. And she was."

Spokesperson, Novotel Hotels

"Customer demands are sometimes easy to fulfil, like the person who wanted the cheese platter without the cheese, or thousand island salad dressing but with hundreds and thousands; and sometimes impossible, like the guest who wanted pumpkin soup without the pumpkin, or an elephant delivered to the hotel. One man claimed his soup was too thick and strong – when he was actually using his spoon to eat the gravy."

Miriam Whiting, operations manager, Wendy Wu

"Passengers generally aren't difficult without reason, it's usually because they are out of their comfort zone or something isn't right. Once you get to the core of the issue, it is about setting the wheels in motion to either fix it or address it. Whether it is on tour or after the passenger has returned, the most important thing for our customers is to know that they are being heard and that we care."



Polite and efficient, they actually undergo classes in how to behave towards foreigners, what to say, how to dress and even how to tie their tie properly. Most wouldn't dream of overcharging, and many are even reluctant to accept tips.


They're constantly Aloha-ing you, smiling and chatting, and have even been known to pour you free drinks towards the end of the evening. Is it all in the hope of a handsome tip? Maybe. But they do it so charmingly.


They're often so great with kids, there's many a parent who's had to deal with a major tantrum when their child is told they have to return to mummy and daddy at the end of the day. But it's still a small price to pay for a fleeting freedom.


The locals hosting homestays for tourists are usually incredibly keen to show you a good time, so you'll see Cuba isn't the dastardly place it's painted by the current US administration. They're proud and passionate … and eager to secure a great rating on TripAdvisor.


Attentive and charming, they can be beautifully gentle and nurturing when needed, or tackle you with a deceptively vice-like grip if you're after a firmer treatment.


The competition for customers when selling ethnic handicrafts can be fierce, but you wouldn't know it from the manner of many of the stall-holders, even in Santiago. They're patient, rarely pushy, keen to explain the origins of their wares and don't like to interrupt browsers.


The tourist market is still quite new to this emerging southern African country, and most guides seem incredibly conscientious, knowledgeable and excited about showing visitors their wildlife and their unusual desert-modified features.


Ask almost any Glaswegian the way to anywhere and they'll offer to walk you there themselves if they have time. It might be a factor too that they realise so many visitors have so much trouble with their accents …


So many of them seem to love their jobs, and their enthusiasm for the places you're seeing and the people you're meeting is infectious. One, on a recent APT Balkans cruise, always went that extra step: dressing in a mini-dress (despite being male) and an Afro wig to kick off reggae night in style.


This breed of waiter is genuinely concerned about whether you're going to have a great Kiwi experience. And with decent pay and good minimum wage rates, they don't even like to be tipped. I was once chased down the street in the North Island town of Katikati by a waiter returning some money I'd "left" on the table.

See also: Screaming kids? Here are 12 airline passengers that are much worse

See also: 'I just want to practise my English': The 14 classic travel scams