One spring break
during college, I set off with my boyfriend (now husband) and a few friends on travels abroad down to Costa Rica. Just about everything that could go wrong with our travels abroad did. It really had nothing to do with that particular country, but more with some of our own mistakes combined with some plain old bad luck.
Firstly, we almost missed our flight out of LAX. We didn’t give ourselves a whole lot of time to check into our flight. When we arrived at the proper terminal, after standing in line for a while, we found out we actually had to check in at another terminal, a fifteen minute walk (or in our case, run) away. Unfortunately, our ride had already left so we were left to cart all of our luggage including a couple of surfboards.
We narrowly made our connection in the very busy Mexico City airport, but by the time we touched down in San Jose, we thought our travel abroad troubles were over. We were wrong. The airplane lost my checked bag. We waited around at the airport for two hours hoping it would come in, to no avail. We went to our hotel, and I spent the night in the same clothes, with no toothbrush. Luckily, my bag arrived in the morning. It could have been a lot worse.
That first morning, we went to the car rental agency where we had reservations. We thought we would be in and out, but then we found out that the agency required a large cash deposit. Since we were all typical, underemployed college students, none of us alone had the amount of money they demanded. We offered to combine bank accounts or to take a deposit from one of our credit cards, but the rental agent insisted it be cash from a single account. We begged and we pleaded, but the agent would not relent. We were totally stuck because our vacation was planned around having a personal vehicle and, because it was Easter vacation in South America, all the other rental agencies were booked up. We called our banks and we called our parents but we were unable to improve the situation. Finally, five hours after we first arrived at the agency, the rental agent agreed to our original offer. I don’t know what finally made him change his mind; maybe he was just sick of looking at our dejected, American faces. At any rate, we had already wasted half a day.
For the next thirty-six hours, everything went pretty well. We went to a surf camp run by a friend of a friend. We met up with another friend who had ridden his bicycle all the way from Oregon to Costa Rica. We relaxed and really felt like we were on vacation, but we probably let our guard down a little too much. We drove out to a beach about two hours from where we had been staying to go surfing. We parked in a dirt lot near a condominium, locked the doors and headed out to the beach for a few hours enjoying the surf and sand. When we returned to the car, one of the windows had been broken, everything of ours had been taken and a tire was slashed. The thieves obviously had a good system. They found a 4X4 vehicle that only tourists rent in that area, watched us park in an unsecured lot, waited until we walked away, took everything and prevented us from following them. They had taken everything: passports, credit cards, plane tickets, clothes, shoes, CDs, toiletries, travel books and a guitar.
Somehow we got the tire changed and found the local police station. I lost hope of seeing our stuff again when I saw the clients in front of us: two boys arguing over a horse – and the horse was inside the station! The police were unemotional as they took our report, and we never heard from them again. The handwritten police report did turn out to be useful with our credit card companies though. The thieves used all of our credit cards and it took several months to get all the money returned.
So, all we had for the remainder of trip was the clothes on our backs, which were basically bathing suits and t-shirts, flip-flops, a few surf boards and, most importantly, our health. I had had my walkman on the beach with a mix tape in it, and we listened to the tape a lot in the rental car. Were we ever sick of that mix by the end of the trip! Our bicyclist friend was the only person who still had his wallet, because he had the sense to stuff it down the crack of the back seat before we left the car. Let it be noted that in his months of traveling and sleeping out in the open, this is the only time on his trip that he was a victem of crime. We were able to borrow enough from his small budget to pay for meals and cheap lodging for the rest of the trip, but we did not enjoy the vacation we had hoped for. Luckily food was cheap in Costa Rica and our rental car had already been paid for.
When we were first robbed, we really wanted to give up and go home. We drove four hours back to San Jose to the American Embassy to get new passports. We were tired and dirty and we thought the embassy would be a friendly, cheerful place with free food and lodging for victimized tourists. Well, let me tell you, it’s not like the movies. An overworked, cynical consulate officer met us at the window. We quickly learned that we would have to pay $60 each for new passports, despite the fact we had no credit cards or cash to pay for them. She told us we would figure out where to get the money. (I took offense to that because I feel she sized us up as college kids who could easily call Mummy and Daddy. I ended up borrowing money from my boyfriend’s mother, but if I had been alone, I would have had no financial resources.) One of my friends had a little trouble establishing his identity for a new passport and had to ultimately call the California DMV. Luckily, I had photocopied my ids before leaving and had a friend fax the copies down to me. We also found out that, since it was Easter weekend, the embassy administration would be closing so we would not be able to pick up our new ids for four days.
Over that weekend, I struggled to reorder our plane tickets. We did not have electronic tickets and it was difficult to get the paper ones replaced. It didn’t help that the airline offices had also shut down for Easter weekend. We also spent a lot of time trying to cancel our credit cards. In the end, we stuck it out for the rest of our vacation, mostly because the airline refused to change the departure date for some reason I cannot remember.
We couldn’t afford the rainforest canopy tour I had daydreamed about, so we ended up just walking around the floor of the forest. It was beautiful, but a bit quiet since most of the rainforest wildlife lives high up in the trees. We were really thankful that none of us had been hurt and we were reminded the material things are not all that matter.
We continued to have more bad travel luck, but most of it wasn’t our fault. When we arrived at the airport to finally leave, the airline claimed that they had not reissued the tickets and we could not leave. I had not showered in a few days and I had my few belongings in a plastic trash bag; I started to cry. The airline clerk went into the back office one more time and, mysteriously, found that our tickets were there after all. We stunk up the whole airplane on the ride home, but we were terribly happy.
When we arrived back at LAX, the friend who was supposed to pick us up and drive us the three hours home to San Diego never showed up. Her car had broken down and of course we didn’t have money to buy a train or cab ride home. After five hours of waiting, her dad, in town on vacation and a stranger to us, showed up to drive us back.
I would like to emphasize that I have nothing against the country of Costa Rica. It was a beautiful place and I would like to go there again someday with a little more travel smarts. What happened to us could, and would, have happened in a lot of other places. I hope others may learn a few things from our mistakes.
Tips for Successful Travel Abroad
1. Give yourself plenty of time to check in, taking into account size and familiarity of the airport and size of baggage.
2. If at all possible, (while abiding with current security rules), on long trips to unfamiliar destinations, pack a change of underwear, a toothbrush and any other necessities into your carry on luggage, just in case your bags are lost.
3. Make sure you have all the terms of car rental agreements and any other reservations, before you leave for your trip. If possible, have a reserve fund of money you can draw upon if absolutely necessary, not just a credit card.
4. Be very careful about leaving anything in the car. Always try to park in an area where there are people around, even in rural areas. If possible leave nothing in plain sight and don’t leave valuables like passports and plane tickets in an unattended vehicle.
5. If you are a victim of theft, file a report to the police, even if it seems useless in catching the perpetrator. An official report may help expedite claims with banks and insurance companies.
6. Before you leave for your trip, photocopy ids, passports, plane tickets and credit cards. Leave a copy with a friend or relative and pack another copy in your luggage separate from the actual documents. Write down the numbers of your bank, credit cards, travel agent and American embassy.
7. Get electronic plane tickets whenever possible.
8. If possible, have an alternate ride to and from the airport, especially if the airport is more than an hour away from your home.
9. If you are a victim of credit card theft, cancel all credit cards immediately and call all three credit bureaus as soon as you return home to check your credit report. Don’t pay for credit card insurance, because you are legally protected from having to pay for debt that thieves ring up on your card.
10. Consider buying travelers’ insurance depending on the likelihood your trip may be canceled and the value of the goods you travel with. Be aware that renters’ insurance may cover theft even while traveling.