Money Lessons I Learned From Being Stranded at an Airport Abroad

A crazy travel mishap taught this woman a lot.

I decided to sit down in the middle of the Johannesburg airport on the cold floor and regroup. I had missed my flight and had no luggage, no local currency and no cell phone charger, and my credit cards were being denied left and right. I needed to think.

I had traveled from Los Angeles to Kenya for two weeks and then spent a week in Cape Town, South Africa, visiting a good friend. I fell in love with Africa, its food and its people. It was a long solo trip, but one where I learned so many money lessons, even as a certified financial planner. Would I travel back to Africa? In a heartbeat, even if it was the worst airport experience I’ve ever had in all my years of traveling.

Read More: The Best and Worst US Vacation Cities for Your Wallet

Prepare for the Unexpected

If you travel, the unexpected is bound to happen. I’ve had many travel adventures that have gone sideways, but none as massive as this trip. It was like the perfect storm, and at some point, I just had to laugh out loud — no matter how crazy I looked.

It taught me that when you travel, you have to do as the age-old adage says and expect the unexpected. Be prepared as much as possible. Sure, most trips go as planned, but often when one goes wrong, it goes really wrong.

One of the smartest things I now do is to carry a backup cell phone charger and adapter on me, especially if I’m traveling internationally. That way, if my luggage is lost, I still have one available to me in my purse or carry-on baggage. I also carry a backup pair of contact lenses, my glasses, any prescription medication I am taking and at least $20 of the local currency. Even if you’re just planning a short layover, having those things readily available is worth it.

More on Thinking the Unthinkable: Prepare for the Unexpected With 14 Tips to Build Your Emergency Fund

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Always Alert Your Credit Card Companies

I always alert my credit card companies before I travel and tell them the locations I will be staying in and for how long. This is a big help if you experience credit card fraud, which I do on almost every trip overseas (sigh). What I neglected to do on this trip was advise my credit card companies that I would have a brief stopover in Johannesburg on my way back to the U.S. That one error cost me hours upon hours of frustration.

Do You Know? The Best Travel Credit Cards

Jumping back and forth between airline counters, I spent over four hours trying to figure out how to get back to the U.S. on a new flight. I eventually had to pay an extra $3,000 to make that happen.

I was supposed to connect through Kenya, but when that flight got canceled, it meant I would also miss my flight to Zurich, then the one from Zurich to Chicago and, finally, Chicago to Los Angeles. So, it was a very expensive domino effect.

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Have a Backup Credit Card

I made a big mistake by not having a backup credit card with me — or, should I say, a backup to my backup. I always travel with two credit cards, but carrying three credit cards with you is a great strategy.

Now that I’ve realized this, I travel with three cards. Here’s how I break it down:

  • First card for daily purchases
  • Second card for your splurges
  • Third card for emergency situations (like this one)
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My advice is to look for credit cards that have a 0 percent foreign transaction fee and give you the ability to make a liberal amount of charges in a worst-case scenario. Having only two credit cards, I maxed out both charging my plane ticket back home and was left without any money for food or anything else. Sitting eight hours in an airport for an unexpected amount of time in Africa without being able to purchase anything is a tough task.

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To top this trip off, once I finally made it back to the U.S., I landed in Washington, D.C., just after a major storm had taken place that caused the internet systems to go down. Thus, we had to go through manual customs, and I almost missed my flight back to Los Angeles.

My African airport adventure will go down as the craziest 38 hours of my life. However, if it should happen again, next time I’ll be more prepared.

Read More: Survey Finds Most Common Reasons Americans Use Emergency Funds

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