Expectations vs. Reality: My Top Travel Letdowns and Surprises

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It's now become an internet trend: sharing “Instagram vs. reality” memes and photos, highlighting the fact that a lot of what we see online isn't exactly always “authentic.”

And it obviously goes beyond pretty photos on Instagram.

Expectation and reality can misalign in so many aspects of our lives, whether it's the clothing we're buying online, the recipe we're trying to replicate off Pinterest, or maybe even the people we're dating. And sometimes travel expectations just don’t match up to travel reality, either.

Angkor Wat sunrise crowd
Ever seen a beautiful photo of Angkor Wat at sunrise? This is what you see if you turn around!

Thanks in part to social networks like Instagram, we tend to build up destinations and travel experiences a lot in our minds. We see beautiful, postcard-perfect photos, and mentally insert ourselves into those stunning scenes of natural beauty, already picking out which photos we’ll plaster all over social media before we even leave home.

We thumb through guidebooks and lay out ambitious itineraries of the museums we’ll visit, the restaurants we’ll eat at, and the history we’ll soak up. We imagine spontaneous connections with the friendly locals, who we’ll surely remain friends with for life. And we’re already practicing the conversations we’ll have with others when we return, sharing with them every detail of the perfect adventure we’ve just had.

But, of course, this is never how it happens. Not every destination is postcard-perfect. Things never go completely according to plan. And even the most-visited and most-loved destinations can rub us the wrong way under the wrong conditions.

Pretty sure I spent more time looking for parking spaces in Yellowstone than actually looking at things like geysers.

Of course… the opposite can be true, too. There are destinations that take us by surprise, or exceed our expectations (be they low or not). We sometimes find ourselves surprised by the places we fall in love with.

So today, I thought I'd take a look back at some of the places I've visited in the last 10 years that didn't quite meet my expectations – either in a good way, or a bad one. Hopefully it can help prove that every travel experience is different – and that you can never really judge a destination by someone else's Instagram post.

Biggest travel surprises

There are some destinations in the world that you just kind of know you're going to love before you even get there. For me, these destinations have been places like New Zealand and Scotland and Norway; places that I dreamed about a long time before I visited, and places that met or exceeded my expectations on multiple trips

I'm not going to talk about those destinations here. Instead, I want to talk about places that I didn't really expect to fall in love with, and one or two that I actually expected to dislike before my first visit.

1. Barcelona, Spain

Sagrada Familia in Barcelona
The unfinished Sagrada Familia

I think the best example of my low(ish) expectations of a destination being blown out of the water is Barcelona. You might think that's silly, since this Spanish city is known for its incredible architecture and food. But it's also pretty well-known for its crowded touristy spots, and for petty crime like pickpocketing.

A lot of people told me I probably wouldn't like Barcelona, but I planned 5 days in the city anyway – after all, I always prefer to form my own opinions about places!

View of Barcelona from Park Guell
View of Barcelona from Park Guell

And guess what? I really, really enjoyed my time in Barcelona. I did my homework to pre-book some activities, timed things to avoid some of the worst tourist spots, read up on scams to avoid ahead of time, and generally just kept my wits about me.

I never felt any more “in danger” in Barcelona than in any other large city in Europe, and overall had a really great time there. I have many things left on my “next time” list.

Read more: Everybody Was Wrong About Barcelona

2. Venice, Italy

Gondolas at twilight in Venice
Gondolas at twilight in Venice

I visited Venice for the first time in the summer of 2013, and, just like with Barcelona, I expected to not really love it. Even back then, before the constant talk of “overtourism,” Venice was known for being pretty crowded and touristy – and I was also visiting in August, when it was hot and lots of places were closed as Italians went on their own summer vacations.

But despite all of that, Venice absolutely delighted me.

I loved all the old buildings and maze-like canals. I couldn't take enough photos of gondolas. And I discovered that the crowds weren't really as bad as I'd originally feared. I took my obligatory photos in St. Mark's Square and at the Rialto Bridge, and then promptly went wandering and found quieter streets and canals away from the tourist crush.

Rialto Bridge in Venice
A gondola at the Rialto Bridge

A second visit in 2019 confirmed what I'd concluded about Venice on my first trip: that I actually LOVE the city, and that it's actually pretty easy to avoid the crowds as long as you stay overnight and wander away from the most popular spots.

Venice is such a unique place, and even though it *is* quite touristy, I still highly recommend visiting.

Read more: Venice Survival Guide: Tips to Help You Love Your First Trip to Venice

3. Vietnam

Ha Long Bay in Vietnam
Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

Vietnam was the first country I visited in Southeast Asia. And while I didn't expect to *not* like it, I was surprised in the end by just how much I did like it.

I went to Vietnam in 2014 as a backpacker. And back then, Thailand was the firm favorite in terms of Southeast Asia backpacking destinations. Sure, other people liked Laos and Cambodia and were starting to talk about Bali… but Vietnam wasn't usually the first place recommended by backpackers headed to the region.

My love for Vietnam was definitely helped by the fact that I went on a tour, which ended up being a great introduction to Southeast Asia as a whole. We had a great guide with a love of his country that was totally infectious, and I came away loving Vietnam for its food, for its culture, for its cities, and for its people.

Street scene in Hoi An, Vietnam
Hoi An, Vietnam

And while a small part of me was maybe a little nervous at first to visit Vietnam as an American, I felt nothing but welcomed there. I now list Vietnam as my favorite place I've visited (so far) in Asia.

Read more: Traveling in Vietnam with Intrepid Travel

4. Puerto Rico

Street in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
Colorful street in Old San Juan

When it comes to dreamy tropical vacations in the Caribbean, it's my guess that not a lot of people immediately think of Puerto Rico. And that's probably why I went to the island territory for the first time back in 2016 with fairly middling expectations. I didn't expect it would be a place that I would immediately put on my “must revisit” list as soon as I got home – but I did!

As a history nerd, Puerto Rico's unique historical story had me immediately hooked, as did its architecture, food, and of course beaches.

It took four years for me to return to Puerto Rico (this time with my husband Elliot in tow), but my second trip there was just as great as the first. It's also a trip I've been thinking back to a lot recently, since it was the last trip I took in 2020 in “The Before Times” before pandemic shutdowns.

Flamenco Beach on Culebra Island
Flamenco Beach on Culebra Island

Puerto Rico has had it rough in the last decade, with financial struggles, hurricanes, and now a pandemic decimating its tourism industry. Once it's safe to get back out there, I highly recommend considering a trip to Puerto Rico.

Read more: Thinking About a Caribbean Vacation? Think Puerto Rico or 5 Days in San Juan, Puerto Rico: The Perfect Caribbean Getaway

5. Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw Old Town
Warsaw Old Town

I spent three months traveling around Europe in the summer/fall of 2013. It was during the time when I was testing out being a “digital nomad” – and largely failing at it.

I headed to Poland towards the end of September, deciding to squeeze in a visit to the country before heading to a conference in Ireland, and then ultimately giving up on the whole nomadic thing and going home. By the time I got to Warsaw, I had virtually no money in my bank account, was burnt out from trying to work on the road, and didn't have any proper clothing for grey autumn days.

With all those things working against me, I should have been pretty miserable in Poland. But I actually found myself really loving Warsaw.

Park in Warsaw
It's hard to dislike a place with so many pretty green spaces!

This is likely mostly thanks to my friend Kami taking me in and showing me all of her favorite parts of Warsaw over the course of a few days. She took me to milk bars to eat pierogi, showed me around the Old Town, and even introduced me to a cool neon museum.

On my own, I also visited museums and parks and old cemeteries, and wound up naming Warsaw as one of my favorite European capital cities.

Read more: 7 Reasons Why Warsaw Is Awesome

6. European Christmas markets

Heidelberg Christmas market
Heidelberg Christmas market

For anyone who's ever been in Europe before the holidays, you'll look at this one and go “…well, duh!” Europe is known for its great Christmas markets, decorations, and traditions. And when I booked a December river cruise back in 2015 in order to visit some of those very markets, I had a feeling I would have no trouble enjoying it.

But now, more than five years later, that trip still remains one of my all-time favorites. Europe isn't just nice during the Christmas season; it's downright magical.

Cologne Christmas market
Cologne Christmas market

On that 2015 trip, I visited nearly a dozen Christmas markets across three different countries. In Cologne, Germany, I walked so much that the bottoms of my feet felt physically bruised. But it still ranks up there as one of my favorite trips ever.

Planning another Christmas market trip to Europe is very high up on my bucket list.

Read more: Christmas Markets with Viking River Cruises: What’s It Really Like? and 5 Things You Must Do at a German Christmas Market

7. Budapest, Hungary

Hungarian Parliament on the Danube
Hungarian Parliament on the Danube

Fun fact for you: Budapest was the first major city I ever visited in mainland Europe! That might sound crazy, but it's true! My very first trip to mainland Europe was a trip to Eastern Europe in 2012 that began in Budapest.

I was nervous on my way there, since I was traveling solo (still a relatively new thing for me back then!) and without knowing a whole lot of people who had been there. I had high hopes for Eastern Europe as a whole, but honestly didn't know what to expect from Budapest.

Amanda at Fisherman's Bastion in Budapest
Playing princess at Fisherman's Bastion

I of course ended up loving Budapest, though. I've since been back two additional times (in 2014 and again in 2019), and still list it as one of my favorite cities in Europe.

Budapest has all the old-world charm that you'd expect a big, grand European city to have, but is also quirky and not overly-polished. I've actually really enjoyed everywhere I've visited in Hungary, but Budapest remains a firm favorite.

Read more: 10 Things to Do in Budapest for the History Lover

8. Scottsdale, Arizona

McDowell Sonoran Preserve
McDowell Sonoran Preserve

I first visited Scottsdale, Arizona, back in the summer of 2019. It was the host destination of a small blogging workshop I was mentoring at, and to be honest I wasn't looking forward to going to the Arizona desert in June very much at all.

But, as it turns out, Scottsdale (a smaller city not far from Phoenix) is really, really cool. It's artsy and outdoorsy and filled with really amazing food. It has cool mid-century architecture everywhere, and the old “it's a dry heat!” adage really is accurate.

Scottsdale Andaz pool
All the pools in Scottsdale definitely help with the heat, too!

I was impressed enough by Scottsdale that I went back for a second time at the end of 2019, and Elliot and I are already talking about when we might be able to get back out there together in the future.

Read more: 7 Reasons You Should Put Scottsdale, Arizona on Your Must-Visit List and 3 Days in Scottsdale, Arizona: 3 Itineraries for 3 Different Types of Travelers

9. Slovenia

Lake Bled in Slovenia
Lake Bled in Slovenia

Unlike some of its neighbors like Italy and Switzerland and even Croatia, I feel like Slovenia isn't super well-known as a tourist destination. Which, honestly is a damn shame, because the entire country is so beautiful!

I had heard about how incredible Slovenia was a long time ago, and ended up adding it to my 2012 trip around Europe. I took the train from Croatia, and spent a few days each in Ljubljana and Bled. I did all the touristy things like visiting caves and taking a boat ride on Lake Bled and hiking in Triglav National Park – but very few spots felt overly touristy.

Soca River in Slovenia
I also went rafting on the Soča River, which really IS this color!

While I expected Slovenia to be pretty, its breathtaking beauty really left a lasting impression on me. The country as a whole reminded me a bit of New Zealand (one of my all-time favorite places in the world), and I feel like it's somehow managed to remain a bit of an underrated spot in Europe.

Going through all my Slovenia photos again makes me want to plan another trip right now!

Read more: Ljubljana: The City You Can’t Help But Love and An Adventure on the Emerald River

Biggest travel letdowns

Even though I know this part of the list is the *real* reason you clicked on this post (c'mon, we all know it's true), I need to be honest with you: my list of “letdowns” is shorter than my list of travel surprises!

This isn't because I'm some huge pessimist who always goes into travel with low expectations. Instead, it's because I've always been a “glass half full,” Pollyanna type of gal who can usually look past the bad experiences and focus on the overall positives instead.

Cathedral Cove in New Zealand
High winds cancel sea kayaking in New Zealand? Go on a hike instead!

Have I had travel plans ruined because of bad weather or poor planning or simple dumb luck? Of course. Have I been really upset to miss out on those things in the moment? You bet.

But, at the end of the day, I'm usually able to move past the bad luck and bad moods pretty quickly, either by shuffling a schedule around, or simply accepting that sometimes shit happens and there's nothing you can do about it.

The mantra I've adopted during these moments has been “Just accept it, and move on.”

Belize
In Belize, my camera died AND I had the flu. Still loved it, though.

But there HAVE definitely been some notable travel letdowns in my decade of traveling all around the world that I haven't been able to “move on” from. Not everyone will agree with all of these, but that's part of what's so interesting about travel: we all have our unique experiences that shape our opinions.

In the following cases, the positives never outweighed the negatives for me.

1. Amsterdam

Amsterdam canal

I've now visited Amsterdam 3 times over the span of 6 years. I've visited in all different seasons, stayed in all sorts of different places, and have done everything from bike tours to canal cruises to food tours to simply wandering around aimlessly.

And while I cannot deny that Amsterdam is a *gorgeous* city, it's one that I've just never really “clicked” with. There's nothing inherently wrong with Amsterdam, and I can't even say that I've had any bad experiences there. I've just never fallen in love with the city like so many others have.

My first visit to Amsterdam was as a budget-seeking backpacker in the summer of 2013, when I did all the touristy things with friends I'd met on a backpacker bus. I had a lot of FUN on that trip, but I didn't fall in love with Amsterdam as a city.

Amanda in Amsterdam
Amsterdam is beautiful; it's just not for me

I tried again in 2015 when I visited before Christmas with my mother-in-law before going on a river cruise. And I most recently went back with my sister in 2019 where we skipped the most touristy things and tried for a more laid-back visit.

My verdict is that while I don't mind visiting Amsterdam, I don't think the city will ever have the same pull on me that some other European cities do. I can't say why for sure; it just is what it is, and I've made peace with that.

Read more: Amsterdam: It’s Not You, It’s Me (a break-up letter to Amsterdam) and Giving Amsterdam a Second Chance

2. Cambodia

Bayon Temple in Angkor, Cambodia
Bayon Temple in Angkor

People always like to ask me about my favorite and least favorite destinations. And while I always stress that I don't “hate” any destination I've been to, I usually end up mentioning Cambodia as a country that was probably the most difficult for me to visit.

And I'm not talking difficult logistics-wise. I'm talking difficult in that it absolutely broke my heart.

There are a lot of incredible things to see in Cambodia (the Angkor temples probably being the most famous). But there's also a painful recent history to grapple with, along with a lot of corruption.

Killing Fields in Cambodia
Places like the Killing Fields are not pleasant to visit, but are important to understand Cambodia's recent history

I visited Cambodia in 2014, not long after graduating with my master's degree in tourism management. After taking courses in and writing papers on tourism development, it was hard to see the abject poverty and lack of sustainable development in Cambodia. It was even harder to travel there knowing that a lot of my tourism dollars were lining someone's pocket instead of actually helping the local people.

Don't get me wrong: I think learning about Cambodia's dark past is very important, and I enjoyed some parts of my Cambodia tour. But, overall, the country left me feeling a bit frustrated and sad.

Read more: Thoughts on Cambodia

3. Athens, Greece

Athens Acropolis
Athens Acropolis – it was easily 105 degrees this day.

History fan that I am, I was SO excited to visit Athens for the first time. I couldn't wait to see all the ruins, and to walk in the footsteps of ancient philosophers… But unfortunately there was just no magic spark between Athens and I.

Granted, I only visited for a few days on my first trip in 2012. And I was there in the height of summer during a heat wave, which made everything extra miserable (no joke, they closed the Acropolis while I was there because of the heat!).

View of Athens Acropolis
Even this view of the Acropolis from my hotel couldn't redeem Athens for me.

I was also traveling on a budget with other backpackers, so I'll admit that *maybe* that played a role in me not being particularly impressed. It's somewhere I might enjoy more with more time, and a healthier budget. But I can't say it's city I've prioritized returning to.

(I did, however, LOVE hopping around the Greek Islands on a separate trip a year later!)

4. Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone Midway Geyser Basin
Incredible to see, but we did have to drive around for half an hour to find a parking spot.

Now I will preface this one by saying that I still think Yellowstone is an incredible place, definitely worthy of preservation.

I can understand why it was named the very first national park in the world. I mean, the geothermal activity! The wildlife! The dramatic landscapes!

BUT, Yellowstone has suffered in recent years from its own popularity. I visited in 2017 with my sister as part of a larger road trip out West. We had a few days to explore Yellowstone, but the immense size of the park coupled with how crowded it was in August left our whole visit feeling very rushed.

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
Because we spent so much time driving/looking for parking, we never had much time to actually enjoy the incredible scenery!

I knew going in that I would need to temper my Yellowstone expectations a bit, especially since we were traveling during the high season. And I certainly didn't dislike the park. But waiting for parking spaces, getting caught in traffic jams, and spending more time driving in between attractions than enjoying them means that I wouldn't exactly name Yellowstone as my favorite national park.

This is a good reminder that timing can sometimes be everything. Would I have loved Yellowstone if I'd visited during a different, less busy season? It's very possible, and I'll have to test it out sometime!

Read more: Yellowstone National Park: What to Do and See in 2 Days

5. The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul

The last place on this list isn't a city or country; instead, it's one very popular attraction in Istanbul, Turkey. The Blue Mosque (officially the Sultan Ahmed Mosque) is a mosque constructed by the Ottomans in the early 1600s. It's still used as a functioning mosque – but is also a popular tourist attraction.

The Blue Mosque is known for its beautiful tile work, and I've actually visited it twice – once in 2012, and again in 2019. And while I can certainly appreciate the artistry and architecture here, I wouldn't call either of my visits to the Blue Mosque particularly enjoyable.

First of all, visiting an active religious site can always be a bit strange – especially when it's not your religion. It can feel a bit intrusive. Standing in line to go gawk at a mosque while some people were actually going inside to pray made me feel weird.

And it was also CROWDED on my first visit. I waited in line for half an hour, only to be shuttled through, elbow-to-elbow, as if I was at an amusement park. The COVID-era me shudders at this.

Inside the Blue Mosque
It's beautiful, sure, but it was SO CROWDED the first time I visited.

On my second trip, nearly the entire mosque was covered up with sheets and scaffolding, as restoration work has been ongoing for several years now. It wasn't nearly as busy, but obviously it's a lot less impressive when you can't see anything.

Overall, both of my trips to this wonder left me feeling pretty underwhelmed. There's so much incredible history and architecture in Istanbul to see that I don't know that I'll ever visit the Blue Mosque for a third time.

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul
I actually think it's more impressive from the outside anyway!

So there you have it: some of my most notable travel surprises and letdowns after 10 years of traveling the world.

This list could look different a few years from now – though I will say that the more I travel, the better I get at choosing destinations I'm likely to enjoy. I'm also much better at managing my own expectations these days, and being able to separate the “Instagram from reality” when I'm planning trips.

And now it's your turn! What are some of your travel surprises and letdowns? Do we have any that match up?

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My biggest travel letdowns and surprises

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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30 Comments on “Expectations vs. Reality: My Top Travel Letdowns and Surprises

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  1. Love this list. I’m dying to get to Vietnam. I hope I fall in love with it as you did.

    My travel let downs have had little to do with the city or country, and more to do with extenuating circumstances. Like the time the brakes failed on my zip line in Belize and I crashed full speed into a tree, shattering my ankle. That really put a damper on the trip. I’m sure the country is magnificent and I’d love to come back and not zip over jungle canopies.

    I also had a bad experience in Turkey back in 2018. I was stopping over in Istanbul on my way back from South Africa. I had planned to spend 24 hours there before heading on to London. But our then US president had picked a fight with their president causing visas to be cancelled for Americans. Instead of seeing the city, I spend 12 hours in the airport while I rearranged my flights.

    One of my top travel surprises has been China. I spent time in Beijing, Macao, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Harbin. Every time I’ve gone it’s been on a solo trip and I’ve ended up making some amazing friendships. Pre-pandemic I had a 10 year Visa and visited 5 times in 2019 alone. I’m obsessed with the food, the energy, the people, and their stories. Sadly, I don’t know when they’ll be open for tourists again.

    I also really loved Cape Town. The US dollar went so far. I also saw some of the most beautiful wildlife and natural surroundings in the world. It was magical going down to Cape L’Agulhas and staring out at the Indian and Pacific Oceans knowing the next bit of land wasn’t until Antarctica. Plus penguins! Who doesn’t love penguins?

    Tokyo, Prague, my time on a Nicaraguan turtle sanctuary, and snorkeling off the coast of Honduras have also wildly exceeded my expectations and made me fall in love. By and large I’ve been blessed to have many wonderful experiences all around the globe.

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