Disappointment: When Places Don’t Live Up to Your Expectations

Hoof

Hoof. Photo taken in India by 0000.

Expectation is a dangerous thing. The higher the expectations, the greater the chance they’ll be dashed. But when it does happen, know this: it happens to many travellers.

To prove it to you, I rounded up 19 travel bloggers and asked them to share a time when a trip or place didn’t live up to their expectations.

Steven Shoppman from The World By Road:

When we arrived in the Congo we ended up sleeping in a small village with locals for the night because roads were so bad that we could not make it to the next town before nightfall. When we finally got to Dolisie, we rolled in with a tire hissing on its way flat. Luckily a man from South African happened to be nearby and offered us help. By that afternoon my friend Steve had a full blown case of Malaria, but our saving grace was the South African guy Derrick.

He told us to take a different route to Pointe Noire on the coast instead of driving inland to Brazzaville to avoid sure run-ins with rebels. We took his advice and ended up stuck in Pointe Noire for two months because of problems getting permits to enter Angola. The final solution ended up with us driving the original route through the rebel territory. Our stay in Congo was only supposed to be 5 days.

Joey Salvucci from America in 100 Days:

I find that the most disappointing travel experiences come when visiting an attraction with great significance tied to it, but nothing to really see or do at the location. I felt this way a few times in my past travels. One great example of this I have had is the Jim Morrison (of The Doors for you non-rockers) gravesite in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in France. After sticking my nose in a map for a good while and navigating a cobblestone path, I was greeted with a blank grave. This was especially disappointing because it was in contrast to the enriched by diehard fans that have been featured in pop culture pictures of the tombstone.

Other locations that fit into the category of historically significant but boring in person are: The Alamo in Texas, Abby Road in London, and though I have not visited any personally, I imagine a historic battlefield without any type of museum or monument would be the same

High expectations based on other similar countries, flowery guide book reviews, and other travellers tales: a recipe for disappointment.

Linda Martin from Indie Travel Podcast:

Paris has a reputation to live up to – the city of love, the city of art … it’s pretty much THE CITY. So when I went there for a weekend from London, my expectations were high even if my budget wasn’t. And I think that’s why I was disappointed. Paris, like London, has a lot to offer those with deep pockets, but is a little more difficult for the budget traveller.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Paris is a very nice city. The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Notre Dame Cathedral are all justifiably famous, and there’s a lot of hidden treasures that are fun to discover. But it just wasn’t magical.

Craig Heimburger from TravelVice:

Inedible Filipino Food: From skewered chicken heads, feet, and unidentifiable animal innards, to horrendously bitter vegetables, to the ever-popular Adobo (which has consistently been strips of fatty meat sitting in a broth of the saltiest soy sauce I’ve ever encountered), the food of this country was a disaster the likes of which I’ve never seen. Tatiana and I would get sad at the feeling of hunger, as it typically meant yet another search for an unfulfilling meal. I gave up on terrestrial-based meats altogether—there isn’t even any sandwich meat in the supermarkets (in Bohol).

Kerrin Rousset from MyKugelhopf:

Expectations were awfully high for a visit to the Grand Canyon. Normal, no? Zoom in on me and my husband, standing at the rim of this enormous and powerful landscape, looking out like two lost souls in an empty parking lot, certain to have left their car there. “It’s supposed to be here, right?” Ah yes, we had one day to hike, photograph and take in one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World, but it just so happened that it was one of the foggiest days of the year. We saw wondrous shades of white and gray. Camera stayed in its bag.

Weather can’t be controlled, but construction and commercialization can – and should be! We had planned a trip to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in the spring of 2008. Goal: leave Cancun immediately and head south to discover local villages, the culture and cuisine. Reading guide books and online about the town of Majahual, we thought we had found our spot. “One of the coast’s last fishing villages… it remains quiet and quaint…” As we arrived in the town, we knew we were there. Not because of the charming little fish shacks or exotic ambience. But thanks to the huge billboard that greeted us, which would have been more at home in New York’s Time Square. This quaint village more resembled a construction site. My husband hit the gas and we never even got out of the car. Just kept driving south…

Dave from The Longest Way Home:

High expectations based on other similar countries, flowery guide book reviews, and other travellers tales: a recipe for disappointment.

This is what happened to me in Iran. For some reason I’d thought it might be like Morocco had been 3 years previously. My guidebook made out that some of the friendliest people on the planet lived there; enshrined in ancient wonder and beauty. Likewise other travellers and the media had me salivating at the mouth to travel through this “axis of evil” or rather “half a world away” place.

In truth, after five days I found myself in the biggest sulk in my travelling life in Rasht. I stayed at the bus terminal for the day, and didn’t move. It took that long to piece things together.

It is what you make it. Ignore flowery guidebook writing, compare a place to no other, and travel based on your own likes – not others.

I gave Iran one last shot in Esfahan. It was nice, but still did little for me. It’s wasn’t until I reached Shiraz and then Yazd that I truly enjoyed Iran. I did meet some great people in amazing places. How? – I threw away my expectations.

Nora Dunn from The Professional Hobo:

I have been lucky enough not to encounter sincere disappointment in my full-time travels thus far. Initially upon landing in Bangkok though, I was terribly disappointed with what I found, but with time and perspective on my side, I realize that my initial disappointment was likely more a form of culture shock than genuine disappointment. When I return, I hope that, knowing what to expect, I will embrace Bangkok for all that it is.

Jaded Spiderman

Jaded Spiderman. Photo taken in USA by Jon Andrasz.

Greg Wesson from Greg Wesson’s Esoteric Globe:

Meramec cavern in Missouri was a disappointment. Dubbed “America’s Cave,” Meramec cavern has an excellent history including being a hiding spot for the outlaw Jesse James. But upon arriving, the place was tourist kitsch. The main entrance was turned into a ballroom complete with disco ball. The cave was nice, but nothing special and no ability to get off the tourist trail and really explore the cave. At the end, you get to sit and watch a SUPER CAMPY light show while “God Bless America” plays, ending with the American Flag being shown in lights on the side of the cave wall. Not at all the day of cave adventure I was hoping for. I’ve generally been lucky in not having too many destinations be disappointing for me. Those that were usually have one thing in common – someone decided that nature’s splendour needed some more pizzaz, and they added some awful and tacky display on top of it.

Bonnie Brewster from The London Spy:

Amsterdam: Water + water + more water = Coma!

Yes there is such a thing as drinking too much water! It’s called Hyponatremia and it put me in a coma for a week! Most people are pretty “happy” with their visit to Amsterdam. I’m happy I came out alive!

More: The Truth About Water.

Cate Dowman from Caffeinated Traveller:

When travelling I tend to keep it real, knowing that whereever I go, something is not going to live up to my expectations. By doing this I’ve been fortunate enough not to encountered disappointment on the road in all my years of travel. Having said that, I have to say that my on latest travels through Malaysia, I did let my guard down and met disappointment full on. Actually I have recently blogged about this in a post: Taking the rose tinted glasses off.

I love visiting backwater places where travellers seldom go, and this town in Malaysia called Ipoh was going to be one of the high points of my trip; because it was full of discovery. The reality was far from adventure, in fact the town was full of neglect, emptiness and indifference. Factors that took the wind out of me and gave me a good wake-up call in the process. Not all places are going to live up to your level of expectations and they shouldn’t have to. The best thing to do is to keep these places and countries in the reality they were meant to be in.

Matt Morelli from Here to Geneva:

What with the scrutinised planning I put into all of my trips, I’m not often disappointed. That said, in October 2008, a day trip to Sweden didn’t meet up to my expectations. I had been staying in Copenhagen across the Øresund (the body of water between Denmark and Sweden) and had bought an “Around the Sound” ticket that, for a very reasonable price, gave me unrestricted train and boat travel from and to Copenhagen via the Swedish western coastal region. Perhaps it was the grotty weather, perhaps it was because I was in quite a rush to do the trip in a day, but my excitement of ticking another country off my list was short lived. Next time I’m in Sweden, I’ll have to do it more justice.

Lauren O’Farrell from Purl Interrupted:

Canada: the great white North. I’d spent three years kicking the arse of cancer; poked, prodded, poisoned all over the place, and the whole time my head was full of snow snow snow. Mushing through drifts behind puff-breathed huskies; shoop-shoop-shooping down powder-sprinkled slopes; ploughing my way through plates of maple-soaked pancakes while the blizzard howled outside; peering up at the Aurora Borealis flat on my back flapping snow angels in a carpet of crystals. I had my ticket, I had my backpack with snow-ready raincover, I had a fine set of thermal undercrackers, I had my knitting needles raring to stitch snow-proof bedsocks to distribute to hibernating bears.

Alas. That year Canada had its warmest winter on record. Sat in a Mount Tremblant bar sipping on a Molson I watched huskies pulling a sled on wheels full of cheated-looking mushers. I observed people brazenly sunbathing around the empty hotel hot tub. I listened to dejected snowboarders croon “I’m dreaming of a brown Christmas”. Sandalled feet dangled from the ski lift above. Curse you weather gods and global warming!

At least I had my health…

Debbie Lee Jagerman from Debby’s Departures:

I thought long and hard about this question. I considered the countries I have traveled to, and I pondered the places I have been. I looked through photo albums, glanced at a journal or two, and re-read a few emails that I had written back home about, in order to try to recall something that wasn’t completely satisfying to me. I asked myself if there was ever an occasion when I said, “well, that was a waste of my time, or a waste of my money.” I wondered if I ever said that I wished I had not gone somewhere.

But in all this searching and asking, I could not seem to find one place that disappointed me, or where my expectations were not met. I know this might sound strange, and perhaps even a bit unrealistic, but even in a place that may have not been perfect or as exciting as I would have liked it to have been, I still found some sort of meaning about it anyway.

And even if I did think of a place, I don’t think I would share it specifically, because to someone else, it might be just what they wanted to experience.

Lara Dunston from Cool Travel Guide:

Giza’s pyramids were smaller than I’d imagined and their suburban location a surprise, Paris’ Eiffel Tower was little more than an elegant oversized transmission tower, Victoria’s Twelve Apostles tinier than I remembered, and, there weren’t even twelve anymore, and that hot air balloon ride was noisy, cramped, chaotic, and uncomfortably hot. As a travel writer, avoiding disappointment is a constant challenge. Because I know disappointment occurs when expectations are too high. Lower expectations and the chances of disappointment are lower. Raise them and we increase the risk of having a bad time. The irony is the very things we find inspiring – the stirring images we enjoy gazing at, the evocative stories we like reading – are the things responsible for our disappointment if our experiences don’t measure up. To have no expectations, we must read nothing, look at nothing, and listen to no travel tales – impossible for a writer. So the way I counteract disappointment is to seek out different ways of experiencing ‘familiar’ places – to look beyond the main attraction to the overlooked and under-written about (often beneath our very noses or right around the corner), to discover and communicate the wonder of everyday things and people, to write honestly about places, and to encourage others to seek out and appreciate the beauty of the authentic and everyday.

[F]oxymoron

Here I am enjoying the beautifully mesmerizing chaos of India and I am suddenly enveloped by a brutally potent moment of honesty. A flash of serrated clarity cutting deep, irritating my soul for three days.

THREE DAYS! When will this end?

I now brood over my decision to travel. I question the wisdom of trading a few hearts for a couple thousand miles, some thalis, and a few touts. I wonder if three years of planning is going to bleed into despair. This sucks!

Traveling solo isn’t new to me, but the realization that I want to share these chaotically mesmerizing experiences, frustrations, and joys with somebody IS disconcertingly new. And bad timing.

I suppose this is heart-earned wisdom. Three [F]*cking days of heart-earned wisdom…

Tammie Dooley from Solo Road Trip:

Travel and sex have several parallels. The anticipation, build-up and excitement connected to the act of making love can be much the same as that with travel. The stimulation of our brain in this stage is often one of the most satisfying components associated with both. I’ve discovered the physical encounter itself, for both love making and arrival at my travel destination, is seldom what I’d fantasized it to be. That is not to say it’s disappointing (far from it), rather it’s almost always DIFFERENT than what I’d envisioned. Our mind can compartmentalize a myopic and idealistic view that we can gloriously linger on for days, even weeks. But real life inevitably asserts itself “in the moment” endeavoring to put a check-and-balance to the convenient way our brain filters out the unpleasantness of say, awkwardness where love-making is concerned and the glaring realities of say, delayed flights and lost luggage where travel is concerned. Dismayed at times by my capacity to conjure up the aforementioned idealistic hopefulness, experience has taught the degree of departure from my expectations is not what underwrites a pleasant travel experience. I’ve yet to suffer disappointment from any of my travels and I hope to maintain this!

Audrey Scott from Uncornered Market:

Disappointments – in all aspects of life, not just travel – usually come down to prior expectations. I became fascinated with the Forbidden City when I watched “The Last Emperor” many years ago. When we visited, this historic sight felt soulless and Disneyfied. Maybe it was the massive reconstruction before the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the way everything was presented. Or perhaps it was all the people approaching us to practice English and bring us back to their art galleries. Something about the place left us feeling empty.

When we decided to visit the Great Wall – something we knew was touristy but felt we had to do since we were in China – we braced ourselves for the worst. However, when we arrived at Jinshanling, we had the Great Wall almost to ourselves. Not only was the day crisp and clear (a rarity outside of Beijing), but a light layer of snow covered the wall and surrounding countryside. The whole experience was more than we could imagine.

It’s almost impossible not to have prior expectations when traveling, but try to keep them in check. You’ll have more Great Wall and less Forbidden City experiences.

Gary Arndt from Everything Everywhere:

I was disappointed with Dubai. I was very excited to go there because of all the construction and growth. By the time I left, it was just another city with malls and highways.

I was also very disappointed with the state of the internet in Australia. I found connectivity to be better in SE Asia than Australia. I expected much more from the country.

Linda from Minnemom:

I like chocolate. No, I love chocolate. I eat it daily, in as many forms as possible. And my favorite is probably Hershey’s chocolate. Hershey’s Syrup. Hershey’s Cocoa. Hershey’s Kisses. Hershey’s Chocolate Chips. So on a recent trip through Pennsylvania, we altered our schedule and went out of our way to visit (where else?) Hershey, Pennsylvania.

It was the biggest disappointment of our trip.

More: Bitter about Chocolate in Hershey, Pennsylvania

What about you? Have you ever been disappointed with a place you’d expected a lot from?

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Discussion »

  • #1Lori

    Such a great post! A great topic because I feel like people don’t often want to admit a disappointment for fear of offending someone or appearing ungrateful for their opportunity to travel there.

    I loved that Paris was brought up. We have discussed going there several times, but always hold off because we want to experience it well and know it is expensive. I don’t want to be on our usual tight budget when we go there so I want to save more (or make more) before planning that trip.

    I would love to see a similar post about ex-pats and when their countries of choice don’t live up to their expectations. I know there have to be some disappointed folks out there, but in everything I read people seem in love with their new country.

  • #2previously.bitten

    It’s true that you can feel let down. But, honestly, I find that’s when you’re not trying hard enough. The only time I’ve ever thought “wow, this is unfortunate” is when I went to a resort in Cuba. The reason for this, of course, is that I was on a resort. A nice little place away from reality – and there was nothing there, save for the wonders of a swimup bar (the best and worst idea ever? Perhaps.) But – after two days of hanging out by the pool, or ocean, or – well that’s all there was to do – I headed outside the compound and tried to see all I could see.

    Sure, I could have remained with my expectations shot, but I pushed forward and found something. There’s always something.

    There is always a culture, or an event that you don’t understand. There is always something you can learn.

    Even in my own city, I can feel let down: but once I’ve put some effort into it, read the Now Magazine detailing local festivals, openings, etc. it all opens up before me.

  • #3Al Hague

    Having your expectations crushed by bad information or no information is certainly bad but when it happens because someone else made a mess of it its very frustrating. We had similiar issue our first trip to Italy and vowed it would not happen again . When we got home we started doing research on how to travel to Italy worry free and have fun at the same time. We have it down to a science now and love to share our knowledge. Contact us for a free dvd on what we do .

  • #4Cuckoo

    Oh yes, I have been disappointed with my visit as recently as last November and where ? In my own country.

    And not with the place but with other related things. I felt cheated and duped when in spite of me knowing the language and being cautious, inquisitive etc, I was promised a luxury berth and what I got was cockroach infested very uncomfortable berth. In fact, many more things. I have described them in my series of posts on my blog.

  • #5Tammie Dooley

    I’m relieved to see there are others that haven’t walked away from a trip with disappointment. Maybe I just needed the assurance I wasn’t a freak! LOL

  • #6Cristina

    In Aug 2007 we visited Budapest; we spent HOURS in the Railway Museum and we loved it. Then the person there tells us that our ticket also comprises the entrance ticket for the Aviation Museum. We were assured it’s just as nice…well, wrong! It was small and not as nice as the Railway Museum…and that smell of burnt oil from the engines…YUCK!

    Another disappointment? Bacau, Romania. Hubby went there on a business trip and stayed for a month. Then he was asked to stay for 3 more and managed to get me to go as well. Nice…not so much. Although we are both Romanians we couldn’t understand the dialect; the food was crappy pretty much anywhere except the hotel and there was one single place in town to have fun…the mall! I didn’t even dare to go in the park and jog. *Sigh*

  • #7lara dunston

    Another super post, Eric, and what fascinating responses! I certainly relate to Audrey’s experience of the Forbidden City and love Lauren’s attitude.

    Lori – Paris doesn’t have to be expensive at all. Like most cities there’s always lots of fabulous free stuff to do you just need to know how/where to find it. Of course with lots of money, Paris is even more wonderful – can stay in a nicer hotel instead of a room where you can’t walk around your bed and and the more expensive restaurants are far better in Paris – but like any city it is possible to do Paris on the cheap. Rent an apartment instead of staying in a hotel, for instance, and eat set menus in simple little neighbourhood bistros and do the ‘baguette, cheese and table wine’ picnic lunch in a pretty park. Don’t let the lack of money put you off. It’s not my most favorite city in the world but it certainly has its delights.

  • #8Miss Expatria

    Linda’s comment made me smile, because I had the same reaction as she but in reverse – traveled from Paris to London, and found it to be a huge disappointment for the same reasons she found Paris to be the same. And I felt about many of London’s sights as Joey talks about – much significance, but meh to actually see in person. And Lara’s reactions to the pyramids reminds me of when I saw Buckingham Palace – I was like, wait, this is IT?!

    It was the only city I’ve ever been disappointed by, because, like most of them say, it was the expectation factor. I had built London up in my head via a lifetime of Dickens and Disney – nothing can live up to that!

  • #9Mark @ TravelWonders

    I have rarely been disappointed in visiting places. Sometimes surprised that it is different to my expectation but that isn’t quite the same. My biggest annoyance is making a big effort to visit somewhere to find it unexpectedly closed or covered in scaffolding or off-limits (or heavily fogged in as one writer mentions) for some reason. The rest I can comfortably cope with.

  • #10edj

    One time we were on vacation in Senegal, and we had a chance to stay at a Club Med for a couple of nights. I was so excited. I had heard great things about Club Med and thought I’d love it. Instead? HATED it. Hated the forced chumminess, the staff who remembered your name but couldn’t care less about you, having to sit with complete strangers at meal times. The food was mediocre and the drinks were weak and the atmosphere annoying. Club Med is not for me. Plus they tried to change our agreed-on price when we were checking out, and it was a major hassle to not get cheated (which is a normal experience in Africa, to be honest, but we did expect a little more professionalism from Club Med). I will say my kids loved it, but I chalked it up to experience and will never go to one again.

  • #11Lorna

    Excellent blog- I’ve been disappointed a couple of times and it’s reassuring to know I’m not the only one :) This is pretty neat http://www.youniverse.com/travel It’s meant to tell you what kind of traveller you are based on your personality. It was fairly accurate for me (not 100%) but fun to do.

  • #12brian from nodebtworldtravel.com

    The only time I can say I’ve been disappointed traveling was in Mexico, when I went to the ruins at Chichen Itza. I thought they would be much bigger. I went to the Pyramids at Giza the same summer and was completely in awe. I loved every second I was there. It is all about what we expect to find, isn’t it?

  • #13Smart Person

    Only a fool would believe people who promise you a beatific vacation. Tourist pamphlets and magazines are not published for your education. They exist to draw you in and take your money.

    Specifically regarding Meramec Caverns, a place which was built in order to lure tourists, of course it is a constructed experience. Of course it is kitschy. It was constructed in the time of kitsch!

    Also, cave owners have learned that letting ignorant, messy, destructive tourists off the path is a proven threat to the natural beauty of the cave.

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