“Are you ready, Boston?”, Madonna exclaimed during her recent concert in – Toronto. The singer’s destination mix-up could have been attributed to a frequent traveler’s confusion, or a cunning ploy to poke fun at Lady Gaga once more (Madonna said it would be “f***ed-up s***” to mistake the two of them). But destination confusion is a real thing. Combined with language mix-up adventures, it can lead to somewhat embarrassing lost-in-translation experiences.
Boston is not Toronto, Bucharest is not Budapest, and Sweden is not Switzerland. But this is just the tip of the iceberg of destination mix-ups
Before the Queen of Pop, another music royalty, the King of Pop himself, had mistaken cities and countries too. In 1992, standing on the balcony of the parliament in Bucharest, Michael Jackson greeted Romanian crowds with unmatched enthusiasm: “It’s great to be here in Budapest!”
Both capitals paid tribute to the late pop star, but over the years, more musicians repeated Jacko’s geographical gaffe. Iron Maiden, Metallica, Lenny Kravitz, and Ozzy Osbourne all succumbed to the Budap… Bucharest confusion.
Even UEFA fell under the classic destination mix-up in 2012. A legion of Athletic Bilbao fans, 400 of them, flew to Budapest, ready to rally behind their team playing in the Europa League final. But the match was in Bucharest, 800 kilometers away.
At Euro 2020, the history of a mix-up between the Hungarian and Romanian capitals repeated itself. A group of French fans traveled all the way to Bucharest only to realize they would have to watch the Budapest match on – TV.
Among the creative tourism ads, we’ve seen several attempts to deal with the place name confusion. In 2013, Romania’s Rom Autentic, a chocolate candy bar producer, rolled out an ad tutorial titled “Bucharest not Budapest”.
Fast forward to 2023, Visit Sweden launched the “Welcome to Sweden (not Switzerland)” campaign, addressing the mix-up between the countries with similar names.
Confused? Enter the world of destination mix-up and language-related travel anecdotes!
Lost in transition – Viking in the Mediterranean
To give Madonna and Michael some credit, the United States and Canada, just like Hungary and Romania, are at least neighboring countries. But what would you say about a person traveling over an entire continent, only to realize they were a victim of mistaken tourist locations too?
Someone I know told me about a geographic slip-up that happened in his younger days. He showed up at the train station as a backpacker, determined to explore territories south of his home in Scandinavia. “One ticket to Riga“, he asked at the counter.
And south did he explore! Instead of ending his trip in the capital of Latvia, his train continued further south, without him even noticing. This was before Google Maps, after all.
And no, before you jump to the conclusion that this is surely a classic story of confusing Latvia with Lithuania, this young adventurer went above and beyond.
Instead of the Baltic Sea breeze, he found himself greeted by the salty air of the Adriatic. “Welcome to Rijeka“, he heard, as he stepped off the train on the coast of Croatia.
Confusing Riga with Rijeka, or the Baltic with the Balkans, might not be an everyday occurrence. Still, all it took for this traveler’s unplanned leap across an entire continent was one misheard destination and some insufficient attention.
Young travelers such as my Scandinavian friend could possibly be forgiven for their mistakes enabled by the lack of travel experience. But as we will see, even seasoned travel experts aren’t immune to tourist navigation errors. Their stories? Nothing short of travel industry gold!
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11 lost-in-translation travel stories
1. Mistaking St Michael’s Mount for Mont St Michel
You’ve surely seen images of Mont Saint-Michel, that enchanting castle island in La Manche, protected by UNESCO and ocean tides. The rocky islet with an abbey was accessible only during the low sea levels since the Middle Ages. Its location was a natural defense to deter the enemies. But tourists today are another story.
Tabitha Bailar, the blogger behind the Travel Compositions, left for her first international trip nearly two decades ago. At the train station in London, her eyes widened with excitement as she stumbled upon a brochure showcasing the captivating St Michael’s Mount. She booked a ride to Penzance, a port town in Cornwall – the gateway to the island community. What could possibly go wrong?
“I was a little confused”, Tabitha admits, as her tidal island castle in the English Channel had a slightly different name. “I chalked it off to being something that I was misunderstanding, like maybe that’s what the French called it and they had some tie to it. Of course, once I got there I learned that St Michael’s Mount and Mont St Michel were two very different locations.”
Even if her dream destination was on the other side of the channel, on the coastline of continental Europe, in France, Tabitha did not regret her mistake. She says she had “a fabulous visit” to the United Kingdom‘s St Michael’s Mount, the unassuming doppelganger of Mont St Michel.
2. Mistaking Torino for Tirano
Meeka Fayetima travels as The Wandering Afropologist blogger, but also as a certified mermaid, always packing a tail in her luggage. On one trip to continental Italy, she found herself stranded in an unknown terrain.
Her idea was to hop over to Switzerland on the Bernina Express, a popular panoramic train connecting Tirano to Chur via the scenic Swiss Alps.
“The plan was to take the train from Milan to Tirano. While trying to understand the Italian railway system, I accidentally took the train to Torino, which happens to be in the opposite direction”, Meeka confesses.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Turin or Torino. The city is rich in history and culture, and its center is also inscribed on the World Heritage List. But Meeka had her sights set on a train ride through a World Heritage Site, and that was closer to the Swiss border, not farther away.
“True to Murphy’s Law, there was a train outage, and I had to take a shuttle bus for the last leg of my trip. About 12 hours later, I finally reached Tirano but missed all my day activities”, says the blogger.
But let’s put this sidetrack into perspective. The misadventure could have been far worse. For instance, if she had ended up in Tirana, the capital of Albania, that would’ve set her back much more than just a half-day delay. So perhaps, after all, this Afropologist got lucky while wandering off course.
3. Mistaking Reims for Rennes
Before having kids and dedicating herself to creating the Tiny Travelers Guide, Astrid Chacon from Venezuela was doing her master’s studies in software engineering in France, near Paris.
During some national holidays, she planned a last-minute rendezvous with her friends visiting Reims, or so she thought. She bought the train tickets, swiftly packed her bags, and off she went.
“I arrived at the train station in Reims, and my friend was supposed to be there waiting for me. I talked to him by phone, and he asked me which floor I was on. But Reims’s train station had only one floor”, she recalls the sinking moment.
Astrid was in northeastern France, and her friend was waiting for her west of Paris, 500 kilometers away, in Rennes. Not Reims.
Undeterred by the geographical misunderstanding, Astrid decided to make the best out of her unexpected detour, turning lemons into a sparkling lemonade experience.
“Lucky me, I was in the Champagne region. I managed to contact locals using Couchsurfing. I met great people who welcomed me to their homes, drank champagne, and took me back to Paris the next day.”
4. Mistaking Argentina for Spain
Geographic mix-ups abroad are usually a manageable inconvenience when they imply an unexpected travel detour in a relatively small region. But what if your lost-in-translation experience involves the accidental swapping of entire continents?
The full-time traveling family of Brodi and David Cole, and their son dubbed the Little Man, are all about offbeat life. But one confusing situation almost sent them completely off their path.
“I recently had a lost-in-translation experience when my husband wanted to attend an EDM concert in Ushuaia“, Brodi shares with Pipeaway. “At the time, we were driving the Pan-American Highway from the US to Ushuaia, Argentina, so I told him to get the tickets.”
But besides being the world’s southernmost city and the gateway to Antarctica, Ushuaia is also one of the most famed clubs in Ibiza, Spain‘s ultimate party island. And that was really where the groove was calling David.
“It wasn’t until we started looking at hotels that we realized the concert was in Ushuaia, Ibiza, Spain, and NOT Ushuaia, Argentina. Sadly, that meant my husband missed the concert. We laugh about it now but he was pretty disappointed”, Brodi admits.
5. Mistaking Amman for Amsterdam
The whole idea behind travel hacking is to maximize vacation experiences while minimizing their cost. Veronica Hanson has an entire blog category dedicated to these strategies. The secret weapons for bonus adventures are – layovers.
But one of her layovers was over before it was laid at her feet. While booking flights from Cairo to Bangkok, Veronica decided to get a bonus trip by finding a long layover somewhere in between and using that extra day to explore another destination.
“The airport code AMM came up and I thought, hey we’ve only ever been to the Amsterdam airport. It would be great to explore the city for a day and finally say we’ve been to the Netherlands“, she reminisces.
Soon after booking the tickets, Veronica figured out that AMM was not the gateway to tulips, windmills, and stroopwafels, but – Amman, in the Middle East.
“This was not my idea of a good family layover. Why did I think AMM was the Amsterdam airport? No clue. I clearly couldn’t spell Amsterdam or had any clue about geography to realize that made no sense in terms of a flight path.”
Her family managed to rebook the flights, but mistaking the airport code did spark their curiosity about Amman. A year later, they spent four days in Jordan‘s capital and found it AMM-azing.
6. Mistaking Bhutan’s capital for a village
Even if your job is organizing journeys for others, it doesn’t mean your professional life is immune to occasional funny travel mistakes.
“I recall the time when a simple miscommunication led to an unexpected adventure for one of our guests”, says Diwas Puri, the founder of Best of Bhutan. “They had requested a quaint stay near the majestic Tiger’s Nest (known as Taktsang) in Paro, but instead, I inadvertently booked them into Hotel Taktsang, in the heart of Thimphu.”
It must have been a grand surprise when the guest arrived and, instead of serene temple views, faced the vibrant vistas of Buthan’s capital city.
To rectify the situation, the company upgraded the visitor to a suite with the best views of the town.
“By the time we had sorted things out, our guest was quite taken with their unplanned urban retreat, and their eventual pilgrimage to the monastery was met with even greater appreciation”, Diwas says.
7. Navigational challenges in Germany
Four years before they sold their house and embraced a nomadic campervan life, Laura and Joren Byers from Ohio embarked on a road trip through Germany, as newlyweds. They rented a car and explored the south of the country. The honeymoon trip would make them fall in love with travel and all the unpredictable adventures it brings.
“One afternoon we had several hours of driving to do, so I called ahead to our next hotel – the Grüner Baum – to let them know of our late arrival. Assured they would stay up a bit later to receive us, I punched it into Google Maps, and we set off along the pitch-dark backroads”, Joren recounts.
It was already late when they pulled up in front of the hotel with the unmistakable Grüner Baum sign. Except, they couldn’t find their way in. They called the reception, and their host agreed to step outside to meet them.
“After a few comical minutes of walking around the building, on the phone, looking for each other, we both realized that we were at a completely different hotel.”
It turned out they had booked Gasthof Grüner Baum in Stetten. The navigation brought them to Gasthof Grüner Baum, and it was definitely in Stetten. But this Stetten was the suburb of Hechingen, not Stetten the town by Lake Constance, 100 kilometers to the south.
The couple sought refuge in the only other guest house in town that still had lights on. They could console themselves that it could have been even more complicated. Baden-Württemberg, where Lor and Jor accidentally explored, had at least four more guest houses named after a green tree: in Külsheim, Langenau, Neckargerach, and Höfen.
8. Canoeing trip without a canoe
Krista Ann and Garner Knutson are another American couple that shed their earthly possessions and moved into an RV. And, just like in Byers’ case, it seems those early butterflies manage to confuse more than lovers’ stomachs.
Krista, better known as Knitsy for her obsession with knitting-on-the-go journeys, wove quite an adventure for their honeymoon in New Zealand. She booked a big active holiday-type tour. But as not enough people signed up, the tour operator offered a canoeing trip instead.
“The next day, we were picked up and I saw on the side of the van it said Canoeing Adventures. After a bit of a drive, we stopped at a shed and they began giving us safety briefings and handing out hard hats, knee pads, and harnesses. Such strange equipment for a canoeing trip”, Krista recalls.
The group hiked along a stream, and the couple assumed the canoes would be waiting for them at the opening of the river. But then – they started hiking up the mountain.
“We were so deep into this adventure, we felt dumb asking where the canoes were, so we just went with it”, the knitter says. “We got to the top of the mountain and the guide walked out into a waterfall and started clipping himself in and going over how to rappel down the waterfall. Where the heck were the canoes?!”
The rappelling adventure down several waterfalls was super fun, but it didn’t involve canoes. After hiking back, Krista realized the mistake. On the side of the van, it read Canyoning Adventures, not Canoeing Adventures.
“We don’t use the term ‘canyoning’ in the US – it was always ‘rappelling’ to me, so I just heard the word I was familiar with, I guess! Love the Kiwi accent, but I now know to listen more closely!”
9. Buying an infant train ticket
Australian-American couple Eddie Kingswell and Kelli Lovett, known as the Vanabonds, quit their jobs to explore the world in a van (and recently, on a sailboat). But it was on public transport where they experienced real travel language barriers.
From being kicked out of the bus in Murter, Croatia, for not having the right ticket, to being escorted off the train by the police in Brno, Czechia, for not exchanging his ticket for a boarding pass, Eddie went through quite a few international travel blunders.
When he had to travel by train from Yekaterinburg to Moscow, he was happy to have found a pretty good deal online. In the world of destination and language mix-ups, that’s usually a red flag.
“When I arrived at the train station, the guard wouldn’t let me board the train”, Eddie says. “Although we couldn’t understand one another, with the help of Google Translate, he was finally able to explain my mistake: I had bought an infant ticket.”
Eddie’s attempts to point out the absurdity of a system that allows an infant to purchase an individual ticket were futile.
So was his discussion at the ticket counter: “I frantically tried to explain my situation. Unfortunately, the woman at the ticket office was far less patient than the guard had been, and, unable to understand me, she simply pulled down the metal roller separating us.”
He didn’t make it to the train and was forced to try his luck the next day. It’s a lesson saying that, with language-induced travel adventures, talking more doesn’t always help.
10. Becoming a vegetarian in Ukraine
Navigating foreign languages is not easy even for professional linguists. Haluk Aka, the English-Turkish translator based in London, lived in Ukraine for 14 years, and this is where he experienced a lost-in-translation travel story that completely changed his eating habits.
The first few years, he stayed in Russian-speaking Crimea and, as someone who didn’t eat pork, he quickly learned to ask for ‘govyadina’, the Russian term for beef.
“When I first moved to Kyiv, I couldn’t find govyadina for 3-4 months. I found something that looked very much like govyadina, but it was labelled yalovichna. So I didn’t risk it”, Haluk confesses.
He involuntarily became a vegetarian during this period. In a moment of frustration, he spilled his meatless woes to a local friend: “I was complaining how I couldn’t find govyadina anywhere, all they had in supermarkets was svinina and yalovichna, but no govyadina. I told her that I hadn’t eaten red meat for over 3 months. And she goes ‘Wait… yalovichna is govyadina!’ We had a good laugh.”
In the years before the war had torn Ukraine, it was easy to forget that the country was essentially bilingual. And for Haluk, lost in local terms, the oversight meant being on a restrictive diet for months.
11. Being horny in Spanish class
Even if you do your best in trying to adapt to the local environment, travel language mishaps remain a possibility. Courtney Muro, the California-based travel blogger, experienced cross-cultural confusion while trying to learn the language of her destination.
She lived in Medellin, Colombia, at the time, and was attending the Spanish immersion school for a couple of months. As Courtney traveled home for the holidays, she joined her language group via a video chat.
“Estoy exitada“, Courtney said, trying to express excitement about seeing her classmates.
“Ooo… I think you mean emocionada“, the director of the school said. “Exitada means horny.”
“He corrected me very nicely”, Courtney tells us. “But you can see how someone could make this mistake. ‘Estoy emocionada’ sounds like ‘I’m emotional’, and ‘estoy exitada’ sounds like ‘I’m excited!’. I told 20 people I was horny to see them.”
But Courtney’s funny travel anecdote doesn’t end there. In the maze of similar-sounding words in a foreign language, one can always sink deeper.
“The other embarrassing mistake I’ve made was to say ‘estoy embarazada’ for ‘I’m embarrassed’. But that actually means ‘I’m pregnant.’ ‘I’m embarrassed’ is ‘estoy avergonzado’.”
Epic destination mix-up timeline
Oakland – Auckland
Michael Lewis flew from London to Los Angeles, where he should have transferred on a flight to Oakland, California. Seduced by the London staff’s pronunciation, Michael managed to board a flight to Auckland, New Zealand. He became known as Wrong-Way Mike.
Albany, New York – Albany, Georgia
After their cruise holiday with Costa Concordia was already ruined by the ship capsizing in Italy, Brian Aho, Joan Fleser, and their daughter Alana just wanted to get home. Instead of flying them to Albany, New York, the cruise line booked them on a flight to Albany, Georgia.
Dakar – Dhaka
Sandy Valdivieso and Triet Vo booked a Turkish Airlines flight to Dakar (Senegal). However, the airline issued boarding passes with the DAC airport code (Dakar’s code is DKR). Instead of Africa, the couple landed in Asia – in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.
San José, Mexico – San José, California
Andrew and Julie Kelham booked a trip from Manchester to Mexico, for the reunion with their daughter Frankie. While their agent reserved their hotel in the correct San José in Mexico, their flight ended up landing in the namesake town in the USA.
These San Josés can be quite tricky. In 2017, Steven Roberts booked a flight to San José, California, while he actually wanted to go to San José, Costa Rica! To add to your watchlist, in this forest of San Josés, some people even throw San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the mix-up mix!
Birmingham – Birmingham
Kevin Jones and his partner Jeanette thought they scored cheap tickets to Trinidad. But when they showed up at Birmingham Airport in the UK, their Caribbean dreams were grounded. The flight they booked awaited them in Birmingham, Alabama.
Well, even Birmingham City Council (the English one) made a similar mistake in 2008, when they printed a leaflet with a skyline of Alabama’s Birmingham.
Using inauthentic photo or video materials for promotion is a sure way toward a travel marketing campaign failure.
Salvador – San Salvador
An Australian couple Orin and Melissa van Lingen wanted to spend their honeymoon in the vibrant Brazilian city of Salvador, during the World Cup. In the end, they watched it on television, as their travel agent booked a flight to San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
Granada – Grenada
Edward Gamson bought first-class tickets for himself and his partner to Granada, Spain. Only when they were on board, Edward realized that the London ticket agent sold him a ticket to Grenada, in the Caribbean.
In 2015, the history repeated. Lamenda Kingdon booked a British Airways flight to Granada by phone. She ended up on a much longer flight to the holiday island in the West Indies.
Guyana – Goiania
Emmanuel Akomanyi from Ghana got a scholarship to study medicine in Guyana, South America. But instead of landing in the Caribbean, he mistakenly bought a ticket that brought him to Goiania, a city in central Brazil.
Sydney – Sidney
Kingsley Burnett booked a cruise from sunny Sydney (SYD), and a bargain flight that should have taken him to Australia. However, he has mistakenly bought a ticket to snow-covered Sidney, Montana (SDY). He crashed for the night at the hotel, where he found out that he was not their first guest who ended up in Sidney because of misspelling the city’s name.
But beware, even approaching the “y” with scrutiny might not be enough – Sydney in Canada is also receiving its fair share of travelers heading Up Under. In 2017, Milan Schipper thought he would be backpacking through sun-kissed Australia, but his cheap flight to Sydney landed in cold Nova Scotia, with no kangaroo in sight.
The alphabet of the most frequent destination mix-up traps
Destination name similarities are the most common cause of international city or country name mix-ups. Besides what we already covered, these are the most common name-similarity mishaps in the international game of hide-and-seek:
- Austria – Australia
- Abu Dhabi – Dubai
- Dominica – Dominican Republic
- Iran – Iraq
- Knoxville – Nashville
- La Palma (the island in the western province of the Canary Islands) – Las Palmas (the eastern province of the Canary Islands) – Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (the capital of Gran Canaria) – Palma (the capital of Mallorca and the Balearic Islands)
- Liberia – Libya – Lebanon
- Malawi – Mali
- Niger – Nigeria
- Parthenon (Athens) – Pantheon (Rome)
- Slovenia – Slovakia – Slavonia
- Tahiti – Haiti
- Zambia – Zimbabwe
When hunting for great travel deals, it’s not only crucial to pay attention to a letter or two of difference. Sometimes, the misunderstood travel destinations can have exactly the same name, as we have seen. Pay special attention to these worlds apart:
- Antigua (Antigua & Barbuda) – Antigua (Guatemala)
- La Paz (Bolivia) – La Paz (Mexico)
- London (UK) – London (Canada)
- Perth (Australia) – Perth (UK)
- Waterloo (Belgium) – Waterloo (Canada)
US travelers should be the most vigilant. You might be thinking you’ve found a travel deal somewhere abroad, and end up in your very own neighborhood. The States are sprinkled with towns that borrowed their names from other world destinations:
- Aberdeen (Scotland) – Aberdeen (Washington)
- Athens (Greece) – Athens (Ohio)
- Cairo (Egypt) – Cairo (Illinois)
- Florence (Italy) – Florence (South Carolina)
- Georgia (the country in Europe/Asia) – Georgia (the US state)
- Glasgow (Scotland) – Glasgow (Montana)
- Lebanon (the Middle East country) – Lebanon (New Hampshire)
- Manchester (UK) – Manchester (New Hampshire)
- Melbourne (Australia) – Melbourne (Florida)
- Memphis (Egypt) – Memphis (Tennessee)
- Moscow (Russia) – Moscow (Kansas)
- Panama City (Panama) – Panama City (Florida)
- Paris (France) – Paris (Texas/Idaho/Ohio)
- Saint Petersburg (Russia) – Saint Petersburg (Florida)
- Venice (Italy) – Venice (Louisiana)
Language and destination mix-up – Conclusion
The quirks of language, similar-sounding names, and linguistic twists can lead unsuspecting travelers down unexpected paths.
Many destinations around the world share names or have names that sound similar, especially when pronounced in different languages. The world is rife with opportunities for destination mix-ups.
Confusion with mistaken tourist locations is always a result of oversight and lack of skepticism and research
Travelers may inadvertently choose the wrong destination when booking flights or accommodations. Such mix-ups are not exclusive to amateurs; seasoned explorers and even industry professionals have fallen prey to the allure of a familiar-sounding name.
Sometimes, mispronunciation or over-reliance on translation apps, GPS and online maps, can also lead you astray. Outdated information or misinterpretation of data can easily contribute to navigational errors. Even cultural differences, including variations in accents, dialects, and local expressions can lead to these misunderstandings.
Some destinations have embraced their not-uniqueness, and cleverly capitalized on their doppelganger status to lure in curious tourists. They adopted marketing strategies that play on these language pitfalls in tourism.
But for travelers, the solution is an easy one. Confusion with mistaken tourist locations is always a result of oversight and lack of skepticism and research.
Never jump to conclusions or purchases that look too good to be true. If you’re traveling to the other end of the world, maybe that inexpensive Tokyo travel deal won’t bring you much further than Texas.
Stay mindful of linguistic and cultural differences, double-check travel details before clicking the “book” button, use maps and search engines to confirm information, and you should be fine.
Everyone can get lost in translation, but those who look for the “lost and found” counter sooner rather than later will make fewer mistakes.
Did you experience a destination mix-up yourself?
Share what happened in the comments, and pin this article for later!
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The images in this article have been sourced through Unsplash, Openverse, other public domains, and directly from authors. In the order of appearance, the credits are as follows: Kangaroo - welcome to Austria (cover and pin image) - Ivan Kralj, created with Dall-e Riga - Tom Podmore Rijeka - Ozren Cuculic Mont Saint-Michel - Aldo Loya Tabitha Bailar at St Micheael's Mount - private album Bernina Express - Damiano Baschiera Torino tram - Davide Aracri Reims catherdral - Michelle Williams Rennes cathedral - Mick N. Ibiza beach - Monique Ushuaia sea lions - Allan Rodrigues Amsterdam - Jonne Mäkikyrö Amman - Who’s Denilo? Taktsang - Ugyen Tenzin Taktsang Hotel - Agoda Joren Byers - private album Gasthof Grüner Baum in Stetten - Booking Gasthof Grüner Baum in Hechingen - Restaurant Guru Krista and Garner Knutson - private album Yekaterinburg train platform - davidg, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 Eddie Kingswell - private album Kyiv butcher - Jorge Fernández Salas Pescatarian dinner by Haluk Aka - private album Courtney Muro - private album Comic illustration on destination mix-up - Ivan Kralj / Dall-e Confused airport couple - Ivan Kralj / Dall-e