Travel Myths – Things You Think Are True But Aren’t

I’ve been thinking a lot about the various myths and urban legends we all unwittingly help to propagate. It’s not our fault, the ‘facts’ sound true and so we share them, wanting to educate and maybe even impress a little. There are many travel related fictions out there and so I decided to share a few with you in the hopes that these legends will die a quick death.

 Alberta, Canada

Eskimos have 100 words for snow – I personally always believed this was true until an Arctic exploration expert recently put me in my place. As it turns out this well known ‘fact’ is merely an example of urban legend that has self-inflated over the years. The Inuit peoples have a language structure in which root words are combined with suffixes, so in theory just about every base concept has a limitless number of derivations. This is how the legend started early in the 20th century and it grew out of control as time wore on. Modern day linguists and sociologists believe that there are about 12 distinct terms in the Inuit language for snow, although agreeing on common definitions for words and phrases is what created the problem in the first place so even this number is open to debate. What is certain though is that there definitely are not 100 different words for snow in the Inuit language.

 iPad travel

Turning on electronics below 10,000 feet will cause the plane to crash – No, no, no. The FAA has long studied the effects of electronics on plane avionics and while some interference happens sometimes, it’s never been enough to warrant an all out prohibition. If this were truly a concern then they would firmly and forcefully ban all electronics. The problem is the timing of the interference and since take off and landing are the two most important times during a flight, electronics have been banned during these times. The FAA has decided to revisit this rule though and is expected to make a decision on continued promulgation in March 2013. Turning on your electronics before the plane reaches 10,000 feet may place you in violation of airline rules and will probably get you in trouble, but it won’t cause the plane to crash. (This was edited since initial publication)

 Gin and tonic

Ice cubes on airplanes contain formaldehyde – I was told this by a colleague in the travel industry a couple of years ago and it struck me as incredibly odd. I’m not Snopes, but I did try to track down the veracity of this and as far as I can tell it’s not true. What is true is that there has been concern over the years about the safety of potable water on board planes. The EPA has tested so-called drinkable water and found that a shockingly high number of flights do not meet their standards and may even contain traces of contaminants such as E. coli. Since a third-party vendor brings in most ice on flights, it would seem then that they are safe. What is important to be aware of is when the ice is produced on board using the water on the plane and other beverages such as coffee or tea that may use this questionable water. When in doubt, go for the drinks that are in their own serving containers and that don’t utilize water from the aircraft.

Photo courtesy of Sally Thelen,

You can see the Great Wall of China from space – This myth arose long before we had the means to test its truth, and even since repeatedly disproving this ‘fact’ it just doesn’t seem to die. Specifically, the claim is that the Great Wall is the only man-made object that can be seen from the moon. False. In fact no man-made objects can be seen from the moon, rather only oceans and continents can be seen. If one takes the meaning of space to be defined as a low-earth orbit, NASA has also disproved this ‘fact’. Due to the unique color of the wall, it tends to blend in with its surroundings so while other man-made objects can be seen from a low orbit, oddly enough the Great Wall cannot.

 Lufthansa A380 Cabin

Recirculated cabin air on planes will make you sick – If this were truly the case then we’d have a sickly legion of pilots and flight attendants flying the friendly skies. Studies have shown that recirculating air in plane cabins does not in fact make people sick. However, it is true that air travelers do tend to get sick more often than other people. The reason for this is ultimately the dry air and constant contact with germs throughout the flying experience. That’s why it’s a good idea to wash your hands often, keep hydrated, avoid alcohol and stay in relatively good physical shape.

What are some of your favorite travel myths?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

16 thoughts on “Travel Myths – Things You Think Are True But Aren’t”

  1. You are wrong about electronics. FAA regulations very much do ban electronics under 10,000 feet. Airlines are allowed to grant exceptions (say… iPads in the cockpit) but the only way to do that is for the airline to do very expensive testing on every model version they plan to use and then have the FAA review it and sign off on it.

    Also, FCC and FAA regulations keep you from using cell phones (not mentioned, but an electronic device).

    Despite what mythbusters has said, pilots HAVE seen electronic interference in equipment. See this for a quick source. Cell phones DO cause interference in headsets the pilots use.

    Will it cause the plane to crash? No, probably not, because the pilots are highly trained. But it could… and do you really want to make them second guess their equipment on landing and takeoff?

    1. You’re right about the regs and I’ve updated the post to reflect that. But there have been just as many studies done that show it’s not the minimal interference that is the problem, it’s that it happens during a critical part of the flight. And no, I wasn’t talking about cell phones, that’s an entirely different issue.

      1. I get what you are saying. The interference itself won’t cause the plane to careen towards the earth and crash.

        However, interfering in the reading of instruments on landing and takeoff could cause a crash. For instance, if the altimeter says they are 1,000 feet higher than they really are during an ILS approach – or there is confusing because their altimeter is fluctuating due to interference – it could cause the pilots to crash. (An ILS approach is when you can’t visually see the airport and must rely on your instruments. Most times their decision to land is 200 feet. Under some ILS landing categories, there is no decision height and could land with zero visibility of the runway)

        It hasn’t happened to my knowledge, but that’s why the FAA regs are so strict – because it could. I’m not a fan of people blowing off the electronics rule because it’s ‘not true.’

      2. I understand your concern, but why the exemptions for pilots with iPads? I just think the FAA has relied more on precedent than science on this issue. Now cell phones are a completely different matter…

      3. There’s no 3G capability, wifi has been disabled, no bluetooth… There is exactly 2 iPads. The airline knows exactly how they will behave with the instruments in that state and that quantity because they have done extensive (and expensive) testing with every type of plane they fly.

        Let’s see what you could have if you let the passengers have iPads on… You have 200 people in the back of the plane with 80 different tablet types. 40 people forget to turn off their 3G, 1 guy is blatantly ignoring any request and using bluetooth to send music to his headphones. Do you know exactly how that is going to react with the instruments in the cockpit? How the quantity and variety will affect the scenario? You couldn’t even begin to test every possibility. If people are going to deal with a freaking patdown or nude scanner to get on the plane in the name of security, having electronics off during takeoff and landing is way less intrusive and has more grounding in actual science IMO.

  2. I guess the travel myth that puzzles me every time I read is about the Paris to Venice overnight train, where “bad guys” will, with the help of the conductor, fill your sleeper cabin with some sort of “sleeping gas” and steal all your money, documents and valuables.

    And the funny thing is that the people that write about it on travel forums are usually the “one-post wonders” and they never come back to provide more insight on what really happened.

  3. Interesting post! I guess I don’t succumb to myths very often because I had never heard many of these. The never ending issue with electronics will probably never go away. Since take offs and landing are the riskiest part of flying, I’m all for taking away anything that possibly could interfere!

  4. The only thing that’s ever made me sick during travel is becoming exposed to the plagues of others. The most standout example was the chap in Seoul recently who decided to spend our waiting time for the KTX parading up and down the platform sneezing in people’s faces, coughing into his hands, and wiping his snot everywhere.

    The guy was in his forties.

    It was revolting. Alas his attempts at spreading his diseases were successful, and I endured two weeks of it once I got home.

  5. Your first post about the snow – so funny! I am reading a book about translation that completely debunks this myth (for the reason you mention). So glad you contribute to set the record straight!

  6. Fun post! I can’t really think of any other travel myths I’ve heard frequently, but I’m sure they’re out there.

  7. And the funniest thing about the inuit snow myth is that in English there are plenty of terms for snow too – slush, sleet, hail and so on..! As you say the definition used is critical when it comes to assessing a language.

    And re: the risk of electronics in aircraft – if it is so dangerous why is it not more actively policed by the cabin crew?

  8. Been travelling quite a lot in the past 4 years and I would be more worried about touching things inside the plain like the toilet instead of the air. Thanks for the post Matt.

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