"How long does it take to get to Australia?" a taxi driver in America asked me.
"It's about a 14-hour flight," I responded.
"Oh," he said, thinking about this for a while. "How long does it take to drive?"
I still shake my head when I think about that conversation, especially as it transpired the man had BEEN to Australia, during his time in the NAVY.
Clearly it had escaped him that the country is surrounded by water.
For those who work in the travel industry, tongue-biting is part of the job when faced with questions such as "what time does the nine o'clock tour leave?"
Industry veteran Mark Sheehan, who spent many years on the road with tour company TrekAmerica, says he has been asked everything from what is the elevation at sea level to "do these stairs go up?"
Sheehan, who is the author of Are Those Your Underpants on the Conveyor?, says a favourite was a person on a white water rafting trip who asked if they would end up where they started.
A traveller who saw a "deer crossing" sign asked how the deer knew where to cross, while a tourist travelling on a cable car passed a car travelling in the other direction and asked with surprise: "Where are they going?"
Sheehan says he worked with a guide who used to leave an extension cord sticking out of the bushes when in the middle of nowhere, to see who would plug into it.
"Sadly, there were many," he says.
I preface the following stories by saying that those who provided them prefer to think of their customers as "misguided" rather than stupid.
You can make up your own mind.
Would you like an atlas for Christmas?
Ryan Sanders of New Zealand's Haka Tours says the company was once asked to include the Sydney Harbour Bridge in a customised itinerary for the North Island of New Zealand.
Another customer wanted to know if they could drive a people mover to the top of Mt Cook, which at 3754 metres is better accessed by mountaineers and helicopters.
Bruce Tepper, who works as a travel industry consultant in California, says one of his clients had a traveller wanting to fly from Minneapolis to Tokyo on a flight that went "as far north as possible".
When quizzed on his request, the man said he was pressed for time and needed to go around the International Date Line rather than over it, as he couldn't afford to lose a day.
"An assurance that he would get it back on his return was insufficient," Tepper says.
In Australia, Escape Travel says it was once asked where a customer could obtain currency for Tasmania and whether they would need an international adaptor.
Then there are those who think they can drive across water.
There are many reports of tourists planning to drive to Hamilton Island (or Stradbroke) or between islands in places such as Hawaii.
An Aussie travel wholesaler had a customer who wanted a direct train from Helsinki to London and repeatedly refused to accept there were several bodies of water between the two.
Eventually running out of patience, the company sent her an invoice for 100 billion euros, to cover the cost of building a rail tunnel.
Slept though science lessons?
In Southern Utah in the US, visitor information centre staff say they have been asked who painted the rocks in the colourful Bryce Canyon National Park and, in relation to an ancient volcano: "Who dumped all those lava rocks up on the mountain?"
Bonnie Char Hallman of the Cedar City - Brian Head Tourism Bureau says many people have become so used to a fabricated environment they are shocked to discover that some attractions are provided by nature.
"I was told by a ranger at Yosemite that one visitor asked "what time do they turn off the falls?" she says.
In case you're wondering if that could possibly be true, Deb Hickok of the Fairbanks visitor bureau in Alaska says she has been asked what time they turn on the northern lights.
Can you hold my hand?
Sandra Potter of the London-based Frontier Travel says her favourite was a man on his honeymoon who contacted her staff from the air to ask where he and his new wife were staying when they landed.
When the confused staff member explained it was the hotel listed on his itinerary and hotel vouchers, the man replied: "Oh, did I need all that paperwork? I threw it in the bin."
At lastminute.com.au, a staff member was asked if the toilet paper at a certain hotel was scented, because the traveller was "highly irritable down there".
An Australian wholesaler recalls telling a traveller headed for Uzbekistan that there were very strict visa conditions and he needed to declare if he had ever been charged with any kind of offence.
Two days before his departure, he mentioned in passing that he had once been arrested on drug charges, "but that should be okay, right?"
Did you really just say that?
Some travellers might be better off staying close to home.
The customer service centre at Wotif.com says a lady booking a two-bedroom apartment for her family asked to have the second room changed from a twin to a double because her children were not twins.
Back in Southern Utah, a prospective visitor ringing up for information was most indignant to be told that the desert was hot and dry.
"Am I going to need a chap stick?" she asked.
Escape Travel reports being asked by a traveller if they had to use their real name on their airline ticket, while Mark Sheehan says he got an earful who from two travellers who thought they should have been told the sun was hot.
Finally, Windermere Lake Cruises in the English Lake District says questions from travellers have included "what do the boats do?", "do the islands float?" and "how long does the 40 minute cruise last?"
Truly, some people are not safe to be out.
Have you ever overheard tourists asking dumb questions while travelling (or have you asked a dumb question yourself - be honest!)? Post a comment and share your stories below.
- Sydney Morning Herald