What to Do When Travel Disasters Strike

Photo credit: Kat, Flickr

Photo credit: Kat, Flickr

There’s nothing more exciting (in our opinion, anyway) than
planning and preparing for a much-needed vacation abroad. While we don’t want
to rain on anyone’s parade, though, even the most experienced and prepared
travelers can’t foresee when something unfortunate is going to happen — and, if you travel often enough, something unfortunate is going to happen (at least every now and then). So it’s
important to plan for the worst when it comes to heading on a trip, particularly when leaving the U.S. And
with almost daily news coverage of everything from Ebola breakouts to stranded
cruise ship passengers
to Category 5 hurricanes, there are plenty of reminders of
how a quick getaway can easily turn into a vacation from hell.

Millions of Americans travel abroad every year without any
problems, but the U.S. State Department assists approximately 200,000 Americans
overseas every year. Here’s a handy guide on what to do if you find yourself in a tricky situation…

What to Do: BEFORE You Leave

Photo of U.S. Embassy in Cyprus by NC in DC

Photo of U.S. Embassy in Cyprus by NC in DC

We spoke with Michelle Berneir-Toth, the Managing Director
for Overseas Citizens Services, Bureau of Consular Affairs at the Department of
State, to get her expert opinion on how to prepare for a trip abroad. She
recommends checking travel.state.gov for up-to-the-minute warnings about
potential problems like terrorist activity, widespread civil unrest, and
breaking emergencies. Her second piece of advice is to write down the address
and telephone number of the U.S. Embassy in the country you’re visiting, and to
make multiple copies of your passport. Travelers can also register with Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), so that the embassy can contact you directly in case of an emergency. Don’t forget to leave your itinerary and
a copy of your passport with a trusted friend or family member back home, so, if necessary, they
can get help on your behalf as well.

What to Do: In the Case of a Natural Disaster

Photo of the aftermath of Cyclone Evan in Samoa by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Photo of the aftermath of Cyclone Evan in Samoa by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

It might seem obvious, but if there’s a hurricane, tornado,
tsunami, earthquake, flood, fire, volcanic eruption, or other epic natural
disaster near you, listen to local reports and follow their directions. Many hotels train their staff on how to
deal with an emergency. Ideally, you’ve already taken serious note of the
evacuation routes (a smart habit to get into no matter where you’re traveling). When a disaster strikes, leave belongings behind and remain calm. It’s a good idea to travel with a small flashlight, and those traveling particularly far afield should pack a grab-and-go mini-survival kit.

What to Do: If You're Stranded in the Airport

Photo by Scott

Photo by Scott

One of the best pieces of travel advice is to have as many airline phone numbers programmed into your cell phone as possible. If your flight is canceled once you’re at the airport, get in line with everyone else to speak to an agent, but call the airline directly as well. Someone on the phone might be able to rebook you more quickly. If there aren’t any available flights for rebooking until the following day, airlines are no longer required by law to put stranded travelers up in a hotel (especially if the delay is due to weather), but a few still will if you ask for a voucher directly. Always travel with a cell phone charger (battery powered options are best for emergencies when everyone is huddled around the one outlet in the terminal floor), snack, clean change of clothes, and basic toiletries in your carry-on — no matter how quick the flight is supposed to be.

What to Do: In the Case of a Political Coup

Aftermath of London riots by George Rex

Aftermath of London riots by George Rex

Ideally, you’ve already checked the State Department’s
travel warning website
before heading to a country that’s politically unstable; these things rarely happen overnight — although anything is always possible. If the government is overthrown (of there are riots and political unrest), getting to the U.S. embassy — fast — is the best
way to deal with this less-than-ideal situation. But don’t put yourself or fellow travelers in harm’s way; use your best judgement, which may mean you choose to stay in your hotel room and call the
embassy until you get the all clear. Avoid large groups of protestors on the
streets.

What to Do: If You're Hospitalized

Photo by Contanando Estrellas

Photo by Contanando Estrellas

Check with your insurance company before you leave the
country to find out what it covers overseas. You may need to purchase
supplemental insurance, as most policies won’t cover a medical evacuation to
the United States, which almost always costs tens of thousands of dollars. U.S.
embassies and consulates maintain lists of local hospitals and doctors, which
can be found on their public websites. If you’re feeling ill, but perhaps not sick enough to warrant a visit to the hospital, it may be more effective to check yourself into a luxury
hotel. Upscale properties often provide on-call doctors (for a fee, but it’s
more comfortable than any emergency room). Be sure you’re up-to-date with all
your vaccinations and check with your doctor before leaving to see if you need
any prescriptions for anti-Malarial medication, the Yellow Fever vaccine, or other medications that might be more necessary when abroad.
Leave an “in case of emergency card” in your wallet (in both English and the native language of the country you’re visiting) that you can give to hospital staff so
they can contact your family back home. The consulate should be reached in
serious cases, and this is why you should leave an itinerary with a family
member or friend, and check in once in awhile. If you have a prescription, bring extras
and keep all of them in their original containers.

What to Do: If You're Robbed

Photo by Matias Jaramillo

Photo by Matias Jaramillo

Ouch, this one adds insult to injury. It’s always wise to
carry small bills and spread out cash between the hotel safe and your wallet, and also keep a hidden stash among your personal belongings (with your dirty laundry, perhaps?). Leave pricey jewelry at home and don’t flash
your valuables while in public. Keep a copy of your passport with you, and a picture of it in
your smart phone as a backup. If your passport is stolen, you’ll need to file a police report
before the embassy can issue you a temporary travel document. It’s worth
putting password locks on computers and smart phones, and installing the Find my iPhone app. Take photos of your valuables
before you leave; your insurance company may partially reimburse you for stolen
electronics and clothes if you have a record of their existence.

What to Do: If You're Kidnapped

Photo by b af

Photo by b af

While a kidnapping is a highly unlikely occurrence, we can’t stress enough how important it is to check
in with a contact at home on a regular basis and leave an itinerary with someone, so they
have a general idea of where you should be. Apps like I’m Getting Kidnapped
might save the day. Hit one button and the app automatically sends a customized
message (like, “Laura is in danger, here is is her last location. Please alert
authorities.”) to the numbers you previously programmed into your phone. The message will
be sent every 15 minutes. The app is
available in 14 languages, but only on Android devices. It’s probably best to
alert family and friends about the app before dropping it on them, and, of course, if you have access to your cell
phone, calling local authorities should be the first priority. Also, always put up a fight from the beginning. Studies show that more kidnapping victims escape when they try to get away as early as possible, versus those who think that going along with their abductors will eventually lead to freedom.

What to Do: If You're Stranded on a Cruise Ship

Photo by Naval Surface Warriors

Photo by Naval Surface Warriors

The last few years have been tough for the cruiseline industry,
with everything from an Ebola scare on a ship headed for Belize, to the infamous
poop cruise” that left Carnival Triumph
passengers at sea for five days without working toilets. In response, Cruise
Lines International Association drafted a passenger bill of rights, which
includes everything from the right to an emergency power source in case of a
main generator failure, to the very important right to disembark a docked ship
if adequate food, water, and restroom facilities become unavailable onboard. While there isn’t much that stranded passengers can do if there’s an emergency onboard, listening to the crew and remaining calm are good first steps.

What to Do: If You're Arrested

Photo by Victor

Photo by Victor

Tune into “Locked up Abroad” on
the National Geographic Channel and you’ll be amazed at how seemingly simple it is to
end up in the slammer overseas. Of course, in reality, odds are
pretty slim that you’ll be arrested (especially, ahem, if you don’t break the
law). It’s important to remember that laws vary from country to country and
that every person visiting that country must follow them. If you do find
yourself behind bars, the State Department should know about it: ASAP. The
arresting officer may contact the consulate if you announce that you’re a U.S.
citizen, but if you can get one phone call, make it to the American Embassy,
not your mom back in Illinois. Consulate
officers monitor foreign prisons for abuse or unfair treatment towards U.S.
prisoners, and will do what they can to provide assistance to the citizen, as well as his or her family back home.