10 dire travel woes — and how to deal with them
Monday, June 6, 2011
From earthquakes and tsunamis devastating Japan to marauding
pirates swarming luxury cruise ships, wary travelers need just skim
the day's headlines to conclude that an unforeseen travel disaster
can strike at any place, at any time. Our top 10 travel emergency
tips outline travel catastrophe scenarios of all stripes, offering
precautionary advice, as well as insight on how to effectively
manage such crises should they actually arise.
Note that purchasing travel insurance is a smart way to
help circumnavigate at least the heavy financial concerns stemming
from many of these unpleasant situations. In fact, the latest
yearly numbers from the U.S. Travel Insurance Association indicate
that some 120 million American travelers invested some $1.6 billion
on the peace-of-mind that such insurance provides. Another prudent
preventative measure is to register with the U.S. Embassy's Smart
Traveler Enrollment Program before heading overseas. This permits
family and friends at home to contact you more easily should
anything go wrong - and allows for a direct line of contact to the
consulate and to up-to-date information during any emergency
Sure, getting ambushed by any of these obstacles can throw a
real wrench in even the best-planned vacation, but with a little
careful planning and preparation, you might not need forfeit your
vacation time and/or funds after all - you may even land a
boast-worthy travel tale to tell upon your safe arrival home.
1. An arrest abroad
If you've ever sat through a nerve-racking episode of "Locked Up
Abroad" (on the National Geographic Channel), you're already
frighteningly aware of the potential pitfalls surrounding brushes
with the law abroad. Perhaps being unwittingly turned into a drug
mule or committing a seemingly minor infraction - like jaywalking
or spitting on the ground in Singapore - has landed you behind
• Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to legal issues abroad,
so research local laws before leaving home. The U.S. Department of
State lists penalties and regulations by country.
• Keep a keen eye on your belongings. According to the State
Department, several hundred Americans are arrested each year for
drug trafficking - some of whom were offered free vacations in
exchange for carrying a small package across the border. If you're
caught, however, it ultimately doesn't matter whether or not you're
actually savvy to the package's illegal contents.
• Use caution in situations where violence or mobs are likely to
break out, such as political protests or even celebratory riots
after major sports wins. In such cases, it's easy for an innocent
bystander to get caught in the crossfire or inadvertently
• Contact the local U.S. embassy or consulate immediately.
Consuls can assist in a law-related travel emergency by providing a
list of attorneys, contacting your family, and ensuring that jail
conditions and your personal health are in acceptable condition.
Note that the Privacy Act prohibits the consulate from sharing
information about incarcerated citizens, even with close family
members - so you'll have to explicitly give consent if you want
that information revealed to loved ones or even congressional
representatives working on your behalf.
Story: 'Anti-tourists' heed call of danger to visit world's
2. Bed bugs
According to a 2010 study by the National Pest Management
Association, bed bug complaints have risen 81 percent since 2000,
with infestations reported in all 50 states. The scariest part: Bed
bugs can turn up anywhere, from hotels and airplanes to movie
theaters and department stores. And they don't discriminate based
on a property's star rating.
• Before you go, check your hotel on the Bed Bug Registry, a
user-generated agglomeration of bed bug sightings at
hotels and apartments across the country.
• Genma Holmes, a bed bug prevention expert known as "The Bug
Lady," recommends asking the hotel at check-in if they've had any
incidences of bed bugs, and then writing on your check-in receipt
who you talked to and what they said in case there's an issue
• Take a good look around your room when you first arrive, and
not just in the bed linens. Peek under the mattress - the bugs'
favorite hiding place - for incriminating evidence, like a cluster
of dark spots. Pay careful attention to dark corners and crevices.
Don't put clothes in drawers and only hang items in the closet
after inspecting the hangers.
• If you do find evidence of bugs or wake up with bites, call
management immediately and reference your check-in conversation.
Take pictures of the bugs and the bites.
• Outlandish lawsuits, like the recent multimillion dollar suits
against New York's Waldorf-Astoria, rarely go anywhere. However,
your hotel should pay to move you to another room or even a
• Whether or not you encounter bed bugs, upon your return home,
Holmes recommends leaving your luggage outside ina large Ziploc bag
or a container, like BugZip - where any bed bug activity can be
safely and clearly monitored - to prevent a potential infestation
from becoming an unfortunate travel emergency souvenir.
3. Death of a family member
Days before (or in the midst of) your vacation, an immediate
family member or partner suddenly dies. Now, not only are you
potentially far away from home and emotionally distraught, but
you're also financially stressed by the prospect of losing out on
your prepaid travel expenses.
• Although a family death is often not anticipated, it's
advisable to ask your hotel, cruise, airline or tour operator when
booking if there is a refund policy in place for deaths of
immediate family relatives and partners; be sure to read the fine
print to determine who exactly is recognized as a family member
(like domestic partners or step-relatives).
• If flying, contact your airline or look online to review their
specific policy. If you purchased a nonrefundable ticket, most
carriers will waive the change fee and offer a nonrefundable
transportation voucher for future travel upon presentation of a
death certificate, proof of relationship to the deceased and
funeral home or hospital telephone numbers. Flex tickets, depending
on the terms, are refundable via the primary method of payment.
• Many hotels and resorts won't offer immediate refunds on the
spot and you'll have to go through higher management to plead your
case. However, most reservations can be cancelled, sometimes with
only the forfeit of a deposit, with 24 to 48 hours' notice to the
hotel. Other times, with or without a small fee, hotels will offer
refunds or allow you to change the dates of your reservation.
Unfortunately, especially with bigger hotel chains, nonrefundable
pricing is strictly adhered to - even family-orientated Disney
World Resorts has a strict policy of cancelling at least five days
in advance for hotel stays.
• Expect an uphill battle with any travel refund process. Stay
adamant, and be prepared to fight the good fight in the face of
such a difficult travel emergency.
4. Medical emergencies
It's hard to see the sights when all you're staring at is the
bottom of a toilet bowl. Far beyond ruining your vacation, a severe
illness or accident can be a stressful and frightening experience
in an unfamiliar place - and a deep hit on your wallet.
• Keep a card in your wallet that lists all your preexisting
medical conditions, medications, allergies and blood type,
preferably in the local language if traveling abroad.
• The majority of U.S. medical insurance plans (including
Medicaid and Medicare) do not cover medical expenses abroad. Carol
Mueller, vice president at Travel Guard North America (a popular
travel insurance provider), stresses the importance of purchasing
travel insurance that includes coverage for medical expenses and
medical evacuation - which can easily cost $10,000-plus without
• Familiarize yourself with the local emergency numbers. In many
countries, there are different phone numbers to call for police,
ambulance service and the fire department.
• The hotel front desk is a good place to start to find an
English-speaking doctor. Some insurance companies, like World
Nomads and Travel Guard, will also assist with this.
• For any medical treatment you receive, keep all your receipts
for reimbursement from your travel insurance.
•Noroviruses, a group of severe stomach bugs, are a fairly
common threat on cruise ships because of the confined spaces and
close proximity of passengers. If an outbreak occurs, be sure to
follow the crew's instructions for travel emergency quarantines.
Cruise lines are not required to compensate sick passengers, but
those whose itineraries are disrupted as the result of an outbreak
can usually expect compensation from the cruise company.
5. Natural disasters
A freak tornado rips through the airport, as it did in St. Louis
on April 22, grounding all planes for days. Or, ash from a surprise
volcanic eruption clouds the sky, closing airports all over Europe
and foiling the plans of hundreds of thousands of travelers for
weeks on end, as did Iceland's Mt. Eyjafjallajökull last year. Or,
an earthquake reduces your hotel to rubble in Christchurch, New
Zealand (one struck there in February). Regardless, you're left
stranded without transportation or a place to stay.
• You can't prepare for sudden acts of God like earthquakes and
tsunamis, but major weather disasters - hurricanes, snowstorms,
tornados - strike seasonally in specific parts of the world. To be
safest, skip travel during those dicey seasons; otherwise, know the
risks before you leave.
• Contact your hotel and airline beforehand to ask about their
protocol for natural disaster credits or refunds, specifically if
you're traveling during a high-risk season.
• Follow the lead of your hotel staff. Most properties have
procedures for natural disaster travel emergencies, such as sending
all guests to the basement during a tornado.
• Above all, use common sense. If most residents are driving
north to escape an approaching hurricane, do the same as soon as
possible; there's little benefit to waiting, as evacuation routes
will be more crowded and lodging in safe zones fills up
• After the crisis, take the government's screening test on
DisasterAssistance.gov to determine if you're eligible for
assistance programs, such as reimbursements for medical expenses
and property loss.
6. Passport is lost/stolen/expired
Ever find yourself acting like a paranoid control freak
when it comes to safeguarding your passport while traveling? (You
know who you are.) That's likely because you know that a MIA
passport means you're trapped, with a whole lot of hassle and
expenses (rushed passport fees, flight-change fees, extra hotel
nights) ahead of you. Oh, how easy it is to misplace that little
booklet. Even worse, you find that it's been artfully swiped, among
other things, from your bag, hotel room, or rental car.
• This is what hotel safes are for. Lock it up. The likelihood
that it's lost or stolen while you tote it around from place to
place is far greater than if it's left in a safe place.
• Always keep either a photocopy or a "passport card" (available
for an additional $29.95 when you renew your passport) in another
safe, but separate, place.
• Be sure to renew your passport at least six months before it
is set to expire. Many countries require a three- to six-month
minimum validity beyond your travel period for entry, and nothing's
worse than arriving at the airport and not being able to board your
flight because of another country's passport laws (ahem, most of
Western Europe, Panama and Thailand, among many others).
• Report your lost or stolen passport immediately by contacting
the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. You'll need to fill out
paperwork regardless in such a travel emergency, but if you have a
copy of your lost/stolen passport, it will really expedite the
• If your passport is nowhere to be found just days before a
nonrefundable trip, RushPassport.com, with agencies in New York and
Florida, is a godsend. These official expeditors have a daily in
with local passport agencies and can get you a new passport within
10 hours. Note: The super-expedited process can cost an extra $375
on top of the standard $155 government fee.
• Minimize collateral damage by contacting the credit bureau to
make sure your passport is not being used as a pawn for identity
Sailing the Indian Ocean, a seemingly innocent-looking skiff
starts trailing your cruise ship - before you can say "ahoy,
matey," its scruffy crew has hooked ropes and ladders to your ship
and climbed onboard. Luxury yachts pose the greatest risk, but
amateur mariners' vessels and merchant ships are also prone to a
piracy travel emergency. In 2010 alone, the world saw 445 pirate
attacks, proving that piracy headlines are by no means a relic of
days of yore.
• Be aware while plying the waters of the Indian Ocean
(particularly in the seas off the Horn of Africa and south to the
Seychelles), the Malacca Straits, South China Sea, the Red Sea and
some South American rivers and coasts (especially in Venezuela).
Lacking a central government since 1991, Somalia is a breeding
ground for pirates who roam the Indian Ocean freely, with no direct
legal implications in their home country. Visit the International
Chamber of Commerce's website for their piracy
report, which monitors such activity around the globe.
• Stay especially alert at dawn or dusk, when many pirates
choose to attack because of the poor light conditions (in fact,
only a few offenses have been reported at night).
• Stay calm and comply with the pirates' requests (for example,
to fetch all valuables).
• Do not immediately tell your captors that your government or
family can pay a ransom or any sort of money; this gives pirates
more incentive to hold passengers captive.
8. Political unrest
You've booked a bucket-list trip to see the pyramids in Egypt,
but as many travelers experienced in January, a political uprising
has disrupted the vacation.
• Follow news headlines and peruse State Department travel
warnings before plotting a trip. Although these notifications are
notoriously conservative, they do provide an overview of any
potential travel emergencies brewing.
• Adhere to any curfews and policies set by the local
government, even if they seem restricting. During January's
protests in Cairo, authorities required foreigners and residents to
stay inside from 3pm to 8am daily.
• Monitor the U.S. State Department's website, Facebook and
Twitter pages for updates. If the Internet is down, listen for
radio and television announcements from the consulate; in extreme
cases, on-the-ground, U.S. citizen wardens will be designated to
deliver emergency information.
• Know that even if the U.S. sends evacuation flights, as it did
to Egypt, citizens are ultimately responsible for repaying the
cost. Truly destitute travelers might be eligible for some
emergency financial assistance.
While riding Rome's crowded No. 64 bus, a pickpocket lifts your
wallet - or worse, slices the bottom of your purse open - and
dashes off with all of your cash, credit cards, and IDs.
• Record all bank and credit card numbers (including expiration
dates, security codes and PINs) and international customer service
telephone numbers before hitting the road. Leave the information
with someone trustworthy back home, and keep a copy of the info in
the hotel safe or a secure suitcase compartment.
• Stash some cash and a spare credit card - with a cash line -
in the hotel room safe as a backup in case your primary piece of
plastic goes missing. If en route, store the extra card in a safe
suitcase pocket away from your wallet or purse.
• Use common sense when in crowded, touristy spots and packed
subway cars, both breeding grounds for theft. Hold your (zipped)
purse tight to your side; keep your hand on your wallet in your
pocket; and store any essentials on your person, not in a
• Call to cancel and report your cards as stolen as soon as you
realize you've been robbed.
• File a police report. The cops might not find the culprit, but
some thieves will take only what they want (cash and cards) and
drop useless items, like driver's licenses. If a good samaritan
returns the IDs, you'll skip that annoying, post-vacation visit to
• Let the hotel staff know that your cash was snatched. If
you're abroad, some properties will lend guests money in the
interim of such a travel emergency, provided they leave their
passport as collateral.
• Unless you have enough time to wait for your new cards to
arrive in the mail, find a Western Union and have a family member
or friend wire money to you. The nearest embassy can also receive
wired money (via Mastercard or Visa online or on the phone) for
10. Transit strikes
Layoffs, pay cuts, raising the age of retirement - employee
unions have a lot to complain about. When these complaints leave
the bargaining table and hit the streets, stalled or cancelled
services can wreak havoc on even the most carefully planned
vacation. Though strikes can occur anywhere, note that Europe is
particularly prone to strike-related tourism disruptions,
especially in France, Italy and Spain.
• Many groups opt to strike when it will make the most impact,
like during the peak summer travel season or holiday periods.
British Airways, for instance, narrowly avoided a strike by its
cabin crew union over Easter.
• Unions are required to give advance notice of strikes (usually
a week). Check local news reports before your trip to anticipate
any strike-related travel emergencies.
• In most cases, airlines will work to keep long-haul flights
running or will accommodate passengers on a partner airline.
• If public transportation is down, taxis for traveling to and
from the airport may be scarce. Be leery of drivers in unmarked
cars trying to take advantage of the situation (and you). Though it
may cost extra, check with your hotel to see if they can arrange
• Once you've reached your destination, check local news outlets
to find out which public transportation is running and what
alternative transport options are available. For example, Paris
transit strikes often only reduce service on the Métro and RER,
rather than cutting it altogether. And if worse comes to worst,
walking is oftentimes the best way to see a city anyway!
This story, Top 10 travel emergency tips, originally
appeared on ShermansTravel.com.