10 dire travel woes — and how to deal with them

MSNBC.com
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 scenarios.

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

The scenario:

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 bars.

The preparation:

• 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 detained.

The solution:

• 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 badlands

2. Bed bugs

The scenario:

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.

The preparation:

• 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 later.

• 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.
The solution:

• 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 different hotel.

• 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

The scenario:

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.
The preparation:

• 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).
The solution:

• 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

The scenario:

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.

The preparation:

• 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 insurance.

• 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 solution:

• 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

The scenario:

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.

The preparation:

• 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.
The solution:

• 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 quickly.

• 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

The scenario:

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.

The preparation:

• 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).

The solution:

• 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 process.

• 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 theft.

7. Pirates

The scenario:

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.

The preparation:

• 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).

The solution:

• 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

The scenario:

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.

The preparation:

• 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.

The solution:

• 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.

9. Theft

The scenario:
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.

The preparation:

• 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 backpack.

The solution:

• 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 the DMV.

• 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 citizens.

10. Transit strikes

The scenario:

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.
The prevention:

• 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.
The solution:

• 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 airport transfers.

• 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.