Bad things can happen to good travelers. And while these worst-case scenarios are just that—things that could throw you for a serious loop, but most likely won't—that doesn't mean some prevention and damage control won't go a long way should something go wrong on the road. Our tips come from the people who handle these types of situations routinely: doctors, state-department officials, guidebook directors. Across the board, preparation is your friend. But even if you don't have time to do everything we recommend, the one thing you should always do is write down the number and website of the local consulate for where you're going—it turns out that they're useful for far more than just replacing a stolen passport.
(Photo: John / Flickr)
You're cruising down a dark south Australian highway when a couple of cattle suddenly appear out of nowhere. You brake too late, and bam!
How to Cope: "Getting in a car crash in a foreign country puts you in a confusing world," says Tom Hall, the U.K. spokesperson for Lonely Planet. "There are police who may not speak your language, the angry person you've crashed into…so it's important to talk to the hire firm about what to do [in a crisis] before you drive off the lot." Most car-rental companies have an emergency number specifically for crashes. Also, some European countries require you to wear an emergency vest (usually provided in the car) for visibility if you exit the car after the accident and stand on the road. Next, file a local police report (you'll need it for your insurance claims). If it's a situation where livestock have wandered into the road, be sure to get the name of the farmer and his insurance policy—there's a good chance he has coverage for a situation like this. Finally, get in touch with your own insurer (your home auto insurance or credit card may have you covered) to see how to file a claim.
Tip to Avoid the Problem: Buying insurance directly from the car-rental company when you rent your car can be expensive. In advance of your trip, look at policies you already have—including home insurance, travel insurance, your personal car insurance, even your credit card—to see if collision-damage waiver insurance on rental cars is covered for you or if you can add it.
YOU GET IN LEGAL PROBLEMS/SENT TO JAIL WHILE ABROAD
The prescription drugs you've traveled with from the U.S. send up a red flag abroad. Before you know it, you're doing your explaining from behind bars.
How to Cope: What flies at home might be completely illegal in a foreign country (chewing gum in Singapore is an oft-cited example). And finding yourself tangling with the law in a foreign language—or worse yet, foreign prison—is the last thing you want to be doing on vacation. If you're not immediately offered the option, "the first thing to do if you're arrested in a foreign country is to contact the nearest consulate or embassy," says Michelle Bernier-Toth, managing director of the Office of Overseas Citizens Services, Bureau of Consular Affairs, for the U.S. State Department. "Someone who travels abroad is subject to the local government's laws and regulations," she says, "but the embassy or consulate will make sure that an American citizen who has been arrested has access to legal counsel." The goal is to make sure that travelers understand the charges against them and what their rights are.
Tip to Avoid the Problem: "Know what kinds of things can get you into trouble in a foreign country," Bernier-Toth says. The State Department's travel warnings, which cover local laws, are a good place to start.
YOU'RE CAUGHT IN A NATURAL DISASTER
An Indonesian vacation goes from paradise to pandemonium when an earthquake strikes.
How to Cope: No matter where you are when disaster strikes, your best course of action is to follow the instructions of the local authorities who are responsible for responding in the moments and days that follow, Bernier-Toth says. Next, you should contact the local consulate or embassy. "We need to know who is there so that we can calibrate our response accordingly," Bernier-Toth says. Also, reach out to family and friends as soon as possible. Communication with people back home is often the best way to get information about when (and how) you'll be able to depart from the disaster zone. If you're looking for local hospitals, doctors, or pharmacies, the best place to find these is on the website of the local U.S. consulate or embassy (that is, if you can access the Internet). If you can't get online, make your way to a major hotel and request information there.
Tip to Avoid the Problem: Register your travels on the State Department's website via the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. If you do so, the U.S. embassy will have your contact information so they can reach out in case of an emergency, as well as put family from the U.S. in touch with you.
YOU'RE INJURED ABROAD
A leap from a rocky outcrop into clear blue water on a Thai beach ends in injury when you don't quite clear the cliff.
How to Cope: If your injury is minor, says Ronald A. Primas of travelmd.com, you can self-treat using tools from your first-aid kit (a minor slip-and-fall injury, for example, can be handled by wrapping an elastic bandage around the wound, then elevating and icing it). But when things appear more serious, he says, seek out local help. To find a doctor, start by asking the front desk of your hotel (or a major hotel in the area) for a recommendation. U.S. consulate or embassy websites also have lists of English-speaking doctors. If you seek care in an undeveloped country, avoid any unnecessary injections if you have concerns about the facility's hygiene standards. For serious injuries that require hospitalization, Bernier-Toth says that local embassy and consulate services can "make sure that a [U.S. citizen] is being treated appropriately, assist with coordination with the family in obtaining or arranging medical care, and, in dire circumstances, actually loan someone who is destitute the funds to get them into the hospital."
Tip to Avoid the Problem: Pack a good first-aid kit with bandages, antibiotics, and, if you're going to be in an undeveloped country, your own syringes. Bring your own medications from home, too, since expired and counterfeit medications are a problem in some countries (sugar pills in place of active malaria pills, for example).
YOU LEAVE VALUABLES IN A TAXI CAB
Your taxi driver takes you to Marrakech's main square, where there's such a commotion between the spice hawkers and snake charmers that by the time you realize you've left your camera in the backseat of the cab the driver has rounded the corner, out of sight.
How to Cope: While cities with large taxi and public-transport networks—London and New York City, for example—have a central number to call to report lost property, in most places you will be relying on your taxi driver’s goodwill to get your stuff returned (even where goodwill is given, it's still a long shot that he or she will be able to find you). "If it's gone, in a majority of cases it will be gone for good," says Hall from Lonely Planet, who speaks from experience: he left a video camera in the backseat of a cab in Syria, never to see it again. If you took a city's official taxi service, try calling the central dispatch to tell them where you were picked up and dropped off, with approximate times, in case there's a chance the cab can be traced. But prepare to be disappointed.
Tip to Avoid the Problem: Opt for official taxis over cheaper, fly-by-night operations—not only is it safer, but it also helps with tracking, too. Hall recommends ordering taxis through your hotel. Quite often, the hotel will have a long-term relationship with the taxi service, which may be helpful in tracking down lost objects for guests.
YOUR HOTEL CANCELS YOUR RESERVATION
You reach your destination after a sleepless transatlantic flight only to find that the French hotel's response to your missing room reservation is an unhelpful "Je ne sais pas."
How to Cope: Nicole Hockin, who writes the TravelSmartBlog for hotels.com, says to stay calm. "Keeping your cool helps the hotel staff keep their cool, too," she says. "Sometimes the problem is as simple as your name having been keyed in incorrectly when the reservation was made." As long as you can prove you had a reservation, the hotel should be able to find a source of accommodation for you. Also, call the online site that you booked through right away (one of the benefits of booking through an online agency is that they have a wealth of resources to get you re-accommodated). "The sooner they know there's a problem, the faster they can assist you," Hockin says. If your hotel doesn't have any availability, ask if they have a sister property in town where you can be rebooked at no extra charge. "You should also ask for a transportation voucher to get there," she says. "And if the property where you're rebooked isn't the same standard as the original hotel, ask what they'll be refunding you. Don't be afraid to ask for a restaurant credit—what will it take for you to be satisfied? Don't hesitate to have that conversation."
Tip to Avoid the Problem: For peace of mind before you travel, the best strategy is to call the hotel a few days before your arrival to verify your reservation. Even if you booked through a third party, you can call the hotel directly to confirm.
YOU LOSE YOUR WALLET
You're digging into tapas at a restaurant in Madrid when you realize your purse is no longer hanging on the back of your chair. Inside? Your wallet and every single money-retrieving possibility you had (cash, ATM card, credit cards—all gone).
How to Cope: Don't panic, Hall says. Get to a place where you can access the Internet or make a phone call—perhaps a hotel lobby or library—and immediately call your bank to cancel your credit cards and report your items missing. This way, you won't be responsible for any charges that might show up. It's highly unlikely that you'll be able to get your bank to send cards to you while you're traveling, so you need to find alternative methods to access cash. "The old-style way to get money that's still the most effective, when all your cards are gone, is to have someone from home wire you money via a service like Western Union," he says. (Note: You will be required to produce some form of ID to pick up money that has been wired to you.) The State Department's Overseas Citizens Service can also help get funds to you by setting up a trust account so they can be forwarded your way.
Tip to Avoid the Problem: Store a backup ATM card in another place (perhaps one in your wallet and another in your hotel safe). You'll still need to cancel the card if the original for that account is stolen, but you'll at least have a way to withdraw cash before you do so.
YOUR CHILD GOES MISSING
It's a hot summer day at a theme park, but your blood turns ice cold when you realize your 6-year-old has vanished into the throngs.
How to Cope: Keeping calm seems impossible at a time like this, but Nancy A. McBride, national safety director of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, stresses that it's more important than ever to remain calm. "Be focused on where you are and get the local people to help you," she says. "If you've done a cursory search and still can't find your child, don't hesitate to find local authorities and report your child missing." If you're at a public venue, she says, the situation has mostly likely happened before and authorities probably have a plan in place for what to do. After enlisting local officials to help in the search, notify the U.S. embassy or consulate about what has happened, Bernier-Toth says. "While we don't have jurisdiction outside of the U.S., we will work with local authorities to make sure they're investigating and taking the necessary actions," she says.
Tip to Avoid the Problem: Emphasize to your child how important it is to stay together, McBride says, but if they do get separated tell them not to wander far since you'll be looking for them. Assigning a meeting place to gather to in the event of a separation is a good idea, too.
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