You have your guidebooks, your spare underwear and even your inflatable neck pillow, but do you have a way to deal with the number of untimely disasters that could ruin your well-planned trip? Putting travel disasters out of mind will not prevent them from happening. But if your passport gets stolen or you break your leg surfing in Costa Rica, the right amount of preparation can ease your pain.
Print out this guide to dealing with travel tragedies big and small and take it with you on your next trip. And before you leave, make sure that you've taken the appropriate steps — like labeling your luggage and packing a photocopy of your birth certificate — to help manage problems that may arise when traveling. If you know what to do when the worst happens, it can save you time and money and even rescue your vacation from catastrophe.
It's the traveler's worst nightmare: opening your purse, backpack or money belt to discover that your passport has escaped to a better (or worse) place. Whether it's stolen or lost — and you may never know what happened to your little blue buddy — your response should be the same: act now! Yes, there's a small chance that you'll return to your room and find your passport under the bed. So get back to that hotel and search your room from corner to corner as soon as possible, and then contact your embassy if your passport is gone.
What to do
Traveling Overseas: Contact the police and then your local embassy. You'll have to show up in person at the embassy to apply for an emergency passport. An emergency passport is only valid for a limited time, and once you are back in the States you'll have to apply for a new passport.
Pack the list of items you will need for getting an emergency passport, listed below. If you do not have everything you need, you may need to present an affidavit of identifying witness. This will be filled out by a fellow traveler, who can attest that you are who you say you are.
Traveling domestically: First, call the police, and then report your stolen passport. Do this by either filling out a DS-64 form and mailing it to the address on the National Passport Information Center Web site or by calling 1-877-487-2778.
Then, you must go to a passport agency or an acceptance facility to apply in person.
How to be prepared
Create an "emergency passport kit" to take on your travels. The procedures for getting an emergency passport differ depending on which country you're visiting, but here's what you'll probably need, no matter where you are:
- Three passport photos (some embassies only require two)
- A photo ID
- Proof of U.S. citizenship (such as a copy of your birth certificate, social security card or Certificate of Naturalization)
- Airline ticket, booking confirmation or itinerary
- A police report, if possible
You'll also need an in-person passport application fee of $100, payable in U.S. dollars, the currency of your current destination or U.S. dollar bank draft, and a passport application form (you can get this at the embassy). Trust us — you'll thank your clever self for putting this together if your passport goes missing and you have to deal with the headaches of replacing it.
For more information on missing passports, read our Independent Traveler's guide to lost and stolen passports.
It's unfair — your plane could be hours late, and you get no apology, discount or explanation. But if you are three minutes late, running to the gate just as boarding ends, you're pretty much (pardon our French) screwed.
If you always arrive at the airport three hours before your flight and think that only last-minute Larry's miss their flights, don't skip this section — it could happen to you too. Events beyond your control, from problems at the security checkpoint to stormy weather, may mar even the best-planned itinerary.
What to do
Has your plane taken off without you? Immediately go to your airline's desk. It is possible that your airline can get you on the next flight. Whether or not they will charge you will vary depending on which airline is involved and if the missed flight was your fault. If there are no other flights or the next flight is booked, try for the next day, or inquire about any available flights from your airline's partner airlines.
If your airline refuses to offer a voucher for another flight, get ready to pay up. Passengers who miss their flights sometimes must pay full price for a new ticket — and prices are steep when it's the day of or the day before your departure. Take this as a warning to always arrive at the airport with plenty of time to spare, especially around the holidays.
If you have missed a connecting flight and your luggage has been checked, it will most likely go on without you — so your suitcase may be en route to the Bahamas while you're stuck in a chilly airport in Chicago. Go to your airline's ticket counter and ask if they can locate your bags. The airline may be able to hold your bags until you arrive in your destination. This is just one of many reasons (including lost luggage or spilt coffee) why you should pack a change of clothes in your carry-on when you fly.
How to be prepared
Get to the airport early! Check out your airport's Web site for recommended arrival times — some airports have historically longer check-in and security lines than others. If you want to be extra careful, go online before your trip and look up what other flights are going to your destination on your departure date. Jot down the flight numbers so you know your alternatives if your plane leaves without you.
Here come the bags, gliding toward you on the conveyer belt like a massive line of groceries at the supermarket checkout. But where's yours? Even though you've wrapped it with neon orange duct tape for easy spotting, you can't spot it. As a fellow passenger pulls the last bag off the belt, you realize: the airline has lost your luggage.
What to do
Make sure you have your baggage claim ticket. After arriving in Dublin, I was dismayed to discover that not only had the airline lost my luggage — my traveling companion had lost our baggage claim tickets!
We did eventually recover our bags (thanks to some helpful airline employees) but the hassle was greater and we spent more time in the airport without our claim tickets.
Your airline will most likely have a counter or office in the baggage claim area; go to this counter immediately and fill out a "missing luggage" form. If you're lucky, your bag was simply delayed or put on the wrong plane and the airline will deliver it to your hotel within a few days. If your bag is lost and the airline is unable to recover it, you can file a claim for damages. In this case, you will probably have to make a list of everything that was in your bag. You will get the depreciated (not replacement) value for the items in your bag. This means that your two-year-old $400 shoes will no longer be worth $400.
How to Be prepared
To prevent (as much as you can) your luggage from getting lost, remove any extraneous tags on your bag that may confuse the airport's scanning machines. In addition, don't pack anything valuable or essential in your checked bag, and, as mentioned above, bring a change of clothes in your carry-on. Make sure that your name and address are clearly labeled on the outside of each piece of luggage, and put a label with your contact information on the inside of your bag in case the outside tag gets ripped off. And hang on to your baggage claim ticket!
For more on what to do if your bags go missing, check out our Independent Traveler's guide to lost luggage.
ILLNESS OR INJURY ON THE ROAD
Getting health care in another country can be an exercise in culture shock. Whether you get a doctor who doesn't speak English or you don't understand the procedures in a foreign hospital, getting sick away from the comforts of home can be frightening. Your best approach to deal with an illness or injury while traveling is to prepare for the problem before you depart. It's important to research your country's emergency numbers, embassy phone number and address, and local English-speaking doctors and hospitals before your trip.
What to do
If you are injured or ill, contact a health care provider as soon as possible. Call your regular doctor if you lose or run out of vital medication; he or she may be able to call in a prescription to a local pharmacy. If you are at a hotel and a non-emergency injury or illness occurs, contact the front desk and ask for medical care. The concierge may be able to arrange for a doctor to come to the hotel. For hospital care, take a cab to the local hospital (finding out which hospitals are nearby before your trip facilitates this journey) or call the local emergency number — a good guidebook should have this information.
It is most important to be prepared to deal with a medical emergency if you are traveling with children; have an existing medical condition or are traveling with someone who does; or will be taking part in potentially dangerous physical activities such as horseback riding, rock climbing or hiking. If you are camping or spending time in a less developed destination (where you could come down with traveler's tummy), you should also be especially prepared.
How to be prepared
If traveling abroad, print out a copy of your destination's Consular Information Sheet for a list of local medical services. You can also find a list of doctors and hospitals abroad on the U.S. State Department's Web site. If you're traveling domestically, contact your insurance company for a list of in-network hospitals and doctors in your destination (you may want to do this a few weeks in advance, as the insurance company might send the list in the mail).
Pack the following information and keep it with you:
- Your doctor's office and home phone numbers
- HMO/insurance company contact information
- Embassy contact information
- Contact information for a relative or loved one at home, especially if you are traveling alone
Be aware of any disease risks in the destination that you are traveling to and get the proper immunizations before you leave.
If you are camping or staying in a remote area, pack a first-aid kit. Also, give a copy of your itinerary to someone at home; this way, if something happens to you and you are unable to call for medical help, someone will know where to find you.
For a more in-depth guide to dealing with illness abroad, read Health Care Abroad.