Travel Disasters – How to Avoid Them or Deal with Them if They Happen

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Unfortunately, sometimes things can go wrong when traveling the world, so it’s a good idea to be fully prepared so that you can deal with any potential disaster that comes your way.

What disasters/problems might you encounter when traveling? You may suffer serious injuries or get sick, miss a flight on an airplane, lose your luggage, have important items stolen from you, lose your passport or encounter natural disasters (such as earthquakes and floods) or political unrest.

Read of for a full list of the most common travel disasters, how to avoid them and what to do if they occur:

Missing Your Flight

Missing a flight is something that most travelers will never experience (particularly the ones that don’t fly very often). It seems a little counter-intuitive, but it’s often the people that fly the most that miss the most flights. When you do something regularly (such as flying), it’s easy to become complacent and to start leaving things till the last minute.

Compare this with someone that’s never flown before who decides to get to the airport 5 hours early ‘just in case’. Obviously sometimes unexpected circumstances do occur and it’s unavoidable, but for the rest of the time here’s a few tips that you can follow to help you never miss a flight again:

  • Missing Your FlightIt sounds obvious, but give yourself enough time to get to the airport and plan to get there AT LEAST 2.5 hours before your flight is scheduled to leave. No-one ever misses their flight by leaving too early. You might think that you won’t need that long, but you never know what kind of bad weather/traffic will slow you down. For example, I live a 25 minute drive from Heathrow Airport (just outside London). The drive there is usually a pretty easy and uneventful one, but the last time I flew out a lorry had turned over on the motorway and there was a massive delay and a line of traffic that stretched back for miles. The usual 25 minute journey took almost 2 hours, and I was lucky to make my flight.
  • As most people do, I have an alarm to wake me up in the morning. On the day of a flight, however, I always make sure to set a second (back-up) alarm just in case my first alarm doesn’t go off (should I need to wake up early for a flight). I set this alarm to go off 5 minutes after the first one. Don’t rely on family members to wake you up, as they can be unreliable.
  • When booking connecting flights, make sure that you’ve got enough time to transfer. As a rule, I like to give myself at least an hour when transferring (although if you know the airport well you may want to cut that time down). Missing your connecting flight is frustrating and means you’ll have to spend potentially hours sitting around in a strange airport.

What to do if you Miss Your Flight

Let’s say you follow all of the precautions above, but still manage to miss your flight. What should you do?

  • Missing your flightBecause airlines often overbook their flights (as they known someone won’t turn up), getting on the next flight is sometimes just a matter of being changed over. Whether you’re charged a fee for this largely depends on the airline, the person you’re dealing with and how polite you are to them.
  • Occasionally you’ll miss a connecting flight because of circumstances out of your control (such as because your first flight was delayed or late getting in). In times such as these, the airline is completely to blame, and you’ll just have to wait it out until they can put you on another flight. Being polite and treating the airline desk staff respectfully will also increase your chances of receiving a freebie or two (such as upgraded seats).

Losing Your Luggage

Losing your luggage at the airport is a real pain, and can often have a negative effect on the start of your trip (as you’ll have no clothes, toothbrush, etc.).

If the airline loses your luggage, there’s not a lot you can do until they find it. By packing sensible hand luggage, however, you can reduce the effects:

  • Lost LuggageWhen packing your hand luggage, assume that your main suitcase will be lost. What items do you need? Make sure to pack all important documents (passport, insurance, visas, itineraries, etc) in your carry-on luggage, as well as all of your money, debit/credit cards and your mobile phone (including the charger).
  • If you take medication or wear glasses/contact lenses, make sure to pack these in your hand luggage (if possible – large bottles of liquid won’t be allowed through security).
  • Depending on the length of your trip, consider not checking any luggage at all (and only taking carry-on luggage with you). This essentially removes the chance of your luggage being lost, as it’ll always be right there on the plane with you. To do this you’ll need to pack light, and may have to forfeit taking some items.
  • Pack one lightweight outfit in your carry-on so that you have something extra to wear if your luggage is lost. At the very least, take a spare pair underwear and socks. Think about what the climate/weather will be like when you land. Will you need shorts or a sweater?

What to do if you Lose your Luggage

If you’ve waited at the baggage claim for over an hour, and your bag hasn’t come out (and everyone else has left), the chances are your luggage has been lost. What should you do next?

  • File a report at the airline desk immediately.
  • Remain calm and polite, as they might be able to get it to you within a few minutes (depending on where it is).

Losing Your Passport

One of the most annoying things that can happen when traveling is losing your passport. Having your passport lost or stolen means that doing all kinds of things that you take for granted (such as crossing borders, changing currency, checking into hotels and hostels and boarding airplanes) are infinitely more difficult. You passport is part of your identity, so it should be kept safe at all times.

How can you do this? Let’s take a look:

  • Lost PassportAlways have a method of keeping your passport safe. If you choose to carry it on your person, keep it in a secure bag (such as a travel pouch or a bag that is hidden under your shirt). If you choose to keep it in your hotel room, keep it in a SECURE safe or locker – where thieves won’t be able to get at it.
  • Photocopy the main page (the one with your picture on it) and carry a few copies of it on you (stored in different bags, if possible). If you lose your passport, at least you’ll have all the necessary information, so it’s better than nothing. Scan it in and email a copy of this to yourself (so you always have it on your email account).

How to Replace a Lost Passport Quickly

So what do you do if the worst happens and you lose your passport?

  • Realize that passports get lost all the time, and that (although it is a massive, time-consuming hassle), replacing a lost passport is entirely possible (and that there are systems in place to help you do so).
  • Find your nearest embassy and let them know you’ve lost your passport. If possible bring a photocopy of your passport as it’ll help when filling out the various forms.
  • The speed at which your passport is replaced sometimes comes down to how much you’re prepared to spend. If you have an impending departure, you might need to spend a little to speed up the process.
  • For more information, check out this post on replacing a lost passport while traveling.

Having Items Stolen/Being Robbed

People often talk about certain places being more pickpocket-friendly, but the truth is that you can have your belongings stolen (in one way or another) in anywhere in the world – from London and Paris to Bangkok and Sydney. Here’s a few tips for deterring thieves and keeping your belongings safe:

  • PickpocketWhen out and about, always wear a money belt (or some kind of under-garment money pouch). In addition to wearing this, carry a wallet/purse with you and keep a small amount of change (and any old credit cards you have) in it. If you are mugged/confronted by a potentially dangerous thief, you can simply hand over your wallet (and lose a minimal amount of money).
  • Try to limit the amount of cash you carry around with you. This is why traveler’s checks work so well (as they can be easily replaced if you lose them).
  • Make sure that the hotel/hostel you’re staying in has some kind of safe/locker that you can keep your belongings in. Not every room will have this (especially if you’re staying in a beach hut in Thailand), so in these cases you may be able to store items behind the front desk instead.
  • When walking around a large city or town, use common sense. Down wander down any dark alleys and try to stick to the main, populate areas.
  • Avoid looking like a rich tourist whenever possible, as you’ll naturally attract opportunistic thieves. This means you should avoid wearing flashy clothes, big jewelry and carrying a large camera around with you. Also try to avoid holding a big map out in front of you like you have no idea where you’re going.
  • Look out for your bagsIf you’re waiting for a bus/train/taxi/airplane, make sure to keep an eye on your bags at all times. This is a lot harder when traveling on your own, as you won’t have a friend to watch them for you (while you go to the bathroom).
  • If a local-looking person offers to show you around (or to take you to where you want to go), use caution. Even ‘official’ taxi drivers will promise to take you to local landmarks, before taking you straight to their brother’s souvenir shop.
  • Never leave bags/valuables in taxis or in the hands of people you don’t know. A friend of mine once left his bags in a tuk-tuk in Cambodia while he ran into a convenience store to grab a soft drink. When he returned, the taxi driver was gone (along with all of his belongings) and he was left with nothing.
  • Most women will prefer to carry a purse or handbag instead of a wallet. The problem with these is that they can be easily snatched by passing thieves. Always wear them diagonally across your body (instead of just over one shoulder) and keep them done up at all times.
  • For more advice, check out this page on travel safety tips.

What to do if you Have Items Stolen

  • First of all, contact the local police and file a report with them. There may be very little that they can do, but at least you’ll know you’ve done what you can. In addition to this, insurance companies (providing you have travel insurance) will always ask for a police report when you file a claim, so it’s important to have one for that reason.
  • Next off, call your insurance company and file a claim. Claims can sometimes end up taking while to complete, so it’s a good idea to get it started as soon as possible.
  • If you have had all of your money stolen, visit your local embassy as they should be able to provide you with some quick emergency cash, and they’ll also help to cancel your stolen credit/debit cards.
  • If your passport has been stolen, read the section above…

Natural Disasters

Unfortunately, there is very little you can do to avoid a natural disaster if you’re unlucky enough to be at the point where it hits. Tornados, hurricanes, floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, avalanches and mudslides are some of the most common disasters. Fortunately, natural disasters are rare, meaning you shouldn’t be overly worried about them when traveling.

There are a few things that you can do to help protect yourself against natural disasters:

  • Natural DisasterBefore traveling to a new region (particularly an area that you know little about or haven’t previously visited) do some homework on the area to find out if certain natural disasters are likely to occur during your visit. If you discover that certain disasters regularly occur at certain times of year, consider changing the date of your trip (or going somewhere else).
  • You should ALWAYS purchase travel insurance before traveling (as it’ll cover you for financial losses), ESPECIALLY when you’re going to areas that might be affected by floods, earthquakes, etc. When buying a travel insurance policy, make sure that natural disasters are covered (read the small print).
  • Let your friends and family know exactly where you’re traveling to. When a natural disaster hits, the chances are that it’ll be covered by most news channels all over the world. Your family and friends will naturally be worried if they think you might be affected, so by letting them know where you are they’ll know whether you were caught up in the chaos or not. Obviously if a natural disaster occurs near to where you’re traveling, it’s a good idea to call back home and let everyone know you’re okay.

What to do when Natural Disasters Occur

If you are unlucky enough to be caught in the eye of the storm (but you’re lucky enough to avoid personal injury), the first thing that you should do is to attempt to contact your family back home to reassure them of your safety (as no-doubt they’ll be worried sick about you). This is not always possible right away, however, as phone/power lines may have been damaged.

Remember that at times of natural disaster, the whole country will likely be in a state of panic, so it’s important to stay calm and to help out where you can.

Political Turmoil

Unfortunately (as with most natural disasters), there is very little that you can do in regards to avoiding political turmoil whilst visiting a country if it suddenly escalates while you’re there (as many travelers may have found recently during the unrest in Egypt). The most politically unstable countries tend to be found in the Middle East and Africa. This does not necessarily mean that they should be avoided; just that you should take the proper precautions beforehand.

So what can you do to avoid being caught up in potentially nasty political unrest? Here are a couple of ideas:

  • Political UnrestBefore planning a trip (or traveling to a new area while you’re on the road), make sure to do your homework. For US travelers, reading the State Department website will give you advice on where safe (and where isn’t safe) to travel. Note, however, that the warnings given on this site often slightly exaggerate the severity of what’s going on. Another good way to research into an area is to check out some local travel and news blogs, as they’ll often have up-to-date information on the area they’re based on.
  • If you’ve planned a trip to a potentially politically volatile area, and before you leave a situation erupts, it’s worth seriously considering cancelling your trip. Use your common sense and remember that your health (and your life) is far more important than the price of your trip.

What to do when You’re Traveling and Political Unrest Erupts

Even the best laid plans can go awry, so if you do find yourself in politically unstable country (where protesting, rioting, curfews and all kinds of things might occur) what should you do?

  • Start out by getting in touch with your embassy (every country will have embassy from every other major country in it). You’ll want to find out what their advice for you is. Sometimes they may just ask you to stay put, but if the situation is severe and you’re in potential danger they’ll likely have a plan to evacuate you as soon as possible.
  • If you have a flight out of the country already booked but you want to fly out early, contact the airline to find out what their policy on the situation is. Many airlines often charge you to change the date of your flight, but under certain circumstances they tend to become more lenient.
  • Lastly, stay away from crowds and don’t try and get involved. The chances are that you won’t fully understand what’s going on and the way the country works, so it’s best just to stay out of the situation altogether. In the middle of a riot the police won’t differentiate between you and any other rioter.

Injuring Yourself or Getting Sick

For tips on dealing with travel sickness and other health problems, check out this post on travel health advice.

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