What to do in a Travel Emergency

Earlier this year, thousands of travelers were left stranded when WOW Air collapsed and canceled all flights with no notice. While many seasoned travelers know to expect some delays and even the occasional cancellation, this situation hit hundreds with no warning, leaving them scrambling to find a way to their next destination. 

Before we go on our first trip, we’re taught to watch our luggage and keep our valuables close to our person. However, we’re seldom taught what to do in the case of a major emergency, such as flight cancellations, medical and family emergencies, natural disasters, or civil unrest. Even smaller personal emergencies, such as getting sick, can derail an entire vacation. We wanted to take a moment and give a brief guide on what to do in a travel emergency. 

Before You Leave

It would be great if all we had to do before leaving on a trip was to buy a plane ticket and pack. However, there’s a lot more that should be done to ensure a stress-free vacation.

Travel Insurance

Before you leave, it’s in your best interest to acquire travel insurance. While this might seem like a waste, especially if your trip goes without any hiccups, it could save you a lot of money (and a headache) should something happen. Travel insurance will help you if you need to go to the hospital in a foreign country or if you experience any other type of medical emergency. And, should your flight be canceled unexpectedly, travel insurance may reimburse you–even if the airline refuses. 

If you’re worried about the added cost, travel insurance isn’t as expensive as you may think. Just do some research, and find the policy that fits your travel needs. It may be an added cost, but can you really put a price on having true peace of mind on your next vacation? 

Credit/Debit Cards

Talking to your bank before departing on your trip is one of the most important things to do.. Nothing is going to raise red flags faster than when the bank system registers charges thousands of miles away from your usual spending location. Even if you’re traveling within your home country, they need to know so they won’t automatically freeze your cards when strange charges start appearing. It’s also important to know whether or not your bank can and will support overseas transactions and withdrawals. 

For example, I used a local bank throughout high school and college, and even though I spoke to them a week before I left for London, my debit card still didn’t work when I arrived in the city. So, I had to wait a full day for my parents back home to go to the bank and get things in order. Luckily, I was with a group of fellow students who were happy to pay for my meals that day, but I would have been in a bit of trouble if I was by myself on a non-school-sanctioned trip. In fact, I know quite a few people who have had to open accounts or get credit cards through “Big Banks” (such as Wells Fargo, Chase, and BB&T) prior to their trip because their small, local chains don’t have the ability to support overseas transactions.

Don’t assume you’ll be all right just because there are ATMs. Talk to your bank so you don’t end up stranded and moneyless in a foreign country–even if it’s just Canada. 

Cell Phones

As great as it would be to completely unplug while traveling, you should make sure you have a way to contact family and friends, and vice versa, in case of emergency. Not all cell phone companies support international travel. Even when I go to the U.S. Virgin Islands, my cell phone enters into “roaming.” While you may not think about needing your phone on vacation, it’s not a bad idea to keep a line of communication open between you and your family back home (and have it set up before you need it). 

Now, you don’t need to set up a new cell phone plan unless you’re becoming a digital nomad , so the best option for most will be cell phone apps. When my family goes abroad, we all usually install WhatsApp. WhatsApp uses your phone number, but it works through WiFi, which allows users to call and text one another wherever they are. However, WhatsApp did have a security issue earlier this summer, so if that turns you away from the app, there are alternatives–the Facebook Messenger app is another great option for calling and messaging your family while traveling.

Lesser-Known Precautions

One step that I never considered until co-founder Nicole brought it up is registering your trip with the US State Department. Registering will allow you to receive important travel alerts regarding natural disasters and other emergencies. 

Along the same lines, look up and write down the contact information of the local embassy or consulate so you have the information available even without internet access. 

Lastly, make copies of your passport and other needed travel documents and keep them separated from your real paperwork. Should your passport be stolen, having copies will help you when reporting the incident to the police as well as  when applying for a replacement with the embassy. Also, be sure to leave extra copies with someone back home who you can rely on in an emergency. 

Flight Delays are one of the most common travel emergencies
Flight Delays are one of the most common travel emergencies. Photo by Erik Odiin on Unsplash

Types of Travel Emergencies 

Most of the time, your trips are going to go smoothly or you’ll only encounter minor mishaps. But occasionally, as was the case with WOW Air, you might find yourself in a situation you never anticipated.

Flight Delays or Cancellations

One of the most common travel emergencies is a flight delay or cancellation. These happen because of the weather, a plane malfunction, or heavy air traffic. Just know that the reasons for delays and cancellations are often for the safety of the passengers on board, so it’s better than getting into a potentially dangerous situation. 

For delays, the best thing you can do is just stay in the airport and wait. Find a restaurant or a seat with an outlet and do your best to relax–getting angry and yelling at the ground crew will not make the weather better. Tweeting at airlines won’t

 fix anything either and makes you look bad because airline social media managers can’t do much to change the weather or fix the plane from their cubicle. 

If you’re really worried about a flight delay or cancellation, then it’s best to book an early morning flight. The earlier the flight, the less likely it’ll encounter any problems such as congestive air traffic and afternoon thunderstorms. 

In the event of a flight cancellation, you should call your airline as soon as possible to re-book a flight and to see if you’re eligible for a flight voucher (essentially, a piece of paper worth the value of your ticket so that you can book another flight). And if you checked your bag, ask them for an amenities bag, so you can clean yourself up after a stressful day. 


4 Reasons Why Airline Delays Happen & Your Options

What to do When Your Flight is Canceled

Lost or Stolen Passports

Another one of the most common travel emergencies is losing your passport . Luckily, no matter where you travel, there’s going to be a US Embassy or Consulate you can contact. The embassy or consulate will help get you a new passport after you fill out the paperwork, provide the proper documents (birth certificate, license, etc. or ensure someone at home will have access to these), and pay a fee of $130. Please note, if you find your old passport after getting a replacement, it is no longer valid and should be sent to the State Department to be properly canceled. 

This is another good reason to have a cell phone with an international plan or WhatsApp because you’re likely going to need documents proving your identity–such as your birth certificate, which most of us don’t carry. 


Reporting a Lost or Stolen Passport

Stolen Personal Items

From personal experience, there isn’t a lot that can be done when your personal items are stolen. Whether it’s clothing, a laptop, or money, once it’s gone, it’s gone and the most you can do is report the stolen item to the police and hope for the best. Depending on your travel insurance, some stolen items may be compensated. 

If your credit and debit cards are stolen, then get in touch with your bank immediately to have them canceled. 


How to Report Something Stolen While Traveling Abroad

Does Travel Insurance Cover Theft

Medical Emergencies

During my first trip to the British Virgin Islands, I came down with a serious sinus infection. I didn’t have to go to the doctor or hospital during this trip, but not everyone is so lucky when contracting an illness. Medical emergencies can, unfortunately, happen anywhere and at any time. If you or your travel buddy get hurt or sick while on the road, then it’s important to immediately seek medical attention and to check with your travel insurance to see what’s covered. If you’re not sure where to find a doctor, dentist, or hospital, your local embassy’s website will have recommendations. You can also reach out to the local embassy or consulate for any help you may need while in the country

But the fun doesn’t end at the hospital. Make sure you hold onto all the hospital paperwork to file your insurance claim. 


Filing a Travel Insurance Claim

Important Tips for Making a Successful Claim

Natural Disasters 

Thankfully, this travel emergency doesn’t happen too often. But it’s good to know what to do when something completely unexpected happens, such as the volcano eruption of 2010 when airlines across Europe had to shut down due to volcanic ash covering the planes, reducing visibility and having a potentially disastrous effect on the plane’s engine. . 

When you’re preparing for a trip, be aware of the natural disasters that could happen in your destination. Some countries are more likely to experience earthquakes and flash flooding or have seasons of severe weather. As crazy as it might sound, before you leave home, have a contingency plan in place for the worst-case scenario–even if it’s something as simple as keeping a small first aid kit in your backpack. It’s always better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. 


Natural Disasters – Bureau of Consular Affairs

How Can You Prepare for a Natural Disaster Abroad

Civil Unrest

A type of emergency that’s difficult to discuss due to the political implications is civil unrest (or civil disorder). We’re currently living in a time where political protests are happening all over the world and, at times, can escalate to violence. So, it’s important to keep up with what’s happening in the world around us by watching the local news and reading local headlines–even if it’s not the most fun way to spend your vacation. 

Should you find yourself in the middle of a mob or violent protest, do your best to blend in until you can reach an area where you can remove yourself from the situation. It’s also a good idea that if you know something is going on in the place you’re visiting, not to treat it as an attraction–even the most peaceful protests can turn violent with one wrong move. Though unlikely, in the more rare and extreme cases, you may find yourself in the midst of a terrorist attack. The most important thing to remember is not to panic. Do what you can to get yourself to a safe location and listen to emergency personnel. As soon as it is safe to do so, contact your local embassy (if they haven’t already contacted you).


15 Tips for Staying Safe During Civil Unrest

Before leaving on your next trip, make sure to research and take the necessary precautions to ensure your peace of mind. It’s always better to be over-prepared for a trip than to be caught off guard by a flight cancellation or a missing passport.

What are some of the precautions you take before leaving on a trip? Have you encountered any travel emergencies?


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