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4 Common Travel Disasters and How to Prevent Them

You have your guidebooks, your spare underwear and even your inflatable neck pillow, but do you have a way to deal with 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.

Bookmark this guide to dealing with travel tragedies big and small, and keep it handy 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.

Lost Passport

It’s the traveler’s worst nightmare: opening your purse, backpack or money belt to discover that your passport has disappeared. 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:

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 to get you back home. 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.

Before you leave home, 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.

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:

A passport-size photo
A photo ID
Proof of U.S. citizenship (such as a copy of your birth certificate or the missing passport)
Travel itinerary (airline or train tickets, etc.)

We strongly recommend making a copy of your passport and storing it in a different place from the actual document (you can even keep a PDF of it on your phone). 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 guide to lost and stolen passports.

Missed Flight

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 it 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 carrier’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 it can locate your bags. The airline may be able to hold your bags until you arrive at 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 website 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 which 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.

Travel insurance is an additional safety net in certain circumstances, especially covering a missed flight. While it likely won’t cover you if you show up late because you forgot to set your alarm, trip insurance can help if you miss your flight for reasons such as illness, a natural disaster or a car accident.

Lost Luggage

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 find 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. I learned this the hard way on a recent trip. After arriving in Dublin, I was dismayed to discover that not only had the airline lost my luggage — my traveling companion had also 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 there 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 $200 shoes will no longer be worth $200.

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 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. 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 (your hotel can recommend one if you haven’t researched this ahead of time) 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; if you have an existing medical condition or are traveling with someone who does; or if you 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, look up the U.S. embassy of the country you’re visiting; its website will usually have a list of physicians and hospitals. (Start at to find the embassy.) If you’re traveling domestically, contact your insurance company for a list of in-network hospitals and doctors at 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/cell 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.

Finally, consider travel insurance that includes medical evacuation coverage; being flown out of a destination that isn’t equipped to treat your injury or illness can be both essential and extremely expensive.

For a more in-depth guide to dealing with illness abroad, read Health Care Abroad.

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