A vacation is supposed to help you escape from the stress and chaos of your everyday life. It should be all long walks on the beach and lingering over candle-lit dinners or exploring colorful bazaars and hiking nature trails. It should not be having an IV drip inserted into your arm or hanging around a police station for two days straight. Unfortunately, Murphy’s Law dictates that it’s when you’re relaxing poolside with piña colada in hand that disaster will strike.
Whether your travel is for business or pleasure, navigating the intricacies of a foreign bureaucracy or medical system can be a nightmare, particularly if all you want to do is get home. But a little bit of knowledge and planning goes a long way—hopefully as far as you’re going.
Before you go.
Review the country-specific travel information at the U.S. State Department’s Web site. Not just for passport applications, you can also use the site to sign up for travel alerts, get safety and health tips, learn about student and teacher discounts, and register with an embassy. If you’re an American citizen and going somewhere dangerous or staying longer than a month, it’s a good idea to register with the embassy or consulate where you’re traveling. If you’re traveling to a country where your own does not have diplomatic relations (for example, the U.S. and Bhutan or North Korea), register in an adjacent country and find out what third party represents your government’s (and your) interests there.
Travel with a list of emergency contacts at home and abroad, including that of the local embassy or consulate and the U.S. State Department’s Overseas Citizen Services (1-888-407-4747 in the U.S., or 1-202-501-4444 from overseas). Also, leave photocopies of your identification, passport, itinerary, and contact information while traveling with a friend or family member at home.
Find out your health insurance provider’s travel coverage. (Medicare, for one, does not cover any medical care outside of the U.S.) You might want to get additional travel insurance. To be super safe, bring copies of your medical records with you.
If your passport magically disappears.
These things seem to have a way of walking off all on their own. Leave a post-it note with your local address while traveling in your passport, so if it really has been lost, and not stolen, a Good Samaritan can return it. Stash photocopies of your passport’s information page and any visas in your hotel safe or money belt. As soon as you realize your passport is missing, report it to the authorities; a police report may not be necessary to obtain a new one, but it will certainly expedite things. At the very least, you’ll need an affidavit detailing the circumstances under which the passport went missing. Often you can do this at the embassy.
Get in touch with American Citizen Services at the nearest U.S. embassy (or your home country’s). Since September 11, U.S. embassies and consulates can only issue temporary passports that must be replaced upon return to the United States. They will need to validate your identity, which is where your photocopies come in handy. Having a friend or relative call to alert the embassy that the passport was lost or stolen will also help confirm your story and speed the process.
Unfortunately, embassies and consulates do not normally issue passports on weekends or holidays, although there should be an off-duty officer to assist you. You’ll likely be told to come back when they’re open for normal business hours (sorry), but if you’re scheduled to depart immediately—and you ask very, very nicely—the officer may be able to issue a letter to your airline and alert Customs & Immigration that you will be trying to reenter the country without a passport. Whatever you do, never try to bribe a consular official. Bad idea.
If your wallet is stolen.
If possible, lock all your valuables and an emergency stash of cash, traveler’s cheques, or a credit card in your hotel’s safe as soon as you arrive. Pickpocketing is one of the most common crimes against travelers. If you realize your wallet has been stolen, notify your bank and credit card companies immediately. They should be able to replace the card relatively quickly or arrange a cash advance through one of their local offices or a bank. (American Express has great fraud protection and emergency replacement services, although it’s not accepted in quite as many places as Visa and MasterCard.) Although not as urgent, you may also want to place a fraud alert with the credit bureaus.
The best way to avoid being a pickpocketer’s target, is not to be conspicuous. The only person who likes a loud, obnoxious tourist is someone who plans on stealing from him. Don’t wear inappropriate clothes, flaunt expensive jewelry, or carry excessive amounts of money. Keep your wallet on the front of and close to your body. Fanny packs and money belts have come a long way. And it probably goes without saying, but don’t leave your luggage unattended.
If you get food poisoning.
Do some research on any foods you should avoid and the water situation in the countries you’re visiting. Almost half of foreign visitors to developing nations end up with, er, explosive digestive issues. Avoid street foods and, if in doubt, drink bottled water or travel with a portable purifier, available at most camping stores. Don’t forget about milk, ice, and fresh fruits and vegetables, especially those washed in water. Even the bacteria on a garnish can wreak havoc on your stomach. The common sense line is “boil it, cook it, peel it, or forget it.”
If you do develop food poisoning, don’t panic. Unless you become severely dehydrated, have blood in your stool or vomit, or develop a very high temperature, you don’t need to visit a doctor. The symptoms should subside in a couple of days if you stay away from solid foods and stay hydrated. (Water, water, water, but no milk or caffeinated beverages.) Other than over-the-counter stomach soothers like Pepto-Bismol, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved in 2004 an antibiotic called Xifaxan, which can be taken to treat or even prevent diarrhea caused by E. coli.
If you get an infectious disease.
The best defense is a good offense. Make sure you are up to date on your standard vaccines and boosters, like measles and polio. Also check the Traveler’s Health page at the Center for Disease Control’s Web site to find out if any vaccinations or special medications—like those for malaria, yellow fever, and hepatitis A—are required or recommended for the place(s) where you’ll be traveling. The International Society of Travel Medicine can point you to a travel health expert in your area.
Avian flu (H5N1) and swine flu (H1N1) are still of concern in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, and the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, respectively. Malaria and dengue fever, both spread by mosquitoes, are still common in Southeast Asia and South and Central America. Symptoms include a high fever, chills, and rash. A malaria infection requires hospitalization, although dengue usually does not.
If you think you’ve been exposed to a contagious disease, do not fly. I repeat: do not fly. You don’t want to expose a plane full of people to your infectious souvenir no matter how badly you want to get home. Locate the nearest hospital or healthcare facility and seek immediate attention. If you’re lucky (relatively speaking, of course), your infection will just have to run its course. If this is the case, make sure to keep well hydrated (with clean drinking water) until you’re well enough to travel again.
If you get sick or injured.
If you have any preexisting conditions, it’s wise to check the types and locations of medical facilities in your destination country before traveling. If you have medication that can’t be refilled abroad, your doctor may be able to write a one-time prescription to cover the length of your trip, although occasionally this requires clearance from your insurance provider.
Your hotel should be able to provide you with a list of doctors, dentists, and hospitals. Some luxury hotels even have their own on call. If worse comes to worst, call the nearest embassy or consulate for a list. If you’re in a pickle, dial the local police. They should know where to take you.
An interesting fact: While the media focuses on more exotic diseases, the number one killer of American tourists abroad is good old fashioned motor vehicle accidents. It’s a little easier to forget your limits and make bad decisions when you’re on vacation, but drunk or reckless driving is always dangerous regardless of geography.
If you get arrested.
When in a foreign country, travelers are subject to the host government’s laws and punishments, some of which are quite different and sometimes harsher than America’s. You may be expelled, fined, imprisoned … or caned. (Recall the case of eighteen-year-old American expat Michael Fay, who was caned in 1994 for vandalizing cars and stealing road signs in Singapore.) In some countries, the burden of proof is on the accused.
If you are arrested, ask to speak to a consular official immediately. International agreements require many countries to allow a visit with a representative from your embassy. While what they can do is limited, they can provide a list of attorneys, contact your family, and assist with transferring funds to pay your legal fees. They can also monitor your treatment while being held, which if you’ve ever seen Brokedown Palace, can be less than a party.
If a weather disaster strikes.
Know about seasonal weather risks, like hurricanes, before you go, and keep an eye on the weather as you travel. Always listen to local officials calling for evacuation. In an emergency, stay tuned to the radio or television and seek advice from locals who may have ridden out such storms before.
In a hurricane, go to the lowest floor of your building, preferably a basement, hallway, or closet. Stay away from windows or glass doors, and brace under a table or in a doorframe. If you are indoors during an earthquake, protect yourself under a table, door frame, or with pillows or blankets from falling debris. If you’re outside, move away from buildings, electric wires, and traffic lights. In a tsunami or flash flood, move quickly inland and to higher ground. Note that a tsunami is often preceded by a rapid recession of water from the shore. A foot of water will float most cars and trucks, so do not wait to evacuate in a flash flood.
If local politics become sticky.
When traveling in countries with charged political atmospheres, never engage people you don’t know well in political arguments or conversation. In the event the local political situation erupts in violence, keep your head down and stay discreet. Do not dress or carry things that would make you stick out as a tourist. It is much better to leave your luggage behind than to draw the attention of a revolutionary looking for some leverage. Immediately proceed to the closest embassy, where consulate officers can provide protection and assist with evacuation.
If someone you’re with dies.
This is truly a worst-case scenario, but if you are with someone who happens to pass away while traveling, you’ll need to contact your local embassy. The U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs will inform the next-of-kin (assuming it’s not you) and give advice on how to transport the remains back to the United States.
If you’re captured by pirates.
The word “pirate” may make you think of Johnny Depp in knee-high boots and a three-point hat, but modern maritime piracy is on the rise. If there’s a motorboat of Somalian gangsters with automatic weapons trailing your cruise ship, you won’t be thinking of Jack Sparrow. Piracy is most common off the coast of Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Yemen, and Venezuela. If you are being approached by pirates, the captain of the ship should contact the appropriate assistance stations. Make sure you have a life vest and, if the pirates board, obey their orders—preferably not with the words “Ay, matey.”
In short, make copies of everything, lock it up, and contact the closest embassy or consulate. Oh, and don’t be a stupid tourist. Bon voyage!