Weather reports missed it: the tropical storm headed for South America takes a sudden northward turn, delivering a direct hit on Puerto Rico, on the exact date your cruise ship is slated to arrive. Air traffic halts suddenly due to an imminent terror threat in Istanbul, where your 12-hour layover is to take place before your next flight heads for Madrid. The day before your dream vacation to Ireland departs, your spouse and both your kids come down with the flu.
Most vacations come with a snag or two — a couple of hours of flight delays, a rental car with a flat tire, or a last-minute change of trains. Major problems, however, can devastate your itinerary, leading to thousands of dollars in cost, not to mention the accompanying disappointment and inconvenience.
How can you handle such emergencies so that you can salvage your vacation, stay safe, and hang on to as much money as possible?
The first thing to do is find your wits. Dealing with disaster is difficult enough at home; in an unfamiliar environment, it is exasperating. Take inventory of what you have and what you need, and then prepare a strategy for solving your most immediate problems. This means prioritizing. Your priorities should always be in this order:
In an emergency, clothing, cameras, souvenirs, and other non-essentials shouldn’t take a high priority. For example, don’t stay at the scene of a mugging to look for a dropped phone, or sludge through flood waters to find your backpack. Follow any instructions given by local first responders, even when that means going the opposite direction you were heading or missing your transport. Think safety first, food and shelter next. Then you can tend to transportation, and finally, salvaging what you can of your itinerary.
If you’re stranded somewhere without your wallet, contact the company that issued your credit cards, debit card, or traveler’s checks. If you’re in a panic, these conversations are going to be far more difficult. When there is simply no way to get funds immediately, find a hostel or local charity organization that can offer help. In true emergency situations, like those in which travelers recently found themselves in Manchester and Paris, local authorities and the Red Cross will offer emergency food and shelter. Calm down, accept what is available, regroup, and go from a place of knowledge and strength. Everything looks more manageable after you calm down and get some rest.
Contact Your Travel Agent
After you and your party are out of immediate danger and have food and shelter, contact your travel agent or any company with which you have pending reservations. Since these agents thrive on repeat business, they have extra incentive to get you situated and accommodated at minimal expense and trouble. This means you can usually do better making changes through your agent than on your own with local vendors. While vendors may not feel obligated to help you, since it’s unlikely you’ll ever be back, they will respond favorably to a travel agent who sends them several paying customers a month. Explain the situation to your travel agent, who can then handle further communications with the various hotels, airlines, tour companies, event venues, etc.
Travel agents will usually further assist by altering your plans to get you back home sooner, if necessary, or at least get you into acceptable accommodations so you aren’t stuck in limbo. They can sometimes get credits for any part of your travel package you weren’t able to use, further saving you money. Often, travel agents can convince rental car companies to swap your reservations so you can pick up your rental at a different location in the event you can’t get to your original destination.
Check Your Travel Insurance
Hopefully, you have travel insurance. Review the insurance documents to see what you’re covered for in this particular situation. If you can’t find the exact scenario you’re involved in, look for generalized language that might apply. Unless the incident is specifically excluded, there’s likely to be room to work with the situation at hand.
Travel insurance usually costs between 4 and 10 percent of the overall, non-refundable portion of your travel costs. This means that travel insurance for your $5,000 trip costs between $250 and $500, making it well worth the investment if plans do go wrong. Once you need travel insurance, it’s too late to get it, so spring for this when you first make your vacation plans. It’s easier to budget for a $300 premium than a $3,000 loss in travel investments!
Find Ways to Enjoy the Time You Have
Whether you’re stuck in a city you hadn’t planned to visit or just can’t do all the things you intended, try to make the most of the situation. Grab a local travel guide (or turn to a trusty Google search) and visit as many local attractions as you can.
Most cities have free attractions, such as museums, tours, or parks. You might even find a hidden gem you’d never have discovered without your tragedy. Many travelers find that their alternate plans build more memorable experiences than the original plans that got scrapped. An out-of-the-way deli in Hanoi, an open-air market in Lisbon, a hidden nightclub in Bucharest … these are the spices of life.
Prevent it from Happening Again
If anything good comes from disaster, it’s learning how to avoid it next time. Here are some options to consider when planning your next vacation:
• Invest in the least restrictive travel insurance policy you can afford. You simply can’t overprotect your once-in-a-lifetime dream vacation.
• Avoid scheduling any vacation to the last minute. Leave some room in there, not just for emergencies, but also for free time and relaxation. You’ll return more rested from an enjoyable trip if you don’t spend the entire time rushing to your next destination, or worse, stressing out over missing buses or being late to events. When you leave time in between, a missed bus or other minor delay isn’t so devastating.
• Scan all important documents (ID, the insurance policy, passports, confirmation numbers, etc.) and save a copy on a cloud server that you can access even if you lose your devices. Google Docs and the iCloud are ideal for this purpose.
• Store the card numbers and customer service phone numbers for all of your credit or debit cards on a cloud server, or leave copies back home with someone you can trust. By doing so, if you lose these cards, you can still contact the company and/or use the card numbers to make alternative reservations.
• Keep an emergency credit card on your person, in addition to those in your luggage, purse, and carry-on bags. Stick one in your shoe or another spot from which it won’t be snatched or lost.
• Password protect computers, phones, and other devices so thieves can’t gain access to your personal information.
There is no way to be 100-percent free from liability, but using a credit card instead of a debit card on vacation limits your legal liabilities to $50 should the card go missing. If a debit card is lost or stolen, thieves can take everything from any accounts associated with the card, and retrieving this money can be difficult or impossible.
Travel is full of rewards, but it isn’t without hazards. Keep a straight mind and a positive attitude, and you’ll be able to manage whatever comes your way.