The world is an ever-changing place and sometimes despite all your planning, things do go wrong in the world. Over the last few months we’ve seen earthquakes, a tsunami, political revolutions, record snowfalls, all affecting travel and the people in the country. One of the best ways to handle these situations is to have a basic knowledge of how to remain calm and prepared. Here are some ways you can be prepared for some of the scenarios we’ve seen in recent months.
- Predicting: We can’t do much to predict earthquakes. The Pacific Rim has been especially active lately with New Zealand, Hawaii and Japan all experiencing earthquakes or volcanic activity. Knowing that is the best you can do.
- How to be Prepared: Before your trip, make sure you have contact numbers available for those back home, including your airline or travel agent. Keep a bag in your luggage with all your medications in one place and keep a flashlight in there too. Keep shoes and wallets near your bed and in one spot. If you are in a building, stay near inside walls and take cover under tables or doorways.
- How to Communicate: As we’re learning from Japan, power outages and cellular networks have led to a lack of communication for thousands. The best successes have been through texting and the internet. Google Person Finder has sprung up as a means to verify your safety to family and friends.
- What can you do to salvage your trip: As soon as possible, contact your airline or travel agent. Many people have success tweeting, emailing, making phone calls, showing up in person or all of the above. If you can safely travel to another city outside the quake zone, they may be able to rebook you on flights heading out of that city to another one or back home. Change fees are likely to be waived.
- If it happens before your trip: Wait to go or rebook. Most airlines will waive flight change fees in wake of such a disaster and if you booked with travel insurance or through a reputed hotel, they will be able to work with you on rescheduling. Following Japan’s earthquake, the US government has warned against travel to the country until April 1, mostly due to expected aftershocks and cleanup requirements. Chains such as the Hilton are good about rebooking you in one of their other hotels around the world if you would like.
- Predicting: Tsunamis are most likely after an earthquake so if a quake happens, head inland immediately if possible. In Indonesia they had just under half in hour, in Japan they had just minutes. If you are in a country outside the earthquake zone but in the wave zone, pay attention for sirens.
- How to be Prepared: Same as above, have everything stored where you know it is and don’t try to take your luggage with you as you head inland. It will slow you down and luggage can be replaced whereas you cannot. One journalist posted his guide on how to survive a tsunami in your hotel.
- How to Communicate: Again, be prepared for power and network outages. The internet is the best place for you to communicate.
- What can you do to salvage your trip: Contact your airline or travel agent. If you were staying inland you won’t likely be affected by the wave but your hotel may need to be used to provide shelter as part of disaster relief efforts. If you are in a watch or warning zone, don’t take pictures or go outside. One man in California died this way.
- If it happens before your trip: Stay away and rebook elsewhere. Tsunami cleanup takes time so choosing a later date is usually the best option. Entire hotels and airports were destroyed in Indonesia and Japan respectively.
- Predicting: The danger zone usually includes the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern Seaboard. While hurricane season is officially June 1-November 30, there are more likely days you’ll be affected. August through October is when 78% of the tropical storms and 96% of the major hurricane days occur. You’ll also usually have some advanced warning, as hurricanes advance from tropical depressions to tropical storms and through many stages before reaching maximum destruction levels.
- How to be Prepared: More advanced warning means more locations issue evacuation orders. Take heed because many times islands and cities become completely cut off from the rest of the world. Just look at New Orleans if you need proof of the destruction capable. Just as before, have everything in one place and make sure to watch the news and weather to be forewarned of any sudden changes.
- How to Communicate: Power goes out during these storms so be prepared to sit back and hold tight.
- What can you do to salvage your trip: Rent a car and head inland. You’ll need to do this quickly as everyone else will have the same idea. Inland the winds do less damage as the storm loses power and are generally just tropical storms by that point. If the storm passes without major damage, you may be able to return after the all clear is given but you should always evacuate when ordered to do so.
- If it happens before your trip: Find out where the damage was isolated to. Decide if the area is safe to travel to. Hurricanes can hit a wide area or just a narrow one so don’t cancel your trip just because an island was hit. In Hurricane Dean, the island of Jamaica was hard hit but Montego Bay was wide open to travel 6 weeks later and even before that. Airlines will waive fees and in general you can delay your trip or change locations without many issues. Hurricanes are fairly routine in most areas and hotels have policies in place.
- Predicting: Unless you’re on the west coast, you can see a storm play out across the country and have some indication of what’s coming. I know we have things like meteorologists and you can generally trust them but I had an 18-inch snow storm that materialized as inches of ice instead so I’m a little bitter still. In general, know that traveling in winter can mean being stuck and snowbound.
- How to be Prepared: Watch the news, remember it snows in winter and be ready to change your plans. If you are traveling by car, keep plenty of food on hand, warm clothing and flares in case you become stranded.
- How to Communicate: You might be lucky enough to maintain power or have a generator to back you up. Twitter is quickly becoming one of the best ways to talk to your airline. If you’re at the airport and waiting in line, get your social media tools working and sit on hold with a phone call. You never know which one will be able to help you first.
- What can you do to salvage your trip: If traveling by plane, by ready to reschedule to beat the storm or to stay a few extra days in a city. Just because airlines have closed their doors doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy sledding or ice skating if the roads get cleared. If you could get stuck at the airport, make sure your carry on luggage as enough supplies to keep you safe inside. Consider packing granola bars, a change of clothing and toys for children. You might be able to rent a car (though others will too) and train systems are likely to be shut down.
- If it happens before your trip: Watch the weather to see if things will melt or if ice becomes an issue. Weather, especially snow, changes almost instantly so monitor flight status updates and get to your airport early if your plane hasn’t been canceled. I’ve seen planes leave early if all passengers were at the gate just to beat a storm.
- Predicting: Honestly, even keeping aware of politics might not mean you can predict what will happen. Even the US government wasn’t too prepared for Egypt’s riots, though the spreading protests quickly became easy to see.
- How to be Prepared: Your best bet? Watch the news and stay up-to-date on travel warnings issued. Don’t book a trip to a country without knowing what could happen. Common issues on the advisory are weather issues (often temporary), civil war, and terrorist influences. A quick list of countries under new warnings: Mauritania, Egypt, Libya, Nepal, Kenya, Philippines, Mexico, and Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Watch the news while you’re in the country and evacuate when necessary.
- How to Communicate: The power of the internet is a valuable tool that has recently been stripped away from citizens to isolate them. Phones became locked. Some people resorted to using fax machines or went to universities to access their resources to speak to the outside world. A friend of mine, Sara, was unable to communicate her safety in Egypt until she was outside the country. Students from universities studying abroad contacted their embassies though even embassy workers were ordered to leave the country.
- What can you do to salvage your trip: Relocate. It’s not worth it when there is gunfire and riots to insert yourself in a situation you likely know nothing about. My friend Sara was on a flight to Cairo with friends when the protests began and upon landing the airport held them. They eventually were sent onto their hotel just to stay in the lobby for hours and be sent back to the airport. From there they were relocated to Greece where they spent the remainder of scheduled trip days.
- If it happens before your trip: Relocate. Hotels are often happy to reschedule you so they can clear out their own employees and hotels. Airlines waived rebooking fees and my friend Sara confirms her hotel chain ended up being her best advocate in the situation. While many travel insurance plans do not cover these kinds of riots in case of refunds, they can often do their best to make sure you have a happy trip somewhere and they have plenty of connections to make it happen.
- Predicting: You can’t always predict what will be the next pandemic but you can watch its spread and prevent your own illness. With H1N1, Mexico became a hotspot fairly quickly. During the SARS epidemic, China quickly became the source for the illness and quarantines were set up. Another one to watch is Avian Influenza. 2011 has been predicted to be an average year in regards to flus.
- How to be Prepared: Watch the news for whatever new pandemics are out there. Be in regular contact with your doctor and up-to-date on any and all vaccinations. The CDC has a guide to recommended vaccinations based on your destination. If you are heading to live or work in China or just visit rural China, it is suggested you be vaccinated for typhoid and rabies. In Kingston, Jamaica you may want to be wary of malaria. Friends of mine teaching abroad in Japan and South Korea opted to get vaccinated for Japanese encephalitis. Keep your doctor(s) information on-hand during your entire trip.
- How to Communicate: In general, your communication will not be hampered by disease.
- What can you do to salvage your trip: Decide if you can vaccinate. Governments usually do not opt to close borders to contain sickness but they do monitor who boards planes and increase sanitation. If you are in an area of sickness, use masks to protect yourself and attempt to leave as soon as possible. If you become sick, seek medical care immediately. If you have special needs, get in touch with your doctor and a pharmacy.
- If it happens before your trip: Check with the hotel or resort you are staying at and see what precautions they have taken. You’ll probably be okay to go about your trip as planned.
In any case, be careful to protect yourself when you travel. Travel emergencies are not a time to gawk or be a tourist. If there’s no reason for you to travel to a country that has been affected, don’t. Give it time to make sure you aren’t using resources or bed space that could be offered to impacted victims.
One of your safest bets is to book travel insurance before a trip. When I planned a Jamaican vacation during September, I made sure to opt into the insurance due to the hurricane threat. Our island ended up being hit shortly before our trip but it was safe enough for us to go down there after the weeks passed. Had it not been, our insurance would have allowed us to rebook or shift to one of the chain’s other destinations. Always read the language of the policy you book through because not all “acts of God” are covered at all times.
As always, be safe. Make smart decisions and decide if your life is really worth arguing dollars and cents over. You can always appeal decisions and talk to customer support specialists after you are safe and get waivers and vouchers for future travel. You can’t enjoy your trip if you don’t survive whatever travel emergency there is in your area so worry about that first and foremost.