“When we got on the plane, everything was fine. While we were in the air, the Friday prayers let out. And by the time we touched down, the city was filled with smoke and fire.”
om Taylor and his wife, Katy, were headed to Cairo, Egypt, for spring break. But the timing was far from ideal: they arrived one day after the beginning of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.
“Everything in the area was total chaos; people were flooding in from the city, mostly Westerners. . . . The army put a cordon around the airport, so we saw tanks and large trucks filled with military folks. . . . And we were told that we wouldn’t be allowed to leave the airport premises. We didn’t know what was going on.”
The Taylors are not unique in their travel experiences. Overseas emergencies include anything from political unrest and natural disasters to contracting an illness or falling victim to a crime—and they can happen to anyone. So what do you do if you encounter a travel crisis? And what can you do to prepare before disaster strikes?
Register with the Embassy
Before you head for the airport, register with your country’s embassy so that representatives of your country will know where you are and how to contact you while you’re abroad. If embassy representatives learn that a crisis is imminent, they’ll send you travel alerts. If an emergency occurs, they’ll try to locate you to determine whether you’re safe.
Your embassy can also provide you with food, shelter, and assistance getting home. Even if the crisis is of a personal nature, your embassy can help. If you live in the United States, you can register with a US embassy at travelregistration.state.gov.
Another important step to take before your departure is to make a contingency plan so you’re prepared for any circumstance. Find out what your health insurance covers, and consider getting travel insurance if you’re traveling internationally. Make sure to fill out the emergency information page of your passport. Additionally, make copies of your essential documents and back them up electronically.
Ensure you have the contact information for your travel agent, your insurance company, and the hotels you’ll be staying at. Give this information and copies of essential documents to someone at home who could initiate help for you during an emergency.
Know the Territory
Prepare for your trip by researching your destination. As world-traveler Travis Orton says, knowing “what’s going on . . . will help you make better-informed decisions.” So learn about your destination’s culture, customs, and laws, as well as whether the area is prone to natural disasters during the time you plan to travel.
Also check on the political climate. A great source of information is the US Department of State, which provides warnings about areas prone to political unrest, offers travel alerts, and gives other helpful facts about locations around the world. To get an insider’s view, read blog and social media posts from travelers currently in the locale you’ll be traveling to.
Make Friends with the Locals
You can also prepare by talking with someone who lives in or has traveled to your vacation destination. It’s especially helpful if the person knows the risks in the area and how to deal with them. Orton says having local contacts is critical to safe traveling: “If you make a friend or you have friends who have gone somewhere and made friends, see if you can get [the] contact information of these friends just in case. It’s always good to have some sort of contact . . . on the ground that knows what’s going on, that knows the culture, knows the people, has lived there, and knows how things work.” Sometimes knowing a local can save your life.
When a 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit the coastal city of Constitución, Chile, Stephanie Bentley learned the importance of having friends in the area. “Everybody in the city panicked. The power went out in the city—there was no power and there was no water. And you couldn’t get a hold of people on the phone because all the cell service was gone. . . . I didn’t know if there was going to be a tsunami and if I needed to get to higher ground or if I should go back to my apartment to get my stuff. . . . Luckily I knew somebody who took me with them to higher ground, and we waited out the night there.”
Bentley’s biggest recommendation is to “make sure you always know somebody you can rely on or just get in contact with” in the area. If you cannot contact a friend or your embassy, locate local law enforcement officials or medical personnel.
Natural disasters often present an even more difficult situation than a riot or a bombing. In the days (and even weeks) following a natural disaster, there’s often no water, no power, and no food.
Consequently, it’s vital to bring a few extra days’ worth of prescriptions, snacks, and water, in addition to emergency cash and warm clothes. “It’s easy to just have shorts and a t-shirt, but have at least a jacket and a blanket,” Bentley says. When the earthquake hit Constitución, “a lot of people just went into the forest and had to sleep outside. Even just having a blanket [can be] essential to survival.”
When Disaster Hits
Contact a Family Member or Friend
When a crisis strikes, your first priority is to get to a safe location. Then, contact a family member or friend back home who can advocate for your safety. Learn how to make an international call from the city you’re visiting. During natural disasters, phone lines may not work, but you’ll likely be able to send texts.
If possible, keep your cell phone charged. So that you won’t need to use your phone for light, carry a flashlight.
You’ll also increase your safety by taking travel alerts seriously and following the instructions provided. In serious situations, your embassy may recommend that you evacuate the country. If commercial transportation isn’t available, the embassy will assist you in getting to the nearest safe location. Since you’ll be responsible for travel costs, be familiar with the options, including your airline’s policy on flight changes.
Airports tend to be madhouses during times of disaster; if you’re not able to get a flight out right away, don’t panic. Many buildings, especially hotels, are built to withstand disasters, so often, the safest place is inside your hotel. Don’t try to get involved; focus on finding a safe place to stay. Most of the time you won’t know all the details of the situation, and if you try to help, you may find yourself in an even more precarious situation. Once you are safe, put your name on the Red Cross’s Safe and Well list (safeandwell.communityos.org).
After the Taylors spent a night in the airport (with little idea of what was going on), they were some of the first to the ticket counter.
“Do you have any tickets out?” Tom Taylor asked the ticket agent.
“You have to tell us where you want to go,” the agent said.
“Anywhere but here,” Tom replied, “Just start at the top of the list.”
“That’s great. We’ll take two.”
“Because we could see that there was turmoil, we got in line for the tickets early for an exit flight. Our friends who decided to ride it out were stuck in the airport for a week and a half. They were not allowed to leave the airport,” Tom said. Because they acted quickly and reconfirmed their flight as soon as possible, the Taylors were able to avoid further disaster.
Above all, keep calm, remain positive, and expect the unexpected. The Taylors had a few hours before their flight, so after deciding they would be safe outside the airport, they found a local man willing to take them sightseeing. And with that, they headed to the pyramids. Of that brief trip out of the airport, Tom described the following:
“There were . . . burning cars on the road; the main highway was rather desolate. The interesting thing was that at every overpass there were loads of young men gathered. From those locations they had a visual command of the city and could check troop movements. They could run down and join any fray that erupted or jump in their cars and disappear in moments. We could see smoke rising from many areas of the city, especially in the downtown area. The most unsettling [sight] was passing a group of women surrounding the body of a dead policeman near his burned-out car. . . . The pyramids will always have a lower emotional impact on me than the other sights that we saw that day.”
Though Tom and Katy have experienced many travel crises, they continue to travel and to remain positive. Their recommendation for other travelers is to be willing to value experiences for what they are. “When you travel, go with the expectation that you’re going to learn a lot about yourself,” Tom says. “We plan the outer journey, but the inner journey is what really matters. . . . Be open to the experience that you’re having instead of focusing on having the experience that you thought you would have.”
Top photo by Bob Henson. cc