7 Travel Nightmares

How to Save Your Trip from Disaster

U.S. News & World Report

7 Travel Nightmares

Vacation is supposed to be a time for rest and relaxation. At least once a year, we scrounge up a few extra dollars and plan an escape from all the stresses of our daily lives. Before heading out the door, we double check to make sure we've packed enough socks, a toothbrush and a phone charger. But what most people don't prepare for are the calamities that can ensue. Sure, we hear travel horror stories on the evening news, but no one ever imagines that something bad will happen to them. Unfortunately, it's that mentality that leaves many travelers woefully unprepared for the worst. Before your next vacation, check out our list of some of the nastiest travel dilemmas and how to handle them.

[See a photo recap of 7 Travel Nightmares]

Over the past several months, flight cancellations put quite a wrench in vacations up and down the East Coast, with some travelers stranded for at least several hours (and, in some cases, days). Anyone who's experienced a flight cancellation can tell you what a costly trial of patience this can be, especially since the Department of Transportation does not require that airlines compensate passengers for the disruption. Although there's not much you can do to get a plane off the ground, you should note that there are several ways in which you can prepare for a cancellation and expedite a solution. It's a good idea to read your airline's "contract of carriage," which details stranded passengers' rights.

The quickest way to resolve being stranded is to tweet. Many airlines -- including JetBlue and Delta -- now use Twitter to post cancellations and to provide help to stranded customers. According to Michelle Higgins of the New York Times, the microblogging site's viral nature ensures that "customers who reach out to the airline via Twitter may get a quicker response than they would by phone or another communications channel as airlines attempt to quell any negative publicity." In many cases, consistently posting updates to your Twitter feed about your situation and directing them to the airline's account has proven more effective (and less time consuming) than calling the airline directly.  

One of the most nail-biting parts of a trip is the waiting game at the baggage carousel. And there's nothing worse than arriving at your destination sans clean clothing. But keep in mind that checked luggage must navigate a labyrinth of conveyer belts and baggage carts before it reaches your plane. And no matter how frustrated you may be, the baggage-claim attendants are not to blame -- this is a situation where remaining calm and following protocol is necessary to ensure a positive outcome.

To pre-empt this fiasco, you should first label your bags inside and out, and it's always a good idea to pack a few essentials in your carry-on. Also, keep in mind that there's a lesser chance of lost luggage if you check in for your flight early, which leaves ample time for your bag to reach the cargo hold. If you do find yourself standing at the carousel empty-handed, don't panic. Airlines have developed a very advanced tracking system and are usually able to locate your belongings within a few hours after you've reported them missing. The Department of Transportation also advises that you insist on obtaining a written statement from the baggage claim attendant confirming your report, "even if they say the bag will be in on the next flight. Get an appropriate phone number for following up (not the Reservations number)." If your bag is declared permanently lost, you only have about 30 days (depending on the airline) to file a valid liability claim, so make sure you act quickly.

It's easy to get caught up in the surroundings of a new city. Oftentimes, pickpockets take advantage of bright-eyed tourists, robbing them blind in broad daylight. And while having your wallet stolen is bad, having your passport nicked in a foreign country can be much, much worse. Without a passport, you won't be able to return to the U.S.

This is where the Boy Scout motto, "always be prepared," holds true: There are ways to ward off theft before even leaving home. While you're out goody-shopping for your trip, consider picking up a money belt or a hidden wallet -- sure, they're not exactly fashionable, but you can rest at ease knowing that your valuables are protected. Then, keep digital copies of your passport ID page and any relevant visas saved on a secure online storage site (like Google Docs) so that you can access them from any computer. These copies will help you provide proof of identity and U.S. citizenship. Also, consider stopping by your bank and obtaining a back-up debit card that you can activate on-the-go in case of an emergency; this way, you won't be stranded without cash while away. If your wallet and/or passport are nabbed while you're on vacation, cancel all your cards immediately and file a police report. Bring that same police report to the U.S. Embassy to get an emergency passport that will allow you to fly back home. 

There's nothing worse than feeling under the weather while on vacation, especially if you are out of the country. For minor bugs, bring along some basic pain relievers and cold medication, which will speed up your recovery. But what about when it's more than just a slight sniffle? While facing a medical emergency in a strange place can be scary, rest assured that you don't have to go it alone.

Before you take off (especially to a different country), it's important to do a thorough once-over of your health insurance; some plans don't cover foreign medical care. If necessary, consider purchasing a temporary plan that will have your back when you leave the country. Make sure to pack any prescriptions in their original bottles so that they can be easily identified, and don't forget your insurance ID card and a claim form, just in case. If you do get sick or injured, call the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. Officers there can direct you to the best local care, inform your family and your doctor of your situation and help you transfer funds to cover medical expenses. The International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers is another excellent resource, providing health-care tips and listings of English-speaking doctors in other countries.  

If you are incarcerated abroad, we're sorry to say that you will be subject to that country's legal process (not America's) and will be held under its jurisdiction. Believe it or not, this situation occurs more frequently than you might expect. What might be considered legal or a simple minor infraction in the United States can lead to jail time elsewhere. For example, the Department of State claims that over one-third of U.S. citizens arrested abroad are held on drug charges: "Some countries do not distinguish between possession and trafficking, and many have mandatory sentences. … A number of Americans have been arrested for possessing prescription drugs, particularly tranquilizers and amphetamines, that they purchased legally elsewhere." Other common reasons for incarceration include photographing security-related institutions, displaying affection in public places and even purchasing antiques (which are sometimes believed by customs authorities to be national treasures).

Before you travel you should brush up on local customs and laws to avoid cultural misunderstandings. However, if you are apprehended while out of the country, rest assured that the U.S. State Department works around the clock to monitor conditions of foreign prisons and to ensure that American detainees are treated as well as possible. If you do violate the law while traveling (even without meaning to), contact the U.S. embassy or consulate immediately. According to the State Department, "We stand ready to assist incarcerated citizens and their families within the limits of our authority in accordance with international law. … Within this framework, U.S. consular officers provide a wide variety of services to U.S. citizens arrested abroad and their families." 

Unfortunately, there's one thing that no one can prepare for when traveling, and that's the weather. Sure, sun-seekers pack sunscreen and cold-weather fans grab a hat, but when it comes to large-scale natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, last year's earthquake in Haiti or the recent tsunami in Japan, you're going to need more than tanning lotion and an umbrella.

Start with a plan. Read up on the types of issues to which your destination is prone (DisasterAssistance.gov is a good starting point). Having a basic understanding of the causes and effects of different natural disasters will help you become better equipped to handle them. Then, be sure to leave a travel itinerary and a list of contact and personal information (Social Security numbers, passport ID numbers) with a trusted friend or family member. Once you've gotten to your destination, you should designate an easily accessible meeting spot with your travel companions. This way, if you get separated, you won't have to rely on telephones (which may not be working) to find people. If you are out of the country, do everything you can to inform the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate of your location and situation. If this isn't an option, choose the nearest English-speaking consulate; given the circumstances, officers there will do everything they can to help you. In the meantime, remain calm and (if you can), stay on top of updates posted on the State Department website.

Political unrest can occur at any time and take its toll on a vacation. And like natural disasters, it's difficult to predict a state of emergency, even in regions -- like the Middle East, Africa and Asia -- where the political climate is often erratic. However, this is a situation where a little prior research and preparation can make all the difference.

Before your vacation, take some time to peruse the State Department website, which provides meticulous up-to-date travel advisories. Also, consider signing up for the State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which can provide you with the most recent news and warnings while abroad. Keep your STEP profile updated -- it makes it easier for the U.S. embassy to contact you in case of an emergency. The State Department also says that your choice of hotel can help protect you in case of violence: "As much as possible, plan to stay in larger hotels that have more elaborate security. Safety experts recommend booking a room from the second to seventh floors above ground level -- high enough to deter easy entry from outside, but low enough for fire equipment to reach." Check in regularly with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate to let them know exactly where you are and how to contact you. If you're caught up in a situation as dire as the one Egypt experienced, avoid public transportation, taxis and popular tourist destinations, as those are often popular targets of attack.

You might also want to consider leaving major cities in favor of smaller, quieter towns. If that is the case, check with the State Department (as well as on the U.N. Department of Safety & Security website) for any new updates and inform the embassy or consulate of your departure.

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