What to Do When Travel Disaster Strikes

When travel disaster strikes, don’t panic. We’ve consulted with the pros and will coach you through how to weather anything from bed bugs to a lost passport.

January 07, 2020

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Travel Trouble

It's one thing to grapple with a disaster when you are at home and able to access your network of friends and family for help. But it is quite another to encounter a travel disaster in a distant land where you may not speak the language or be able to parse the cultural nuances or access the resources you need to weather a crisis. In the interest of providing a cheat sheet for how to handle any snafu thrown your way, we've assembled a handy guide to 10 common travel emergencies you might encounter and how to handle them.

When You Find Evidence of Bed Bugs

Place a specimen in a bag or bottle or take detailed photos, then share that evidence with your host ASAP. If you have yet to unpack, don’t — and don’t place your belongings on the bed or other furniture. Then, get ready to get out. “The best place to store your luggage and belongings will be in the shower (the place least likely to have bed bugs unless there is an awful infestation) to prevent any bed bugs from infesting your items,” says Brittany Campbell, Ph.D., an entomologist with the National Pest Management Association. Your host should immediately move you to a pest-free room, and Campbell adds that you can ask to be compensated for your inconvenience. She also stresses the importance of remaining civil. “As a guest you have to remember that bed bugs can happen anywhere,” she explains. “It is not necessarily the hotel’s fault or even the host’s fault that bed bugs have been brought into the building prior to your stay.” If you unpacked prior to discovering your tiny roommates, “do a thorough inspection of your suitcase and any other items that you have placed around the hotel room or rental,” Campbell says. “Use a bright flashlight and inspect all small cracks and crevices along the suitcase, as well as other items including clothes, so you don't pack up any bugs. Even with a thorough inspection, it is impossible to be entirely sure since bed bugs are extremely good at hiding. When you get home, inspect your belongings again, put anything that won’t get damaged into a dryer on high heat for at least twenty minutes, and if you are still concerned about bringing bed bugs home call a pest control company to do a thorough inspection for bed bugs and provide any necessary treatments.”

When You Get Food Poisoning

Symptoms of food-borne illness — including nausea and vomiting, cramps and diarrhea, and even fever — can surface within hours of eating a contaminated item. In most cases, according to the Mayo Clinic, the misery will resolve itself. Since dehydration is the most common serious complication when food poisoning flattens you, it’s crucial to replace lost fluids and much-needed minerals like calcium and potassium. Reach for water and a caffeine-free, electrolyte-rich drink like Pedialyte, Gatorade or coconut water early and often, then reintroduce bland, low-fat foods once your stomach begins to settle. While it can be tempting to treat gastrointestinal distress with over-the-counter meds like Pepto-Bismol and Imodium, doctors note that they can prolong your misery and make the situation worse: Vomiting and diarrhea are, after all, the body’s way of flushing out the bad stuff. With luck, the worst will have passed in around 24 hours. If you experience severe symptoms (like bloody vomit or stool, a temperature higher than 100.4, or signs of dehydration), on the other hand, it’s time to seek medical attention, according to the Mayo Clinic.

When You Lose Your Phone

First and most importantly, note that recovering from losing your phone is not the same thing as actually recovering your phone. If you’re certain that your device has found its way into a thief’s hands, it’s time to wipe it and move on (and our detailed tips will help you do just that). Then what? If you’re in the United States and can visit one of your wireless carrier’s retail locations, there’s a decent chance they might have replacements in stock (or can have a replacement delivered to you in the course of a few days). If you’re abroad or unable to score a new phone quickly, mitigate your unexpected low-tech interlude by using Wi-Fi to text via your laptop until reinforcements arrive.

When You Damage a Rental Car

Despite the dire warnings you probably received if you waived supplemental insurance along with your transportation, fender-benders in rental cars aren’t necessarily big-ticket accidents. That said, they are significant research projects. Once you’ve determined that you, your passengers and anyone else involved in the incident are safe, exchange contact and insurance information with all parties and take detailed photos of your vehicle (and theirs). Take notes on what happened, and get the contact info for any witnesses who could have more details. Contact local law enforcement — and be sure to ask the responding officer for a copy of the accident report and its case number, as well as for their name, badge number and contact information. Call your rental car company and follow their procedures, then contact your own auto insurer, your travel insurer (if you have purchased travel insurance) and your credit card provider, one of which might provide rental car insurance coverage.

It's worth noting that coverage for rental cars when you're driving outside of the US can vary quite a bit from country to country. In Italy, for example, drivers must purchase insurance from their rental company. There and elsewhere, that can get expensive. It's best to consult national regulations and your own insurers to be sure of the coverage you have (and what you'll be expected to buy) before you go overseas.

When Your Airbnb Host Ghosts You

Cancellations by hosts, last-minute or otherwise, mean you as a guest will receive a full refund, per Airbnb’s policy. You also may be eligible for a refund and assistance if your host simply stops responding to your messages and vanishes into thin air (and therefore “fails to provide reasonable access to the booked listing”). Airbnb “will either provide you with a refund or use reasonable efforts to find and book another comparable accommodation for any unused nights left on your reservation.” Beginning in December 2019, “if upon checking into a listing it does not meet our accuracy standards, Airbnb will rebook the guest a new listing of equal or greater value, or they will get 100 percent of their money back,” co-founder Brian Chesky said in November. Its 24/7 Neighbor Hotline — which launched in the US on December 2019 and expanded to the rest of the world in 2020 — will be accessible internationally and staffed by live people. In the interim, note that you should always attempt to contact your hosts through Airbnb to ensure that the company’s Terms of Service apply to you and your trip.

When Your Cruise Ship Is Re-Routed

Hurricane Dorian, demonstrations in Puerto Rico and even a federal policy change on cruises to Cuba all left cruise passengers scrambling to revisit their itineraries mid-voyage in 2019. While those events were unexpected, they were all addressed ahead of time, legally speaking: “Cruise line contracts very clearly cover the cruise line in the event of a skipped port or entirely rerouted ship,” explains Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic. If ports are skipped or swapped but your cruise is still able to sail a full voyage, travel insurance would not cover additional expenses like higher port fees or new disembarkation costs. “That said, if a hurricane is impacting a traveler’s trip, there are likely options in the form of trip delay, trip cancellation or trip interruption coverage. If the cruise is not able to continue due to an issue with the ship itself, the cruise lines will offer some form of compensation and travel insurance will cover most expenses not covered by the line,” McDaniel adds. Long story short: While some lines have offered on-board credits compensation as an act of goodwill (and you can certainly ask for it), it’s not their legal responsibility. One consideration: “While booking with a travel agent doesn’t give any added reimbursement benefits,” McDaniel says, “having someone on land who can help to rearrange any travel schedules can be a hugely helpful perk during a stressful time.”

When Your Airline Goes Out of Business

When WOW Air went bankrupt this March and the travel firm Thomas Cook collapsed in September, other airlines offered discounts for passengers who could produce paperwork demonstrating that they were stranded by those defunct businesses. If you find yourself with a suddenly worthless ticket home, Google “rescue fares” and the name of your erstwhile carrier to find applicable offers — and do so as quickly as you can, since there’s no one left to assist you with rebooking at your former airline and last-minute fares change quickly. Scott Keyes of Scott’s Cheap Flights (a site that alerts travelers to international travel deals) recommends familiarizing yourself with Google Flights, a nimble, map-based tool that will help you find the cheapest current fares between seven destination flights at once.

In terms of potential compensation for tickets you can no longer use, “passengers may be able to claim a refund for their flight if it was booked via a travel agency or partner airline. The agency or partner airline may be responsible, depending on whether flights are covered by travel insurance,” explains Christian Nielsen, chief legal officer at AirHelp (the world’s largest air-passenger rights advocate). “If a trip was booked as a package, coverage should be guaranteed. Separately, if passengers booked directly with the airline going out of business and used a credit card as payment, they can contradict or cancel the payment before it is processed. There is also the possibility of the airline repaying debited amounts in the event of a bankruptcy filing. If that were to happen, passengers would be required to send documents to their credit card companies certifying the airline’s unsuccessful claim.” Plug your details into AirHelp’s eligibility checking tool — and browse situation-specific tips on their blog — to get started.

When Your Credit Card Is Declined

Robust anti-fraud monitoring is just the sort of service you want from your credit card company, right up until you find yourself making a transaction that sounds its alarms. Take a deep breath and call your provider; the fix could be as simple as clearing the fraud alert and confirming that you’re traveling. If you’ve exceeded your credit limit because merchants like hotels have placed holds on your funds, consider requesting a temporary credit line extension — but know that it could affect your credit score by a few points. If worse comes to worst, someone back home can send cash to a local Western Union branch.

When You've Lost Your Passport Abroad

Contact the Department of State if your original, physical passport has been lost or stolen (a step that is not recommended if you’ve simply lost a copy or believe the number has been compromised, since you’re invalidating your original document by making the report and identity theft without that document is impossible). Next, contact the nearest US Embassy or consulate for assistance with getting a replacement — and note that it’s unlikely to be open over the weekend or a holiday, so you’ll need to reach an after-hours duty officer and convince them that your immediate need to travel is a serious emergency (since duty officers prioritize true crises rather than difficulties). Head to the embassy or consulate with a photo for your replacement passport, identification, evidence of US citizenship (like your birth certificate or a photocopy of your passport — you keep photocopies of your passport in a separate location, right?) and your travel documents.

When Volcanic Ash Impacts Air Travel

Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull erupted twice, spewed volcanic ash and closed airspace across northwestern Europe in spring of 2010. (Visibility was just the tip of the iceberg: Ash can cause significant damage and even failure for aircraft engines.) Not to be outdone, Bali’s Mount Raung erupted and wreaked havoc in 2015, and Mount Agung has been erupting off and on since November of 2017. The EU’s air passenger rights legislation dictates that EU airlines carrying passengers to or from member countries are obliged to provide care including meals, refreshments and overnight accommodation (if needed) for passengers on flights delayed by 5 hours or more. Non-EU carriers aren’t subject to such stringent regulations, though in the case of the Bali eruptions, several airlines offered assistance with rebooking travel. What does that mean for affected travelers in the future? While carriers remain divided on official responses to extraordinary circumstances, it never hurts to ask for assistance — and to consider very detailed travel insurance.

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