For many, traveling is a way to get away from the rigors of day-to-day; an escape from it all. But what happens when you’re traveling and suddenly find yourself caught in the wrong place at the wrong time? Recent news headlines including the Paris terror attacks, hurricanes on the Mexican coast, and civil unrest in Athens, Greece should serve as a reminder that emergencies can happen anywhere. So how can you protect yourself when you’re traveling? TravelingMom has culled through documents and plans prepared by emergency management experts to give key tips to help you manage in a crisis while away from home.
Prepare for a Travel Emergency—Before You Go
While no one likes to think about being involved in a travel emergency before it happens, there are plenty of things to consider before you even hit the road that may give you peace-of-mind if something does occur. Pre-trip preparation could save you time, money and most importantly, grief and worry to you, your friends and family. While it’s impossible to foresee everything that could happen, there are plenty of things to consider before you go that apply in many situations and plans that can be made to help you deal with an emergency if it arises. We’ve sifted through extensive plans, documents and guidelines from those who specialize in emergency management, disaster planning and recovery including the Red Cross, Red Crescent, and FEMA, as well as using what we’ve learned in our own field training to help you know what to do. And all the experts agree: preparation is key.
- Travel Insurance: While travel expenses can add up, buying travel insurance could be money well-spent if it gets you more money back in the event a travel emergency forces you to change plans. Shop around and read the fine print, so you don’t have to forfeit too much later. If you are worried about possible medical emergencies, make sure your travel insurance includes coverage for medical expenses. (Most U.S. insurance plans don’t cover medical expenses if you’re traveling abroad, and many will not provide the same coverage you get in your home state if you’re traveling domestically.) But some travel insurance companies will help you find a hospital or doctor if you need help.
- Take This STEP: If you’re traveling internationally, register with the U.S. Embassy’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). It’s a free service that allows family and friends to be in touch with you in an emergency, lets the U.S. Embassy contact you, and provides you with most current information on safety conditions in the area in which you’re traveling.
- The Short List: Make a list of local emergency phone numbers and addresses. If you’re traveling out of the country, know where the closest embassy or consulate is as well as their phone numbers. Also list and be familiar with (if possible) phone numbers for local police and emergency personnel. In other countries, there are sometimes different numbers to call for police and other responders and if you need to reach them, you want as little delay as possible. Prepare a card or sheet of paper to keep in your wallet or bag or on yourself listing an emergency contact’s information, medications you take, allergies and blood type. (If possible, translate it into the local language spoken.)
Once You’re There
You’ve made it to your travel destination and you’re getting ready to go explore with family. Before you do, make a family emergency plan in the event something happens while you’re out and about. Ask yourself and your family-how and where will we find each other if we’re separated?
Who would we call? What if we can’t get to a phone? How will we communicate? Where will we meet up? Make sure each family member also has a contact card that has all needed information and identifies a contact who is not in the area for everyone to notify they are safe. Although it’s counter-intuitive, sometimes in an emergency it’s easier to make a long-distance call than a local one and your out-of-area contact may be able to communicate with everyone more easily in the event you get separated.
- ICE Your Phone: If you have a cell phone, program in an emergency contact under “ICE” (In Case of Emergency). Often emergency personnel will check your ICE listings if they need to reach someone on your behalf.
- Know Your SMS: Also make sure that everyone in the family knows how to use the SMS (Short Message Service) functions on your phones. Text or SMS messages will often go through even when phone calls won’t.
If you’re headed to a big sports match or rock concert or political protest or a popular tourist spot where lots of people go, such as Times Square or the Eiffel Tower, be cautious. Use your head. Look around you. If you see something suspicious report it to an official. Events and areas in which large groups of people congregate, even for celebration, can end up as hot spots where you could inadvertently get caught up in riots, stampedes or arrests. Go with your gut. If the crowd is getting restless, leave the situation before it escalates.
But if an Emergency Happens…
- Stay as calm as possible. I know that’s a high order, but keeping your wits about you will help you cope more effectively as the situation unfolds.
- Quickly assess the situation as best you can. Shelter or evacuate depending on what’s happened. If there is a fire, explosion, debris in the air or some sort of looming natural disaster for instance, you’ll want to move away as quickly as possible and get to a safe spot. (Safe zones could include your hotel, a local police station or an improvised shelter, for example. Schools and religious buildings such as churches, synagogues and mosques are often enlisted in times of emergency). Do not stick around shooting cell phone video or waiting for others to evacuate the area.
- Listen to local officials on the scene. If police, firemen or first responders are telling you to evacuate the area, do so right away. Evacuation routes can get crowded and lodging in safe zones can fill up quickly so you’ll want to use common sense and follow their instructions. Also, avoid taking shortcuts as they may be blocked off. If officials are telling you to remain in an area for your safety, again, listen to them.
- Try to stay together. If your natural instinct is telling you run, do your best to run while staying close to family or friends. Make your way back to your emergency meeting spot (remember that planning I mentioned previously?).
- Follow those in the know. Most hotels have emergency procedures in place. They are also in the business of customer service, so they’re there to help. For example, staff could send guests to a windowless room during a tornado, or to the roof or a higher point during floods, so you may want to follow their lead. If you’re traveling on a cruise line that’s been hit with a norovirus outbreak (these can be quite severe and they certainly make plenty of news headlines these days), be sure to follow the crew’s instructions for emergency quarantines.
Use Your Technology and Social Media
Tech giants such as Google and Facebook understand that following large emergencies, many people will want to be in touch with each other to make sure they are safe and sound. With that, many tech companies have instituted disaster safety notification systems that are activated when emergencies happen.
Facebook, for instance, has a tool called “Safety Check.” Although it has previously been used for natural disasters, it was activated during the Paris terror attacks. If you’re in the area where the emergency happens, you can check in and mark yourself as safe—letting your Facebook contacts see. Twitter used its newly launched “Moments” feature to curate updates on the events in Paris as well. For those who need to make phone calls during emergencies, it can become quite difficult when call volume becomes overloaded, but Skype and Google (through Google Hangouts) provided free domestic and international calls to France following the attacks. Airbnb encouraged locals to provide their homes for free or low-cost to those who were stranded in Paris after travel lockdowns arising from the attacks.
The Red Cross launched its Emergency App earlier this year that, “…covers 14 different types of disasters and lets users customize more than 35 emergency alerts so they will know what to do no matter where they live or travel,” Mark Cloutier, Regional CEO of American Red Cross’ Northern California Coastal Region explained in an interview in April. The “Family Safe” feature on the app lets users notify others in the affected area, as well as get “what to do now” steps and alert others whether they are safe or not safe.
The U.S. State Department has a website, Facebook and Twitter pages that you can monitor for updates. FEMA is on the web, Twitter and Facebook as well. Check out their pages and tweets to get the latest. Subscribe to systems they offer to get the latest push-alerts with updates as well. If the Internet is down, watch local television reports or listen to radio announcements.
Know what technology you’re most comfortable with and use their particular disaster response tools to help you communicate most effectively.
In the Aftermath
If the emergency situation is ongoing but feeling slightly more under control, or is over but has heavily affected the area in which you’ve been, continue listening to radio and television reports for updated news about where to go, what to do and importantly, places to avoid. If you’re outside in the area, try to avoid streets and sidewalks that emergency officials could need to access.
Once you’ve gotten yourself to a safe zone, and depending on what the emergency is, you should prepare to go without certain services for a number of days (or more) as businesses may be forced to close for a time. Those interrupted services could include gas and electricity, hot water, telephone internet, ATM’s and more.
If it seems like the emergency is going to cause some longer-lasting problems, you’ll want to put together an emergency supply kit. FEMA, the Red Cross/Red Crescent and other private groups have extensive lists of items that should go into these supply kits. But when you’re traveling, it’s unlikely you’ll want to carry too much extra with you. But you’ll want to have at least, a portable, battery operated radio with extra batteries or one that you can re-charge with hand-cranking, several small flashlights (and batteries and bulbs), a small first aid kit and manual, dust masks and a whistle. Some non-perishable food (think power bars) and bottled water should also be set aside. (The Red Cross and FEMA suggest one gallon of water per person/per day.) There are plenty of companies that sell pre-made kits of many different sizes, so you may want to purchase one of these in advance of your travel to keep in your luggage or car, and supplement them after you arrive at your destination. Officials at FEMA and the Red Cross suggest gathering enough supplies to last for at least 72 hours. Get cash enough for at least three days from the ATM if you don’t have any already on-hand.
Policies and Patience
Be sure to adhere to any policies required by the local government. If a temporary law or curfew is put into place-don’t break it. (No need to get to know the inside of the local police precinct because you’ve been arrested!)
Be patient. If the emergency is significant you will likely experience delays, restrictions or closures at public spots. Local rules in effect could be frustrating for you as a tourist, but they are there for your safety.
Unexpected emergencies can upset a well-planned vacation but extra preparation could keep you and your family safer until you’ve made your way home. And remember, experiencing an emergency first or second-hand can affect people differently. Don’t be embarrassed to accept help from friends and family–even strangers on site, and reach out for crisis counseling assistance. As horrible as emergencies can be, they have a way of bringing out the best of people in the worst of times.