The World's Worst Travel Disasters
Forget going home with great holiday memories.
Getting ambushed by a natural disaster is just one of the rare-but-catastrophic scenarios you might encounter while traveling. And though evacuating your hotel to stay safe during a hurricane may be scary, it’s not even the worst thing that could have happened on your trip. After all, you might have inadvertently broken a local law and been thrown in prison. Or suffered an appendicitis attack while trekking somewhere really remote (or, worse, during your plane ride there).
According to the latest figures from the U.S. Travel Insurance Association, Americans are increasingly worried about travel disasters—and have been doing more to protect against them than ever before. More than 67 million Americans spent $1.3 billion on travel insurance in 2006—a 20 percent jump from two years earlier.
Says Randy Spivey, executive director of the Safe Travel Institute, “We’re seeing organizations and individual travelers become more proactive in their preparation for travel. Specifically, we’re seeing an increased awareness of the need for solid planning and training prior to their departure.” This awareness isn’t just born of panic—it’s actually warranted. According to Marty Pfinsgraff of iJET Intelligent Risk Systems (another global security firm), “we’ve watched the prevalence of man-made and natural disasters increase significantly over the past 40 years. Terrorist incidents, category 4 and 5 hurricanes, and infectious disease all are up.”
While purchasing travel insurance is one of the best precautions you can take to guard against travel disasters, it’s not the only one. Doing research before your trip, and following some commonsense rules on the ground, can make a big difference in how disastrous your disaster turns out to be. Planning to hike in the wilderness, where you might get terribly lost?Do as Jeffrey Olson of the U.S. National Park Service suggests and arm yourself with a whistle, provisions, and protective clothing before you even set out. Heading to a foreign city where losing your passport could cause big trouble?Make Xerox copies of it (and other ID) before leaving home—and keep them secure in your hotel room safe.
And though some disasters can really only be dealt with once they happen (how do you prepare, for example, to have your cruise ship chased by pirates?), having that travel insurance and keeping your head about you will go a long way.
Besides, there’s always one upside to travel disasters: once you’re home safe, with a little distance from your ordeal, you’ll have a great story to share.
Hurricanes, Tsunamis, and Other Natural Disasters
The Scenario: While on your honeymoon in Playa del Carmen, it’s announced that your hotel is being evacuated due to an oncoming typhoon.
The Location: The Caribbean, the U.S. Gulf Coast, and Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and Riviera Maya.
The Information: The best precaution you can take before traveling to any storm-prone destination is to purchase traveler’s insurance. Your honeymoon may indeed be ruined (if your resort evacuates, you will have to do as local authorities tell you and get to safety). But if you’re insured, your insurance company will help coordinate your return home and make sure you’re reimbursed for many of your expenses (like changed flight schedules). A good place to comparison-shop for insurance plans is www.insuremytrip.com.
The Scenario: You’re enjoying the views over the Suez Canal from the deck of your luxury cruise liner, when suddenly you hear gunfire. Then comes the captain’s loudspeaker announcement telling all passengers to get below deck.
The Location: The Gulf of Aden, in the Arabian Sea between Yemen and Somalia.
The Information: First, keep in mind that pirates have yet to successfully board a cruise ship (despite a spate of recent attempts, their main targets are cargo boats). Crew members are trained to handle a potential pirate attack, but most probably they’ll simply crank up the engines (to upward of 20 knots, or 23 miles per hour) and outrun any possible danger, then perhaps put in at the next port of call. If you’re super-nervous about this happening, though, check out this map that the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre keeps track of recent attack locations before booking your cruise.
The Scenario: From the Parisian “gold ring scam” (in which you shell out handsomely for a ring that turns out to be brass) to the Chinese “tea ceremony” (which begins when you agree to help a Beijinger with English and ends with a hefty charge to your credit card), con artists all around the world are ready to take your money and sour your vacation memories.
The Location: Heavily touristed areas in major cities worldwide.
The Information: Before your trip, run a search on a travelers’ web community like tripadvisor.com, frommers.com, or lonelyplanet.com for “Rome con artists” or “Shanghai travel scams.” It won’t take long for you to find posts by other travelers who’ve been taken advantage of—and learn from their mistakes. When on the ground and in doubt, a good rule of thumb is that if an eager stranger offers you something that sounds too good to be true or makes no financial sense, just say “no!” and walk away.
Getting Really, Frighteningly Lost
The Scenario: It can happen just as easily in uncharted wilderness or a crowded city: suddenly you find yourself in menacingly unfamiliar territory. Language barriers, bad weather, and scary wild- or street-life can compound the problem.
The Location: Everywhere from the desert (the Mojave, the Atacama) to deep woods and swamps (British Columbia, the Everglades); and from modern metropolises (Tokyo, New York) to European villages with ancient, winding streets.
The Information: If you’re driving on your trip, take precautions by renting a car with a Global Navigation system (and make sure that someone is expecting you at your journey’s end—to call for help if you don’t show up). When adventuring outdoors, even for a short trek, bring water and food, some kind of bright-colored weatherproof clothing, a map, a whistle, and a compass or GPS unit. If you plan to visit an ancient, labyrinthine city like Fez or Venice, on the other hand, purchase a detailed map designed for confused visitors before you leave home (Streetwise Maps, at www.streetwisemaps.com, are a good choice).
Your Airline Folds Before You Can Get Home
The Scenario: This doesn’t happen often, but it does occur; just ask the Zoom Airlines passengers left stranded in Calgary and Glasgow in August 2008, when the carrier was grounded due to bankruptcy.
The Location: So far, destinations served by Zoom, Oasis, Eos, MAXjet, XL, ATA, Sterling, Jetsgo, and Silverjet airlines.
The Information: While newspapers may report ahead of time that an airline is troubled, the carrier usually avoids admitting dire straits until bankruptcy is announced. Paying for your tickets using a credit card increases your chance of being able to get a refund (or at least a partial one), but it’s not guaranteed. The best thing you can hope for if you find yourself stranded is that another carrier will offer you a discounted deal to get back home.
Medical Emergency; Substandard Medical Facilities
The Scenario: While visiting a village in rural Uganda—or an Aboriginal settlement in the Australian outback, or a nomadic camp on the Mongolian steppe—you’re suddenly struck with a serious injury or sickness.
The Location: Underdeveloped areas in emerging nations around the world.
The Information: Although some travel insurance policies cover medical evacuations (which can cost more than $50,000), many don’t—so do your research before heading somewhere where the medical facilities are less than modern (guidebooks and online travel communities will tell you this). You can also choose to sign up with MedjetAssist, which, for an annual membership fee of $225 (or $85 to insure a seven-day trip), will fly anywhere in the world to evacuate you to the hospital of your choice.
The Scenario: Traveling abroad, you discover you’ve lost your passport the day before your flight home—and the embassy or consulate is closed for a federal holiday or weekend.
The Location: Anywhere outside your home country (in this case, the U.S.).
The Information: Before your trip (no matter where you’re headed), make Xerox copies of your passport ID page to keep in your hotel room safe. This way, once you do get to the U.S. embassy or consulate in your area, you’ll be able to prove your citizenship with less hassle (and perhaps get a limited-validity passport for immediate use; check www.usembassy.gov for details). The bad news is that visiting the embassy or consulate really is the only way out of your jam. So if the offices are closed for a weekend or holiday, you’ll have to resign yourself to losing a couple of days, and paying the cost to reschedule your flight home.
You’re Stranded Without Cash
The Scenario: Traveling in a remote area, you find that your cash card won’t work in any local ATM machines, and local businesses won’t take credit cards or traveler’s checks.
The Location: Anyplace outside of major cities in developing nations.
The Information: Before you leave on your trip, if your ATM PIN number has five or more digits, be sure to change it to a four-digit code (many foreign ATMs accept only four-digit PINs). Once you’re on the ground without cash, however, you’ll need to find out where the closest Western Union office is, so you can have a family member wire you cash. Then all you’ll have to do is find a way to get to that office (this may involve some cajoling and bargaining with locals).
Medical Emergency at 30,000 Feet
The Scenario: You’re airborne and midway across the Atlantic (or the Pacific) when you suddenly suffer an appendicitis or heart attack.
The Location: Five or so miles above sea level (hopefully in business or first class, where there’s more room to stretch out).
The Information: All domestic commercial aircraft are required to carry defibrillators, emergency medical kits, and first aid kits; flight attendants are all trained in using the equipment and performing basic CPR. If it’s necessary, the pilot can decide to make an emergency landing at the nearest airport—and in a real emergency, it often is necessary. “Airplanes are not optimal for administering medical care,” says FAA spokesperson Alison Duquette. “During a medical emergency, the focus is to get the passenger on the ground.”
You’re Arrested for Unwittingly Breaking a Law
The Scenario: Running late for a business meeting in Singapore, you decide to cross the street from your hotel against a traffic light. By the time you get to the other side, two police officers are waiting for you.
The Location: Singapore (where jaywalking, spitting, and littering are all punishable by caning); China (where publicly expressing an unfavorable opinion on government policy is illegal); and many other places around the world.
The Information: First, do your research before leaving on your trip: read up on the Web site of the U.S. State Department about laws and penalties in the country you’re traveling in. Once you’ve been nabbed for unknowingly breaking a law, the best thing you can do is contact the local U.S. embassy or consulate for assistance. And have your lawyer’s business card handy; you may need it.