Health & Wellness Security

6 Ways to Get Home Safely from Abroad During an Emergency

Following President Trump’s recent announcement of a ban on travel from Europe due to COVID-19, chaos ensued: U.S. citizens abroad scrambled to get back into the country before the ban kicked in, waiting in long lines or paying exorbitant prices to get one of the few available tickets home. Though the Trump administration later clarified that the ban did not apply to U.S. citizens or permanent residents, the ever-shifting regulations and the evolving pandemic have left many travelers needing to make an emergency departure from the countries they’re visiting.

While the novel coronavirus pandemic is a unique situation, there are plenty of other instances when you might need to make an emergency departure in the middle of a trip, from impending hurricanes to sudden political unrest. If you ever find yourself in a similar high-risk scenario, the following tips will help.

Contact Your Airline as Soon as Possible

Airlines will be aware of the situation and often will rebook you for free and with no questions asked—though their call centers and airport service desks will quickly become swamped. If you’re having trouble getting through to an agent in the country where you’re located, see if someone back home (such as your spouse or other family member) might have better luck calling the airline’s toll-free U.S. phone number and making changes on your behalf. (Make sure the other person has your confirmation number and other pertinent information.) Be patient and prepare to wait in line or on hold for up to several hours.

Keep Your Wits About You

It can be difficult to stay calm in a crisis, but it’s worth slowing down and prioritizing what’s most important. Keep your passport and wallet secure and close to hand, make sure your cell phone is charged, and program essential emergency numbers into your contacts (this could include the local equivalent of 911 as well as numbers for the nearest embassy, your travel insurance company, and your airline).

Take Care of Yourself

Sleep may be impossible while you’re waiting out the hours before an emergency departure, whether wailing sirens are keeping you up or you’re simply glued to your phone for the latest news. Still, take care of your health as much as you can by eating well, staying hydrated, and trying to rest when you can.

Register Your Trip with the State Department

U.S. citizens can sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) in order to register their trip with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate. Doing so can give you access to information from the local embassy as well as help friends and family at home contact you in an emergency.

Go to the Airport Far Earlier Than Usual

When everyone is trying to escape at the same time, expect long lines and chaos at the airport—especially because some types of local emergencies (such as health crises or problems affecting public transportation) could lead to limited staffing. Allow several extra hours to get through check-in and security lines.

Muster as Much Patience—and Perspective—as Possible

Big crowds, long lines, and high stress levels can lead to short tempers, but losing your cool or treating others unkindly will only make things worse for everyone. When you feel anxiety or anger rising, take a few deep breaths and try to keep the situation in perspective. In local emergencies there are likely a lot of people who are worse off than you are.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Elissa Leibowitz Poma and Leigh Smythe Merino contributed to this story.

By Sarah Schlichter

Deputy Executive Editor Sarah Schlichter's idea of a perfect trip includes spotting exotic animals, hiking through pristine landscapes, exploring new neighborhoods on foot, and soaking up as much art as she can. She often attempts to recreate recipes from her international travels after she gets home (which has twice resulted in accidental kitchen fires—no humans or animals were harmed).

Sarah joined the SmarterTravel team in 2017 after more than a decade at the helm of Sarah's practical travel advice has been featured in dozens of news outlets including the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Budget Travel, and Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: "A journal. Even years later, reading my notes from a trip can bring back incredibly vivid memories."

Ultimate Bucket List Experience: "Road tripping and hiking through the rugged mountains of Patagonia."

Travel Motto: "'To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.'—Freya Stark"

Aisle, Window, or Middle Seat: "Aisle. I get restless on long flights and like to be able to move around without disturbing anyone else."

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