It’s probably crossed your mind at least once when planning a trip: What happens if you fall victim to life-threatening circumstances while you’re in another country? Tragedies like pandemics, wildfires, and terror attacks increasingly seen in the news are a harrowing reminder. And even in the safest destinations an emergency abroad can range from a hurricane to a revolution, catching travelers in the middle with nowhere to go.
If you happen to be in a far-off destination during an emergency, it’s important to have the knowledge and resources you need to get out of danger. Here’s what you need to know.
What to Do in an Emergency Abroad
Here’s how you can prepare for, respond to, and possibly prevent the consequences of events like these ones from affecting you while traveling.
Before You Go, Stay Informed via Travel Alerts
It’s unlikely that tourists know they’re putting themselves in danger whenever they’re caught in an emergency abroad. But, it can sometimes be avoided if you keep up on current events and know areas to avoid when you’re visiting other countries, especially during times of unrest, or during a natural disaster or global pandemic. For instance, if you’re up to date on the broader areas being affected by a global event, whether it be a raging wildfire that’s spreading slowly (like Australia’s in early 2020) or global health crisis that has new cases on new continents every day, staying on top of the news is the difference between being on top of a possible refund or flight change and being caught in a danger zone.
And even once you’ve arrived you should stay on top of the news. A common example: Visiting a famous public square seems like a harmless itinerary item until it becomes the chosen spot for an anti-government rally. I personally experienced this in Athens, Greece, when protests broke out at parliament-adjacent Syntagma Square at the exact time I was at the main train station there to catch a train to the airport. Suddenly, police in riot gear were descending on the station and closing the station gates; the square was blocked off from traffic and no one could get a taxi or train out. Luckily I was visiting family and therefore had seasoned locals just a phone call away to help me get to the airport. But I might have avoided Syntagma, and a possible emergency, if I’d been plugged into the State Department’s STEP alerts or a private travel insurance app’s alerts.
Bottom line: Do your research before traveling, and keep up with the news while you’re there via push notifications on your phone. Since that incident in Greece, I’ve used the GeoBlue app (my travel insurance provider’s) for emergency notifications on-the-go: Alerts about emergencies in my specific location, ranging from extreme weather to health crises to bridge collapses, stream through my phone in real-time when I’m traveling. The Department of State also stays in contact with U.S. citizens traveling abroad about crises ranging from strikes to natural disasters and attacks, and if needed they can provide departure or emergency-evacuation assistance to American citizens. In order to receive these free alerts, sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, and be sure to provide a phone number or email address you know you’ll have access to while you’re traveling.
Have Travel Insurance
If you do experience an emergency situation abroad that affects you financially and/or physically, however, (read: canceled reservations, hospital bills, emergency medical evacuation) you’ll definitely want to have insurance coverage that can help you out both during and after the event. An under-utilized travel resource, travel insurance could end up saving you thousands—even hundreds of thousands— of dollars.
Policies vary in cost and coverage, but some packages cost as little as a few dollars per day. Depending on the coverage you purchase, plans can cover everything from a stolen laptop or emergency hotel cancellation to medical care (or evacuation) and accidental death insurance. Be sure to get all the specifics of the policy before you buy so you know you’ll be covered if the worst happens, and choose a provider that’s high-tech and provides 24/7 assistance.
Bottom line: It might seem like a waste of money if nothing occurs, but it’s better to be safe than sorry—no one ever expects a travel emergency to happen to them, and having to pay medical or evacuation bills abroad out-of-pocket can bankrupt you.
Know Who to Call
Look into emergency phone numbers and the embassy’s contact information before you leave on your trip. Keep them both saved in your phone, and know how to ask for help and give your location in the native language. If you don’t know the local emergency phone number or basic emergency phrases, you could end up playing phone tag during a life-and-death crisis.
Use SmarterTravel’s guide to emergency numbers around the world to find your destination’s emergency number and save it in your phone (or simply memorize it) before departure. If you do have the misfortune of needing to use emergency services while traveling, the U.S. Department of State also might be able to help you with evacuation assistance or other legal matters. Keep the closest U.S. embassy’s contact information in your phone as well, in case you need to ask U.S. authorities for help or update them on your status.
Bottom line: It’s crucial to know the local 911-equivalent to be able to contact authorities immediately should you find yourself in a life-threatening situation. Once the situation is diffused, notify your embassy of the incident and of your status; they might have further information you’ll need.
Call on Travel Providers for Non-Emergency Help
If you have a chance to avoid or get out of the path of danger, know that your travel providers can and should help you—but they might need to be asked, as they too are probably dealing with the crisis. Airlines and hotels might not seem like a big source of help in everyday life, let alone in an emergency, but asking for what you need could mean the difference between ending up in a life-threatening situation and avoiding one altogether. Meaning: If an airline can cancel or change your existing ticket to a high-risk area, they should; but you might need to ask them to do it. If a hotel or cruise company can change your booking or provide alternate lodging in an emergency, they should; but, again, you might need to ask them to do it.
Bottom line: Don’t wait for a call or email about an opportunity to change plans in the face of a travel emergency. Be proactive and ask as soon as news of one makes you think you might need help. Sometimes it’s on the consumer to hold companies accountable, and it’s important to do so.
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A former news reporter, SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Twitter @shanmcmahon_.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2015. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.