Traveling when disaster strikes
You’ve heard it before when trying to be sold insurance or discouraged from going on the trip of a lifetime – nature doesn’t take a vacation. Neither does disaster, and whether that disaster is natural or not, you need to be prepared – most importantly you need to protect yourself, but once you’re safe, you’ll want to protect your belongings and your wallet as well. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and manmade emergencies like robberies or accidents seem to happen with increasing frequency. The last thing you should do is stay home in fear of walking into something you aren’t prepared for. They’re usually a surprise, so realistically you have about the same chance sitting at home to be a victim of disaster as you do when you’re vacationing. Be prepared, enjoy yourself, and make memories you will won’t forget! But just in case your mom was right about wearing clean underwear every day, let’s talk a bit about how to avoid or resolve disaster while traveling.
First, plan your trip with safety in mind!
Don’t say no to a few daredevil adventures here and there – avoiding all risk absolutely ruins all the fun – but know your risks so you can prepare. For example, you might not want to go to the Gulf coast during hurricane season, Chicago during the winter, or India during monsoon season. Don’t plan a trip to Everest base camp if you don’t like walking a small incline; don’t swim with sharks if you’re afraid of the ocean – in other words, know your own limits.
Look into travelers insurance.
Just like with any insurance policy, there are levels to travelers insurance. You can buy pretty cheap policies to cover cancellations related to natural disasters and accidents or other delays. You can buy Cadillac level plans that will airlift you from anywhere in the world back to your hometown hospital if you have a terrible accident. A simple ticket reimbursement policy can cost $5, but those nice plans that cover everything might cost $300 and can be purchased monthly or annually. I have actually had to be medically evacuated from Guatemala to North Carolina, and only had to pay $500 beyond the normal premium, when the final bill had a couple more zeros attached.
Check travel advisories before and during your trip.
If you’re planning a weekend ski trip, you might want to know if a blizzard can trap you on the mountain. Check your layover destinations too! Maybe you’re flying from Seattle to Miami for a little fun in the sun to celebrate the New Year. But if your layover is in Chicago, you might have to reroute if it’s too cold or there’s a winter storm.
Know the cancellation policies before you book
This is especially important if you’re traveling at a high risk time. Better if you know their reputation for follow-through too. For example, I was scheduled to take a Greyhound bus from Houston to Atlanta right in the middle of Hurricane Harvey. They refused to credit the ticket so I could use it at a later date, but I’m still fighting two months later to get a refund, even though they guaranteed it and gave me a confirmation number. But at least I have a leg to stand on; policy is policy and eventually I’ll get it. If they had a policy of no refunds at all, I’d have been out of luck.
Consider your pets.
A lot of people insist on traveling with pets, and truthfully, I usually travel with mine, too. But not when I’m going somewhere with a higher risk of disaster. Board your animals or find a sitter if your trip has any increased risk. If you end up in a shelter in an unfamiliar area, that’s one more being to take care of and you may not have the resources. Obviously, this is advice to be considered within reason. All travel has a slightly elevated risk and you can’t predict malicious behaviors or earthquakes or terrible accidents. But if you’re going to New Orleans the same weekend there’s a tropical storm off the coast, leave your pup with a sitter!
Most people have the problem of packing too much – no, you don’t need three dresses for your weekend hiking trip. Others have the opposite problem – for example, I have a habit of stuffing my passport and phone charger in my pocket and heading to the airport, figuring I’ll grab the essentials when I get there. I move with a lot more ease in the airport than others but when I get there I’m washing clothes I’ve worn for three days in a hand sink. But there’s more to it than that, so let’s get specific:
Pack a carry-on. Some hate them, some refuse to check a bag. Doesn’t matter what your checked bag preference is, but keep a bag with essentials on your person. Medications, your itinerary, and other important items need to be with you at all times.
Have an electronic itinerary if you prefer but print a paper one too. If anything happens and people need to find you, it’ll help identify where you might be.
Charge all devices and grab as many fully charged back-ups as you can. You’ll want to make sure you don’t lose power; even if you never have an emergency it’s a terrible inconvenience.
Pack snacks, a mini first-aid kit, a flashlight and extra batteries, essential toiletries, and a paper atlas in your carry-on.
This is all good advice (if I do say so myself), but preparation is one thing – action when a natural disaster happens may be another. So what should you do if disaster strikes an area you frequent?
Natural Disasters Happen.
If a natural disaster hits before your trip, carefully weigh whether you should cancel. I was scheduled to go to Puerto Rico three weeks after Hurricane Irma hit. I cancelled the trip; there was no easy way to get there and my being there would further strain Puerto Rico’s resources. Not to mention it just wouldn’t have been fun. My hotel wasn’t going to be open anyway, and I’m not going to ask my Puerto Rican friends to put me up while they’re trying to survive. All the activities I’d reserved, not happening either. Absolutely would have been crazy to go. On the other hand, a friend sought my advice about her spring trip to Puerto Rico – should she cancel now and plan another trip while there’s still time to do so? Absolutely not. Puerto Rico depends on tourism and will need your dollars to help bounce back. And by then even if the rest of the island is still suffering, they will have cleaned up the tourist spots. They need that income too badly.
But what if you had been vacationing in Puerto Rico when the storm hit? First, since hurricanes have some warning, so get to a safe place immediately – your beachfront AirBnB probably isn’t it, so seek a shelter. Let your family know you’re safe and will update them after the storm but probably not immediately. Charge every device you have, make sure you have that flashlight and working batteries, toiletries, and snacks. Then wait it out. Help where you can. Keep as many of your belongings with you but not so that they slow you down. Don’t update your family until you know you’re out of harm’s way and you have plenty of signal and a charge. Cell towers are precious and are needed for emergency situations.
But what if there’s no warning?.
My cousin was visiting Mexico City when the earthquake hit a few weeks ago and I just happened to be on the phone with her. Luckily I am a seasoned traveler who works in disaster relief and knows Mexico City well; first I made sure she did a double-check of herself and her surroundings to make sure she was safe – that’s the first piece of advice. Before you even stand up, make sure you aren’t bleeding and if you are, evaluate the severity before you move. With enough adrenaline people are capable of walking on shattered legs without knowing they serenity of their injury.
Get to safety immediately and wait it out; help as you can. When it’s safe, go to your hotel but be prepared that you may not be able to access your room and you may have to abandon your things. My cousin couldn’t access her hotel room and had to leave behind some expensive electronics and nice clothing. Some of which the hotel has since recovered for her, but not all. The things aren’t important. If possible, get to the airport. You’ll likely want to be on the first flight out possible. But airports are usually some of the safer structures, with a lot of resources and first information available.
Other disasters may happen too – God forbid, an accident or an act of violence. When traveling internationally, leave very specific itineraries with loved ones. Register with your Embassy. Do not leave for any activities you feel uncertain about and certainly not with people you feel uncertain about. Know enough in the language to request help, know local emergency numbers, and always file police reports.
It’s an Adventure
Travel is an adventure on its own; when disaster strikes in the middle of it, it may end up being more than you think you can handle. Always prepare for the worst and hope for the best; if you can remember that, you’ll be able to adjust to anything life throws at you. Whether home or somewhere totally foreign to you. Most likely, your trip will be one of the best experiences of your life. A little preparation can prevent it from being a terrible one. Remember, if you do find yourself in a disaster affecting other people, as soon as you’re safe – be a helper.
As always thank you for reading. My goal is always to inspire you to work less and travel more. Make sure you get the latestes travel inspiration by subscribing to my newsletter.
Also I would love to hear about your travel experiences in the comments below.
Make sure you check out my article on staying safe traveling in Asia.