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What to do when disaster strikes on vacation

Celeste Gray used to travel without a plan, which allowed her “plenty of room for spontaneity.” But when she found herself stranded in Spain on Sept. 12, 2001, she discovered the importance of organization – and knowing what to do in a crisis.

“After 9/11, all flights were canceled, and the airport in Barcelona was filled with stranded travelers,” said Gray, who owns and manages vacation rentals in Asheville, North Carolina. “During that sudden global shutdown, banks immediately closed, leaving many of us stranded without access to money for alternate plans.”

A compassionate airline employee fronted her the money for a train ticket to France, where she waited at a friend’s home for flights to resume. But the experience changed her. Today, she doesn’t leave home without travel insurance, cash, an emergency kit and contact information for the nearest U.S. Embassy.

As the coronavirus consumes the planet, hundreds of thousands of travelers have learned the same lesson. Stuck at their destinations with shelter-in-place orders, they had to improvise to get home. But even people who weren’t traveling took time to consider: What would I do?

With a little planning and quick thinking, you can survive the next earthquake, hurricane or viral outbreak, experts say.

“The risks that all travelers face today are ever-evolving, and their preventive and protective approach should be as well,” said Matthew Bradley, regional security director, Americas, of International SOS, a medical and security services company. “Expect the unexpected. Preparing for the most likely scenarios ahead of time, as well as while at your destination, will allow you to travel safely and confidently.”

Find out about the risks at your destination before you leave. Those would include any political unrest, common safety threats and illnesses, and the potential for natural disasters.

The U.S. State Department publishes detailed country information. If you’re traveling overseas, consider signing up for its Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which offers information from the U.S. Embassy about safety conditions in your destination country. Also check Canadian government and British government reports to arrive at an informed opinion.

Sometimes, the most up-to-date information about safety is on the State Department’s Twitter account, said John Gobbels, chief operating officer of Medjet, a membership program that provides air medical transport and travel security.

Gobbels also recommends talking to your family or travel companions about a disaster contingency plan before the trip begins. “Have a family disaster meeting place designated, in case you are separated at the time it strikes,” he said. “And have a disaster phone tree. If cellphone service is knocked out, you’ll be lucky to get one phone call out to a primary contact point, who can then relay messages to other family members, or local officials, to keep them up to date on your current status.”

Carry a list of emergency contact numbers with you, said Chris Carnicelli, chief executive of Generali Global Assistance. “It’s good to have a contact for the appropriate government entity, and this can include a number for your country’s local embassy,” he said. And it’s good to have numbers for your airline or cruise line and your travel insurance company. Many insurers operate 24/7 call centers that can help you get home.

Donna Childs, author of “Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best: Disaster Preparedness and Recovery for Small Businesses,” always brings a U.N. medical kit with her. The small canvas case has such items as Pepto-Bismol chewable tablets in the event of a gastrointestinal upset and two sterile syringes.

“In many parts of the world, if you need medical treatment and a blood draw is necessary, it is safer to provide your own syringes, which you know to be sterile,” Childs says.

What about insurance or a medical evacuation membership? Insurance won’t help you get out of a country if disaster strikes, but most policies cover medical transportation if you’re sick or injured. Clark Mitchell, a travel adviser with Strong Travel Services, a Virtuoso-affiliated agency in Dallas, recommended “cancel for any reason” insurance, “although the payouts have gotten lower since coronavirus.”

You can buy insurance that will pay to have a company such as Medjet or Global Rescue get you out of a country in the event of a natural disaster, a political threat or a pandemic, among other things.

That’s expert advice for most vacation disasters. Keep cool and get yourself home as soon as it’s safe to travel. “Always have a plan,” said Mike McGarrity, a vice president at Global Guardian, a security firm based at Tysons, Virginia. His company evacuated 144 Americans from Honduras during the pandemic, despite travel restrictions and border closures.

McGarrity’s recommended pandemic response: Think fast. “If a pandemic like COVID-19 occurs, you will likely have a small opportunity to travel before travel restrictions are initiated,” he says. “If you can’t travel, you should prepare for a long stay in quarantine, which will require social distancing, food and water.”

In short, you have to know what you’re going to do and then do it without delay. But the “without delay” part may be the hardest part. I know because I faced a situation a lot like Celeste Gray’s a few weeks ago, and I hesitated. I found myself waiting out the pandemic in France.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. Email him at chris@elliott.org.