9 Common Travel Emergencies and How to Deal With Them

See recent posts by Neil Gladstone

For many vacationers, there’s a moment of panic that occurs about five minutes after leaving home. This is when all the "what if" scenarios start flooding in. What if I miss my flight? What if the hotel is overbooked? Can I get a refund if the rental car breaks down? To help keep you from hyperventilating and turning around to go home, we rounded up some common travel emergencies -- and shared tips on how to deal with them. We even consulted Christopher Elliott, author of "How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler," for advice. So while you might not be able to predict what happens while you're on the road, a little pre-planning can avoid pushing you into panic mode (and even save you some time and money).

1. Missed Flight

You’ve packed your bags, crafted the ultimate itinerary, and now you’re sitting in traffic, wondering if you have enough time to make it through security before boarding begins. Sound familiar? If you think you’re going to miss your flight, the first call you should make is to the airline. If you give the airline a heads up, you’ll likely be able to reschedule your flight for a fee and fare adjustment. However, if you don’t call the airline, chances are you’ll lose your fare entirely. Some airlines have an unwritten “flat tire rule,” which allows you to fly standby for a following flight, as long as you show up within two hours of your scheduled departure. This policy varies with each company, so don’t expect it to always apply. You should also plan to speak with the airline if you have a flight with multiple legs. Most likely, you won’t be able to book a last-minute flight to make up for the first leg of the trip and expect the connecting ticket to be valid when you arrive.

2. Canceled Flight

Photo courtesy of Flickr/seanfoneill

Photo courtesy of Flickr/seanfoneill

Looking up at the departures board and seeing your flight canceled can easily send you into an emotional free fall — and we don’t blame you. Trying to figure out your next move all depends on the reasons for the cancellation. Even though airlines don’t have to provide you with a hotel or food vouchers, many have policies stating that they will (or will try) if the reason for cancellation was within the airline’s control. So when there’s a mechanical failure, the airline will typically pay for your meal vouchers and a hotel, if you need to stay overnight. Transportation to and from the hotel is usually included. “If it’s a weather delay, all bets are off,” says Elliot. “You’re at the mercy of the airline. The airline could help, but probably won’t.”

There are also occasions when the airline claims the reason for a delay is weather, but it’s really a mechanical issue (or the crew didn’t all show up). That happens more often than you think. So how do you uncover the truth? Ask the gate attendant, who may state a different reason than what was initially announced elsewhere. You can also check FlightAware for the reason given by the airline. In this situation, it might be tough to cover those overnight expenses, but it’s still possible, so keep all receipts. 

Also read our piece “11 Things You Need to Know Before Your Flight is Canceled” for details on which airlines have the highest cancellation rates, and the airports where you should avoid a layover. 

3. Lost ID or Passport

Photo courtesy of Flickr/J Aaron Farr

Photo courtesy of Flickr/J Aaron Farr

If you realize your ID was lost or stolen, your options can vary depending on if you’re traveling domestically or abroad. If your ID was stolen along with a wallet or purse, report the loss to the local police. If you have travel insurance, make sure to file a claim. If you’re in a foreign country, however, you’ll need to get to an embassy or consulate to fill out paperwork, have your picture taken, pay the fee, and wait a couple of days to receive the passport. (Sometimes the turnaround time can be much quicker, though; one of our editors had her purse and passport stolen in Rome and was able to get a replacement at the embassy within an hour.) Having a photocopy of your passport or ID will help verify who you are (and expedite the passport replacement process), but can’t replace the original document when boarding a flight. According to Elliott, the fastest way to get a passport replaced is to go to a city with a passport center. But even then, it can take one to two days to acquire.

4. Lost Luggage

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Strange Luke

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Strange Luke

The problem with losing your luggage begins with checking your bag in the first place. Elliot is able to travel for a month at a time and fit everything he needs into a carry-on. Of course not everyone can pack light. Travelers who wish to carry more and check their bags should consider buying distinctive luggage (or adding on a little accessory) to help make the bag stand out. Knowing the limits of the airline’s financial liability may also influence what items you’re willing to check in. For example, if you check an expensive camera and it gets lost, it’s likely you won’t get fully reimbursed. “If your airline loses your luggage, there’s usually a 24-hour timeline on filing a lost luggage claim,” says Elliott. If you miss that deadline, the amount the airline can help notably decreases. Make sure the airline has your address, so the handlers can reunite you with your luggage. Prudent travelers may also want to take a picture of their bag before leaving. “That way you know exactly what it looks like,” says Elliott.

Check out our tips for how to live out of a carry-on for months at a time.

5. Rental Car Breakdown

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Jasen Leathers

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Jasen Leathers

Picture this: you’re driving in a foreign country — or even worse, in a place where there’s limited cell phone service — and your tire blows out. What now? Mechanical problems with rental cars are relatively rare, since most large rental car companies stock low-mileage vehicles. In fact, tire blowouts are so infrequent that some rental cars don’t even come with a spare. 

Breakdowns still happen, though. The immediate advice is to pull over to the side of the road, put on your hazard lights, and call the rental car agency about getting service sent to your location. If they don’t answer or offer roadside assistance, you should check if your auto insurance offers support for a breakdown. AAA members can also call for a tow or mechanic. 

Elliott warns against buying a roadside assistance policy from the rental car company. More companies are trying to include it as added protection, but that’s like the rental car company telling you they’ll only stand behind their product if you pay them extra, he says. “You expect the car to work,” he adds.

If you have no other alternative, you may need to contact a mechanic yourself. The frustrating thing about rental car chains is that individual franchise agreements differ. One location may offer roadside service and a replacement car at no extra cost, while another may require you to pay for any repairs. Asking questions beforehand is the best way to avoid any confusion later on.  “And if the engine falls out of your rental car, you might want to consult with them before authorizing any repairs,” says Elliott. “They may or may not cover those repairs.”

6. Lost or Stolen Credit Card

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Jason Eppink

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Jason Eppink

Having a credit card stolen overseas can feel like you’re no longer connected to the modern world. Your first call should be to the issuing bank or credit card company. It’s wise to store the phone and account numbers separately (ideally somewhere secure). Also, it’s essential to have the pin information for more than one card. That way, if your go-to debit card is hacked or stolen, you still have access to a rarely used, yet still active credit card. And if you’ve had the card stolen, don’t forget to let the local authorities know.

7. Lost or Stolen Phone

If you’re taking a phone overseas, it’s smart to download an app that will help track the device using GPS, in the event that it goes missing. Can’t find your phone, but not sure if it’s gone for good? Temporarily suspend service until you get it back. This way you can be sure no one is raising any bills on your phone. Owners who have mobile insurance and are certain the phone is gone will also want to file a police report and a claim. 

8. Overbooked Hotel

Think a reservation means you have a binding agreement with the hotel? Think again. Elliott explains that there’s no contract stipulating the hotel needs to give you the room if you’ve booked it. “The industry standard is that if your hotel is overbooked, they’ll walk you to a comparable room at a different hotel,” says Elliott. “Normally they’ll pay for the first night or your entire stay. But you won’t get charged anything extra for the room. And it should be a comparable hotel.” While that isn’t the law, the practice is pretty common, even in foreign countries. However, your idea of a comparable hotel may differ from the person who’s working at the property’s check-in counter. You might luck out and get an even nicer hotel — or you might end up getting worse accommodations than what you paid for. If you’re not happy with the alternative accommodations and booked through a third-party site, be sure to let them know in case they can offer a refund — allowing you to pick and pay for a different hotel of your choosing.

Unfortunately, overbooking occurs throughout the travel industry. “You can get bumped from a flight because they have no room,” says Elliott. “A rental car company can also run out of cars. Normally, industry practice with rental car companies is if they don’t have a car, they pay for one from a rival company that has some available.”

9. Personal Belongings Stolen from the Hotel Room

You may think that the hotel owners are responsible for anything taken from your room. In most cases, they aren’t. While the lodging laws differ in each state, most favor the operators. “So if you use a laptop or some jewelry, they don’t really have to do anything,” explains Elliott. And if you think the in-room safe comes with more protection, it doesn’t. Many hotels charge a fee for the safe, but take no responsibility for anything stored inside. You should, of course, still report any theft to the hotel and local authorities. If you have travel insurance, notify a representative from the insurance company.

Cruise ship operators have similar liability, which is outlined in the cruise contract passengers sign before debarking. “You are essentially saying that the cruise line doesn’t owe you anything if something bad happens to you,” says Elliott. Storing a valuable in the manager’s office safe may come with a higher liability, but probably not as much as you think (and that liability also changes depending on the property location). The simplest advice? Don’t carry expensive, irreplaceable items with you.

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