Dealing with emergencies abroad

Bad news: The world doesn’t take a break just because we go on vacation. Mother Nature doesn’t answer to the travel industry, and humans are good at causing trouble like terrorism, civil unrest, crime and accidents. Recent years have been challenging for travellers in many respects, and it doesn’t take much to disrupt even the best laid plans.

We can’t predict what will happen, but we can make things easier on ourselves by knowing how to prepare — and what to do in an emergency. Here are some tips from experts.

Before you go…

Learn about potential problems — and how to lower the risks. You can’t look into the future, but you can find out if your destination is prone to certain issues like civil unrest, crime, severe weather and dangerous road conditions. Find out how to minimize or avoid these issues, like taking health precautions, avoiding restive areas and knowing what natural disasters could occur.

Prepare important information to carry with you. In addition to a travel guide, you can download and print a copy of your destination’s Travel Report and the Canadian government’s guide, Bon Voyage, But… to carry with you. (See How safe is your destination? and Travel health: What you need to know for more details and resources.)

Get travel insurance. Stranded for a few days? Require health care? Need to get home quickly? Without adequate insurance, you could be on the hook for these costs. Experts recommend getting a trip cancellation and interruption policy as well as extended health coverage to cover the costs of any changes to your travel arrangements — like booking a new flight home. Carefully read the details of your policy and make sure you understand the terms and exclusions.

Register with the embassy. This free service lets you register your trip details so the government can reach you and provide assistance during an emergency. For instance, the government can contact you if there’s an emergency back home, provide warnings and updates, or help you evacuate in case of a natural disaster. (Canadians can register online at

Make a list of essential contact information. Your list should include:

– Local emergency services. Don’t assume 911 is universal — you can find local numbers in a travel guide or government travel advice. Many places also have police units that work specific with tourists (and speak English or French).

– Your travel insurance company’s emergency assistance hotline. (Also, check your employer or credit card benefits for any emergency assistance services offered.)

– Your government’s emergency assistance service or international toll-free number. These numbers offer 24/7 assistance, even if your insurance company doesn’t. (Canadians can contact the Emergency Operation Centre and or consult the list of International Toll-Free Numbers.)

– Local embassy or consular representative.

– Your travel agent and travel providers (including airlines, hotels, etc.)

– Important phone numbers like family, friends or your employer, regardless of how well you think you know them. You might forget them in the confusion, or someone may need to place a call on your behalf.

Also, you may want to find out where local clinics and hospitals are at your destination, just in case. Not all clinics and hospitals provide a good standard of care.

Leave details with a loved one. It’s a step we should all take — leave a detailed itinerary, important phone numbers (like family, doctors and employer), and a copy of important documents (like the identification page of your passport and your travel insurance policy) with a trusted person back home who can help out in a crisis.

Ensure access to emergency funds. Can you cover any additional expenses that might come up, like fees for a lawyer or translator, accommodations or a flight home? Experts advise that your travel budget should include a mix of emergency funding sources — like local currency, credit cards or having someone at home who can wire you money, if needed.

Learn the local language — and carry a phrasebook. You don’t have to be fluent in the local tongue, but knowing key phrases like “call the police” can make a big difference. If you’re not carrying a travel guide or pocket phrase book, print up a card for your wallet. (See Learn a language online for resources).

While you’re there…

Look into emergency procedures. Do you know the best way to get out of the hotel in a hurry, or where to head when a tsunami alarm sounds? When you arrive, spend a few minutes familiarizing yourself with your accommodation’s emergency procedures and exits.

Call emergency services for immediate help. If there’s an accident, fire, health emergency or crime in progress, call for help right away so the police or ambulance will arrive as soon as possible.

If you’re the victim of a crime, experts advise contacting your local embassy as well as reporting the incident to the police. You’ll need a police report to file an insurance claim for stolen property, but more serious crimes like assault and kidnapping may require some consular assistance to make sure the incident is investigated in a fair and timely manner. Victims and their companions may be required to stay longer to provide testimony if an arrest is made.

Call the government’s emergency hotline. Officials offer many services like replacing documentation, helping you find a doctor or a lawyer, arranging evacuation in the event of war or a natural disaster, arranging temporary loans (as a last resort) and contacting your next of kin at home.

What the government can’t do is get you out of legal trouble, compensate you for any expenses or make arrangements for travel or accommodations. (For a full list of services, see Assistance Once You Are Abroad: What We Can & Cannot Do for You .)

Not a Canadian citizen? Many governments offer their own travel advice and consular services. Check with your government’s website for more information.

Work with your travel providers to make alternative arrangements. The government only offers evacuation in extreme circumstances, so most of the time it’s up to you, your travel providers and any travel assistance programs to which you have access to make the arrangements. Call as soon as you can — you may have more options and be able to get home sooner.

Call your insurance provider. Don’t wait until after the emergency is over to make your claim. Some companies offer emergency assistance above and beyond compensating you for expenses, such as finding local medical care and offering advice. Depending on your policy, there may be limitations you should know about — like having to call the company within 48 hours of being hospitalized in order to receive coverage.

Also, if your policy doesn’t offer an emergency extension, you’ll want to top up your coverage.

Follow local advice. When the worst should happen, it’s up to local officials to deal with the problem, not your government. Experts warn to follow the advice of local authorities, especially if there’s an evacuation order.

Tune in to local news. The world may be shrinking thanks to technology, but the most immediate source for updates and weather reports is local news. (International media and government warnings have to go through an information gathering and reviewing process.)

Avoid affected areas. Curiosity may be getting to you, but experts warn to stay away from any trouble spots. It may seem like the immediate danger has passed, but secondary threats like damaged infrastructure and disease are still risky.

Civil unrest and protests should also be avoided. In the past, travellers have landed in trouble for participating or have been mistaken for a foreign journalist when they try to take video or pictures.

Keep all of your receipts and invoices. If something disrupts your trip — no matter how minor — keep a paper trail. You’ll need the original paperwork to file an insurance claim, and it’s much easier to get it while you’re in the country rather than back home.

Contact your loved ones. The hours and days following an emergency can be terrifying for friends and family back home. If you don’t have the means to check in, consular services can contact someone for you to let them know you’re okay.

One last point to remember: Most travellers don’t encounter any problems while they’re away. Tourists can get caught up in a crisis abroad, but it’s usually the locals who are most affected.

For more information about travel safety and emergencies, see: (Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada) (U.S. Department of State)
Traveling & Living Abroad (U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade)

Additional sources: travel insurance policy websites

Photo © YinYang

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