What to do if you're stranded abroad when crisis strikes
So, you've booked your flights, made your dinner reservations and packed your bags. You've been dreaming of this trip for months and it's finally here.
But what happens when your dream vacation turns into your worst nightmare? Whether it's the weather, a volcano, a viral outbreak or a weird stroke of force majeure, these things can and do happen. They can happen to anyone, and might even leave you stranded.
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To be clear, we aren't here to incite a fear of travel. Travel disasters and situations that could leave you temporarily stranded are not common. But being prepared and knowing what steps you can take if you do find yourself stuck abroad (or even just in another state) can make an incredibly stressful situation a bit easier to manage if you've thought through the what-ifs ahead of time.
What to do before your trip
Stay informed with updates
Before any trip, you'll want to stay informed with security updates on travel.state.gov for the country or countries you're planning to visit. You can also enroll in the free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) and get alerts about your destination country.
Don't use an OTA
Using an Online Travel Agency (OTA), such as Booking.com or Expedia, to book your flight introduces an unnecessarily middleman. It also means the airline's hands are pretty tied if things go awry. If there's any possibility of trip disruption in your future, save yourself the hassle and book directly with the airline. It may or may not cost more to book directly with the airline, but you'll certainly improve the odds of getting speedier assistance from the airline than if you book with a third-party site.
Jasmin Baron, a senior editor at TPG, tried for weeks to help her mom find a flight back to the U.S. from the Philippines. The original ticket was booked through Expedia and, after trying to reroute her after a lot of back and forth, said "they could only refund her return and not rebook [her flight] because Air Canada controlled the ticket."
Without an actual cancellation, Air Canada said it couldn't even touch the file. It became a giant circle of red tape.
When things go wrong, you run the risk of being caught in the middle of a finger-pointing match. If your flight is canceled or a hotel is overbooked and “walks” you in the middle of the night (read: doesn't have a room for you when you check-in), the OTA may blame the airline or hotel, while the airline or hotel may blame the OTA.
A good way to avoid this altogether is booking directly with the provider.
Related: When plans go wrong: Your guide to booking refundable travel
Keep a stash of points and miles
Points and miles can really save the day when the options are slim and things need to happen quickly. By having a solid stockpile of points and miles in your back pocket, you're not solely at the mercy of airlines and their cancellation policies during a time of crisis, as many won't refund you or waive change fees until they absolutely must. You may also be able to lock in an award seat faster than the airline.
Award space, for those who are not familiar, means you can use points and miles to book a flight (or a night at a hotel). If you find yourself in a position where your airline is refusing to change or cancel a reservation, but you want to get home sooner rather than later, do yourself a favor and see if there's award space available you can snap up with points or miles. Our guide on how to find award availability on major airlines is a good place to start.
Instead of relying on the airline, you can use your points and miles to get a seat on a better-timed flight — and have little to nothing out of your pocket. Sure, you may be out some miles, but that might be a small price to pay.
As a bonus, you may even get to fly in cabins you would never have thought possible otherwise. While that may be the last priority in a time of true crisis, it may also be exactly what you need during a long journey home.
Related: Tips for booking your first award flight
In Baron's case, she was able to book her mother a return ticket from Manila (MNL) to Tokyo-Haneda (HND) on JAL business class, and then Tokyo to New York-JFK in JAL first class by using 75,000 Alaska Airlines miles.
"There's a silver lining," Baron said. "My mom has never flown modern first class with a lie-flat seat, so she's getting a once-in-a-lifetime trip out of it since she was originally booked in economy. These flights otherwise would have cost almost $7,300."
Related: TPG beginner's guide: Everything you need to know about points, miles, airlines and credit cards
What to do if a problem is brewing while you're away
Call your airline
The first thing you'll want to do is get in touch with your airline. If your flight is canceled, most airlines will rebook you on the first flight to your destination on which space is available at no cost, according to U.S. Department of Transportation guidelines. If this involves a significant delay, you'll want to see if another airline has a better flight, and ask your original airline to reimburse the cost. It's possible your travel insurance -- either the policy you purchased, or one that comes with the credit card you used to purchase the ticket — will kick in.
Related: Will independent travel insurance cover coronavirus? Here's what you need to know.
If airlines are canceling flights because, say, there's a coronavirus epidemic spreading around the world, they will try and book you on the next possible flight, whether with them or possibly with one of their partner airlines. However, that schedule and routing could look very different than what you originally booked. For example, there are currently no U.S. airlines operating flights to China — period.
You may have to stand in line to talk to a real person, or you can self-service the rebooking with most major airlines. In fact, it may be faster to do it online or at a kiosk in the airport — and speed matters when you're battling hundreds or thousands of other would-be travelers for a flight home. Be sure to search for not only new dates and flight times, but also other origin and destination cities within reach.
If you're trying to get in touch with your airline and can't get through, try messaging them on Twitter, calling one of their international lines or using Skype.
Ultimately, if your airline is not willing to help you, but you don't feel safe where you are for whatever reason, it might be worthwhile to get a new flight and swallow the cost of your original booking, whether you have the miles available to you or not. You have to put your health, safety and peace-of-mind in your own hands, and when crisis strikes, you're going to want to be in the driver's seat. It may cost you a couple hundred (or thousand) dollars, but getting out of an uncomfortable or dangerous situation should always be the priority. You also don't want to end up in a situation where you're stuck in your destination for a prolonged period of time.
Again, this is ultimately a personal decision and varies from person to person, but ask yourself if you can really put a price on your safety and wellbeing during times of crisis.
Related: How to "play nice" with airlines to get what you want
Get in touch with the embassy
If you're able, and depending on the severity of your situation, you'll want to either make a visit to, or call, the Embassy or Consulate in your destination. They can help you make arrangements if you are otherwise unable to solve for the situation on your own.
You can find your nearest Embassy here or call 888-407-4747 (or, from overseas, call 1-202-501-4444).
Related: What happens when you land in a country without entry rights?
For example, the U.S Department of State can help you contact friends and family members, and even wire money overseas. If you've depleted your bank account, they'll also help you recover some funds for food and other necessities.
While the State Department says, "the best time to leave a country is before the crisis if at all possible," there are always special circumstances. If there are no commercial transportation options available, there are consular officers available and conditions permit, the State Department may help U.S. citizens by working with the host government, other countries and U.S. agencies to identify and or arrange transportation back home.
But sometimes, your best bet is to stay put, at least for a moment. "In some situations, we may encourage you to stay at a safe location and leave as soon as you can do so safely, using transportation you are able to find on your own," the State Department added.
During a government-assisted evacuation, mode of transportation may vary depending on the level of crisis. You might find yourself driven, flown or ferried back home.
For example, when the U.S. repatriated citizens in Wuhan, China, crew members were dressed head to toe in protective gear, including full-body suits, masks, eye protection and gloves. If you can safely get out on your own, you'll almost certainly be more comfortable if you fly on your own terms and not on a special charter flight.
What to do when crisis strikes
If you're abroad when crisis strikes and the airline actually does cancel your flight as a result, they will still try to get you home as quickly as possible via their contract of carriage. But, if you proactively check Google Flights or the ITA Matrix for alternate routings, you can give the airline your desired flights home and not just count on them to find the best way. In fact, you may spot an option that isn't immediately displayed to them (even on another carrier), and then lobby for the airline to book you on that itinerary.
"The choice was either wait and see (with possible routes home drying up) or find another way to get her home and potentially swallow the cost of her return leg," Baron said of getting her mother home from the Philippines. By looking at other flights, she was able to have some flexibility and take charge of the situation.
Google Flights will likely be your best bet to find last-minute flights, as it will show you all flights from your destination city to your home city. You can also play around with different cities to find cheaper options, such as taking a boat, ferry or train for part of the journey.
It's also worth considering a round-trip ticket instead of a one-way fare, as one-way tickets are typically more expensive. It's an easy way to lower the cost, and while we don't recommend this under normal circumstances, no one will force you to take that second part of the round-trip if you don't want to.
For example, let's say you are trying to get to New York City from Milan, Italy on Thursday, March 5.
A round-trip, nonstop flight on Alitalia would cost you $617 round-trip. Definitely not great, but not terrible.
If we booked a one-way ticket, it would cost a whopping $1,364. Yes, for the same exact flight to New York-JFK.
Using the map function in Google Flights to find the cheapest departure and return dates can help you save cash, too.
That same flight would cost you 30,000 Alitalia MilleMiglia miles plus $185.65 in taxes and fees. While it's hardly a "dream" award redemption, you're only paying $185.65 out of pocket for a flight that, had you just booked one-way in cash, would cost you a whopping $1,364.
If you don't have Alitalia MilleMiglia miles, you can transfer points from Marriott (3:1 — meaning you'll get one Alitalia mile for every three Marriott points you transfer), American Express Membership Rewards (1:1) and Capital One (2:1.5)
Hopping directly on a plane home isn't your only option. If you can't get a flight for whatever reason, see if you can take a train to get you where you need to go. At the very least, a train could get you to a different city from which you can fly home, if necessary. Depending on where you are, you may also be able to take advantage of ferries, buses — even a rental car could get you to a city with more flights.
For example, if you're trying to get home from Milan, but the flights to the U.S. from Milan are canceled, it might be wise to instead take a train from Milan to London or Paris and get a new flight home from there.
While having your travel plans upended is never going to be a walk in the park, there are some strategies you can employ to make sure you get home quickly and safely. Being proactive, doing your research and taking charge of the situation will help you make sure things work out in your favor.