Floods, hurricanes, and terrorist attacks can happen any time - even when you're on vacation. So what would you do if you were traveling and faced disaster?
On "The Early Show," CBS News Travel Editor Peter Greenberg shared some potentially life-saving advice on how to prepare for disaster before you travel and what to do if the worst happens while you're abroad.
BEFORE you leave home:
1. Get the photocopying machine busy.
Print multiple copies of your itinerary, complete with contact lists, names, and phone numbers, and leave it with friends, co-workers, and family. And also give a copy to everyone traveling with you. Also copy the photo page of your passport, because it contains information that a U.S. consulate would need in order to issue a replacement.
2. Print a copy of emergency contacts -- names, phone numbers, email addresses -- your travel agent, airline, cruise line, hotel. Also keep them as a PDF file or Jpeg in a safe place, like on an encrypted USB thumb drive that can be kept in a secure, yet accessible location.
1. For all of your electronic devices -- cell phone, BlackBerry, laptop -- pack an additional battery for each. Check with your phone company to make sure your cell phone has international coverage and determine the protocol for making an international call from that country. (Do you dial 01, or 001, et al?) (And, if you are going to a really remote location, you might consider a satellite phone. It may seem like overkill, but if you're headed to a remote location, or if there is a natural disaster or civil unrest, you may not have other means to communicate. The good news is that costs have come down, and you can rent a sat phone for about $50 a week. So even if you never use it, it gives you peace of mind.)
If a disaster strikes, if you can't get through by calling, text messaging usually works. During the terrorism/shoot out in Mumbai in November 2008, massive cell phone usage knocked out most systems, but Americans trapped in their hotels were able to get out by text messaging or emailing on their BlackBerry devices.
2. Pack a small flashlight. And I always pack duct tape. It's amazing when this will come in handy, even if there is no disaster!
3. Pack an additional week's supply of prescription medicine, as well as a photocopy of your prescription, listing the drug by its brand, as well as its generic name.
4. Insurance. And the key here is that getting good travel insurance gives you a great plan B if something goes wrong.
There are two types of basic travel insurance you might need. One is called trip interruption and cancellation insurance. The other is medical evacuation and repatriation insurance. Trip cancellation and interruption insurance can cover natural disasters, like hurricanes and earthquakes. One important caveat: you must buy that insurance before an individual hurricane is named by TNE Weather Service. And you must read the policy carefully to make sure there are no big exclusions. Each policy is different. For example: Give your travel insurance company your contact information.. Recently, Access America had almost 300 customers in Haiti, and two had to be medically repatriated through Cuba.
Make sure your travel insurance plan includes all the benefits you might need. Access America's Classic Plan is the most popular, which includes the standard trip cancelation and trip interruption. One common benefit is "Destination Uninhabitable," which can cover you if your destination is completely uninhabitable or if your travel supplier (hotel, air) experienced a complete cessation of services for 24 hours or more due to natural disaster. Another common benefit is if your primary residence is deemed uninhabitable.
Read the fine print. Coverage may not be provided for any loss that results directly or indirectly from the following, unless specifically included: acts of war, civil disorder or unrest, natural disasters, epidemic or pandemic, travel bulletins or alerts, and terrorist events.
For the record, Access America liberalized its H1N1 policy and covered those who were sick from travel even after the pandemic was named. However, insurance companies will not cover cancellation out of fear. Access America's Classic includes coverage for terrorism, which covers if a terrorist event happens within 30 days of your scheduled arrival in the US or abroad. It also covers if you or your travel companion is hijacked or quarantined.
Important Caution: Know the difference between covered benefits and emergency travel assistance. Civil unrest and acts of war excluded in terms of covered benefits, but that doesn't mean you can't get emergency travel assistance. If you're in country where there's civil unrest or an act of war and you're looking to get out, that's when the travel assistance kicks in -- that's when insurance companies look to make arrangement to extract you from the situation, make alternative travel arrangements and get you home.
Medical evacuation and repatriation insurance: This is the one card you really need to carry. In the case of no commercial air service, a medical evacuation company can schedule dedicated air ambulance service to get you out. Although MedJet is a hospital-to-hospital program, in a situation like Haiti, if you're in a makeshift hospital, they'll still repatriate you.
If you are sick/or injured overseas, a policy like MedJet will send a medically equipped helicopter/jet to your location, and in consultation with your personal physician will evacuate you to the doctor and medical facility of your choice back home. (Again, read the insurance language carefully. Not all insurance policies work this way. Many will evacuate you to the doctor and medical facility of their choice. But MedJet and travel guard are two companies that I like the best.
Annual membership for MedJet Assist is $250; family membership is $385. Short-term, per-trip membership is from $95.
Do your homework ahead of time. While some folks would recommend that you check with the U.S. State Department for its travel bulletins and warnings, I suggest you go a step further. I often find that the travel information provided by foreign governments to their citizens is actually more comprehensive and provides a clearer picture of the information on the ground -- in terms of crime, terrorism, drug violence and other existing conditions. For starters, check (http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad) and Canadian (http://www.voyage.gc.ca/countries_pays/updates_mise-a-jour-eng.asp). These countries often have stronger ties to other countries, and therefore have better information. And finally, you can register your itinerary with the State Department (https://travelregistration.state.gov).
If Disaster Strikes:
A lot of folks will tell you to locate the U.S. Embassy in the destination you're visiting. But my advice runs counter to that. In the event of a disaster of any kind, the U.S. embassy is the last place I head, because in almost all cases I've experienced, it's the first place that closes up and locks down! Instead, locate the Canadian, British or Australian embassy. In my experience, these embassies have always been helpful and accommodating.
Editor's Note: In as letter to CBS News, the State Department responded to the comments made by Greenberg:
While Mr. Greenberg provided generally sound advice, I would like to respond to his suggestion to your viewers that, in the event of a disaster of any kind, they should contact a Canadian, British, or Australian embassy instead of the nearest U.S. embassy because "it is the first place that closes up and locks down." With all due respect to Mr. Greenberg, his comments were inaccurate and misleading to the traveling public.
The Department of State's primary mission is the protection and welfare of U.S. citizens abroad. When a disaster strikes, consular staff is on the ground to assist U.S. citizens and is the last to leave in a crisis situation. Earthquakes, hurricanes, political upheavals, acts of terrorism, and hijackings are only some of the events threatening the safety of U.S. citizens abroad. Consular personnel at U.S. embassies and consulates abroad and at the Department of State in Washington are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to provide emergency assistance to U.S. citizens. During some disasters, the U.S. embassy may temporarily suspend visa services in order to direct more resources to assist U.S. citizens.
Advising U.S. citizens to seek assistance at another country's embassy is likely to lead to delays and confusion because embassies typically only assist their own nationals. In addition, a foreign embassy would generally not be able to assist U.S. citizens to replace lost travel documents, or assist them if they were destitute or a victim of a crime.
You can also get information at the American Red Cross Safe and Well Web site.
If you have been affected by a disaster, this Web site provides a way for you to register yourself as "safe and well." From a list of standard messages, you can select those that you want to communicate to your family members, letting them know of your well-being.
Concerned family and friends can search the list of those who have registered themselves as "safe and well." The results of a successful search will display a loved one's First Name, Last Name, an "As of Date", and the "safe and well" messages selected.