Last week, our art director found herself on the tarmac in Munich headed for Barcelona with absolutely no cash, no credit card, and no ATM card. All had been left in her camera case that was still hanging on the back of a stall in the ladies room near the departure lounge â€¦ or not, because Lufthansa would not allow her to leave the plane to check (even though the plane was going to be delayed an hour on the tarmac). While efficient, Germans aren’t apparently too helpful when things go wrong. Luckily, she arrived in Barcelona and was able to borrow money from friends while waiting for a new credit card to arrive.
But what if she had not had friends waiting for her in Barcelona? What if she’s lost her passport as well? In a genuine emergency, when you have no cash or passport on hand, what would you do? It always helps to know where to turn in the event that your trip goes bad, especially when you’re abroad and may not know anyone where you are traveling. Luckily, there are some simple things you can remember that can help you turn a travel disaster into something much less terrible.
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1. Make copies of everything. When I travel, I make color copies of my passport, all my credit cards and ATM card (both front and back), and my driver’s license. I print out a copy to take with me and email a copy to myself and someone else. If you lose any of your cards or passport, it’s much easier to get them replaced if you have a good copy.
2. Know your bank’s policies. Can your bank mail you a replacement credit or ATM card immediately? Does it have branches or offices in the country where you’ll be traveling? How about a local contact number? If not, how do you reach them? Always do a little research before you leave, either on your bank’s web site or by asking when you alert the bank that you’ll be traveling abroad. If you bank at a small credit union, you may have more difficulties getting a replacement card abroad than if you bank with Citibank or HSBC, which actually have many branch offices throughout the world. But all banks will allow you to call collect from abroad and will provide a replacement card for you if yours is lost or stolen, though this may take 2 or 3 days. Some banks will require you to file a police report if your card is stolen; ask about that when you call about the theft. And if your bank has a branch in the city you’re in, you might be able to walk in and get a replacement ATM card on the spot, or at least some cash if you know your account number.
3. Know the number and location of the nearest U.S. consulate. If you are traveling abroad, you should always have the telephone number and location of the nearest U.S. consulate, which you will have to visit in person to get an temporary replacement passport in the event that yours is lost or stolen. There will usually be an emergency number that is answered after hours, even on weekends and holidays; write that down too. Otherwise, you can call during business hours and make an appointment. Replacing a stolen passport is generally considered an emergency, especially if your departure from the country is imminent. However, you must apply for a passport in person, and some countries have only one U.S. consulate that can process emergency passport applications. You’ll need a copy of your passport or some other kind of identification, but if you have nothing, you can also have someone vouch for you. It’s usually possible to get an emergency passport within 24 hours.
4. Know about the American Citizens Services. The ACS is the part of the U.S. Department of State that helps U.S. citizens traveling abroad. Every consulate has an ACS department, which can do much more than replace a lost or stolen passport. The ACS can help you reach someone back home in an emergency and even act as a conduit so you can have money wired to you by someone back home if you lose all your cash. People back home can also use the ACS to help contact you by calling the agency at 202/647-5225.
5. Know that Western Union is almost everywhere. You can have a friend or relative at home send you money by Western Union in about an hour to virtually any destination on earth. All they need is a credit or debit card, and they can do the transaction online or over the phone. This is a reliable service and, while somewhat expensive (it’s considered a cash advance by some credit cards, so there’s a higher fee and interest beyond that charged by Western Union), it can be a godsend in a genuine emergency.
6. Get travel insurance. Travel Guard offers a 24-hour live help line for any client who buys their insurance. They can help you with an emergency cash transfer or can find the nearest consulate or an English-speaking doctor; the company will even help you rebook flights if you miss a connection. Other travel insurance companies and some credit cards offer similar services.
7.Have a secret stash always on hand. When I travel, I always keep a $100 bill or $100 traveler’s check hidden in my carry-on bag separate from my other money just in case of an emergency. I’ve never had to use it, but having some emergency money set aside helps me sleep better at night.
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Photo credit: istockphoto / Dan Brandenburg