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How To Be Prepared for Disasters During Travel

Photo of the Popocatepetl Volcano near Mexico City, potential for disasters during travel

The volcano Popocatépetl near Mexico City. (Photo from the public domain).

When I told friends and relatives I was planning our trip to central Mexico in 2012, the reactions ranged from concern to over-the-top concern.  (Yes, Mom, I’m talking about you.)  Actually, running into natural and man-made disasters during travel has become somewhat “normal” for us.

We Seem Destined to Run Into Disasters During Travel

Perhaps it is mere coincidence, but as a Baby Boomer I have enough of a travel history to be able to notice that my travel plans seem to foment war, revolution, Biblical weather and other natural disasters. In 1974, I was one of the last American college students to study abroad in Bogotá, Colombia. The month after I left, a member of my host family was murdered by narco-terrorists and the State Department added Colombia to the list of places you would be better off not visiting.

Buenos Aires Argentina demonstration could have portended disasters during travel

The day we arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, we came upon this street demonstration.

In 1981, Mr. Excitement and I chose Spain for our first trip together.  (We had to see if our relationship would pass the “But can we travel together?” test.)  This being when the internet was just a gleam in Al Gore’s eye, we picked a hotel from a guidebook during our overnight flight across the Atlantic.

We arrived in a jet lagged state to find that our hotel was next to the Cortes, the Spanish parliament building—-which was completely surrounded by soldiers with submachine guns —- some nastiness about an attempted coup d’etat.

Seeking a more relaxing environment, we headed for the Costa del Sol, famed for its sunny beaches. Although drought conditions had produced no measurable precipitation for three years, upon our arrival, the heavens opened up.  As we glumly watched the unrelenting rain from our no star hotel, the locals reveled in the downpour.

The following year, we honeymooned in Peru. In a conflict that had been way off our trip planning radar, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands (the where??), prompting the British version of “shock and awe”. The South American mood towards English speakers, including Americans, was edgy at best.

Adding to our discomfort, several Peruvian provinces were closed to foreigners because of increased violent activity by the Shining Path, a Maoist revolutionary group. It crossed my mind that our tourist train to Machu Picchu would be an attractive target. I was only off by a few years, the Shining Path waited until 1986 to bomb that train, killing eight people, including two Americans. Our final adventure was figuring out how to get home when our airline, Braniff, went belly up and ceased operations in the middle of our trip.

In 2005 on a British Airways flight from Cyprus to London, we were half-listening to the flight attendant’s pre-landing litany, when right after reminding us to stow our hand luggage and put our trays in their upright position, she announced that we would need to make new plans to get from Heathrow Airport into London. During our flight, four explosive devices had been found on the London Underground.

In October of 2014, we got quite a few raised eyebrows when we said were going to South Africa during the height of the Ebola epidemic. Upon arriving at the Johannesburg Airport on a flight from JFK Airport in New York, we were screened for Ebola. At that point, there had been several confirmed cases in the United States and NONE in South Africa—-but, hey, the word “Africa” is in the country’s name, so that was sufficient for our many of our American compatriots to question our sanity.

Edvard_Munch, the Scream

In his painting “The Scream”, artist Edvard Munch depicted how I feel sometimes watching the TV news. (Photo from the public domain).

Natural disasters in the western hemisphere seem to be an unpleasant theme lately. In addition to the three category 5 hurricanes that caused devastation in Texas, Florida, and the Carribean (most recently, Puerto Rico), Mexico has experienced two major earthquakes in the past 30 days and a series of aftershocks in the state of Oaxaca.

The 7.1 quake that affected Mexico City certainly got our attention because our younger son, the digital nomad, lives there. He is OK and his condominium building sustained only minor damage, but a building collapsed on the next street and he was understandably shaken by the experience.

We are scheduled to fly to Oaxaca in November, and from there to, Mexico City. If you’re still making your travel plans, consider yourself forewarned.

How To Prepare for Disasters During Travel

Hopefully, your travel plans won’t coincide with disasters to the extent ours seem to, but there are things you should do to prepare:

  1. If you will be traveling internationally, register for the U.S. State Deparment’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). This will provide you with notifications about travel conditions in your intended travel area, a way for local State Department services to find you in an emergency and information for them to be able to contact your loved ones.
  2. Remember that social media such as Facebook usually provides a way for you to mark yourself as “safe”, saving your loved ones angst if there is a publicized natural or other disaster where you are traveling.
  3. Make sure your loved ones have information about your itinerary and emergency contact information. Leave them with access to copies of your travel documents (i.e. passport, plane tickets, credit card information). Leave copies in the cloud so you can access them in case your originals are lost, destroyed or stolen. Keep paper copies of your important travel documents separate from the originals.
  4. Travel with back up energy sources for your electronic devices such as portable battery packs.
  5. Complete and carry an emergency contact card to identify you, your emergency contact(s), and to provide information about any chronic medical conditions you have. The American Red Cross has a sample you can print and adapt.
  6. Always travel with extra medication for more than the number of days you expect to be away along with copies of your prescriptions and the generic names of all your medications since brand names may differ in foreign countries. Have a travel first aid kit with you.
  7. Travel with Travel Insurance, but be careful to read all the fine print and to read reviews of any company you are considering. Consider a yearly policy and a policy with medical evacuation to anywhere you choose rather than just to the nearest facility capable of providing care.
  8. Have some cash available in case ATMs don’t work and there is a major electricity or connectivity crisis.

How has your travel karma been lately? Do you have any other suggestions for preparedness in case of travel during disasters?

Suzanne Fluhr, Travel Editor

Suzanne Fluhr, Midlife Boulevard's travel editor, is a recovering Philadelphia lawyer, empty nester, wanderer, dog person and Zentangle® enthusiast. She also writes about Baby Boomer travels for the body and mind on her personal blog, Boomeresque. Instagram: Boomeresque2

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Thursday 28th of September 2017

What a great list! I'm saving it right next to my packing list.

Jan Wild

Tuesday 26th of September 2017

Lots of great advice here, I am sharing this on social media. And yes we will make sure we know your travel plans so we don't go to the same places ?

Suzanne Fluhr

Wednesday 27th of September 2017

Thanks for sharing.

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