How To Avoid Disasters While Traveling


I’ll warn you before we get started: this is a guide for over-planners and, as usual, directed at people traveling within Europe.

Now, there’s a good case against overplanning. Keeping too tight a grip on your travel experience interferes with serendipity and can keep you away from the kinds of discoveries and experiences that make a trip memorable.

Some of the most interesting experiences I’ve had were because of disasters that pushed me in a direction I wouldn’t have gone willingly. It’s the true definition of adventure, in my opinion. But adventure isn’t always pleasant and sometimes you just want a relaxing, headache-free trip.

I don’t want this to scare you into thinking disaster is imminent as soon as you step out of the taxi, but if you’re a nervous traveler, you’re on a tight budget or schedule or you just want to relax this time out, this is a guide for you.

This post is a work in progress and I’m sure I’ve missed a few things, so if you can think of anything that should be included, please leave a comment!

So without further ado…

Have Multiple Sources of Funds

Money can’t solve every problem, but it solves a whole hellava lot of them. Carry at least two credit or debit cards. Some banks have a tendency to block cards when their security system detects unusual activity, such as the card being used outside the country.

It’s a good idea to give your bank a call to let them know when and where you’ll be travelling, but even if you do, you can still end up with a blocked card. In most cases, everything can be sorted out with one quick call to the bank. That said, one time this happened to me it took three days to get the card unblocked.

Your PayPal debit card is one possible alternative. Visa and Travelex offer travel cards that are prepaid, but work like debit cards for purchases and ATM withdrawals.

Carry cash. It doesn’t have to be much, but it should be enough to get you a night of accommodation, some food, and maybe a taxi ride or two. Enough to make sure you’re not going to spend the night on the street hungry if you can’t access your usual source of funds.

Depending on where you’re going, that will usually be anywhere between 50€ to 200€. Keep in mind that if you need a hotel room, they’ll be more expensive last minute during the high season, so budget with that in mind.

In my experience, even non-Euro countries will (sometimes grudgingly) accept Euro. Even so, try to get some cash in the local currency if you have nothing else and can’t get to an exchange booth. It’s not an absolute must, but it’s handy for immediate expenses like getting something to eat at the airport, paying for the taxi to your hotel or using a pay toilet.

If you’re concerned about carrying that much cash, wrap it in a handkerchief and pin that inside your bra or other clothing worn close to your body.

Confirm Your Accommodations

Imagine getting to the end of a long, tiring plane trip or train ride, piling into a taxi to your hotel, then schlepping your bags out again only to find the hotel has no record of your booking. Whatsoever. At all. And, no, they don’t have any rooms available.

This has happened to me exactly once, but it happened at around two in the morning after a 3- or 4-hour plane ride. Murphys law, I suppose.

Get confirmation on:

  • What days you’re checking in and out
  • Exactly what time you’re checking in (some places don’t allow check-ins until late in the day)
  • How many people are coming
  • How you’ll pay

Booking errors are fairly common, especially in big hotels or hostels where dozens of people are coming and going every day. If you receive a confirmation to your phone or email, the hotel will almost certainly honor it, so you don’t necessarily have to call them. If you don’t get a confirmation for your own records, though, give the place a call.

As for paying, not every hotel accepts credit cards or foreign currency. Sure, you can just run to the nearest ATM and get cash, but it’s good to know in advance that you’ll need to do that.

Write Down Important Information

You might have all your critical information on your phone or another electronic source, but what if something happens to your phone or you don’t have internet access?

Keep a list of important phone numbers, including:

  • Any family members or friends you might want to call
  • Your bank
  • Your travel insurance provider
  • Your house or pet sitter

For other numbers, such as your hotels, airlines, and rental car agencies, I recommend keeping those on your printed itinerary (yes, printed. I’ll get to that in a minute.). It wouldn’t hurt to write them down with your other numbers, though.

Keep a written list of your passwords.
Naturally you don’t want to do it in a way that makes it obvious to anyone which password goes to which account, but write it down in a coded way you’ll understand. You can write your email something like a…

Label Your Luggage

At airports, luggage is often misplaced or delayed because the owner showed up late and the bags didn’t make it through security on time to be taken out to the plane. Other times, it’s due to gate changes or some other confusion.

On buses, there’s very slim chance your bag could be removed from the luggage hold as the driver is re-arranging things, and then forgot there on the curb. Leaving a bag in a hotel or bus/train station is another possibility.

So whether you fly or travel overland, label your luggage. On both the interior and exterior, label it with your name, address, and phone number or email address. Adding your flight info wouldn’t hurt as long as your remember to change the label with every flight.

Speaking of which, remove all old airline luggage labels from your bags. If you have a bunch of barcoded tags on a bag, airport workers can easily scan the wrong one.

In addition to the label, attach an identifying marker to your luggage. The main purpose of this is to help you spot your luggage among all the others on the carousel, but the second is to help airport workers identify it as yours if you report it missing.

To that end, you want a marker that’s relatively large, brightly colored and visible from a distance. But not so large or dangly it will get caught on something in the conveyor belts or carousel.

You can buy straps designed to wrap around the handle of the suitcase, but it’s easy enough to make your own. A two-colored puff ball or large tassel made of yarn or strips of fabric will also work well. I recommend using at least two colors. There’s still a small chance yours isn’t the only purple suitcase with a blue pompom, but it probably will be the only one with a blue and yellow pompom.

And of course, there are various luggage tracking devices that can keep tabs on your bags and send their location data to your smartphone, such as The Trackr and Trakdot Luggage Tracker. While these generally pin down your bag’s location to an particular airport, they won’t help airport staff find it in storage room full of other misplaced bags, so a visible marker is still a good idea.

Write Out Your Itinerary

Writing down the details of each stop on your itinerary is especially helpful on complex routes (ones that cover several days, several countries and/or involve a lot of stops), in areas you’ve never visited before or in more remote areas with few people around to ask for help if something goes wrong.

You’ll have all your travel info on one sheet of paper (as opposed to just your phone), so you know exactly where you’re going and when at a glance. That’s a big help when you’re worn-out and half-asleep from catching 3 a.m. flights and sleeping in train seats.

I include addresses and phone numbers of anything I might need to take a taxi to because not all drivers have GPS. The phone number is handy if the driver doesn’t recognize the address and needs to call the hotel for directions.

Listing stops by dates or locations seems to make the most sense. I prefer to use locations, so my itineraries usually looks something like this:

Atown – Btown
April 10
Leave: 10:00
Arrive: 13:38
Train 30€

Train Station – Hotel
Arrive: 14:10
Taxi 20€

April 10-14
Grand Hotel Btown
123 Pine Street
Tel. 123-12345

Hotel – Airport
April 14
Leave: 5:30
Taxi 30€

I know this might seem like a hassle and a waste of time, but it can make the trip itself a lot easier. At the very least, this can help you spot any holes in your plans. Things like, “Wait, if I take the bus just to the border, how am I getting into town? Is there public transit? Are there taxis?”

Then you won’t end up standing at the border at 10 o’clock at night in the rain trying to flag down a ride into the nearest town.

Make Friends Before You Go

If you’ll be staying in one place for a few weeks, it’s useful to get to know a local.

In fact, a lot of people will offer their contact info to someone they met online who’s planning to visit their area. You might never need to crash on their couch, but you might need someone who can recommend a emergency dental clinic. Then again, you might need to crash on their couch.

By the way, this doesn’t mean asking someone to be your personal tour guide. People do this on dating sites, and although the intent is totally transparent, I still find it strange. Some people do enjoy showing visitors around, but they’ll usually offer if you happen to mention you’re coming out their way.

Are you a careful planner? What else do you do to make sure your trip doesn’t end up like the Midnight Express (I mean, besides not smuggling hashish). Let me know in the comments and I’ll put it up in the post so other travelers can use your tip, too.

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