Some of the links in this post may contain affiliate links for your convenience. As an Amazon associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
You’ve been planning for weeks. Maybe even months. Your itinerary is set, your bags are packed, you are ready to go. But are you? What will you do if your overseas travel plans are disrupted by some sort of accident, illness, natural disaster, or political upheaval? Being prepared for an emergency in another country begins long before you board an airplane for your travel destination.
As an outdoor guide, I’ve been asked to go to many different parts of the world, and I lived in Japan for 3 years.
How Most People Prepare To Travel Abroad
Most people buy the latest travel guide like Fodor’s, Frommer’s, DK Eyewitness Travel or Rick Steves‘. They make sure their passport is current, get vaccinations needed for the region, obtain an entry visa, and, of course, book their trip? And, yes, that is where you start, but there is much more. For example, do you want to be prepared if an emergency arises while enjoying your trip abroad? You can be simply by taking a little extra time to prepare before heading out. Here is what I do.
The Basics of Preparing to Travel Abroad
I start by covering the basics that most international travelers do when preparing to venture to a foreign country:
- Make sure my passport is current, renew if need be or apply for one.
- Check for visa requirements and obtain them. These can change so it’s wise to always check.
- Look for travel alerts and warnings.
- Get any recommended vaccinations or boosters for the region.
- Purchase a travel guide or two (see the links above) and maps to learn about the lay of the land, people, culture, customs, language and currency.
But that is just the start to my travel preps. Please read on….
Preparing for an Emergency in Another Country
Think of all the documents I gather as a grab-no-go binder but for travel.
Along with the basics, my travel prepping involves a little intelligence gathering. It’s great to know some key basic information about the country and not just from the latest travel guides or internet sites.
Gathering a snap shot of the country and its people is important, so I go to the CIA. Yes, you heard me correctly, the Central Intelligence Agency.
The CIA puts out an annual publication called The World Factbook that is chalk-full of data about every country in the world. It provides great baseline information for a trip. You can research topics including history, geography, culture, government, economy, communications and transportation.
Next on the list of preps are my personal, financial and travel documents. Nothing can ruin travel plans faster than missing documents, especially after you have left your home country.
I make a copy of:
- my passport
- driver’s license
- birth certificate (proof of your country of origin and usually citizenship beyond just your passport)
- travel itinerary
- any other important records for the trip
I keep one hard copy as a backup set with me, folded and stored in a waterproof pouch.
The records are also turned into images or a PDF and placed on a password protected memory stick on my key chain, especially if I’m going to a country with a poor internet infrastructure. The electronic version is also uploaded to either my Dropbox or Evernote account which can be accessed from the internet anytime anywhere via computer, smart phone or tablet.
Lastly, I give a set to a person in the U.S. who knows my travel plans and can help me from afar if trouble arises.
Gather Emergency Contacts and Safe Places
If a natural disaster, difficult medical situation, or other major emergency occurs in the country I am traveling in, there are places to go that can offer help. Before heading out on my journey, I gather the address and phone numbers for the U.S. Embassy and consulate office, as well as any U.S. military bases in the area.
In addition and as a backup, I find the same information for any country which uses English as a primary language, such as the UK or Australia. This information is added to my travel documents as well.
Enroll in STEP
Sign up for the free The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). There are three benefits to doing so:
- your whereabouts are known
- receive updated travel warnings, alerts, and other information
- in emergencies, it helps family and friends contact you
This service is optional. You must weigh the cost/benefits and decide if you want to enroll. Registering with the U.S. State Department is another possibility.
Identify Medical Facilities
Knowing where medical help can be obtained before departing on my excursion is particularly important. This is not information I want to be trying to find during a emergency.
Locate the address and phone number for hospitals and medical clinics in the area of travel and find out if any of these facilities are designated for English-speaking or tourist care. There will usually be someone on staff who speaks English. This information is also incorporated with my other travel documents.
Create Communication Plan
Before heading out for a trip , someone I trust knows my plans. That person gets a complete set of my trip documents and in-country contact information. I also list this person in my passport.
In general, depending on the country and type of trip, I check in with my emergency contact person via email, text or phone every couple of days. If an issue arises and I cannot make contact, they will start making inquires and looking for me.
Learn About Currency and Banking
When you are in the midst of an emergency, you will most likely need money. It is one of the best ways to ensure help and communicate your appreciation even if you don’t speak the local language. That being said, I carry a minimal amount of cash and try to use a designated credit card for most of my financial transactions when I am overseas.
Part of my prep includes finding out what the local currency and the exchange rate are. I also check to see if good old greenbacks are accepted or preferred. Like emergency (embassy, consulate) and medical institutions, I try to locate where the local banks and ATM machines are along my travel rout. That way I can quickly get more cash if needed, minimizing what I need to keep on my person.
Mark Locations on Map
It is so much easier to get around in a new place when you have a map. My map, one you typically find for sale with travel books and guides, is carefully marked with the locations I am staying at during my travels as well as the U.S. Embassy or consulate, hospitals, medical clinics, banks, and ATMs.
Understanding a few key words and phrases will never be more critical than if a personal emergency or larger event happens while you are traveling in another country. But those phrases will be utterly useless, unless you’ve practice before you travel. Don’t expect the locals to speak your native language, especially if you plan to travel off the beaten path.
You can find all kinds of crash courses on the internet to help you learn basic phrases like greetings, how to order food, and asking for help. You may also want to carry a pocket dictionary. I don’t count on electronic translators, Google, or any language app I can put on my smart phone. These gadgets work most of the time, but a lot can go wrong which could render them useless. That’s not what you want during a crisis.
I practice and memorize key words and phrases such as:
- thank you
- how much does…cost?
- how do I get to…?
- where can I find…?
- I need help!
A few key words and phrases, well spoken by you, may make the difference between success and something less if an emergency arises.
This one part of my travel preps takes the longest, but is also the most fun! The key is that I practice, practice and practice some more before departing on my trip. I’ve found learning a little of the native language can go a long way to ingratiating myself to the local populace.
Understand Local Customs, Manors and Dress
I think it is important to understand the basic customs and manors of the people in the country I am visiting. Doing so can save you much difficulties and keep you out of potentially serious trouble.
For example, did you realize in Greece, using the hand sign for stop is a nasty hand gesture and can land you in trouble without even realizing what you did? In Thailand, propping your feet up and talking a load off your legs must be done with discretion. Showing the bottom of your feet is considered so abhorrent, people have been killed for doing it (yes, including tourists).
Another important thing I research is what is appropriate as far as personal space and touching: Hugging, hand shake, facial expressions. If you aren’t aware of these nuances, you can unknowingly offend a local.
In addition to customs and manors, I also take note of how people dress where I am headed and plan my travel wardrobe accordingly, within reason. I clothe myself modestly to blend in, not stand out. I avoid dressing like a “tourist”, including excessive clothes and jewelry. Nothing speaks “easy target” to a thief, robber, or panhandler like lavish clothes and expensive or excessive jewelry.
I found the phrase “When in Rome do as the Romans do” never more applicable than when learning and understanding the customs, manors, and dress of the people in the country I am going to visit.
Remember: Two is One and One is None!
I’m sure you’ve noted how redundant I am with certain aspects of my travel survival preps when going to a foreign country. This is on purpose.
As an outdoor guide, I am responsible not only for myself but also for the safety of my clients. Helping them have the adventure of a life time is the goal, while ensuring their safety is my top priority. That is why my travel preps are so extensive and probably a little unique compared to what most travelers need to do.
I truly believe in the prepping and survival adage “two is one and one is none.” You might feel like some of these preps are just too excessive. For you, they may be. After all, your just going on vacation, right? Please adapt, modify, and tailor them to fit you and your families needs as you plan and prepare for your travels.
Final Thoughts about Having an Emergency in Another Country
To help ensure a great experience and be prepared if an emergency arises while traveling abroad, you may want to take a little extra time, do a bit more homework, and prep. Who knows, you may even find yourself helping a fellow traveler who didn’t plan or prep for an emergency. It’s a small world after all….
What tips do you have for preparing for an emergency in another country? Share in the comments!
Originally published August 31, 2014.
Robert Camp turned his love of the outdoors into over 35 years of professional guiding and outdoor leadership. He has helped develop programs, lead trips, and taught for juvenile diversion programs, the U.S. military, The Sierra Club and many others.