How to Plan In Case Things Go Wrong

Ten days into what would have been two months in South America, I broke my leg in two places. I was deep in Chile, a country whose language I didn’t speak, and I’d just booked flights to Brazil and Easter Island. I could have panicked. Instead, I was just disappointed. After years of extended traveling, I had a system in place to handle emergencies. I was in a staggering amount of pain, in an embarrassed heap far from home and hostel, but I wasn’t too worried.

You don’t need to go overboard to be prepared for travel emergences. My advice is to plan for the obviously probable, and don’t sweat the unlikely and improbable. Here’s some precautionary steps I’ve found to be invaluable during my trips over the years.

Before You Go

Do a bit of research

How tolerant a country’s residents are toward foreigners varies significantly from region to region, and of course, person to person. Some understanding of local cultural norms will go a long way in bridging any etiquette differences and assessing risks. Are shorts O.K.? Do you need to wear a head covering? Should you tip? A few minutes online before you leave will give you a much better idea of dos and don’ts. A good place to start is Travel.state.gov’s Country Information.

Take a working phone

A prepared traveler has a mobile phone provider like Google Fi, Sprint or T-Mobile that works in other countries, or has obtained a local SIM card. The value in having a working phone overseas can’t be overstated. The last thing you should be concerned about in a crisis is how much your phone bill is going to be. Or worse, figuring out how to get your phone working in an emergency. Regardless, download the local area to your Maps app, and download the local language pack on Google Translate. That will cover you for most of it, even if you don’t have a signal.

Protect yourself online

Back up your photos and documents to the cloud, either Google Photos, iPhoto or any number of free and paid services available. (Wirecutter, a New York Times company that reviews products has a guide.) A V.P.N., password manager and two-factor authorization on websites and apps that have this security will all make it harder to break into your accounts.

Buy travel insurance

Travel insurance has paid me back far more than I’ve paid into it. And it’s cheap enough that I never travel without it. Just make sure you get receipts for everything. Those flights I booked before breaking my leg? I got all that money back thanks to travel insurance. However, when I got my camera gear stolen on a train in Italy I barely got anything thanks to high deductibles and low coverage costs. Oh, well. Your homeowners and health insurance might cover you for some things, but probably not.

Wirecutter also looks at travel insurance and recommends which ones worth buying.

During your journey

Find out the local emergency info

In some countries, 911 works outside the United States. In Europe and Central Asia it’s usually 112. Britain and many former British Territories use 999. Google the country you’re visiting plus “emergency number.” Alternately, Wikipedia has a list, and the State Department has a PDF. There might not be an English-speaking person at the other end of the line, but it’s a start.

Take a card

At the check-in desk, there’s almost always a business card for the establishment. Take it and put it in your wallet or with your passport. Or both. Now you have a way to explain — with or without speaking the local language — to every cabbie in the area how to get back to where your stuff is. Worst case? Take a picture of the front of the hotel or hostel with the name.

Minimize risk

This one is easy: Don’t put your wallet or passport in your back pocket. Secure a purse or backpack with a small lock. If you can get at your items easily, so can someone else.

When things go wrong

There are infinite possibilities of what could happen, but statistically they won’t. Could you get hit by a meteorite in Luxembourg? Sure. Will you? No. For the most part, the same risks you take every day are the same ones that you will have abroad: Cars are dangerous, pickpockets like crowded areas and the like.

The most important thing to realize is that whatever has happened, it has happened there before and probably to locals as well. Unless you’re in the middle of the desert or over an ice cap, hospitals, clinics and police are there to help.

Geoffrey Morrison is the editor-at-large for Wirecutter whose work has also appeared on CNET. He wrote the best-selling sci-fi novel “Undersea,” and you can follow him on Instagram or Twitter.

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