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Five travel dilemmas and how to cope with them

Vacation. It’s supposed to be a few days of carefree bliss, but when something goes wrong, things can quickly go from relaxing to downright stressful. Even if you suffer a setback while traveling, though, it doesn’t mean your vacation’s ruined. Lost passport? Missed connection? No problem. Here’s how to deal with big travel headaches.

If your passport is lost or stolen

“My passport was stolen while I was sleeping on a night train from Lyon to Lourdes, France,” says Molly Feltner, an associate editor here at Luckily, she knew just what to do. Upon arriving in Paris, she immediately had new passport photos taken and then went straight to the U.S. Embassy’s lost/stolen passport office. Because she carried a photocopy of her passport, the embassy was able to verify her citizenship and get her a new passport in less than 30 minutes.

Feltner’s story illustrates the two key elements in dealing with a travel emergency: being prepared for a problem, and knowing what to do if the worst happens.

If you lose your passport overseas, contact the nearest U.S. Embassy. At the consulate, you will need to fill out a passport application, sign an affidavit that your passport was stolen, and verify your identity/U.S. citizenship. If all your identifying documents were taken, to verify your citizenship, you’ll be asked a series of questions and may have to provide an in-country contact (friend or relative) to back up your claim.

“I did have to pass a little oral test to prove my American [citizenship],” says Feltner. “They asked me questions such as ‘What was your high school like?’ and ‘Who is your favorite Simpsons character?’ The final question: ‘What happened in the last episode of Seinfeld?’ No joke. Luckily I knew all the answers.”

Once issued, replacement passports are valid for 10 years, no different from regularly obtained ones. The fees are also the same ($97 for an adult passport).

Although you hear it all the time, it really is important to carry at least one photocopy of your passport and ID with you at all times. Actually, the best idea is to carry a copy in each one of your bags. “Put one in each of your bags and in your purse in case one gets lost,” says Feltner. “Leave one with a trusted person at home so they can fax it in case you lose everything. Taking a couple of extra passport-sized photos along would also be helpful. The embassy/consulate can get you a new passport very quickly when you’re in a pinch overseas, but only if you have a copy of your old one. It could take weeks to process the paperwork if you don’t.”

If you lose your passport stateside, call the U.S. Department of State at 877-487-2778 to report it lost or stolen. They’re open until midnight Monday through Friday and take claims anytime during those hours. Once your old passport is reported stolen, you’ll have to obtain a new one. Application forms can be downloaded from the State Department website.

Replacement passport applications are processed like new ones, and you will have to provide proof of U.S. citizenship (e.g., a certified birth certificate), proof of identity (e.g., driver’s license), two passport-sized photos, and payment ($97). You can apply for a passport at an acceptance facility, or, if you’re leaving within 14 days and need expedited service, make an appointment with your closest passport agency.

If you get sick on your trip

Jack Katzman of Berlin, Maryland, recently fell ill on a cruise to the Mediterranean and had to take advantage of the onboard medical facilities. Luckily, both his trip insurance and personal insurance policy had him covered.

“Toward the end of the trip I came down with an upper respiratory infection,” explains Katzman. He went to see the ship’s on-staff doctor and was treated with antibiotics. “For this trip, we took out insurance with American Express Travel. After seeing the ship’s doctor, I sent in the forms, and within two weeks [the claim] was paid. No carrying on, no questioning, nothing … I would never travel again overseas without taking out that kind of insurance.”

Be sure to check your policies (both trip and personal medical insurance) before leaving to make sure you collect everything you need for a possible claim—such as receipts for your visit and any medications needed, clinic contact information, etc.

For non-cruise travel, it may be even more important to get a good insurance provider before your departure. Insurance prices typically vary based on the traveler’s age, how much coverage they want or need, and the trip’s duration. Destination and intended activities—such as organized group adventure trips—also factor into cost.

Additionally, your best defense may simply be using good judgment. “Because my wife and I have traveled so much, we are constantly washing our hands,” says Katzman. “Use antibacterial dispensers … take cold medicine with you, drink bottled water. Watch the cleanliness of the glasses drinks are being served in. [All of this] cuts back the chances of getting sick.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends packing a travelers’ health kit with many over-the-counter remedies and basic supplies.

“Always have ample cash and your medical insurance card with you at all times,” recommends Robin Jacobson, a Washington State resident who suffered a knee injury while traveling. “Have emergency phone numbers with you, not in your checked luggage. If going to a foreign country, register with the U.S. Embassy there. This can be done online.”

If your hotel is overbooked

It’s not unheard of for a hotel to overbook a room. This tactic helps hotels cover their costs in case of no-shows or last-minute cancellations.

However, if everyone shows up, it’s the hotel’s responsibility to find rooms for the travelers they can’t accommodate. If you have a confirmed reservation with an overbooked hotel, you can request rebooking at a similar-class property (with the hotel paying the cost difference if alternate lodging is more expensive) and complimentary phone calls to let others know of your itinerary change. The hotel should also pay for transportation expenses to the new property. You may also be able to snag a room upgrade, a free night, or in-room perks.

Bottom line: Make sure you have a confirmed reservation, guaranteed with a credit card. Keep a record of your confirmation number to take with you when you check in. And you can always ask to speak to a hotel manager if your needs aren’t being met.

If you lose your luggage

Last year, Sarah LaRose of Tucker, Georgia, traveled to Indonesia with a friend. Upon arrival, her friend’s suitcase was nowhere to be found. They spoke with a customer service representative, who assured them the bag would be delivered once it was located. Three days (and multiple phone calls) later, the luggage finally arrived and the airline delivered it to the hotel. While they were relieved to finally get the bag, the inconvenience was steep.

“Pack some essentials [such as toiletries, a few spare outfits, etc.] in a carry-on,” suggests LaRose. “I’d also advise against packing any expensive jewelry in your checked luggage … We were lucky the friend we were visiting spoke Indonesian. If I were in this situation in the future I’d try to track down a [local] who also spoke English pretty well. That way you don’t risk getting something lost in translation like the bag getting sent to the wrong hotel, or you misunderstanding what they said their course of action would be.”

Janice McDonald, from Decatur, Georgia, recommends both local and at-home resources to make a lost-bag situation go smoothly. Her bag was stolen while on business in Portland. “Someone smashed the window of our van [and] grabbed my tote bag,” she explains. “I lost not just my tote bag, but my purse, wallet, a camera, a phone charger, and a cashmere scarf.” She quickly called the police, credit card companies, and Equifax to issue a fraud alert on her credit report.

“One thing I always do when I’m traveling is make sure I leave a credit card at home, a spare set of car and house keys in case something like this happens where I lose everything,” she says. “I was facing having no ID with which to board the plane, no key to retrieve my car at the airport, and no money with which to pay for it.”

“I had a friend, who had a key to my house, retrieve my spare set of keys, my emergency credit card, and my passport and counter-to-counter it to me in Portland. Most people aren’t aware that major airlines will ship counter-to-counter packages that weigh under a pound. The package flies on the plane as luggage and can be picked up at the airline’s cargo center. You know what flight it’s on, so you can monitor it easily. I was able to have ID, a card, and keys shipped to me within 12 hours of having everything stolen.”

As for the bag—it was never found. But McDonald’s homeowner’s insurance covered it. In the past, she’s also used baggage insurance through American Express to cover bags lost or stolen en route. “I gave them the ticket and bag tag numbers and was immediately reimbursed for what was stolen,” she says. “I did not have to produce receipts for anything taken.” Be sure to check your policy before leaving to make sure all bases are covered.

If you miss your flight connection

Peter Johansen’s recent trip to New York City turned into a comedy of errors when he tried to get home to Ottawa. He and his wife showed up at Newark International, only to discover their departing flight was leaving from LaGuardia. With no time to make their connection, they attempted to re-book in Newark, only to end up having to book two one-way rental cars to get home.

“Read the fine print [of your itinerary] for sure,” says Johansen. “Remember that airline computers aren’t coordinated, and code sharing doesn’t mean inter-airline cooperation, so be prepared to run from one counter to the next.” Because Johansen was the one in error in this situation (not the airline), he paid out of pocket for his rental car, hotel, and restaurant expenses incurred in getting home.

If the airline is at fault, though, you may get some compensation. But, there are no guarantees, so plan accordingly.

“In any sort of missed connection, an airline generally tries to get a delayed traveler on the next available seat to his/her destination,” says SmarterTravel columnist Ed Perkins. “Amenities depend largely on what caused the incoming flight to be late. If it was some factor within the control of the airline, the airline generally assumes responsibility for overnight accommodations, meals, and such.

“However, if the flight delay was due to weather, airlines generally do nothing more than put a traveler on the next available flight.”

Sometimes, though, it pays to ask for extra assistance. “Although the official language doesn’t say so, I’ve found airlines to be flexible about defining ‘destination,'” says Perkins. “I was delayed by my first leg on a trip from Phoenix to St. Louis to Washington, D.C. By the time my delayed flight arrived at St. Louis, the last D.C. flight had departed. When I asked about switching to a flight to Newark instead of D.C., the agent accommodated me, with no change in fare or ticket. However, the agent was not required to do that.”

Before departure, be sure to check your airline’s delays and cancellation policies for further clarification. These can usually be found on the airlines’ websites under “customer service” or “conditions of carriage,” says Perkins. This way, you’ll know just what’s available to you if you get stuck.

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