Trip wrecked: 7 ways to prepare for any kind of travel disaster

Feb 15, 2020

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It’s been a tough week for passengers on the Diamond Princess. In a quarantine that has no precedent in recent cruising history, they’ve been restricted to their cabins nearly around-the-clock since 4 February. They’ve had no access to ship restaurants, entertainment venues or fitness facilities.

As passengers have recounted in interviews and social media posts, many are worried that Japanese health officials will be unable to stop the shipboard outbreak of the new coronavirus from Asia — the reason for the quarantine.

But passengers also have mentioned other concerns both big and small as the days drag on. Initially, many were anxious about running out of medication. Others have noted they’re now missing work. And then there’s the tedium of it all.

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It’s unlikely any of us will find ourselves in a situation like this while travelling. But it’s not uncommon for our travel plans to be fouled up in smaller ways that present some of the same issues. A cancelled flight, for instance, can leave us stuck in a random city for hours or even days, unable to get home. In places like the Caribbean, hurricanes and other heavy storms have been known to trap holiday goers in hotels without power for extended stretches of time.

Such situations are never pleasant. But, with some advance planning, many of the worst mishaps – even those endured by passengers quarantined aboard the Diamond Princess — can be minimized. Here, lessons that every traveller can take away from their experience.

Always bring extra medication

Among the most pressing issues during the first few days of the Diamond Princess quarantine was that passengers began running out of prescription medications. As the quarantine began at the very end of a sailing, many passengers already were running low on medicines. As the days went on, it quickly became a crisis. In a video message just four days into the quarantine, Princess president Jan Swartz said the ship’s staff had received 2,000 requests for medications.

In the end, Princess came through in a big way, promising to fill all the requests (and at no charge to passengers). But even with the help of the Japanese Ministry of Health, it hasn’t been easy. Not all of the medications are available locally. The number of requests has been so enormous that the line has had to prioritize them based on the urgency of the need.

For some passengers, it has been a serious situation. There were travellers with diabetes who needed insulin, while others required heart medication.

Our advice: If there is a medicine you need to take regularly, always travel with a supply big enough to carry you through not just a few days but a few weeks of unexpected delays. As the Diamond Princess situation shows, you just never know what could happen.

In our new guide to staying healthy when travelling, we also suggest packing half of your medicine in your carry-on bag when flying, so it’s easily accessible while you’re in transit. Pack the other half in your checked luggage. On the off chance that airport security confiscates your medications, it’s good to have them separated.

Load up on media

We live in a Brave New World where seemingly endless entertainment is always just a few clicks away. Except when it’s not. Like when you get trapped for two weeks on a cruise ship.

With passengers restricted to cabins during the quarantine, Princess quickly beefed up the television and film variety on cabin televisions. But even with the additions, the range of on-demand video was a far cry from what you get at home on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Plus, as is still sometimes the case with cruise ships, the internet on Diamond Princess hasn’t always been lightning fast, meaning passengers can’t just live stream whatever they want in the moment.

Whenever I travel by ship, or head anywhere off-the-beaten-path, I always load my iPhone with plenty of episodes of my favourite podcasts and shows from Netflix. That way, if I find myself cut off from the internet, or with internet too slow to stream, I’ve got a back-up plan.

Just two years ago, on a sailing across the Russian Arctic on a small expedition ship, I found myself without internet or satellite television for nearly a week (apparently, the Russian Arctic is so remote that even globe-circling satellite companies don’t bother with it). Luckily, I had hours of the NPR podcast “Hidden Brain” on my iPhone to keep me engaged, plus lots of “My Favorite Murder” episodes to spice things up.

Never travel without your work computer

Yeah, we know: You go on holiday to get away from it all. We respect that. But on the oft chance you’ll be delayed getting back to the office after a getaway by a day or two (or 14), it can come in handy to have your work computer — and any key work files —with you. This is, of course, assuming you have the kind of job that you can do with nothing more than a MacBook.

I long ago decided I would never go anywhere without my work computer. Even when I just head to the Jersey Shore for the day, I bring it along. You never know. I was once able to work (and basically live) out of a Starbucks in New Mexico for several days in 2012 when my flights back to Philadelphia got cancelled during Hurricane Sandy. It turns out I was better off where I was, as my home — and home office — lost power for several days.

Have a pet care contingency plan

We haven’t seen many comments from Diamond Princess passengers on Twitter or Facebook expressing worry about their pets. But we’re sure there was at least one person scrambling to get in touch with a pet sitter or family member following the quarantine.

Even if you have a reliable friend watching Rover, would this friend be able to continue the service for a week or more if you were waylaid? It’s a good idea to game theory a few scenarios with your pet care provider before you find yourself in a crisis.

Related: The best pet-sitting options for travelling pet parents

Consider booking air through your tour company

Booking air through a tour company may be a controversial concept. No matter what we’re planning for a holiday — whether it be individual travel or an organized tour or cruise — we usually like to micromanage the air portion of our trips. We’re probably using points for the air, or at least trying to maximize the number of miles we’ll be receiving. We’re all about labouring over every aspect of the flights from routings to plane types and seat locations. In short: We want to do it ourselves, not leave it up to an air department at a tour operator or cruise line.

That’s all great, until you get into a situation like we’ve seen with cruise lines in Asia in recent days. With some countries turning away ships due to coronavirus fears, lines have been making some significant changes to embarkation and debarkation ports, which has left passengers scrambling to rearrange their flights to and from ships. Some ships that were scheduled to sail out of Hong Kong in coming weeks now will sail out of Singapore, for instance. One vessel, Holland America’s Westerdam, has seen its debarkation port change multiple times.

The advantage of letting your tour operator or cruise line book your air is that it’s their problem when things go wrong. In the case of the Westerdam, for instance, Holland America initially said it would rearrange flights home only for passengers who had booked flights through the line’s Flight Ease program. Others on board were left scrambling to rearrange return flights on their own, mostly at their own expense (Holland America did offer to cover some change fees). The line has since said it would arrange and pay for all passenger flights home — but that’s not always a guarantee.

I’ll admit, I am loath to let cruise lines arrange my flights. Cruise line air departments are notorious for coming up with convoluted routings on seemingly random carriers. For a flight back from a river cruise on the Danube recently, one line tried to route me from Munich (MUC) to Newark (EWR) through Toronto (YYZ) on Air Canada, even though there was a perfectly good and similarly priced nonstop routing between the two cities on United. The line’s bulk air agreement, no doubt, was with Air Canada and not United. Because of experiences like that, I am firmly in the micromanage-my-air camp. That said, it’s at least worth considering the peace-of-mind that booking air through a cruise line (or the operator of a land tour) will bring.

Consider travel insurance

This is a tip that comes with some caveats. Trip cancellation and interruption insurance provides reimbursement of a specified amount per person, per trip for eligible travel expenses or arrangements that must be cancelled or interrupted. But policies vary on the definition of eligible reasons for cancelling or postponing a trip and the types of expenses that can be reimbursed. As many Asia-bound cruisers have learned in recent days, most policies won’t cover you if you simply decide not to travel — even if your decision is based on avoiding an outbreak of illness at your destination.

That said, most policies — including those provided by a premium credit card — do cover trip cancellation or interruption if you’re quarantined by a physician. And, some policies offer cancellation or interruption protection if your destination is under a mandatory evacuation. You also should be able to get at least a partial refund for a cancelled trip if you purchased cancel-for-any-reason trip insurance. Be sure to talk it over with your insurance company before you pull the trigger on cancelling.

Always pack a few emergency snacks

In the confusion of the first day of the Diamond Princess quarantine, food service was one thing that broke down, according to those on board. One heavily quoted passenger, David Abel of Oxfordshire, said he risked going into a diabetic coma after not having food for 18 hours. Food service eventually ramped up. But even after it did, the diversity of offerings wasn’t nearly what it was like during the days of regular cruising aboard the vessel.

Obviously, you probably aren’t going to ever pack enough food for a 14-day quarantine. But if you have special dietary needs or just want to be sure you have something to keep you going during an unexpected travel delay, it doesn’t hurt to keep a few emergency snacks in your travel bag. Many of us at TPG have a habit of travelling with at least a few tide-me-over items.

Featured image courtesy of Princess Cruises

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