Expect the unexpected: 5 tips to protect your travel plans when disaster strikes
Hurricane Sandy made a mess of my hometown in New York City. But I wasn’t there. I was researching in Ecuador, ones of the destinations featured on our Top 10 countries for 2013 list in Best in Travel 2013 when the storm hit. Like many travelers, I found myself stranded for several days, trying to find out when I could get back.
It’s been a few weeks and New York City and surrounding areas are picking up the pieces. Manhattan is already mostly clicking at pre-Sandy levels, but back at the time Sandy hit the East Coast there was a lot of uncertainty. I watched as other travellers spent hours on the phone or on their computers frantically trying to find the next available flight home only to later find that later flights had also been cancelled. With the holiday travel season kicking off, it's understandable that many travellers are concerned about what happens when an act of nature disrupts their upcoming travel plans.
The unfortunate topic of 'what to do when disaster strikes your vacation' is something all too familiar. Being prepared, or better yet, knowledgeable of what to do if you ever find yourself in this situation is important. To help, we created a helpful checklist of what you should do to protect your travel plans, and what to do when disaster big or small hits.
1. Get travel insurance
I'm always asked if travel insurance is worth it. The short answer is yes. (The long answer is yesssssssss.) Especially for the winter holiday travel season, weather often dampens the best-laid plans, be it a hurricane, blizzard, or even just a small snow flurry. With a large-scale disaster, you shouldn't have to explain to an airline why you might not feel comfortable travelling to a place even if the runways are clear, so skip all that and get travel insurance - it will prevent a lot of stress if it's needed. If you're new to travel insurance, we have answers to frequently asked questions about travel insurance that can help get you started.
2. Ask questions
When in doubt, ask questions and use all of the resources at your disposal. But before you ask, it's important to know the key questions to help you decide the best course of action - for some guidance, see our article on the 5 questions to ask when disaster strikes your travel plans. Is it too soon? Does the host destination even want visitors? Can you change your itinerary? All of these and more can help you make the best choice when nature has thrown a wrench in your travel plans.
3. Know the real situation
It's hard to make a final call about whether or not to travel if you don't have a true read of what's going on on the ground. Make some calls to friends, local businesses, expats, the embassy, etc. Check online travel communities like the Thorn Tree travel forum that has an extremely engaged audience giving you real updates and how it affects travel as well. They have a true pulse on the current climate on the ground - better, often, than the local media can provide - and can help you decide if you should go.
4. Don't just cancel all together
Nothing helps a destination's local economy like tourism. If you don't do the research to understand the situation and cancel out of fear, you might be contributing unnecessarily to an economic slump and missing out on a fantastic travel experience at the same time. If it's not safe to go when planned, change the booking for the future but don't cancel entirely and cross it off your list. These places will rise again, and when they do, tourists can help keep them on their feet. For example, after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the absence of tourists from perfectly accessible and safe areas only added insult to injury. To encourage visitors to return to the region, we just released a brand-new chapter on northern Honshū (Tōhoku) as a free PDF download that provides a critical update for travellers on the area that was most strongly affected by the earthquake and tsunami two years ago. If you're curious to find out more about the current state of Tōhoku, Lonely Planet author Rebecca Milner's recent article declares Tōhoku ready and open for travel.
5. Understand the best ways to help
Beyond just doing your duty as a traveler, there are plenty of opportunities to help the destination even if they aren't ready for tourists. You can donate to local on-the-ground organisations who are providing food, shelter and clean-up efforts and there are also ways you can donate time by volunteering. Make sure they are ready for volunteers and that you're going about it properly. Often times funds and goods are what a place needs immediately following a disaster, with rebuilding to follow. Disorganised but well-meaning travellers hoping to help can easily get in the way, so it's always best to offer your assistance through a reputable relief organisation. To get started see 10 things to know before you volunteer overseas and read Lonely Planet’s Volunteer: A Traveller’s Guide to Making a Difference Around the World – the full book is available FREE for a limited time in the Apple iBookstore and as a free PDF download.
And if you're wondering about Manhattan's Christmas displays and all of the many things to do in New York at Christmas, the displays will be up and the skaters a-skatin'. I look forward to seeing you in my city soon, even if a snow storm delays your flight.
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