In the wake of a disaster, the first thing we often think of is whether we have friends or family in the impacted destination. If we do, the impulse is to want to get a hold of them, and fast.
I will never forget the time I lost contact with my parents for a few days while they were traveling for two weeks in Ethiopia. About midway through their trip, I realized I hadn’t heard from them for more than a week (I usually get photo updates every two or three days no matter how far off the beaten path they are), and I started to panic a bit.
Thankfully, my mom had forwarded me the itinerary from her travel agency. I called and told them that I hadn’t heard from my folks in awhile and the woman replied that that was odd. Odd? OK, now I was legitimately panicking. As I was trying to figure out a way to make sure they were alive, my husband suggested I just try calling my dad’s cell phone—maybe it would work. I tried and heard it pick up, but then the call dropped. In my mind, clearly someone else now had possession of their phone, and my parents were gone. I tried once more and when I heard my parents on the other line, I started sobbing.
I can imagine that feeling of relief is considerably heightened when contact is made with friends or family who are traveling in a destination that has recently experienced a terror attack or natural disaster, such as the recent deadly attacks in Sri Lanka on April 21.
It doesn’t help that often, when calamity calls, the lines of communication are impacted as well. In the case of the Sri Lanka attacks, several social media sites were blocked by the government, including Facebook and the messaging service WhatsApp.
Here are some tips for travelers and their loved ones, for trying to connect from afar.
When technology is available
About two years ago, Facebook developed a “Safety Check” feature through its Crisis Response initiative with which users could mark themselves as “safe” during any number of natural and man-made disasters. Love it or hate it, it is a way for users to relatively quickly let their friends and family know that they are fine.
And of course, in the hyper-connected age we live in, trying to reach out via phone or instant message is one of the most natural instincts many people have when hoping to find out that their friends or family are OK in the midst of an attack or weather event or any number of potentially disruptive or worrisome incidents.
Kate Doty, managing director of Geographic Expeditions in San Francisco, said she always advises her clients to make sure they have some kind of international data plan on their phone before heading out. Depending on the type of plan travelers set up, they can at least allow for incoming calls. Many international plans will also allow travelers to make outgoing calls, too, either for an already-included international plan fee or for an additional per-call fee. And these plans also often come with data options, which provide access to the internet for using messaging services like WhatsApp or communicating through email or social media sites.
But what should you do if those avenues aren’t working for you, either because they have been shut down or because communications systems have been temporarily disabled?
Advice for travelers on staying connected
“Part of what happens in an emergency is that there is this chaos, because the dots don’t connect,” said Doty. She said that what her agency advises is “having procedures and following the procedures so that you know where to go for information, versus panicking.”
For instance, she makes sure that all of her clients provide emergency contacts before heading out, people who the agency can get in touch with as soon as Geographic Expeditions tracks down travelers. She also recommends making sure those contacts have Geographic Expeditions’s phone number, which the agency answers at any time.
Geographic Expeditions knows a thing or two about crisis and communication management. The agency had people traveling in Japan during the massive 2011 earthquake, has tracked down travelers doing high-altitude treks in Bhutan and Nepal, and had customers who checked out of the Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 12 hours before the hotel was bombed on April 21.
“This is an argument for booking with a travel professional,” added Doty, noting that in the event of any kind of crisis, Geographic Expeditions is able to connect with its ground team and quickly locate clients. The agency can then communicate that information to friends and family.
Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, co-owner and copresident of New York–based Valerie Wilson Travel, said that her agency recommends that clients set a communication protocol in advance of their trip. Travelers should have “one point person at home to call and [who can] let other family members know [that they’re OK],” said Wilson-Buttigieg, adding that the key is “just having a plan ahead of time and knowing how to execute it, because when emotions are high people often don’t think clearly."
Doty, Wilson-Buttigieg, and Eric Maryanov, president of All-Travel, all strongly emphasized how important it is for travelers to sign up with the U.S. State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). Upon enrolling, travelers are asked to provide their contact information while abroad, which helps the U.S. embassy find and contact them and provide assistance in the event of an emergency. Added bonus? After signing up, travelers receive safety and security alerts from the U.S. embassy for whatever country or countries they are traveling to.
Advice for those back at home
According to travel planners, someone at home should always have a detailed itinerary of their voyaging friends and family. That way, that person or persons will have several contacts at their fingertips to help track down their friends and relatives, including the travel agency and the hotels they are staying in.
The U.S. State Department also has an entire page devoted to suggestions for how to locate loved ones in a crisis abroad, which includes contacting the hotel, school, or organization they are staying at or working with; calling the local police; and reaching out to international aid organizations.
Doty acknowleged that although there can be worrisome gaps in communication, establishing several avenues for obtaining information in advance of travel is the best path forward for people who will be eager to make contact in the event of a crisis.
“How do we become our best travelers?” posed Doty. “I think one of the ways we do that is we have a plan in place for someone back home in case of an emergency. The days of being so casual about it, I don’t think they make us our best traveler.”