Deadly wildfires, raging floods, dangerous heat waves, powerful storms - they’ve all been unleashed in busy travel destinations as this overheated summer sets grim record after record.
The stream of disasters are providing a tough reality check for throngs of people who are exploring the world in force this peak travel season, seeking a release after staying home or close to it during the early years of the pandemic.
“We’re seeing more weather-related, climate-related events than ever before,” said Dale Buckner, CEO of security services firm Global Guardian. “The power of these things and the speed at which they’re moving seems to be ever-increasing.”
High temperatures can scuttle a day’s itinerary. A summer storm can unleash floods. And as the world has witnessed amid Maui’s devastating blazes - and those in Greece last month - an island day can turn into a fiery nightmare. In Maui, officials and locals are asking visitors to reschedule immediate travel plans or divert their visits to other islands.
Experts say travelers should not assume they will be unscathed by natural disasters. Here are ways for people to prepare and respond in worst-case scenarios.
Be prepared for evacuations
Michael Rogers, a security director at travel security firm International SOS, said in an email that specific preparation depends on where a traveler is and what threats they face. But in general, he said they should always be aware that the situation can get worse quickly - or that evacuations could be delayed if moving is not safe.
“You need to prepare to be flexible, and ready to move at short notice,” he said.
• It’s crucial to keep your phone charged. Use devices sparingly if power goes out.
• Maintain quick access to passports, visas, licenses and other documents.
• In the case of a wildfire, be prepared for road closures, suspended airport operations or power and cellphone outages. Rogers said travelers need to leave the affected area immediately and follow evacuation orders. If it’s impossible to leave, he said to call 911 or a similar number abroad, wear an N95 mask if available and try to take protective measures in place.
• For flash floods, evacuees need to get to higher ground right away and should not try to walk or drive through flooding, Rogers said.
Buckner said travelers should only set out on a trip if they can answer key questions, including how they would be treated or evacuated if they get sick or injured and what they would do if they found themselves stranded, hacked or kidnapped. He said people need to read the fine print of their insurance policies to make sure they know when they can expect help or coverage.
He recommended firms like his that provide medical and security evacuation; in Maui, he said, the company has helped 167 clients evacuate by bringing in boats, charter planes and helping relocate people from homes, hotels or condos.
Haven Overman, a travel agent with Aloha Hawaiian Vacations, advises all her clients to be alert. Visitors who aren’t working with a travel agency especially have to “take matters into their own hands,” she said. “You’re going to have to follow the news for that area, follow what’s going on with the weather.”
She also recommended travelers familiarize themselves with the emergency alert systems. A tourist visiting Hawaii, for example, should know alert sirens are used to give tsunami warnings. She said travelers would do well to talk to hotel workers, too.
“Ask about evacuation routes. . . . Don’t wait until everyone’s panicked,” she said. “If you do need to evacuate, where is the evacuation route? Where are the shelters? . . . Try to be proactive rather than reactive.”
Travel adviser Heather Christopher, owner of HC Travel Firm, said visitors need to pay attention when they’re told to leave.
“Get out. Be respectful,” she said. “If you want to be a good traveler, then you need to be respectful of the people who live and work there. That’s their daily life. You get to go home safe and sound. At the end of the day, their lives are ruined.”
Ann Castagna Morin, founder of Massachusetts-based travel agency Your Dream Vacation, recommends all her clients enroll in the U.S. government’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which allows travelers to register their itinerary and addresses. In case of a disaster, local embassies know to alert and look for you.
“It also can help family members reach you if there is an emergency back home,” she said. “Always leave a copy of your itinerary with a friend or relative.”
Key items to pack
In case of an emergency evacuation scenario, travelers should probably think about what not to pack. Rogers said travelers fleeing from a disaster may not be able to bring all their luggage along.
“Doing so could limit their ability to move quickly, but also simply may not fit on whatever vehicle may be used to move them to safety,” he said in an email.
If that’s the situation, they should tote the essentials:
• Communication devices like phones, tablets, laptops and chargers.
• A change of clothes
• Important documents
• Water and food that is light to carry but high in energy.
• Cash is good to have on hand, especially if a storm or fire knocks out power and cellphone service.
Christopher said travelers should always bring extra medication as a general rule of travel - “especially if your life is dependent upon it.”
A military-style Meal, Ready-to-Eat - or MRE - could be an option for a traveler who “wanted to go to the nth degree” in preparing for an emergency, she said.
Thousands of people on Maui lost cellphone service because of the wildfires. Adam Bardwell, a security operations manager with Global Rescue, a corporate travel and crisis risk management firm, suggests travelers carry a satellite messaging system. His top choices are Bivy Stick or Zoleo, which can be used with Bluetooth, or the stand-alone Garmin inReach.
“If you’re going to a place that has limited [exits] and limited cellphone service, the satellite communicator is absolutely necessary,” said Bardwell, whose company assisted two travelers on Maui. “It doesn’t matter where you are, you have to be able to make the call for help.”
Check extreme weather forecasts
Rogers said travelers should make sure they are set up to receive key messages from authorities on their phones. That’s where alerts about flash floods and wildfires will typically appear.
“You do not need an app or subscription to receive these - you need to merely ensure you have cell service and location access enabled,” he said in an email.
He also recommended that people check the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center, which forecasts severe storms and fire conditions. Local emergency management offices will often send alerts, as will the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Natural disasters don’t follow a strict schedule, but they do have seasons:
-Atlantic hurricane season officially runs from June 1 through Nov. 30. This year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is projecting an “above-normal” level of activity.
-Wildfire season typically occurs during the hot, dry months of summer, with a few early and late fires surfacing in the spring and fall. However, the U.S. Forest Service said wildfires have become a year-round threat because of drought conditions.
-Tornadoes peak during summer, roughly May to July and between 4 and 9 p.m., depending on the region. But, NOAA warns, “tornadoes can happen at any time of year.”
Consider travel insurance
Denise Ambrusko-Maida, owner of Travel Brilliant, a travel agency in Buffalo, recommends travel insurance to all of her clients.
“Travel insurance protects your health, safety and investment,” she said. When choosing a policy, consider the level of risk at your destination, such as its remoteness, vulnerability to natural disasters and emergency preparedness.
At the very least, Ambrusko-Maida recommends a policy that covers trip cancellations caused by illness and or a death in the family, travel delays and interruption, lost baggage and emergency medical care and evacuation.
Insurance only covers unforeseen events; the Maui wildfires are now a known incident, so if you buy a policy now, it won’t protect you from cancellations related to that incident.
For the most latitude, purchase the “Cancel for Any Reason” benefit.
Brace for cancellations
During a disaster, flight cancellations are to be expected. While a canceled flight can be stressful, there are certain protections in place to make the experience less uncertain for travelers.
Airlines owe travelers a refund for any flight canceled, per Transportation Department Regulations. This applies regardless of why the flight was canceled if the customer chooses not to rebook. Airlines will often try to offer a voucher or flight credit first, but travelers are entitled to a refund and should be persistent. Still, sometimes asking to reschedule a flight might be best, because taking a refund could lead to buying a more expensive flight later on.
Generally, buying any sort of flexible ticket fare can be helpful if travelers might need to change their date or destination; buying tickets with a credit card that offers extra protection can also come in handy.
To know when a flight is canceled as soon as possible, passengers should download the airline’s app. These will often be the fastest way to get flight updates directly from the airline.