Last Monday my rental car was broken into and my backpack, laptop, and passports* were stolen. An unfortunate situation in any circumstances, these were particularly bad in light of an upcoming flight -- from Israel to India -- scheduled for the following Tuesday (eight days later). Within two days, however, I had replaced one passport and saved my itinerary. Within a week, I had replaced everything I had lost, and at generous discounts. As I write this, I am sitting happily at a cafe, enjoying my last day in Israel and trying unsuccessfully to teach myself Hindi.
Was the successful recovery a matter of skill, or just luck? A little of both, most likely. That said, I've noticed that luck tends to come to those who think rationally and work effectively. If you ever find yourself in a crisis on the road, here's what I would do:
First, take a minute and assess the situation. Concretely, what just happened? Try and separate your emotional reaction from the situation. Your brain is likely running like crazy, but most of those thoughts won't be productive if all you're doing is worrying about an imaginary future. Stay in the present, at least at first. A good question to ask yourself is: "how are my immediate circumstances different now than they were (or I thought they were) 30 minutes ago?"
Second, start extrapolating to the possible consequences. Start with the closest in time (how will this have an impact on the rest of my plans today? This week?) and work forwards. Sometimes things might seem bad at first, but will ultimately turn out to make little difference (left your ID at home, and now you can't go on the tour? Just go tomorrow). Alternatively, something you hadn't thought of because it was too far in the future might jump out at you (It takes two weeks to get that visa, and your flight is in 16 days? Better hurry).
Third, start prioritizing. You probably won't be able to resolve the situation perfectly, and you'll most likely need to make some sacrifices. If you have a good sense of what's important to you, it'll make the hard decisions somewhat easier. You may have to choose, for example, between paying more money for a quicker flight vs. spending an extra week waiting around for a cheaper one. What's more important to you, the cost or the time? Many decisions you'll make will require a trade-off like this one, and making these kinds of decisions impulsively or emotionally is a surefire recipe for remorse.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got about travelling was that any problem can almost always be solved -- with enough money. The question when travelling often isn't "can" or "can't" as much as "cheaply" or "extravagantly." Ordering an early-bird train ticket might cost you €20, while that same ticket day-of might cost you €80. This is especially true in a crisis. If you're willing to pay through the nose, any crisis can be dealt with easily. Assuming you're not George Soros, however, a little forethought goes a long way (although hopefully not farther than you will).
Fourth, make an action plan. Who do you need to talk to, and where can you find them? Do you need to go to the embassy? To your hotel? To the police? What forms do you need to fill out? Where can you get them? Most importantly: How long will they take to process? What are your backup plans? This is where your priorities will be helpful, as they'll help you decide between your various backup plans in case Plan A falls through, or Plan B, or Plan C... you get the picture.
Fifth, act! The faster and more engaged you can be in dealing with the crisis, the better things will go for you. Time will most likely be a factor (if not the factor) you're fighting against, so work quickly. I was amazed at how many close calls I had -- often if I had waited one day longer to do X, Y or Z, I wouldn't have made it. If you start with the assumption that you have exactly enough time to reach the best possible outcome, you'll find that you were right.
Hopefully you'll never find yourself in a serious travel crisis. If you do, however, these steps should help you make the best of an unfortunate situation. Whatever happens, keep your spirits up and remember that the worst experiences make the best stories, and some of the most vivid memories.
*This would never have happened had I been traveling properly and kept my passports around my leg in my money belt. Having a rental car definitely lulled me into a false sense of security. Lesson learned!
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