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How to Prepare for a Natural Disaster on Vacation
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How to Prepare for a Natural Disaster on Vacation

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It's important to prepare for extreme weather, but don't skip your trip for a likely small risk.

As if the pandemic hasn’t done enough to disrupt travel this year, the weather only made things worse.

2021 has been a particularly bad year for natural disasters in the United States. As of Oct. 8, the National Centers for Environmental Information reports that 18 weather and climate events have caused over a billion dollars each in damage so far this year, well over the 7.1 average number of such events per year from 1980 to 2020 (adjusted for inflation).

Climate change will likely make these natural disasters only more frequent and intense in coming years, according to Climate.gov. So what can you do to prepare for them on your next trip? Although there’s no way to avoid disasters altogether, whether at home or on vacation, there are some straightforward steps you can take to minimize travel disruption.

Know the risks

Pop quiz: When is typhoon season in Japan?

Unless you’re a trivia buff or planning a trip there, you probably don’t know that Japan’s typhoon season peaks in August and September. But if you’re booking a trip to the Pacific, you should familiarize yourself with typhoons, their potential impact and other natural hazards. A few minutes of researching online before you plan your trip can save you a big hassle during it.

Don’t know what you don’t know about where you’re visiting? A quick search for “weather [place] [month]” or “natural disasters [place]” should reveal any potential trip-disrupting events. Fair warning: This task can feel like searching for medical questions online, leaving you worried about the worst-case scenarios. Yes, volcanoes sometimes erupt in Iceland. No, one will probably not destroy your vacation rental.

In other words, don’t cancel your trip to Japan in August because of typhoon season (or not visit Oregon during wildfire season). But do learn the risks and what impact they could have on your safety. For one thing, you’ll know what to pack. You can also determine whether you need a backup plan and better understand how flexible to keep your bookings.

Maximize flexibility when appropriate

Natural disasters are unpredictable, so there’s no use overpreparing for them even during peak season. The most important step you can take to prepare for the unpredictable is to keep your travel bookings as flexible as possible.

Thankfully, booking flexible travel is easier than it used to be. Most airlines have eliminated change and cancellation fees on most fares (other than basic economy ones). This doesn’t mean you can change your flights willy-nilly, as you’ll still have to pay the fare difference, which can be quite high for last-minute changes. But you'll have more breathing room in case of natural disasters or other unforeseen events.

Look for hotel and car rental bookings that maximize flexibility if you’re traveling when natural disasters are more common. Avoid prepaid and nonrefundable rates when possible, and make sure to double-check the cancellation policy before you hit “book.”

Check your insurance plan(s)

Unexpected disasters are exactly what insurance is meant to protect you against, so make sure you’re covered well on your trip. Although travel insurance is important, there are other types of coverage you should keep in mind. Each will affect the other.

  • Travel insurance. This is actually an umbrella term for several types of short-term insurance coverage, including emergency room visits and missing baggage, that can affect your trip. Choose a travel insurance plan that will cover the biggest liabilities in the event of a disaster. Note: You can get “cancel for any reason” insurance that will allow last-minute changes to your itinerary, but it might be redundant if you already have flexible tickets.
  • Health insurance. If you’re traveling domestically, make sure your health insurance provides meaningful coverage for out-of-network care, especially if the restrictions on “in-network” are highly local. Many health insurance plans, including Medicare, do not cover international travel, so supplementary travel insurance health coverage may be your best bet for overseas trips.
  • Rental car insurance. Will you be held liable if your rental car is damaged by gale-force winds? Make sure your rental is covered by insurance provided by the rental car company, as part of your travel insurance package or through a credit card that offers rental car protection.

Make a simple plan

Just as creating a disaster preparedness plan for your home is a good idea, it’s wise to create at least a basic plan for your trip. Check out resources on Ready.gov for making a plan that can be tailored to your trip.

  • Communication. If the power goes out or your phone dies, how will you get in touch with your family or trip mates?
  • Emergency alerts. How will you receive these if you're traveling abroad without an international phone plan?
  • Evacuation. You don’t need to scout an elaborate escape plan for every hotel, but at least note the emergency exits.

Again, there’s no need to go overboard with planning for every possible scenario. But a little preparation can avert the worst, and may even come in handy during normal travel hiccups, like fire drills and dead phone batteries.

The bottom line

Disasters are, by their nature, unpredictable. On the one hand, that means you shouldn’t build your trip around them or try to foresee every worst-case scenario. On the other hand, it’s easy to build a simple plan that can take potential disasters into account.

Familiarize yourself with the risks in the area you’re visiting, create a basic plan in case of emergency and make sure your bookings are flexible and insured enough to avoid financial issues if disaster strikes. You might not be able to avoid travel disruptions — they come with the territory — but you can be ready when they happen.

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