Travel disasters: Foreign jails, lost passports and more (and how to recover)

Riding through eastern Europe is scenic but local customs and laws are not always tourist-friendly.

While we all look forward to time away from work when we can relax on peaceful beaches, enjoy local cuisine, hike pristine trails or shop in local open markets, anyone who has traveled much knows things don’t always go as planned.

There are the run-of-the-mill mishaps, such as forgetting your swimsuit on a beach vacation, missing a flight or a reservation mix-up. For the most part, those minor inconveniences are easy to recover from (you have a back-up plan for that missed flight, right?), but other misadventures qualify as travel disasters and require a little more effort to set right.

If you are paying thousands of dollars for a packaged tour or a cruise, a serious incident is less likely. But for independent travelers, all bets are off. And that’s why their travel stories are usually a lot more fun to hear. Ever heard the expression tragedy + time = comedy?

I experienced this first-hand a couple of years ago while on a bike trip through Eastern Europe.

I was riding behind two of my friends through a village in Croatia when a car made a right turn directly into my friend Sandie. She bounced off the hood onto the ground, but fortunately was not seriously hurt. The woman riding directly behind Sandie was not so lucky. She slammed on her brakes so hard that she also fell and broke her wrist.

The driver, a young woman, admitted she was at fault and apologized profusely.

The police came and the one officer who spoke English took statements from all involved, and my friends were taken to a nearby hospital while we gathered up their belongings and waited. And waited. At one point, I was asked to go to the police station where I gave my witness statement again.

In the meantime, my friends were released from the hospital and told they would need to stop by the police station to give a statement before we could leave town and head into Serbia.

That’s when things started to go sideways. After taking a taxi to the police station, their passports were taken and they were placed in a jail cell.

They were held for hours with scant information before being told they had been charged with reckless driving (on a bike!) and would have to stay in jail overnight as the judge was not available.

At this point, using Google translate, my friends frantically tried to negotiate their release. They asked if they could plead guilty to whatever bogus charges were being thrown at them and pay the fine. This was acceptable to the authorities and they paid about 200 euro each and were finally allowed to leave. Whether this was actually a fine or just a bribe is unclear.

Amazingly, their taxi driver and a passenger, concerned about their welfare, were still waiting for them outside the police station during the whole ordeal and drove them across the border into Serbia to the hotel we had booked.

It was quite an ordeal, but Sandie never tires of telling of the time she spent in a Croatian jail.

While this is a more extreme version of things that can go wrong, Alaska Airlines employees shared some more common experiences and offered up some ideas of how to avert or deal with them.

Here are a few of the more common disaster-travel scenarios:

4 Comments on “Travel disasters: Foreign jails, lost passports and more (and how to recover)

  1. With the government shut down, if flights are cancelled will I receive a refund and compensation for vacation expenditures lost as a result?

    • Hi Kristie, would you mind contacting Reservations at 1-800-252-7522? They’re best equipped to answer your question.

  2. How long before my flight commences do I need to purchase travel insurance?

    • Hi Ann. Our travel insurance partner, Allianz Global Assistance, should be able to answer your question. They are available at 1-800-496-6593.

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