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Worst Travel Disasters: 6 Steps to Protect Yourself

Recent catastrophes in Japan and Christchurch have demonstrated that troubles can arise no matter where you are. Here are a few guidelines to follow, should the worst happen while you're on the road

On vacation in Tokyo last week, Winnie Cheong and her mother were at the Shibuya train station, an hour away from their hotel, when the ground trembled. At first Cheong, a Singapore resident who has been through mild earthquakes before, thought the noise was coming from the trains underneath.

After the quake subsided and people poured into the streets, Cheong headed for the nearest hotel lobby to get more information. "Surely their concierge would speak English," The hotel was already prepped for stranded people, she said, with extra chairs set up in the lobby and meeting rooms.


"They set up a drinks station, kept the loos running, helped charge our mobile phones," Cheong said. "By midnight, they handed out warm rice balls to everyone and also handed out bed and table sheets to anyone feeling cold."

Being caught in a natural disaster while on vacation isn't a common occurrence. But as we've seen with recent earthquakes and tsunamis in Christchurch, New Zealand and Japan, nature is unpredictable, and even the best emergency preparations can be infallible.

Here are a few guidelines to follow, should the worst happen while you're on the road:

Be prepared: You already have copies of your passport and travel documents, right? Carry them with you, and make an electronic backup of them as well. If you're going to another country, note the hotline for the U.S. Embassy or consulate.

Traveling to areas that have known disaster risks -- the Caribbean during hurricane season, for example -- requires another level of preparation. Look into travel insurance, and read carefully to make sure that the policy covers natural disasters before you buy. Bring copies of medical prescriptions, in case you're stuck in a country for a few days.

Be informed: Read up on your destination before you go to familiarize yourself with worst case scenarios. Ask your hotel about their disaster plan and if you're renting a condo or villa, ask the management property if emergency procedures and evacuation routes are outlined in your information packet.

Be observant: American Matt Alt tweeted that he knew that the Japan earthquake was going to be bad when locals told him to bring his shoes inside (you can read all of Matt's tweets at this link). Residents who live with risk, such as Midwesterners who grow up participating in regular tornado drills, often know what to do when the civil alert sirens go off. Follow their lead.

Be responsive: When the tsunami warning hit the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i, tourism officials had six hours to help hotels evacuate or move guests to higher floors (called a "vertical evacuation"), said Sue Kanoho, executive director of the Kaua'i Visitors Bureau. Civil Air Patrol planes went along beaches and campgrounds to notify those who didn't have access to TV or radio, she said.

Here's what she recommends: "Listen to your property management and follow their directions. Try to be as self-sufficient in the moment by bringing water, snacks, any medication, sweater. It could be hours before you are allowed back to your room/property."

Be considerate: If you're caught in a disaster situation, resist the urge to call everyone you know. "We recommend that our guests refrain from using cell phones or land lands in order to not flood the system," Kanoho said.

Such phone service disruptions can last for days. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, text messaging proved to be the best way to communicate; make sure your cell phone supports it. Cheong said that she was able to reach friends using Facebook and limited email.

Be smart: By now, most people have read about the 25-year-old man in California who was swept out to sea while taking pictures of waves. The seas may look calm to you as a casual observer, but trust the expert warnings. Don't risk your life for a photo op.

And be Positive: Says Cheong, who is still stuck in Japan: "A lot of it is staying positive. The human spirit is indomitable and perhaps the parting shot for all travelers -- earthquake or not -- we have to do what we have to do."

Got other tips? Share them in the comments below.

Travel journalist Chris Gray Faust covered the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans back in 2005. Read more travel tips on her award-winning blog, Chris Around The World (