Several weeks have passed since Leigh Smythe Merino hastily departed Paris following the terrorist attacks last month. The Alexandria, Virginia, resident had arrived for her first-ever visit to the French capital the morning of the mass assaults on November 13.
“I felt so many emotions at once,” Merino, 42, said in an interview this week. “I was so profoundly sad about the people who had died. I was scared for the people of Paris. I was anxious. I was conflicted about staying or going.”
She was staying at a friend’s apartment a short walk from the cafe where 19 people were killed and nine were injured. After several texts and a few phone calls with her husband back home in the States, Merino decided to leave Paris the next morning.
Now that some time has passed, Merino has had a chance to reflect on that day. She never before considered what to do in the event of an emergency departure from a city, but she feels better prepared now.
“I do not want to diminish the horror of the events of that day. But I hope my experience could help other people think on their feet and act quickly,” she said.
If you find yourself in a similar high-risk scenario — one that the U.S State Department has alerting us to in its latest travel warning — Merino offers the following advice:
Contact your airline as soon as possible to rebook your flight. Airlines will be aware of the situation and often will rebook you for free and with no questions asked. Merino was wise to email her husband back in Virginia and have him call United Airlines to schedule a new flight. Given the number of other fliers trying to rebook, Merino would have had a difficult time trying to get through to an agent in France. “My husband got through right away to a U.S.-based agent, and he easily got me on a new flight,” she said. “It took only minutes.”
Keep your wits about you. Merino admitted she wasn’t thinking as clearly as normal. But she took a deep breath and took a moment to prioritize what was most important: making sure her wallet and passport were handy yet secure. To locate her emergency credit card, in case she needed it. To keep her cell phone charged. To make sure her Uber app was working to get a ride to the airport the next morning.
Try to get rest. It was impossible to sleep that night, Merino said. Sirens sounded all night. She and her friend stayed glued to the news. A thousand thoughts kept her awake. “There was no way I would have been able to fall asleep,” she said. “But I expected the next day to be tough and I tried to rest as much as I could.” Same goes for eating well, staying hydrated and otherwise taking good care of yourself.
Go to the airport far, far earlier than usual. Merino had an 11:55 a.m. flight. Anticipating large crowds and heightened security, she arrived at the airport four hours before her flight. As it turned out, the airport was packed, and security lines were chaotic and slow-moving. (In fact, her flight departed 90 minutes late because so many passengers were still in security lines.)
Muster the most patience you’ve ever had. The experience at Charles de Gaulle was frustrating to say the least, Merino said. There were few staff controlling extra-large crowds, and only a handful of officers were working that Saturday morning at passport control. Lines became masses, and people became unruly. “I kept reminding myself to keep perspective,” she said. “People were going through far, far worse in Paris. I could handle this.”
Register your trip with your government. In advance of overseas travel, Merino said she’ll now register her trip with the U.S. State Department. Doing so can give you access to information from the local embassy as well as help friends and family at home contact you in an emergency. (U.S. citizens can register themselves here; other countries have similar programs.)
Obtain international cell service. Merino also said she will contact her cell phone service provider to make sure that her phone has temporary international service; she recommends the same for all travelers who can’t currently use her phone abroad as part of their current plans.
Travel Warnings and Advisories
Travel Safety and Health Tips
— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
Having taken three weekend road trips in a row, it’s no wonder my back has been tied up in knots. And an autumn cold came on during this last trip, giving me lots more downtime at a West Virginia Airbnb cabin during the height of fall foliage season than I wanted.
I take good care of myself at home, but traveling requires a different set of healthy habits — ones I need to pay more attention to, even during long weekend getaways and small trips. Here are the articles I’ll turn to next time, and the best tips, from head to toe:
Avoiding Airplane Colds: We’re constantly lectured to stay hydrated on airplanes but rarely told why. It’s because humidity is lower at higher altitudes. This dries out the throat and nasal passages, which are the first lines of defense in preventing colds, explains IndependentTraveler.com’s Ed Hewitt. Best tip: Sip water throughout a flight to stay hydrated and you’ll be better poised to prevent a head cold.
How to Travel with Neck Pain: Best tip: Pack disposable heat wraps, or bring an empty resealable bag on a plane and ask a flight attendant for ice.
8 Expert Tips to Prevent Backache: If you must lift a heavy bag into an overhead bin, first lift it to seat level, then lift it to the bin. Don’t lift it from floor to bin in one fell swoop.
Preventing Traveler’s Diarrhea: Don’t be embarrassed — we’ve all been there. You probably know to tote hand sanitizer, but another good tip is to pack your own bar of soap and keep it in your daypack. Then you can use it at restrooms where soap isn’t provided. (For more advice, see our own guide to warding off traveler’s tummy.)
6 Tips for Traveling with Knee Pain: It’s all about the aisle seat.
Shoe and Foot Care During Travel: I tend to travel with two pairs of shoes — one set of walking shoes and the other a nicer set of flats for the evening. But based on advice from experts, I’ll be switching over to two pairs of super-comfy kicks and alternating them by day. Best tip: Clean your shoes frequently. Clean shoes breathe better.
18 Surefire Ways to Get Sick While Traveling
— written by Elissa Leibowitz Poma
We’re already used to destroying bank statements, tax forms and other sensitive documents when we need to get rid of them; now it turns out you should add your used airline boarding passes to that list.
KrebsOnSecurity, a computer security blog, recently reported that the bar and QR codes on your boarding pass can easily be decoded, revealing not only your name and itinerary but also your frequent flier number and any other information associated with it (such as your phone number or future flight bookings).
The blog points to this website as a free online resource for reading bar codes. Anyone who finds your boarding pass could snap an image of it, upload it to the site and access your information. He or she could theoretically make changes to your frequent flier account and even cancel your future flights.
How likely is this to happen if you accidentally drop your boarding pass into a recycling bin? It’s hard to say — but I’m not taking any chances. I’ll be shredding my boarding passes from now on. Will you?
11 Ways to Prevent Identity Theft While Traveling
— written by Sarah Schlichter
We’ve written often about the joys of traveling alone, including the freedom to decide what you want to do and the greater opportunity to meet new people. But going solo always has an element of risk to it as well, and that’s where a new site called My Important Information can help.
One of the dangers of traveling by yourself is that if you’re in an emergency and unable to communicate with first responders or doctors, there’s no one else to convey your wishes or share pertinent information about your allergies and medical history. My Important Information is a subscription service that allows you to enter this type of personalized data into an online profile featuring as much or as little as you wish to share. Emergency contacts, medications, physician info, medical conditions, allergies and even the location of your living will can all be uploaded to the site.
The $30 annual membership fee includes a wallet-friendly card with a QR code that can be scanned by a smartphone, as well as an emergency code that can be entered into the My Important Information website. Either option allows first responders, hospital staff and the like to access data that could save your life in an emergency.
The service isn’t just useful for travelers; you also get a window sticker and two refrigerator cards for your home, which are especially useful if you live by yourself.
Hotel Safety Tips
One caveat for international travelers: There’s currently no translation feature on the site, so if the person reading your profile doesn’t speak English, the information may not do him or her any good. A spokesperson for the site tells us that a translator is an enhancement that may be added in the future, with Spanish as the likely first option. In the meantime, because you can change your profile at any time, you may want to tailor it before each trip. If you’re headed to Brazil, for example, you can copy and paste the most important info into a service such as Google Translate and get a rough Portuguese translation to add to your profile.
You can cancel your membership at any time; if you don’t, the service will automatically renew (and charge your credit card) each year.
Want to give it a try? My Important Information is offering a special discount to IndependentTraveler.com readers. Enter the code IT10 when signing up, and you’ll get 10 percent off the $30 annual fee. (Future renewals will maintain the discount.)
15 Mistakes to Avoid When Traveling Solo
— written by Sarah Schlichter
Ever arrived early at a new destination in the morning after a long red-eye flight and not had a hotel room where you could crash?
It happened to me on my last trip, when I landed in Reykjavik, Iceland, at 6:30 a.m. on the same day I was scheduled to board a cruise ship bound for Greenland. The ship’s reception staff were willing to hold my suitcases for me, but my cabin wouldn’t be ready to enter until late afternoon. That left me with most of the day to explore the city — if I could stay awake that long.
The morning started well, with a stroll along the waterfront and visits to the city’s most famous church, Hallgrimskirkja, and its avant-garde new concert hall, Harpa. But the combination of jet lag and a long, sleepless flight the night before had me drooping after a few hours.
As long as I was walking outside in the fresh air and sunlight, I could stay relatively alert. Any time I sat down, though — at a restaurant for lunch, on a pew in Hallgrimskirkja to listen to the organist practice, or, worst of all, inside a darkened theater to watch a timelapse photography presentation on the northern lights — my eyelids got heavy and my chin drifted inexorably toward my chest until I jerked myself awake again. As the hours wore on, my pleasurable day of sightseeing turned into a forced march through the city streets until I could board my ship and finally, finally take a nap.
10 Things to Do in the First 24 Hours of Your Trip
Even if you have a hotel room booked for the night, it’s not uncommon to arrive before the official check-in time and be told there simply aren’t any rooms available yet. One alternative is to try to find a day room where you can nap and shower. I recently discovered Between9and5.com, a site dedicated to hotels with same-day check-in and check-out. Unfortunately, offerings in some cities can be slim. There’s currently only one option in Reykjavik, and it starts at more than $200 a night — more than I was willing to pay for just a few hours.
Short of sleeping on a park bench, what do you do to stay awake and make the most of your first day when you’re exhausted after a flight?
— written by Sarah Schlichter
Whether it’s courtesy of jet lag’s effect on my body or the sniffling/sneezing/coughing child in the seat behind me, it seems I return home with some sort of cold or sinus issue every time I travel, leaving me feeling like I’ve been hit by a bus.
Enter Sickweather, a website and app that use social media posts to generate alerts that tell you whether illness is running rampant in your area. Simply set alerts for wherever you’re traveling — or for your home town — and be informed when the over-sharers on Facebook start chattering about their (or their children’s) latest maladies. Sickweather CEO Graham Dodge compares the technology used to gather data and tie it to a geographic location to the Doppler radar used to predict weather.
Pros: It’s always nice to know what you’re up against, abroad or in your own backyard. Imagine catching the flu while on vacation because you were unaware it was going around the city you were visiting, or contracting Norovirus during a trip to see Great Aunt Edna at the retirement home because you had no idea there was a local outbreak. It can often be easier to prevent illness than to fight it off after you’ve already gotten sick. The alerts offer solid reminders about hand washing and other precautions. Plus, the service and the app (available for iPhone now and Android later this summer) are both free.
18 Surefire Ways to Get Sick While Traveling
Cons: Just because an acquaintance of yours tweets that her daughter has strep throat, it doesn’t mean she’s actually had the illness medically diagnosed. But Dodge tells us that with enough people reporting, the occasional misdiagnosis doesn’t matter: “The research of our advisors from Johns Hopkins University has concluded that this anecdotal data has a high correlation to clinical data provided by the CDC.” Right now, the service only gathers social media results that are in English, but Dodge says that the company will branch out as it grows. It’s worth noting that the app’s alerts will be useless if you’re planning to travel abroad with your phone in airplane mode, and although international alerts are available via the app, international maps are still in the works.
Would you try this app? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
— written by Ashley Kosciolek
Calling all hikers and international travelers! If you often find yourself in places where you don’t have easy access to safe drinking water — such as developing countries or remote hiking trails — you may be interested in a new product called the GRAYL.
This attractive, stainless steel water filtration cup works almost like a French press. You fill up an outer mug with water, then push a slightly narrower cup (equipped with a filter) into the outer mug, which forces the liquid through the filter and removes bacteria and other impurities that can make the water unsafe to drink. Check out the video below for a demonstration.
The GRAYL, which sells for $69.95, comes with a filter that removes 99.99 percent of bacteria and 99.94 percent of protozoan cysts, as well as metals and chemicals such as chlorine, BPA and lead. The filter is good for about 300 uses and can be replaced for $19.95 (or $49.95 for three).
While the normal filter is sufficient for travel within the United States or to most other developed countries, international travelers or backcountry hikers will probably want to upgrade to the Purifier, which costs $39.95. Beyond everything the standard filter removes, the Purifier takes care of 99.999 percent of viruses, bacteria and protozoa.
If there’s one downside to the GRAYL (aside from the cost), it’s the weight. It comes in at 19.6 ounces before you even fill it with water, making it a heavy addition to your daypack — but it sure beats carrying multiple disposable water bottles.
Drinking Water Safety
Traveling in a Developing Country: 11 Dos and Don’ts
Want to try it for yourself? We’re giving away a GRAYL, including both the regular filter and the Purifier, to one lucky winner. To enter, leave a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on April 27, 2014. We’ll pick one winner at random. This giveaway is open only to residents of the Lower 48 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.
— written by Sarah Schlichter
With the massive Target credit card data breach only about two months behind us, I’m not sure we’ve yet hit a “just when you thought it was safe” moment. And now, a new data breach is striking fear into the heart of consumers and, most especially, travelers.
White Lodging, a company that owns or manages 68 Hilton, Marriott, Westin and Sheraton hotels in 21 states, has experienced a data breach exposing thousands of guests’ credit and debit card data to thieves, a Yahoo Finance article revealed. The breach occurred between about March 23, 2013, and the end of the year. That’s more than nine months’ worth of credit/debit card information!
Most of the stolen data came from cards used in hotel restaurants and gift shops. USA Today has a full list of affected hotels.
White Lodge is not providing any information about the breach other than to say it is under investigation.
But perhaps what’s even more frightening than the breach itself is that it doesn’t surprise security experts.
Money Safety Tips for Travelers
Adam Levin, chairman and co-founder of Credit.com and Identify Theft911, told a Credit.com writer that breaches are inevitable. He even used the words, “None of this matters”!
What he’s really saying is that we just need to remain vigilant and monitor the charges that appear on our credit/debit card statements, because data breaches aren’t going away. He also recommends watching your credit reports (translation: use his Credit.com services).
In “11 Ways to Prevent Identity Theft While Traveling,” our own Ed Hewitt recommends checking your credit card statements regularly. While you should do this whenever you travel anyway, if you’ve stayed at a Marriott in the past year, make sure you go back and double check all your charges! You might even want to let your credit card bank know you stayed at a hotel you suspect may have been the target of a data theft.
While I’m not going to lie and say this latest data breach doesn’t scare me, what I walk away with is a renewed determination to keep doing what I’m doing and just accept that part of my traveling routine now must include actively checking my credit card statements while I’m traveling and in the weeks and months after a trip.
Keep Your Home Safe on Vacation: 9 Essential Tips
— written by Dori Saltzman
As a 5-foot-1 woman who travels alone on a semi-regular basis, I’m always on the lookout for ways to feel more secure on the road. That’s why I was intrigued when the DoorJammer crossed my desk.
The sturdy red gadget is a more sophisticated version of those little triangular wedges you can shove under a door to keep it from being forced open. It has an adjustable foot that allows it to be used on a variety of surfaces and even on uneven floors.
I gave it a try here in the IndependentTraveler.com office, once on carpet and once on a wood floor. While I wasn’t immediately sure how to work the DoorJammer just from looking at it, the step-by-step directions in the manual were easy to follow — put the flat part under the door and tighten the bolt until the engagement foot is firmly anchored against the floor. To take it off, unscrew the bolt. (In an emergency such as a fire, you can also simply pull straight up on the DoorJammer, and it will release immediately. I tested both removal strategies with no problems.)
When someone pushed on the door from outside, the DoorJammer held firm; although there was a clear gap between the frame and the upper part of the door (where my potential assailant was exerting force), the door did not open enough to let anyone in.
Hotel Safety Tips
To see how the DoorJammer works, check out this short video:
Do you really need the DoorJammer if you’re staying in a hotel with both a standard lock and a deadbolt? Probably not. But at hostels, older properties or budget hotels with only single locks or flimsy-looking chains, a product like the DoorJammer can offer an extra layer of protection. It won’t take up much space in your suitcase either: it weighs in at 8 ounces, and stands 4.75 inches high and 2.75 inches wide. You can buy it for $29.99 plus shipping and handling on Door-Jammer.com.
33 Ways to Sleep Better at a Hotel
Want to try it out for yourself? We’re giving away our (gently used) DoorJammer! Just leave us a comment below by 11:59 p.m. ET on October 9, 2013. We’ll pick one person at random to win the DoorJammer. This giveaway is open only to residents of the Lower 48 United States and the District of Columbia. To read the full contest rules, click here.
Editor’s Note: This contest has ended. The winner of the DoorJammer is Terry Kong. Congratulations!
— written by Sarah Schlichter
Every 20 years or so, often unfortunately following the crash of a commercial aircraft such as Asiana Airlines Flight 214, the topic of reversing airplane seats to face the rear of the plane, uh, rears its head in the media. To wit, see Rear-facing aircraft seats ‘safer’ in the U.K.’s Telegraph. The newspaper explains that rear-facing seats “provide better support for the back, neck and head in the event of sudden deceleration.”
As one commenter on the article notes, this idea is not really news. Just ask parents in the U.S., where the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants face backward in car seats until at least age 2. The first serious research that resulted in recommendations for rear-facing seats was done in 1952.
The Telegraph makes a raft of good points about how airlines, many of which are focused on reducing costs almost to the point of obsession and even recklessness, are highly unlikely to take on the costs associated with reconfiguring their fleets with new seats, new television screens and windows in new positions, not to mention overhauling their seat assignment systems. Besides the initial sunk costs of trashing the old seats and purchasing and installing new ones, most available backward-facing seats are heavier than the ones currently in use, at a time when many airlines are trying to reduce aircraft weight to reduce fuel consumption.
The reason the seats weigh more is important; when passengers are facing backward, the seats have to absorb much more of the impact in the event of a crash, and so need stronger and heavier reinforcements where they are bolted to the floor.
How to Survive a Plane Crash
If a bit of extra fuel seems like a minor sacrifice to make for massively increased safety, it’s informative to keep in mind how aggressive some airlines have been about weight reductions — including that of their staffers. Seriously, if Ryanair has gone so far as to cut the size of its in-flight magazines and stock less ice to reduce aircraft weight — not to mention asking flight crews to watch their weight — are they likely to put heavier seats on their planes?
I wonder also about the passenger comfort issues rear-facing seats might present, especially for those of us who are prone to motion sickness. Ever sit on a backward-facing train seat? I have, and it takes about five minutes before your brain starts sending signals to turn around — now. My recommendation: Don’t do it on a full stomach or after a pub crawl.
That said, there are plenty of first-class cabins on larger planes that alternate forward and rear-facing seats to allow for more room to recline, and for more first-class seats to be put on planes. (British Airways’ Club World, pictured above, is one example.) Readers, have any of you sat in these? What was it like?
Asiana Airlines Crash: Where Are the Safest Seats on a Plane?
All told, given the various forces of resistance to the idea outlined above, and the fact that this idea has been floated since the early 1950’s without becoming more widespread, it is probably a fair assumption that we won’t be staring at the back of the plane on takeoff — at least not anytime soon.
— written by Ed Hewitt