Holiday Disaster Management

After we lost a bag containing our passports, credit cards and cash while on holiday abroad we discovered how involved it can be to sort out the resulting mess, despite having taken what we believed to be reasonable precautions.  Here is a summary of some of the problems we faced and what might be done to mitigate them.

Before you leave home

  • Make a copy of the detail pages of your passports.  We were asked for details like passport number, place and date of issue and expiry date, which are hard to remember.
  • Subscribe to a card protection service, which maintains a list of all your debit and credit cards and can cancel them all and arrange replacements after a single phone call.  We used Sentinel and they were fantastic, returning our international phone calls 24/7 and organising the wiring of emergency cash as well as cancelling all our cards.
  • If you share a credit card account with your travelling companion avoid taking both cards with you, as losing one will necessitate cancelling both.  It is better to have separate credit card accounts so if one is lost the other can still be used.
  • Keep the receipts for all foreign currency purchases.  Your holiday insurance company will require proof that you actually had the cash you claim to have lost.
  • Inform your bank and credit card companies of your intention to use their facilities abroad.  Our bank refused a valid cash withdrawal because it came from an unfamiliar, and therefore suspicious, location.
  • Make sure you have details with you of any account you might need for emergency cash, as you will have to pay for it before it can be wired to you.
  • It makes obvious sense to have comprehensive holiday insurance in place, but be sure to take the policy document with you for emergency phone numbers and check lists.

First actions on discovering a loss

  • Check that the loss is real.  Starting cancellation and recovery procedures and then finding that it is a false alarm can create almost as many problems as a real loss.
  • Cancel all lost debit and credit cards.  As this can be lengthy and expensive from a foreign hotel, ideally make one reverse charges call to your card protection service.
  • Report all losses to the local police.  Generally, lost passports must be reported in person at a police station, but reporting other losses can often be done by phone.
  • Contact your insurance emergency line.  Ours provided helpful advice and organised our emergency funds.
  • Contact the local British Consulate, High Commission or Embassy.  Replacing travel documents often takes time, so the sooner you start the process the better.
  • Minimise your expenditure until additional funds arrive.  Our hotel had already taken a contingency payment from one of our credit cards, so we were able to charge items to our room up to the amount approved.

Replacing passports

Losing your passport while you are outside your home country means that you will need either a replacement or an emergency travel document in order to return home.  If you plan to travel anywhere else by sea or air then you will have a similar need before departure.  If you need to replace a lost UK passport while abroad then the procedure is as follows:

  • Attend a local police station in person and report your loss.  Request an official loss report or at least the official incident number, police station address, telephone number and responding police officer's identification.  This is a must.
  • Visit the nearest British Consulate to complete a lost passport declaration and obtain a passport application form and completion notes.  Consulates can provide advice, and issue emergency travel documents for a single journey home if you need them in less than five days, but cannot issue new ten year passports.
  • Obtain two passport photos, ensuring that the photographer is aware of the UK passport requirements concerning pose, size and finish defined in the supporting notes.  These may be different from the local regulations for non-UK passports.
  • Have the Consulate staff check your application, as it is easy to make silly mistakes in a stressful situation, and then send it with all the necessary documentation by the quickest method to the passport office at the nearest British Embassy or High Commission, usually located in the capital city.
  • Payment of passport fees is expensive and cannot be made in cash.  Our replacements cost over twice the standard fee charged in the UK, and had we not had a helpful friend with a credit card we would have had to purchase a cashier's cheque from a local bank.
  • The Consulate staff urged me to send my driving licence with our applications as one proof of identity, but I refused and sent a copy of the detail pages of our old passports.  Just as well, as the subsequent collection of our wired cash required an original photo identification, and so did our next hotel when we could not produce a valid credit card.
  • Expect your new passports within five to seven days and direct the delivery accordingly.  One of our passports was nine years old and predated the database including digital photos, so issue and delivery took the full seven days.  Ideally have them delivered to a conveniently located British Consulate for collection, as a hotel may not be the most secure destination.
  • If all else fails then ask your airline to bring you home without a passport, and explain your situation to UK immigration on arrival.  Our emergency service claimed that most airlines will help in this way, and it is going to be a lot easier to argue your case at home than with foreign authorities.

The replacement of our passports caused us by far the most angst, mainly because of the uncertainty about them being available for us to travel home.  In the event everyone was very helpful and understanding, and we had our documents in time and on schedule.

Debit and credit cards

We take the security and convenience of travelling with plastic for granted, but when you lose your cards you feel bereft.  Your first concern is the fear of misuse, then how to pay for essentials like food and travel, and eventually how to persuade hotels and rental companies to give you credit.  Here are a few essentials:

  • Cancelling all your cards solves the first problem but worsens the others.  So when travelling with a companion split your cash and each carry different cards, so the loser can be funded by the other person.  If travelling alone then leave some reserve cash and plastic in the room safe or hotel deposit.
  • Debit cards may not be an obvious choice for overseas funds but they can give you fast access to cash via an ATM, and if you share a bank account with a companion the cancellation of one debit or cash card will not usually cancel the other one on the same account.  Our thanks to Nationwide for honouring my debit card after my wife's debit card on the same account had been cancelled.  Lloyds TSB were not so obliging.
  • When assessing your cash needs be aware that hotels often require a cash deposit if you do not have a valid credit card to offer as security.  Even though our accommodation had been prepaid one of our hotels required $100 a day security deposit and another took an additional $200 in case we smoked in our room!  This can have a bad effect on your cash flow.  If you use a debit card then any unused amount will be returned to you in cash on departure.
  • Unless you have an American Express card it is unlikely that you can have replacement cards delivered to your overseas address within a reasonable time scale.  Therefore we opted to have our replacements sent to our home address.
  • Internet access to cancelled accounts is almost always blocked.  However, I did discover that one of my debit cards still worked by finding I was still able to access the account online, and I was also reassured that the others had been closed.

Despite our best endeavours one of our credit cards was used four times, in ever increasing amounts as the thief's confidence grew, in the couple of hours between loss and cancellation.  I concluded that my card providers' habit of continually increasing my credit limit to a level many times my need is both unnecessary and too risky, so I have capped them to limit my potential liability to fraud.

Insurance claims

Arriving home safely after enjoying our rescued holiday I thought the worst was over, but sadly the real hassle was just about to begin.  As for many issues in life, with insurance policies the devil is in the detail.  I hope our experiences might help those similarly blighted:

  • Our travel insurance covers loss of passports, so I thought.  The small print says the cover provides emergency travel documents, not the replacement of full passports.
  • Our baggage is covered by my home policy personal effects, but does not include our passports, cash or driving licence.  Our travel insurance covers emergency passports and cash, but not personal belongings.  Both policies have a 50 excess on each category of loss for each person insured.  The result is two detailed claims for a fraction of our real losses.
  • Insurance companies demand original receipts and other documents.  How do you send originals to two companies?
  • The paperwork is frightful.  One of my insurers wanted our five page detailed itinerary, five page police report, insurance schedule and renewal (surely they had a copy!), copies of our policy and schedule with our other insurer, and receipts for everything.  Who asks for taxi receipts when dashing between hotel, photographer, police station and consulate?  Can you remember how much you paid for prescription sunglasses, let alone produce an original receipt?

I conclude that holiday insurance is there to mitigate the worst of a serious loss, like a medical emergency, but otherwise it is largely a waste of time.  If you can be bothered to demand and retain a receipt for everything and complete a plethora of badly written insurance claim forms then you might recover some loose change for your next holiday.  My favourites from a credit card loss form are:

    Is the card in your possession?
    Did you sanction the fraudulent transactions?

Well, it lightened what was otherwise a tedious and frustrating exercise.

Conclusion

The obvious conclusion is the need to pay attention to your personal belongings, as their loss can result in angst, monumental paperwork and unrecoverable expenses.  However, by learning from our experiences and taking a few basic precautions you might make such a loss a little less demanding.

Brian Halling - 2008