What to Do If You’re a U.S. Citizen Stranded Abroad Right Now

Jon Nickel-D'AndreaApril 16, 2020

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The COVID-19 outbreak has caused emergency situations in almost every country on the globe. It’s possible that you thought you’d be leaving your home for a once-in-a-lifetime vacation, only to find you woke up trapped in a foreign country that has closed its borders. You’re officially stuck in a foreign country with no apparent way home. What should you do?

Remain calm

First — while it may seem like a cliche, the most important thing is to remain calm. You’re in the same boat as hundreds of thousands of other tourists all over the world who find themselves in these unique situations. Local authorities are overwhelmed with calls, emails and visits as each traveler finds themselves in a similar predicament.

Yelling, screaming and reminding officials that you have to get home because of a personal emergency won’t get you very far. Imagine that there are 10,000 tourists stranded in a city or country. Let us assume that a standard commercial airliner has an average of 250 economy seats. If there was one flight a day from your current location to New York, for example, it would take more than a month to get everyone home.

Multiply that by the number of cities and countries that currently house stranded Americans, and you can see the sheer scale of this problem is enormous. You’ll get home — but it will take time.

Check your U.S. Embassy website

The U.S. State Department has websites for each international U.S. Embassy location, and those sites are supposed to be updated regularly.

As a good general rule, before you head overseas, you should always make sure to have the address, phone, email and website of the U.S. Embassy or Consulate for the place you’re headed printed out. If you can’t get easy internet access or you need the information quickly at hand, a printout or screenshot will do wonders.

At the moment, you likely won’t get an immediate response from your embassy. They’re going to be bombarded with requests, but it's still a good idea to get in touch.

Register with STEP

STEP — or the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program — allows U.S. citizens to register their trip with embassies and consulates abroad. If something goes sideways while you’re overseas, this at least allows the State Department to know where you are and what your plans are so they can offer assistance in times of need.

If you didn’t register with STEP before you left for your vacation, do it now. Late is better than never.

Check the airlines’ websites

Getting out of the country could be as simple as contacting an airline. Depending on where you’re located, many airlines still operate daily flights to the United States. Calling the airline for assistance could mean facing a long wait time — if you’ve got a little bit of flexibility, try social media. Many airlines allow travelers to resolve issues via chat, Facebook message or even Twitter.

If you don’t have a Twitter account, it’s easy enough to sign up now (even if you never use it again).

Check with your travel insurance provider

If you bought travel insurance before you left, you might be entitled to assistance. Terms apply with each type of insurance, so it’s important to contact your provider for more details.

Some insurance carries evacuation coverage, and some will cover medical evacuation if you became sick while overseas.

Check with your credit card

Whether or not you have travel insurance as part of your credit card depends on the type of credit card that you used to make your purchase.

Many premium credit cards come with trip interruption or trip cancellation insurance. Just like travel insurance you may have purchased, the terms and conditions for each are different and might not apply to your specific situation. A quick way to find out your credit card’s exact coverage is simply to call the number on the back of the card.

Remember that if the number is an 800 number, you can fire up Skype on your computer or phone and call for free, no matter where in the world you are.

Dust off your points and miles

If you’ve been holding on to points and miles for that “special occasion,” getting home now just might be that time. Last-minute trips can be pretty pricey, but last-minute flights might also be available using your points.

Here, you can see that a flight from Madrid to New York City is over $1,900 in cash:

But using miles, it can be as few as 17,000 British Airways Avios plus just $194 in taxes and fees.

If you can manage to find an available flight, your best bet may be to just book it. After all, getting home is the most important part of this whole endeavor.

Some airlines, including Delta, are even giving you credit for your ticket if you don’t fly. If you can’t get through to cancel before you head home on a new flight, don’t worry. A flexible rebooking policy will likely apply; we suggest you get home first and figure out your refund later.

Patience is key

As with many things in life, having patience is going to be crucial during this time. Your embassy and the State Department may be there to help, but they’re being bombarded. Remember to utilize social media contact options, send emails, call — and understand that millions of others are also dealing with less-than-ideal situations.

If you’re abroad right now, we wish you a safe trip home.

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