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What If … You Lose Your Car Keys, Passport, Wallet, or Phone While Traveling?

July 10, 2014

keys water lost
keys water lost

Keys in the toilet, one sign that you are having a bad day (Photo: Thinkstock)

Last week, when my teenage daughter and I were driving across the country, we stopped at Dairy Queen for just a few minutes to eat lunch and grab a bathroom break. Those few minutes turned into a long couple of hours when I somehow managed to flush the car keys down the toilet in the restroom.

Yes, I flushed my car keys down the toilet. Please don’t ask how. I’m still recovering from the ribbing my husband and children gave me. 

Here’s what you should ask instead: What if this happened to me? How would I get them back — and get on my way?

We consulted Lynn O’Rourke Hayes, travel expert and owner of FamilyTravel.com, and Christopher Elliott, founder and publisher of Travelers United (a nonprofit consumer organization dedicating to helping travelers), for their tips on the best ways to cope should you ever lose your keys, your passport, your luggage, your wallet, your meds, or your phone — without losing your mind.

Lost Keys

A good offense is a good defense when it comes to key recovery. Keep an extra set somewhere safe — and probably not in your luggage, which is likely in your locked car. Ask a companion to carry them for you, or stash the alternates in a different pocket in your purse or backpack.

This strategy is especially important if you’ve rented a car. For reasons that remain mysterious to most of us, the salesperson at the rental car counter will usually hand you a keychain holding two sets of keys — in other words, the backup set is now in your hands, on the same ring as the primary set. The rental company doesn’t usually keep a backup. Go figure. 

What’s more, the company will charge you large to replace them. Hertz, for example, will bill “$200 if you lose or take the vehicle’s keys and the cost of delivering replacement keys or towing the vehicle to the nearest maintenance location.”

So here’s what you do. The second you get in the rental car, take a set of keys off the keychain and stow them elsewhere, just like you would with the keys to your own car. You might have to pay to replace one key, but you’ll avoid the other charges and — most important — be on your way. 

Related: National Lampoon’s Vacation: Could It Happen Today?

passport damaged lost
passport damaged lost

Did your dog eat your passport? (Photo: Thinkstock)

Lost Passport

I don’t need to tell you to store your passport in a safe place. Nor do I need to tell you not to give your dachshund access to that place, lest he chew the corner of it and you find out you can’t travel when you’re already at the airport in beach hat and flip-flops (I take the Fifth as to whether this scenario has happened to me).

But if you do lose or damage that crucial travel document, allis not lost. According to the US Department of State, if you are still in the United States, you can head to a passport center in a large city center and replace it in hours. But if your passport is lost or stolen abroad, you’ll need to be in touch with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate for assistance. “That’s why it is important to always stow a copy of your passport and an alternate ID in a safe place while traveling,” says Hayes. “It is also a good idea to make sure a friend or family member has a copy of the document they can send to you should you lose your extra copy.”

Pro tip: Scan or snap photos of your passport and essential documents (like the front and back of credit cards and your driver’s license), then email them to yourself. That way your salvation is just a Wi-Fi connection away.

lost luggage
lost luggage

Sad lost luggage (Photo: Thinkstock)

Lost Luggage

You already know to put medications and valuables in your carry-on bag, as well as any clothing you’ll need the first day of your trip. 

But if your checked bags disappear into thin air, Elliott recommends that you seize the moment. “Don’t leave the airport,” he says. “Most airline contracts say that you have to file a lost luggage claim within hours. What’s more, you’ll have a better chance of resolving the problem face to face with an airline representative rather than over the phone with someone you can’t see.”

Elliott recommends taking a photo of your luggage before you leave home — both the outside and the inside. The exterior photo will help the airline find your bag, and the interior one will help you prove what was inside if it’s lost forever (an unlikely outcome, according to Elliott, as most bags are eventually recovered).

Need to buy replacement items? Ask the airport representative what you’re entitled to, and get it in writing. Then consult the Department of Transportation’s “Fly Rights” publication for detailed information about how to file a claim, get reimbursed, and — hopefully — get your bags back in time to salvage part of your vacation.

Related: Confused by Airline Rules? Know Your Passenger Rights

lost wallet
lost wallet

Make sure to check your surroundings before leaving a location. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Lost Wallet

Murphy’s Law says that you’ll be in some great shopping city — Paris, say — and your wallet will go AWOL. This is when it’s crucial to file a police report, both to (hopefully) recover it and to start a paper trail for any losses you experience. Before you leave home, you make a record of what’s in there (ideally, with photos): credit cards, ATM cards, your driver’s license. Every company has its own procedure for replacing your cards, but it’s critical to contact them as soon as you can so that you’re not responsible for any unapproved charges. No record? Check your free annual credit report from all three major credit agencies. Not only will it list all your accounts, but you’ll have the info at hand to put out a fraud alert in case someone tries to steal your identity. And don’t worry, you can still fly home without your driver’s license (albeit after enjoying an enhanced security check); most states will let you start the ball rolling on replacing it online while you’re away.

Related: Scam Alert: 5 Places to Avoid Using a Debit Card While Traveling

Lost Prescription Medicine

While losing your luggage or passport can be a real pain, losing your prescriptions can be a life-or-death situation. If you’re in the United States, go to any drugstore, explain the situation, and have the pharmacist call your home pharmacy or physician; even better, if you fill your prescriptions with a major chain, a local location can probably call your meds up in its computer, on the spot. 

Abroad? Your best bet, according to the Centers for Disease Control, is to carry signed, written prescriptions with you when traveling, as well as a doctor’s letter if you’ll need to buy things like syringes that may make pharmacists (wrongly) raise their eyebrows. And if all else fails, you might need to see a doctor, as I did recently in Spain; for recommendations for English-speaking physicians, check if your credit card (like the Visa Signature card, highly recommended!) has a travel concierge service — or find the nearest luxury hotel and consult an actual concierge. They’re used to dealing with business travelers, which means they’re used to dealing with these types of things. Last resort? Call the U.S. Embassy for a referral.

Related: What If … You Get Injured While Traveling

lost cell phone
lost cell phone

Check the overhead bins before leaving the airplane. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Lost Phone

Ask any frequent traveler, and she’ll regale you with the time she lost her phone. I’m short, so for me, airplane overhead bins turn into mobile phone traps because I can’t see when my handset falls out of my bag.

So what to do? First, prevail upon the kindness of strangers and ask them to call your phone. If you’ve left it in a taxi or on a store counter, chances are that someone’s found it and is eager to earn her Brownie points for the day by returning it. Dropped it off a boat, or it repeatedly goes to voicemail? Call your cell phone service provider (the FCC maintains a list of numbers); at the very least, the store can replace it (with your same number and data if you use a cloud backup service), and, at best, you can treat it as an opportunity to get that upgraded phone you’ve had your eye on. 

If you have sensitive data on your phone, know that whoever finds it is likely to try to access it, according to Symantec. If your phone isn’t password protected (and even if it is), ask your provider to suspend service so that unsavory types can’t grab your banking information or work product.

And don’t give up hope. This guy’s phone made it around the world before it was returned to him nine months later.

Lisa McElroy is a travel writer, law professor, and mom from Wallingford, Pennsylvania. Flushing her car keys down the Dairy Queen toilet has done nothing to squelch her passion for Butterfinger Blizzards.

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