It’s dejà vu all over again.

A little over a year ago I was anxiously watching another volcano erupt and eventually disrupt my vacation plans.   Now I’m watching yet another volcano do the same thing, and my first thought was “glad I’m not traveling”, and my second thought was “how selfish!”.  I know some of my friends and readers are planning trips, and my disinterest is not particularly charitable.

I’ve learned that prior planning can make these kinds of natural disasters irksome, but not catastrophic for travelers.  Here are some tips to help keep the anxiety at a minimum.  If you’re looking for what to do if they cancel your flight, click here or scroll down to the previous entry.

1. Trip Insurance – If you’re booking a flight to or from Europe or Argentina/Chile, or within Europe or Latin America, it’s best to spend the extra for insurance.  READ the policy thoroughly to make sure ‘acts of God’ such as volcano eruptions are not excluded.  If they are, look at another carrier.    If insurance is not an option, contact the airline to find out what they will do if your flight is cancelled due to ash cloud problems.  Most will allow you to rebook with no change fees, but not all are so nice.   Best to double check ahead of time.

2. Hotel bookings – try to stay away from the hotels and booking services that require you to pay in full up front.  There are many lovely boutique hotels that you can book without having to pay in full weeks in advance.  Look carefully at their cancellation policies, and call or email them if it’s not on their website.  Many are run by caring individuals that will give you a break if you’re stuck because of the ash cloud.

3. Alternate destinations.  If you’re traveling to Europe or the Southern Cone of Latin America and it looks like you may have issues getting to your primary destination, have a backup plan switching your flight to another city or nearby country and then take a train, boat or rent a car to get you where you need to go.  If you’re coming to the US from Europe, Argentina or Chile, try taking a train to a country or area not likely to be affected and fly out from there.  Once you get to the US, you can take a flight easily from any airport to anywhere you wish to go, and there are pretty inexpensive fares available to most destinations.  Don’t be afraid to get creative.  If you’d like to see how I got around the 2010 ash cloud and got home after my flight was cancelled, click this link.

4. Pack clothes that can stand a few extra days.  If you do get stuck, you don’t want to have a suitcase full of clothes that are dirty and can’t be worn.   Pack a shirt and underthings that can be washed in a hotel sink and hung up to dry overnight.  You’ll be glad you did!

5. Have a fully charged mobile phone that works in the country you’re traveling to.  Most local phones will not function outside your home country.   Contact your carrier before you leave to see what needs to be done to make your phone work in your destination country.   A SIM card is usually all that is required.   If that option is too expensive, consider renting a phone when you reach your destination.   That way if you need to rebook a flight, or find another hotel in a hurry, you won’t be looking for an internet cafe.  You can also notify the car service, hotel, friends or family if you are late arriving.

6. Have the airline’s non-800 number written down in an easily accessible place.  If you have to change your flight, the 800 number that is on your ticket, or on their website is not accessible from mobile phones or many landlines in Europe or Latin America.   Don’t rely on the ticket counter at the airport to give you the correct phone number.

7. If you DO get stuck, stay calm.   Turn on that charged mobile, pull out the non-800 number for your carrier and start booking yourself another flight, and a hotel if you can’t leave until the next day.   Pack a few extra videos or toys for the kids along with an extra book or two to keep you interested while you’re stuck in the airport.

Best of luck to everyone traveling during this summer.   I hope the Travel Gods are kind to you.  If not, remember the best way to foil them is to be prepared with alternate plans!