I never thought about an emergency evacuation plan. Now I won’t travel internationally without one
No one thinks about an emergency evacuation plan when they book a vacation. So when my Medjet membership came up for renewal late last year, I couldn’t have imagined being airlifted back to the United States during a pandemic. And I never thought a team of professionals would help me escape from Europe.
But they did. A few days ago, I found myself on the move and closely watched. I’d just boarded a flight from Nice, France, to Paris with my three teenage kids.
My phone buzzed:
“Good morning Mr. Elliott, we’re reaching out to confirm if you have boarded your flight for Paris.”
Yes, I replied to the ops center. I was on the plane. And my kids and I faced a 22-hour trip from southern France to the Pacific Northwest. Four flights, three stopovers — and a lot of messages from a company called FocusPoint International, which handles the security evacuations for Medjet.
What is an emergency evacuation?
Several companies offer emergency evacuation services. Although most of them specialize in medical evacuations, Global Rescue and International SOS also offer crisis response services such as evacuations and repatriations. You can also purchase an insurance policy from a company like Cavalry Elite Travel Insurance, which gets you home if you’re hospitalized or caught in a dangerous situation 100 miles or more from home. FocusPoint’s mission — to identify threats, mitigate risks, and respond to crises — may seem a little amorphous. But in plain English, they’ll get you out of Dodge when you need it.
I didn’t know I was covered for an emergency evacuation through Medjet and FocusPoint. Late last year, when it was time to renew my Medjet membership, I saw an option called Medjet Horizon, which includes the company’s standard medical evacuation coverage, plus what it calls worldwide travel security, crisis response, and evacuation services. I knew we were going to be in Europe for a while, so I decided to buy it.
Fast forward three months. We were stuck in Nice after the pandemic and needed to come home. I contacted my travel advisor at Valerie Wilson Travel and asked her for help to escape from Europe.
“You should check with Medjet,” she said.
A few minutes later, I was on the phone with Medjet. It turns out I was covered for an evacuation. After some back-and-forth, and a handoff to their partner FocusPoint, they decided to get us out on a commercial flight: on Air France from Nice to Los Angeles via Paris, and Delta Air Lines from Los Angeles to Spokane, Wash. That’s 7,276 miles and nine time zones if you’re keeping track.
The evacuation plan came together so quickly, I hardly had time to process it: After nearly two months of being confined to an apartment in France, we were going home.
Traveling without an emergency evacuation plan
Most American travelers go abroad without an emergency evacuation plan. Even, ahem, journalists who write books about being the world’s smartest travelers. Like most experienced travelers, I had a vague idea of what I’d do in an emergency. But traveling through Europe, I thought, “What could possibly go wrong?” I never thought I’d have to escape from Europe.
That’s a common mistake, as hundreds of thousands of other travelers learned in March. The continent was locked down, flights were canceled, and many travelers found themselves stuck overseas. A proper emergency evacuation plan addresses the following questions:
- Who’s in charge of getting me home?
- Who has the authority to make decisions about my repatriation?
- Who has access to my critical documents, like passports, immunization records, credit cards and emergency contact numbers?
- Do we know what to do when a crisis happens? Where’s the plan?
I admit, I could answer only one or two of those questions. Basically, I was traveling without an emergency evacuation plan. And I know that if I was doing it, then plenty of other experienced travelers were, too. That’s one of the reasons I’m writing this story. Please, if you’re reading this, get an emergency evacuation plan. Even if you’re going to be away for a long weekend. Know what will happen when things go wrong.
This is what it’s like to be evacuated
When people think of an emergency evacuation, images of helicopters landing on a rooftop come to mind. One of my favorite evacuation stories is Igor Natanzon’s, who was airlifted from his South Pole photographic expedition by Redpoint Travel Insurance.
But most evacuations happen by more conventional means — a commercial flight, a train, or bus. The difference is that you have the backing of a team of professionals working in a 24-hour ops center.
In the days leading up to our evacuation, FocusPoint conducted regular welfare checks. That’s a WhatsApp message followed a few hours later by an email. If you miss your check-in, they call your cell phone to make sure you’re still alive.
It felt a little over the top since we were in a safe apartment in Nice. But if we had been in a third-world country, cut off from home, those welfare checks would have been vital. Because if you’re not well, they make sure you get well.
For example, I spoke with a Global Rescue representative earlier this week who said one of its clients was stuck in Africa during the coronavirus lockdown. During a welfare check, the client said he couldn’t find food. Global Rescue made arrangements to deliver groceries to his doorstep.
“Watch for any signs of illness”
My primary contact at FocusPoint was Randy Haight, the company’s senior director for global response and protective operations. Everyone called him Doc. Before evacuating, we had several detailed conversations about the risks of remaining in France and of flying back to the States during a lockdown.
Doc explained that in an evacuation, you normally take the first opportunity to get someone out. But for us, it wasn’t that simple. The first opportunity would have required an overnight in virus-ravaged New York and possibly a second overnight in Dallas or Minneapolis. We could also stay in Nice for a few days and take a more direct route through LAX. The question was: Is Nice really safe?
One of Doc’s main concerns was our health. He asked me to double down on my temperature checks. “Please monitor yourselves daily,” he wrote in an email. “Watch for any signs of illness — COVID-19 or anything else — and let us know immediately if you or your children become sick.”
The other problem: Our apartment lease was running out. We could extend it for another week, but after that, we were homeless. And all the hotels remained closed. No matter how safe France was during the coronavirus lockdown, our time in Europe would come to an end sooner or later. It was time to come home.
In an emergency evacuation, someone’s with you every step of the way
FocusPoint overlooked no detail. The moment the door to our apartment closed and locked behind us, someone was monitoring us constantly. It felt a little bit like a worried mother texting you on your first trip outside the country, except that the concern was warranted. The risks of international travel couldn’t be overstated. Even though the airports and airlines were taking every precaution, the coronavirus was still running rampant. Only U.S. citizens and returning residents were allowed to travel back to the States.
I covered our journey home in this Sunday’s Washington Post. But I didn’t go into detail about the role of my travel advisor, Medjet or FocusPoint.
In a perfect world, all three are working together to ensure your safe return. My agent, Julie Vigliotti, monitored our flight itinerary and helped us process a cancellation for a flight I had booked a few weeks earlier. She offered to help us if we encountered any problems, which is exactly why you hire a travel agent at a time like this. I felt like I had a team working to get my family home — and a backup just in case.
What if something goes wrong when you’re being evacuated?
If we’d missed the first leg of our flight from Nice to Paris, my kids and I would have been in trouble. Unable to access our apartment or find a hotel, we would have only had one option. We could have booked a seat on the only other flight out of Nice that day, to London. At the time, the situation in London was far worse than in southern France, in terms of the risk of infection. From there, we might have had to do another overnight in New York and then another in Dallas — a four-day odyssey back to the West Coast.
That’s the value of working with a company like FocusPoint. They have people on the ground who can fix things. A few years ago, I visited the headquarters at International SOS, and was impressed with the breadth of their networks. We’re talking hospitals, doctors, translators and local fixers.
Although we made it back to the States without any complications — except maybe for a horrible case of jetlag and a touch of culture shock — it was reassuring to know that they could have solved almost any problem.
Do you need to work with a company that provides an emergency evacuation plan?
I began to look for the text messages from our virtual mom in the ops center as our journey progressed.
In Los Angeles: “We trust that you have arrived safely? Checking in to see how you all are doing.”
In Seattle: “Please let us know if boarding procedures are all successful upon your departure flight to Spokane.”
Finally, in Spokane: “We trust that you have had a safe flight home. The transportation arranged for you has arrived and is standing by.”
And, true to their word, we walked out of the airport to find a car waiting to take us home.
A day after we arrived, a FedEx package landed on our doorstep. It was an American flag and a personal letter from Greg Pearson, FocusPoint’s chief executive.
“My hat’s off to you and your family for making it through this crisis,” he wrote. He noted that his company had assisted more than 150,000 customers during the coronavirus crisis. Its services included shelter-in-place assistance, health and welfare checks, and emergency messaging services.
“I hope that you and your family can now put this ordeal behind you and when the time is right, travel fearlessly,” Pearson added.
But our journey wasn’t over. We had two weeks of self-quarantine in Uncle Pete’s basement ahead of us. Our isolation ended this morning, and I’m happy to report that we’re symptom-free.
I don’t think we’ll ever travel without protection again. At a time like this, anyone who travels anywhere should strongly consider a coverage plan that offers emergency evacuation services. You’ll probably never need it, but if you do, you’ll be relieved to know you have it. I am.
Originally published in Forbes.
All photos ©Christopher Elliott
Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher’s articles here.