Hello, and welcome to the “Oh Shit How Am I Going To Get Home” club!
Please take your seat and hold on tight, because the next 24 hours (or more, depending on where you are right now) could be a bumpy ride…
I found myself stranded in Bogota, Colombia, after my passport was stolen by two men who sat down next to me and slid my boyfriend’s bag underneath our seats. Throw in a bout of moderate food poisoning and an imminent 35-hour journey home, and you’ll start to understand the stressful situation that I found myself in just over a week ago. Here’s everything you’ll need to do to ensure a swift return back to the UK.
The most important thing to do once your passport has been stolen is to go to the local police and get a crime number. If they can get the CCTV footage proving the crime then great, but the bare minimum you need is a local police report (it doesn’t matter if it’s not in your language, but translate it to be on the safe side that you’ve been given the right thing) and, crucially, a crime number. Take a picture of this and text or email it to yourself and someone else, so that no matter what happens, you’ll have a record of it somewhere.
You won’t get very far with your travel insurance company without a crime number. And now’s the part where I stress how important it is to get travel insurance, but also to get good travel insurance. It should go without saying that paying a little extra and reading the small print makes a huge different. I booked an annual policy with Economy Cover and am currently in the process of getting some of my costs back. In contrast, my boyfriend, George, booked with a different company whose policy doesn’t cover return flights. I know – I was just as shocked.
Call your travel insurance company and have all of the crucial details ready: a succinct version of what happened, your crime number, the date of the theft and the date you took your policy out. Assuming that you didn’t just leave your bag and wander off to explore (as the police officers at Bogota airport first assumed) you need to focus on the fact that it was stolen. Do not give any suggestions or phrases that would hint at you leaving your bag unattended, because it’s likely that your insurance company will latch onto that and leave you bereft and stranded. You’ll also likely need your policy number to hand. Ask them what they’ll cover, depending on where you’ve been left. For example, if you missed your flight home like we did, ask how much they’ll cover (…if any) towards new flights home and also the cost of a new passport. Once you’ve got the go-ahead to rebook, move onto step three.
Next up is to speak to your flights company. Hopefully you won’t be quite as unfortunate as I was, and your passport isn’t stolen approximately an hour and a half before one of two flights halfway across the world. But if this does happen, speak to your flight company to see if they’ll a) let you fly or b) let you reschedule. There are some cases (for example, if you’re an EU resident and flying across mainland Europe) when you can fly with a driving license or national ID card instead. We were due to fly home with AirCanada, who let us rebook our flights for three days later at a reduced cost. They charged us a $150 admin fee per person, plus $509 per person to rebook a flight. This was actually more than we’d paid for our return flights to Colombia in total, but I checked out how much this re-booked flight would have cost us, had we booked it there-and-then via Skyscanner, and it was around $10,000 total. So, swings and roundabouts…
Call the embassy. For us, it was the British Embassy in Colombia, which luckily was only a 20 minute drive away. It’s not worth thinking about what would have happened if our passports had been stolen somewhere on the rest of our trip, much further away from the embassy! A crucial point here: ring up in advance to make an appointment. The British Gov website wasn’t clear and suggested that we could just walk in. Which meant there were definitely tears when we found out that this wasn’t the case and we did in fact need to book in advance. There’s an online booking system, but your best bet is to ring. And ring. And ring again. Until finally someone picks up – because they’re much more helpful over the phone than via the website. As luck would have it, we managed to get an appointment for the next morning at 9am, allowing us to book our flights for the following day.
But something to note here: an emergency travel document (also known as an emergency passport) has your specific itinerary on it. So for us, it was a flight from Bogota to Toronto on May 1 and then a flight from Toronto to London on May 2. That document is only valid for that specific journey, so you need to ideally book your flights before your arrange your emergency document, otherwise it’ll be invalid and you’ll have to rebook and re-pay. It’s a bit of a catch-22 if you’re looking to fly home as soon as possible, because it can take up to two working days to get your document. But you also can’t get your document without having flights decided. So ideally do them in as small a window of time as possible. The emergency document costs £100 per person and is nonrefundable.
So you’ve arranged your appointment at the embassy and you’ve booked your new flight. Now to bring along everything you need for your appointment. You’ll need to have filled out an online application on the Gov website (find it here) and bring along proof of your homeward journey booked and also two passport photos. You’ll need to find somewhere to get these taken nearby, or you could be really organised and bring some along with your in your backpack before you’ve even left for your trip! It’s also helpful to bring along proof of your original travel plans and a copy of your travel insurance policy and details, just in case.
There’s a high chance your travel insurance policy will cover the cost of the emergency passport, meaning that you can (hopefully) claim it back. So it’s definitely worth keeping a copy of the virtual receipt you receive when you’ve purchased your emergency document online. Once you’ve been to your embassy appointment and inevitably thanked the embassy advisor profusely for allowing you to head back to England (likely the only time I have ever or will ever be thankful about going back to the UK) you’ll probably want to staple your emergency document to yourself to make sure that it gets you from A (the country you’re in) to B (the UK) in one piece. I wouldn’t suggest going quite that far, but put it in the safest place you can find it. For us, it was George’s back shorts pockets, which did up with incredibly fiddly buttons. Our emergency passports stayed there until we’d touched down at Heathrow, when they were promptly taken by border control staff, never to be seen again.
For the meantime, between all of these steps, I suggest figuring out how much money your insurance company will give you towards a hotel/travel costs and finding a nice hotel to be stressed in. If you’ve got to be worried out of your mind about how you’re getting home, it’s ever so slightly nicer to do so in a hotel with a rooftop swimming pool and a breakfast buffet so lavish that you can have endless avocado on toast and fancy pastries.