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More for Your Money: Getting out of a country in crisis

Nobody wants to be stranded overseas when trouble is afoot, so here are five resources — from travel insurance to cellphones — to consider before heading abroad.

By Jane Engle, Los Angeles Times

February 13, 2011

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When a crisis strikes a country you're visiting, it pays to have friends. By the time the U.S. government began evacuating its citizens from troubled Egypt last month, some tour operators, travel agents and private security firms had already moved their clients to safety.

Lisa Dearen of Carlsbad, Calif., knows this well. Touring Egypt when antigovernment protests threw the country into chaos, she and her husband, Dan, were whisked from Luxor to London on a chartered plane, put up in a hotel and popped into a cab to the airport the next morning, all courtesy of tour operator Abercrombie & Kent.

"They even tipped the cab driver," Lisa said.

For the Dearens, who paid more than $500 a day each for their Mideast tour, going with a luxury company paid off. Other tour operators also aid stranded clients, and even travelers with modest means can get help in a crisis. Here are five other resources:

Travel agents: Bill and Sandra Lee called their Tulsa travel agent, Terry Yee, from Cairo around 11 p.m. Jan. 29, and Yee stayed in touch with them for hours to arrange their exit from Egypt. The Lees' tour company flew them to Athens. Yee booked them from Athens to London, then rebooked their U.S. leg when storms canceled their flight through Chicago.

It usually costs nothing to book a tour through an agent. Ask whether the agent offers expanded access, such as a 24-hour emergency line; Yee gave her home phone and cell numbers to the Lees.

Travel insurers: Premiums for package policies typically run 4% to 8% of the trip cost. Some policies won't reimburse you if you interrupt or cancel a trip because of civil disorder such as what's been going on in Egypt; some may. You may at least be reimbursed for expenses related to delays.

Yee recommends adding a cancel-for-any-reason rider to your policy. It may increase the premium by 40% or more, but it also provides at least partial coverage for situations excluded by the main policy.

Most insurers offer 24-hour assistance lines that can help policy-holders book flights and hotels in a crisis, said Kathy Townend, marketing manager for CSA Travel Protection, a San Diego-based insurer.

Security and evacuation companies: These contract with businesses, schools and other groups to safeguard employees and members on the road.

One company that also sells such services to individuals — a rarity — is Boston-based Global Rescue. Its $655 upgraded annual membership includes medical and security-related evacuations, a 24-hour helpline, intelligence reports and more. By Feb. 4, the company had evacuated nearly 200 travelers from Egypt, said Chief Executive Dan Richards.

Many travel insurers cover medical evacuations in their package policies; fewer appear to cover nonmedical evacuations. Check the limits, because an evacuation can cost $20,000 or more, Richards said.

U.S. State Department: Its website for travelers, http://www.travel.state.gov, gives country-by-country security updates and general advice for safety abroad. Its embassies and consulates aid thousands.

During the Egyptian crisis, its charter flights have flown more than 2,300 Americans to safety in Europe. Evacuees will be billed for "the basic cost of a one-way commercial ticket," said Michelle Bernier-Toth, the State Department's acting managing director of the Office of Overseas Citizens Services.

Here's a free service: the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. You register at http://www.travel.state.gov, giving your passport info, trip itinerary and emergency contacts. Enrollees get State Department travel alerts about their destinations, and "if a friend contacted us looking for you, we would know how to reach you," Bernier-Toth said.

Mobile devices: Take a cellphone, and if you can't get a call through, text. During last year's Chilean earthquake, "a lot of people told us that they were able to contact their travelers that way," Bernier-Toth said. Better yet: a smartphone with Internet access too.

Because help is sometimes more than a phone call away.

jane.engle@latimes.com