One of the fears of traveling internationally has to be the thought of losing an item of great importance in the midst of unfamiliar travel and hectic schedules. The worst possible anxiety is associated with losing money, phones, or passports. A few months ago, I lost all three in one fell swoop. It was completely nerve racking and I wouldn’t wish the experience on my worst enemy, by I’m here to say I lived through it and you can too, if heaven forbid, you must. Here’s my story and what I would do differently.
My husband and I travel quite a bit for pleasure (five international trips taken or scheduled for this year, as well as several domestic flights). I would consider myself an above average organizer and I’m meticulous when it comes to packing and knowing where everything is. When traveling, I live with the philosophy that “less is more,” so I travel light with only the items I absolutely must have. I have a system for keeping like items together to make traveling as hassle free as possible. That being said, losses and theft can still happen, even under the best of circumstances. I wish I could say that this time it was completely out of my hands, but it was totally my fault.
My husband and I were visiting England in January. We had spent 4 days in London and we were on our way to the Gatwick Airport to pick up a rental car so that we could spend the rest of our 5 days touring the countryside. We were traveling by train with all our luggage. I hadn’t really slept well since I’d been in London, mostly waking up at 2:00 am and not being able to go back to sleep, thanks to jet lag. I was exhausted, and decided to take a little nap on the train, knowing that I had about 40 minutes until we reached our stop. I always travel with a small cross body bag with only the bare necessities. This particular bag I had purchased in Italy the previous year and it was just large enough for my phone, one credit card, one debit card, my passport, some lip gloss, and some cash. I ALWAYS keep the bag on my person at all times so that I’m hands free, but this time I must have decided to take it off to get some rest.
I woke with a start to the announcement that we were at Gatwick Station. When I opened my eyes I realized that my husband was behind me gathering our luggage. I didn’t know how long the train had been stopped so I grabbed his backpack from the seat in front of me and then met him to gather my suitcase. They only allow about 10-20 seconds between stops for everyone to depart so I felt rushed. We got off the train and I realized with panic, about 5 seconds after the train went speeding off, that I’d left my bag! I alerted an employee immediately and he directed us to an information booth upstairs.
The employees got on their two-way radios and were trying to intercept my bag at the next stop. Although I was panicked, I had full reason to believe that my bag would be returned within no time. There was only one other family on our train car, and I really felt safe the whole time we were in London so I wasn’t really worried about someone misusing it. The employees, however, seemed less than inclined to help in any speedy manner. They acted as if this was the most casual assignment they had to deal with all day, nonchalantly visiting with each other in the midst of making calls. After about an hour and a half, a train employee half-heartedly told me that they couldn’t find it and there was nothing more that could be done. I was in shock and absolutely devastated. With all my pre-trip planning and scheduling I didn’t have time or energy to deal with this.
We had timed tickets to visit Stonehenge about 4 hours away, and we’d wasted way more time on this than we could afford so we finally got our rental car and headed west, figuring that we’d just have to sort it all out later. Still, I think a part of me was really thinking that my bag would be turned in and I’d just need to pick it up before our flight.
It wasn’t until that night when we got wi-fi in our B&B in Bath that it fully hit me and hit me HARD! My husband looked online for information about how to proceed. We learned that we would have to go back to London to the American Embassy for an emergency passport in order to leave the country. An accompanying video on the website, assured that this happens all the time and to follow these few steps and we’d be all set. It said the first step was to make an appointment with the Embassy. This was on Tuesday night. To our shock, there were only two appointments available between then and when we needed to fly back on Sunday: Thursday morning at 9:00 am or 9:15 am. We had booked a stay in a historic castle for Wednesday night, and we just had to forego our stay without refund and head back to London, missing several things we wanted to do.
I was a complete basket case that night, and hardly slept. This is as close as I can imagine to having a full-on nervous breakdown, no exaggeration. I was inconsolable. I think my over-reaction was in part due to lack of sleep and coming down with being really sick. I was so upset that our plans were going to be changed and that I had lost things that I really needed. It was all so costly financially as well as time-wise.
The next morning, I called the debit and credit card companies to report my cards missing. I had been nervous about reporting them earlier because I was afraid since my husband and I have joint accounts that when my card was cancelled, his would be too, and then we’d really be up a creek. I was reassured with both companies that we could still use his cards while mine were reported missing and that they would issue me new cards to my home.
A knew of a friend of a friend who lived in Daventry, about an hour and half away from London. Although I had never met her before, I contacted her to see if we could use her printer because we had some required paperwork to print for the Embassy. She was our Godsend, and we ended up staying at her house the rest of our trip although we hadn’t planned on that when I first called her. We saw the sites in Bath that we had wanted to Wednesday morning, then headed straight to her house about four hours away.
Once in Daventry we had a hard time accessing and printing the information required. The site would lose our information time and again. It was also while at this site that I officially declared my passport as lost/stolen. It was made known that if someone tried to use it at this point that they would be immediately arrested. Finally, we got everything submitted and had a hard copy about midnight.
Our new-found friend offered to drive us into London. She parked on the outskirts of the city and we took the Tube to the Embassy. We were sweating bullets because we were about 15 minutes late for our appointment. We literally ran up several escalators and across several blocks. I envisioned them turning us away and making us re-schedule and I knew there were no other appointments available. It was now or miss our flight. Luckily, that wasn’t the case. In fact, no one ever asked what time our appointment was. The appointment times ended up being mere suggestions.
We came panting up to an Embassy employee lady with a clipboard outside. We told her our name and she crossed us off the list and directed us to a long line of Americans in the same boat as we were in. It took another 20-30 minutes of waiting before going through a security scan. Then we were directed inside the building and into a large room that resembled a typical DMV type operation. There were about six windows with attendants, several people waiting in lines at each, and about 50 people waiting in chairs. The next two hours or so were spent waiting in lines and waiting in chairs.
The paperwork that had taken so long to enter and print was useless. They wanted the same information filled out by hand, even after I gave them my hard copies. I filled that out, turned it in and was given a number and told to take a seat. At that point, I filled out more paperwork, and was seated again. My number was called to give them my passport photo (which I had taken at a post office in Bath) and told to wait again. I was then called to anther window to pay $135 and then, you guessed it, back to waiting. Finally, I was given my emergency passport and we left. It was just like a regular passport, including the photo, but without as many pages for stamps.
What I wished I had have known or done differently:
- Now I know about the Find My Friend app and the Google phone alarm. If I knew then what I know now I would have tried to locate my phone (and accompanying bag) more vigorously and not rely exclusively on the train security to find it. I could have used my husband’s phone to find a GPS signal on my phone and send an accurate location to the train personnel. When I got home, I looked up my Google photos account to make sure that I still had access to all the pictures I had taken on my phone up to the point it was lost. To my surprise, I saw that a couple days after my phone had been missing someone had been taking selfies with it. I was able to lock my phone at that point. It still freaks me out knowing a stranger had the audacity to use it. Now, at least, I knew that it had been found. My credit/debit cards were never used, so I think this was more a case of someone thinking they’d scored with a new-found phone and cash versus someone deliberately wanting to do harm. The train lost and found and security were basically useless and did very little to help. They gave me their phone number to call later to see if anything had been recovered, but they hardly seemed interested in helping even at the beginning. I had an Android phone and learned that I could have set an alarm to activate, at which point my phone would have hopefully been turned over to security who could have got it back to me.
- In retrospect, I wished that I hadn’t had tried to follow all of the Embassy rules so strictly. The appointment time and paperwork totally stressed me out and they were unnecessary in the end. I wish that I would have continued with our vacation as planned and not tried so hard to make it back to London for the appointment day and time they gave. At the Embassy, I overheard a man saying that he’d just come from the airport after realizing he didn’t have his passport and that he had just missed his flight. There’s no way that he could have made an appointment in advance. I’m sure in emergency situations the Embassy would accommodate. When I was there a large portion waiting for passports were parents with newborns. Since their infant couldn’t leave the UK without documentation, these parents were there to obtain that shortly after birth. These cases are best handled with an appointment. I’m still puzzled about why it was necessary to print off the paperwork when they asked me to handwrite the forms anyway. That being said, if you can make an appointment without a huge sacrifice of your time and print out forms pretty effortlessly, definitely go that route, to be on the safe side. I just wouldn’t stake my whole life on them.
More about the American Embassy and passports:
Embassies are American government offices in foreign countries. They are for American citizens, mostly those living abroad, but also for visitors. As far as I know, every foreign country has one American Embassy. They issue anything a government agency would do in the US. They observe American holidays, just like any government office in the United States. They are only open 9-5 on weekdays. They also only take US dollars and not the currency of the country that they are in, at least this was the case in London.
An emergency passport is good for up to one year. The $135 I paid was entirely credited for my new passport. I applied for a new passport the day after I arrived home and I didn’t have to pay anything more. If there was a silver lining in any of this, since I was on my ninth year of a ten year issued passport this was a good time to be forced to renew.
My bag and accompanying phone and passport were never recovered, despite checking up on them repeatedly. I’m still a big believer in cross-body bags with only the necessities inside. My daughter and I visited Italy a couple months after this experience and I had no problems at all. I’ve also applied for and received a Global Entry card, which allows me to be pre-trip checked for both domestic and international flights so I don’t have to go through pre-boarding security. My global entry card also doubles as an official form of identification. When traveling I keep in in another bag so that if necessary I could still get out of a foreign country even if I don’t have my original passport. Other than missing sleeping in the castle and seeing a few sites on the far west side of England, we were still able to see the places that we’d planned originally and it all worked out.