“And so when the plane started to break apart,” my friend told me, “I said to my husband, ‘Unbuckle your seat belt.’ Because we don’t know how to swim, and I knew we had to jump out before the plane was over water.” This happened back in the nineties, and I’m still gobsmacked by the story. This woman, who had no special training, had the astonishing presence of mind to analyze the various dangers, act counter-intuitively regarding the seat belt, get herself and her husband to the gap where the plane was ripping in half, and jump. They landed on rocks at the water’s edge, breaking bones but surviving when many others did not.
Until that moment, I had always considered surviving a plane crash — and similar catastrophic events — to be a matter of luck. And often it is. But having a cool head and a few savvy travel skills up your sleeve can make a lifesaving difference when all hell is breaking loose. Here are tips for coping with some of life’s nastier surprises, drawn from experts and my own experiences.
1. Surviving a Plane Crash
The odds are already excellent. The likelihood of you becoming an air fatality is just one in 4.7 million; 95.7% of people survive an air accident, and 76% of passengers make it through even a serious aviation disaster. Studies suggest you want to fly further back on the plane (yep, in economy), learn the proper crash position, and leave all your stuff behind in the crucial 90 seconds after you’ve hit the ground, when you need to be running for the exit. Read more.
2. Jumping from a Moving Train
If a collision or derailment seems imminent, move toward the back of the train and jump off at a perpendicular angle. Ideally wait until a curve slows the momentum, you’re passing over water, and someone standing on the bank has an iPhone ready to record your dramatic leap to safety. Read more.
3. Saving a Life with the New, Compression-Only CPR
If your travel companion’s breathing or heartbeat stops, be ready to apply the new form of cardiopulmonary resuscitation, which no longer requires mouth-to-mouth contact. Basically you compress the chest at a steady 100 beats per minute; experts (and I am not making this up) recommend using the song “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees to ensure the right rhythm. As an added benefit, the sheer annoyance of hearing you hum this disco hit under your breath, over and over, will usually bring the person back to consciousness rapidly in order to beg you to shut up. Read more
4. Finding Bedbugs Before They Find You
As you may have heard, the bedbug apocalypse has begun. These hideous parasites have become an unstoppable, worldwide menace since the ban on DDT. Nowadays, Rich and I perform a vigorous bed-bug check whenever we're away from home. Read more
5. Reacting Quickly in a Tsunami
"It's not a matter of if but when," said our host at the B&B on the Oregon coast. “Memorize the tsunami evacuation instructions I left beside your bed.” Rushing back to my room, I learned (you might want to write this down) that in a tsunami, experts advise heading inland and to higher ground. Well, duh! Read more
6. Staying Safe in an Earthquake
In 2014, I was in a 20-second earthquake that jolted me out of bed, made my possessions do the jitterbug, and caused a billion dollars in damage, much of it, tragically, to bottles of wine in Napa Valley. Fortunately, as a fourth-generation Californian, I was well trained in what to do when the earth moves under your feet. Read more
7. Fending Off a Bear Attack
Fans of the film Revenant, and members of my family who vacation annually in the high Sierras, take note: the key is to ID the beast. If it’s a brown or grizzly bear, play dead. If it’s a black bear, do not play dead; flee or “fight back with any object available.” Frankly, I’m not picturing this going well for me. Does that 250-pound animal looming out of the shadows look black or is it more of a dark brown? What object do I have on hand to fight back with? My iPhone? Read more
8. Preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse
Do I really believe that flesh-eating zombies are about to devastate the planet? No. But a few years ago, savvy emergency planners learned that by framing basic survival tips as tricks for combating the undead, they get your attention fast. Articles and workshops on zombie preparedness teach us about self-reliance, emergency first aid, and helping our fellow humans. And those are handy skills to have in any disaster. Read more
Have you survived a disaster on the road? Any advice you'd like to pass along?
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
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