What to do if you or a loved one gets in trouble while travelling overseas

What to do if you or a loved one gets in trouble while travelling overseas
  • PublishedMay 4, 2024

Each year millions of Australians jet off overseas to explore different places, enjoy other cultures and see the world. 

But sometimes things go wrong. 

From health issues to natural disasters, unexpected civil unrest or serious crimes, there can be real risks in travelling the globe. 

Here’s what the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and University of Queensland tourism expert Jie Wang recommend to do when you are concerned for the welfare of a loved one overseas. 

Where do you start if you need help? 

A DFAT spokesperson says there are several steps you can take when you are concerned about the welfare of a loved one.

They recommended:  

  • Try to make contact directly, through all possible channels
  • Check their social media accounts for any recent updates
  • Contact their friends or travel companions, or others who may know their movements such as their bank, their travel agent or their mobile phone provider
  • File a missing person’s report at your local police station in Australia for someone who is missing overseas
  • Contact the Consular Emergency Centre

“Australians in need of urgent consular assistance can call the 24-hour Consular Emergency Centre on +61 2 6261 3305 from overseas or 1300 555 135 in Australia,” the spokesperson said.

An image of the Australian embassy in Thailand with Bangkok's skyline in the background.
Where Australia has embassies can vary over time depending on current diplomatic relations.(Supplied: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade)

DFAT’s official travel advice website SmartTraveller outlines how to act on different welfare concerns.

If the concern is kidnapping — it is important to report the crime to the local authorities and contact DFAT’s emergency centre. 

Dr Wang said it was crucial to provide DFAT with accurate information when communicating with the department. 

She said it was important to avoid listening to confusing information from outside sources and stay in touch with your DFAT contact for the best information. This can also be essential when making a travel insurance claim. 

What is consular assistance?

If help is needed, DFAT may provide what is called consular assistance. This refers to help and advice from diplomatic agents of the country the person in trouble is travelling in. 

This may include maintaining contact with families and local authorities where an Australian has been reported missing to police.

There are circumstances where you don’t have a right to consular assistance. 

According to SmartTraveller, these include when: 

  • Your actions were illegal
  • You’ve deliberately or repeatedly acted recklessly or negligently
  • You put yourself or others at risk
  • You’ve demonstrated a repeated pattern of behaviour requiring multiple instances of consular assistance previously

The Australian government also will not pay ransoms, as SmartTraveller outlines: “Ransom payments to kidnappers, many of whom are associated with terrorist groups, can be used to fund subsequent terrorist attacks.”

In the 2022-23 financial year, DFAT assisted in 8,471 consular cases. Of those, 3,160 were related to welfare or other serious matters. 

The most common destinations for consular assistance were Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, the United States and Vietnam.

Dr Wang said consular assistance can also differ depending on the two nations’ relationship. 

What does travel insurance cover? 

Young woman backpacker in an open field
What travel insurance will cover differs depending on your level of cover and your insurer. (Unsplash)

It is often said if you can’t afford travel insurance you can’t afford to travel.

What this does cover depends on the level of insurance you have purchased, but typically travel insurance will be for health concerns overseas or to cover lost, stolen or damaged baggage and valuables.

While some insurers will provide emergency assistance, Dr Wang says it is important to not rely solely on travel insurance.

“Insurance can only give you monetary support when we need it sometimes,” she said.

“[It] can’t save our lives and it can’t protect our health.

“Therefore, we also need to consider taking vaccines, getting professional advice before you travel.”

What do the travel warnings mean? 

Australia’s travel advice is divided into four levels: 

  • Level 1 — Exercise normal safety precautions
  • Level 2 — Exercise a high degree of caution
  • Level 3 — Reconsider your need to travel
  • Level 4 — Do not travel

Countries such as New Zealand, Japan and the US fall into level 1 while countries such as the United Kingdom and Mexico fall into level 2. 

The reason for exercising a high degree of caution can vary. Peru is listed in level 2 due to a high level of crime, France is due to the threat of terrorism and Indonesia is due to security risks.

Dr Wang said that it is difficult to accurately assess an individual risk level for countries — which is why the advice is so broad. 

Risk for different countries can be impacted by disability, age, gender and religion. 

She said these destinations will highlight certain parts of the country and ignore problems like crime. 

“A lot of the time travel agencies or local destinations don’t want to talk a lot about the safety issues, their concern is they only sell the best bit of the destination,” she said.

For people who do travel to Level 3 countries such as Egypt or Pakistan or Level 4 countries like Russia or Belarus, Dr Wang said it was up to the individual to take responsibility for ignoring the warning. 

SmartTraveller advises that if you get into trouble in Level 4 countries the Australian government may not be able to help as the ability to provide consular assistance in these destinations is extremely limited. 

What can I do to avoid getting in trouble? 

Dr Wang says preparation is key. 

“Tourists need to take … responsibility and protect themselves,” she said. 

She said this particularly applies to young men. 

Check the SmartTraveller website for information on things like health risks that can be mitigated by vaccination or avoiding tap water. 

“There is lots of information online, so tourists need to check information beforehand and understand where the danger areas, what activity or behaviours need to be avoided in some [parts] of the destination,” she said. 

She also said it was important to check the country’s laws where different activities might be illegal or regulated differently in Australia. 

“I think tourists need to raise their awareness of multiple risks,” she said.

“People try to go overseas to travel and enjoy new adventures.

“However, both the tourist and the family members need to work together to form a risk plan before they travel and have all the action prepared to protect themselves.”


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