Help for travellers

20 November 2015


WHEN atrocities occur, such as the terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday, it can be a frightening and confusing experience for those who are caught up in it. That confusion is often amplified for travellers who are visiting a country — particularly if they do not speak the language.

How do you gain access to local help? How can you send a message back home to your loved ones? How do you hear about the latest advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)? The good news is that a variety of apps can assist.

The FCO maintains a comprehensive set of regularly updated, country-by-country travel guides. It makes its data available to developers, and held a “hackday”, or “hackathon”, in 2014, to encourage the development of new apps.

One of the best is FCO Alerts, produced by Keith Marshall for Android. The app is free, but it is still listed as a prototype. It is pretty stable, however, and I have had no problems with it. Using “push notifications”, this app will send you official travel-advice updates issued by the FCO. So, when incidents occur and the advice changes, you will be notified.

By 11.46 p.m. on Friday, it provided news of the terror attacks in Paris, and details of a special FCO hotline telephone number; and, within 48 hours, it had no fewer than seven updates on the security situation in the French capital.

But what if the emergency is more of a personal one — a lost passport, or a medical emergency? There may be a hundred or more reasons that you might need to contact your embassy in a hurry. Or you may need to contact the emergency services. Throughout Europe, you can use 112 alongside the local emergency number (it even works in the UK alongside 999).

If there is an emergency when you are outside Europe, Travelsafe, by BoaLogik for Android and iOS, is invaluable. The free version will help you to locate the emergency numbers for medical, police, and fire services for every country in the world. You can also set a “panic” button, which will send a pre-set text to up to three specified contacts.

The Pro version (99p) has details of embassies. When you first set up the app, you specify your nationality; then, if you need to contact the embassy, you merely click the country you are in, and the “embassy” icon, and it will provide you with the contact details. The app stores updates on the device; so you still have access to the information without an internet connection.

It even has a handy currency converter and a tip calculator. A ten-per-cent tip on the cost of a restaurant meal may be acceptable in the UK; but, in the United States, where waiting staff rely on tips for their income, it would be considered mean. In Japan, any tip would be considered rude. Travelsafe tells you the top percentage that is expected, and then does the calculation.

Finally, a key bit of advice: make sure that you have a back-up to a potentially overwhelmed mobile network, such as Skype, Facebook Messenger, or Google Hangouts.

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