When we travel, some items are expendable or easily replaceable; others are more vital and difficult to recover. If you lose a travel essential, don’t despair. Image Credit: Shutterstock

New York: Sally French is admittedly forgetful. On a flight to Washington, D.C., the travel expert with NerdWallet left her wallet in an airplane seat pocket. In Croatia, she drove off in a rental car without her passport. When she returned to the counter to retrieve it, the critical document had vanished.

In both predicaments, French knew exactly what not to do: freak out. Instead, she calmly figured out how to recover what she had lost or how to manage without it.

“It doesn’t have to be catastrophic,” she said. “Always be flexible and always have a backup plan.”

When we travel, some items are expendable or easily replaceable; others are more vital and difficult to recover. Without these essentials, we may find ourselves stuck - in a hotel parking lot (lost rental car key), at airport security (missing driver’s license) or in a foreign country (mislaid passport).

However, if you lose a travel essential, don’t despair. There are plenty of workarounds and solutions that will help you to recover your lost item or, at the very least, replace your panic with a sense of calm.

What to do if you lose a rental car key?

Gregory Scott, a spokesman for the American Car Rental Association, said the industry does not have a standard lost key policy, but generally you will need to contact the rental car counter or roadside assistance. Depending on the circumstances, the company will hand over a spare key or provide you with a new vehicle if they don’t have an extra key.

Don’t expect an immediate resolution. Europcar Mobility Group, a French car rental company that operates in more than 130 countries, said it can take 24 to 48 hours to receive a replacement key. Scott warned that companies are still struggling with low stock, which could affect your wait time for a new set of wheels.

I just got a driver’s licence, can I rent a car?
In many cases, if you purchased insurance that covers lost keys and emergency assistance, you shouldn’t have any out-of-pocket expenses.

“They’ll do their best to get you the same or a similar car, but it’s become a big challenge because inventories are very tight,” he said.

If you are a AAA member, you can arrange a tow back to the rental car lot. Just be sure to inform the company that you are returning the keyless car.

If you opted out of insurance, you will have to pay for roadside help and the duplicate key. Hertz charges a flat fee of $250 for a key replacement.

“Whether they can bring you another key or order another, a fee is involved unless you purchased a protection plan,” Scott said.

Some rental places give customers both keys on a ring. If you have a travel companion, ask the agent to separate the pair, then hand one to your co-pilot for safekeeping.

What to do if you lose your driver’s license?

Driver’s licenses are really only important if you are flying domestically.

For air travel, the Transportation Security Administration accepts alternate forms of identification, such as passports; trusted traveler cards like Global Entry and NEXUS; a Defense Department ID, among others.

If you have none of the above, all is not hopeless.

According to the agency, the officer may ask you to complete an identity verification process, which could involve providing your name, address and other personal information. Once the officer confirms your identity, you can proceed to the screening checkpoint, but you will be subjected to additional screening, such as a pat-down. Because of the extra steps, TSA recommends arriving at least two hours before your flight.

“That was actually my top concern: How would I be able to fly home without my driver’s license?” French said of the lost wallet incident. “I went to the airport super early to make sure I would be able to get through. They were able to confirm me through other means.”

Golden Chance RTA test
For domestic car rentals, Scott said many states require the company to verify a valid driver’s license, so you can’t rent without hard proof.

For domestic car rentals, Scott said many states require the company to verify a valid driver’s license, so you can’t rent without hard proof. “An agent needs to physically see it or you need to scan it at the kiosk,” he said.

If your travel mate has a valid driver’s license, try to switch the reservation to their name. However, you will not be permitted to drive the vehicle.

Europcar said travelers can scan their driver’s license on its app. Depending on the country and local regulations, the rental car outlet may accept this form of ID. If you book through other portals, you will need to show an official or certified duplicate of your license or a police report registering your lost item.

An International Driving Permit translates your driver’s license information into 10 languages and is valid in 150 countries. Europcar said that in some destinations, you may be able to use it as a substitute for a driver’s license.

What to do if you lose your passport?

As soon as you notice that your passport is MIA, notify the nearest US embassy or consulate. Report your lost passport and share your travel itinerary with officials in the consular division, especially if you have imminent plans to leave the country.

“We called the embassy in Zagreb to make sure that we were doing the right thing,” French said of her 2018 incident. “They said, ‘Of course, come in.’”

To acquire a replacement or “limited-validity, emergency” passport, you must physically appear at the embassy or consulate during the workweek. The staff will need to see identification, such as a driver’s license; proof of US citizenship, such as a copy of a birth certificate or a photo of your passport; and your trip itinerary - though missing any of these documents doesn’t mean you are destined for an expat lifestyle. Also required: a passport photo and a completed DS-11 application and DS-64 statement explaining your situation. The forms are on the agency’s website, as is the contact information for the embassy or consulate. If you received an emergency passport, you will need to reapply for a regular passport once you are home.

Stock US passport
On the flip side, if you lose your passport within two weeks of your trip, schedule an in-person appointment at a passport agency or center. However, the agency warns that appointments are limited and availability is not guaranteed.

What to do if you lose your wallet?

Before you travel, Kondo your wallet. Only bring credit cards and IDs that you frequently use. Make sure your phone number or email address is visible in your wallet, so the finder knows how to return your valuables.

Once you notice you’re missing credit cards, sign into the company’s online account or the app and activate the lock feature to prevent anyone from taking your cards on a shopping spree. Take similar precautions with your bank card. If you find your wallet, you can easily reactivate your cards.

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“A lot of banks have robust websites that are really easy to use,” French said. “You can just toggle on and toggle off.”

If you don’t have an online account or the app, call the companies to report your lost cards. Most firms have toll-free numbers for domestic calls and accept collect calls internationally. If you think your card is forever gone, order a replacement with a new card number.

When French lost her wallet, she didn’t have to curb her spending. She used Apple Pay for purchases that required a credit card and took out money by scanning her phone at the ATM.

“I actually went through the entire trip with no wallet because all my money was accessible electronically.” she said.

In San Francisco, she was reunited with her wallet after the airline mailed it back to her.

What to do if you lose your phone?

In the event of a lost smartphone, Nicholas De Leon, a senior reporter with the Consumer Reports’ electronics team, recommends travelers take a proactive approach instead of jumping right into reaction mode.

“We break up our advice into before and after,” he said.

In the before period, he suggests protecting your phone with a strong password, your first line of defense. Also turn on your phone’s biometric authentication system, such as facial recognition or fingerprint reader, and activate the “Find My” tool; Apple and Android have versions of this. Most important, back up all of your contacts, photos, text messages and files by uploading your valuable information to the cloud.

“This way nothing is really lost except the physical device,” he said.

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As an extra layer of protection, email to yourself essential documents, such your travel reservations, emergency contacts and a photo of your passport.

Once you realize that your device is missing, try to track its whereabouts with the “Find My” feature. De Leon used this service to locate his phone during a trip to New York City; he recovered his gadget the following morning at a nightclub.

If that tool fails, contact your service provider to report the loss and ask them to disable your device. For an extra layer of protection, change all of your passwords, especially on apps that are linked to your credit card or financial services, and turn off Apple Pay. You can also wipe your gadget clean.

To recoup the cost of your loss, ask your credit card company about its insurance policy. It may cover items purchased with that card. Your phone carrier might also offer protection for your lost device. If you took out travel insurance for lost or delayed bags, you could receive a reimbursement. De Leon said you might have to file a police report to prove to your insurance company that your smartphone is truly gone.