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What to do if you lose your phone while traveling

A lost, broken or stolen phone could put your trip in serious jeopardy. Here's how to recover.

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"Oh, no, I left my phone in Finland!"

Kent German/CNET

During a recent trip to New York, I found myself walking through midtown, lost in thought. Glancing down at my phone, I tripped; the phone went flying and came to rest right at the edge of a sewer grate. Had it fallen through, I'd have been seriously screwed.

At that moment, I realized just how vital that phone was to my entire trip. It had the name and address of my hotel (neither of which I could remember). It had my flight info. It was my sole means of contacting the people I was in town to see. And, of course, it was my map; how else was I to navigate the streets of a foreign (to me) city?

Indeed, we've become so reliant on our phones for travel, we don't often stop to think about how to survive without them. But things happen. Phones get stolen all the time. They get left behind in buses and Ubers (and good luck contacting your Uber driver without your phone!). They get dropped into toilets and, if the universe is feeling playful, sewers.

Those are the perils; these are the tools and solutions you need to overcome them.

Get it back, pronto

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Google makes finding a lost phone as easy as typing "Find my phone."

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

If your phone gets lost or stolen, you should be able to track it down -- provided you act quickly.

Both iPhones and Android phones have location-tracking features, in the form of Find My iPhone and Find My Device, respectively. (You've enabled it, right? Right?!) But how can you track your phone without, er, your phone? Simple: Borrow any internet-connected device you can find -- a tablet, someone else's phone, a PC in a hotel's business center, etc. -- and open a browser.

If it's an iPhone, head to icloud.com, sign into your account, then click Find My iPhone. Choose your phone from the drop-down device menu (if you have more than one), then check the map to see where it's located. Assuming it's not off or in airplane mode, you should get an exact position. You'll also have the option of forcing it to play a sound (maybe it's just lost in the hotel bedsheets?), enabling Lost Mode and erasing the phone entirely (in case it contains sensitive data).

Android users: Open Google in the browser, sign into your account, then type "find my phone" in the search bar. As with the iPhone option, you should be able to see the phone on a map, ring it, lock it out or erase it. 

Presto! You're on the road to phone recovery. If you suspect theft, however, be sure to share the location with the police; don't try to confront the thief yourself.

The only real wrinkle here is if you don't remember your iCloud or Google account password. (Don't scoff; I see this happen all. The. Time.) Even if you have a password manager, it doesn't do much good if it's stored on the missing phone, right? Read on.

Access your passwords

A password manager like Dashlane lets you access your account via any Web browser -- handy if your phone goes missing.

Screenshot by Rick Broida/CNET

Sure, you can use a borrowed laptop or tablet to get back online, look up your flight info, sign into Facebook and maybe even locate your lost phone (see above). But all that is contingent upon knowing your password(s) -- which, let's face it, you probably don't. That's why you use a password manager, right? (Right?!)

First things first: If you don't use a password manager, start using one immediately. I can't help you if you won't help yourself. ? My recommendation: LastPass, which is free and includes all-important password syncing, meaning your data doesn't stay trapped on the aforementioned lost/stolen/broken phone.

Indeed, whether you have LastPass or a paid version of a password manager like Dashlane or RoboForm, you can access your passwords online, in a browser. That means you need to remember only your master password.

Ah, but here's the rub: Some of these tools won't let you sign into your account from an unknown device unless you verify that device via email -- meaning you'll also need to be able to access your email. If you can do that as well via a browser, great -- though you'll obviously need to know that password as well, meaning you're now in vicious-circle territory: You can't get your email password without your password manager, and you can't access your password manager without your email password.

Another potential problem: If you use two-step verification for various accounts (such as Facebook and Google), you won't be able to able to bypass it without your phone -- which is where the SMS-verification messages would normally arrive. That's another reason to consider my next suggestion...

Keep a backup phone

Once upon a time, the thought of having a second phone was ludicrous. Too expensive! Now, you can keep your old phone as a backup or even buy a new one expressly for that purpose.

The major benefit, of course, is that you can duplicate everything that matters: contacts, calendar entries, travel plans and, of course, passwords. You also reclaim the ability to message people via Facebook, Slack, WhatsApp or whatever.

The big question is whether to pay for service for a device that's mostly going to ride around in a bag until needed, or leave it as a Wi-Fi-only device. Depending on its compatibility, you could take advantage of free service from Freedompop or sign up for Sprint's first-year-free program (though the latter requires you to port in a number).

To find out more about this option, read my story on how to set up a backup phone.

Rediscover paper

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Remember these?

Chris Sloan, Airchive.com/2C Media

You remember paper, right? That stuff that used to hold your boarding pass, itinerary, address book, maps, etc.?

I know, we're supposed to be embracing a paperless society, saving trees and all that. When it comes to travel, though, better safe than green: Print backup copies of everything you might need for the trip, then just toss those pages into your backpack, carry-on or whatever.

Those are my tips for handling a lost/stolen/broken-phone emergency. Got any of your own to add? Hit me up in the comments section.

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