As the spring and summer travel season arrives, it is important to review the safety precautions that Americans should take before traveling out of the United States.
We take risks in everything we do, and traveling overseas is no exception. In the post 9/11 era there is a real concern among many who travel internationally about the threat of terrorism. We continually hear news about another foiled or actual terrorist incident somewhere in the world.
The threat of terrorism should be taken seriously, but the risk of becoming a victim of terrorism overseas is far less than the threat of becoming a victim to petty crime. In either case, there are things that we can do and behaviors that we can change that will significantly reduce our risk of becoming a victim of either. It’s all about traveling smarter. Your best defense is knowledge.
The U.S. State Department assigns travel advisories to countries based on overall stability, incidents of crime and actual or potential threats of terrorism. They have four different advisory levels as listed below:
- Exercise normal precautions
- Exercise increased caution
- Reconsider travel
- Do not travel
You can access the State Department travel site at travel.state.gov . The advisory level changes based on real incidents that occur or threats based on recent intelligence. This is a good site to refer to when you are planning your travel because it will detail any recent attacks or threats. It will also detail U.S. Consular information and give you great detail about the country, customs, culture, areas to avoid and health risks. Counter Threat Group also has travel resource tab that connects you to resources, including the State Department, for international travel.
One of the most popular destinations for International travel is Europe, and we continue to see an uptick in terror related threats throughout Europe. ISIS has has been dismantled in Syria and Iraq, and they no longer have the centralized structure they once had; but what they (and other terrorist groups) do have is the will and the desire to carry out attacks on the west, and they have announced that they will continue to do this.
Most of the high volume travel countries in Europe are currently at the advisory level 2., “Exercise increased caution”. France, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands are some of the most traveled countries that are at level 2. This should not cause you to change your travel plans, but indicates a general, ongoing concern about the potential for terrorist acts. Many of the Eastern and Northern European countries are at level 1., “Exercise normal precautions”.
Mexico and The Bahamas
Another popular travel destination is Mexico and The Bahamas. Both are currently at travel advisory level 2 and this is mainly related to gang and drug violence. What is most concerning about this is that the violence has begun spilling over onto resort areas. You should thoroughly investigate the resort properties that you plan to travel to and see if there have been any prior incidents and know what their resort security consists of. Also read reviews of others who have recently traveled to your distention. In Mexico, travel off the resort areas is ill-advised.
1. Be alert and vigilant to everything going on around you
Adherence to this tip is the most important thing you can do while traveling internationally. Always remain alert to individuals who are exhibiting unusual behavior or look out of place. When you see this, report it. Too many terrorist incidents happen because someone who noticed something odd about someone or something did not report it.
Keep ample space between yourself and other people. Petty crime and pick- pockets are common problems in many countries. Don’t store valuables in exterior pockets. If you get lost, avoid looking confused. Don’t pull out a map in public, but step into a store, pub, restaurant, etc., to ask for help and get your bearings out of public sight.
Be very aware of vehicular traffic and vehicle access to where you are walking. Occurrences where vehicles are used by terrorists to run over innocent pedestrians are on the increase (Nice, Berlin, London, Barcelona and New York City). Many recent terrorist events in Europe have been carried out with “everyday objects” like vehicles and knives.
2. Enroll in STEP
Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)– with the U.S. State Department. This will register your travel with the State Department and you will be notified via text or email of any threats in your countries of travel. Also, if there needs to be an evacuation, the State Department can easily track you down. You can access STEP from the State Department link above.
3. Avoid popular social venues during peak times
This includes restaurants, bars, shopping areas, transportation hubs and entertainment areas during peak activity times. The 2015 Paris mass-causality terrorist attack that left 130 dead and hundreds injured occurred at popular nightspots, on a Friday evening, targeting diners and a packed auditorium at the Bataclan concert hall.
The terrorists will always target peak traffic times to maximize casualties, so altering your plan to enjoy popular sites during the less crowded times of day, or days of the week can significantly reduce your risk of becoming a statistic. Also, avoid mass transportation during peak times. The terrorists continue to target mass transportation, subways, train stations and buses. Consider staying at non-western branded hotels and instead seek out smaller, non-chain hotels or bed and breakfasts. If the terrorists target hotels, it will be the large hotels where Americans stay; so don’t stay there.
4. Blend in with your environment
Avoid wearing typical American apparel items like baseball caps, cowboy boots, sports jerseys and “I am an American” type of clothing. This tip is most important to prevent becoming a target for crime. Pick pockets and petty crime is prevalent in many European cities with Rome, Paris and Barcelona being among the worst. Americans are heavily targeted. If you are an American traveler/tourist, in the eyes of the pick pocket, you are wealthy.
Americans are easily picked out of a crowd because they are usually in groups, talking loudly, taking pictures, making eye contact, being animated and wearing conspicuous clothing. The most obvious thing that is immediately noticeable is clothing and shoes. Avoid advertising American brands, universities and sports teams or anything that screams American. You don’t see many shorts or bright clothing in many countries. Do a little research and get a feel for how people dress different times of year in the countries that you will be visiting. You can even buy some inexpensive clothing once you arrive overseas. Remember, blending in reduces attention.
5. Always give yourself an out
Think ahead to an escape path or exit wherever you are, outside or indoors. Identify all of the possible exits. Imagine the kinds of scenarios that could take place and consider what you would do if you find yourself in an unfortunate situation. It’s too bad to have to think this way, but it trains your mind to be prepared for unfortunate contingencies . A vehicle slammed into pedestrians on the Westminster Bridge in London. There is nowhere to escape on a bridge. Re-think these kinds of experiences if the bridge is open to motor vehicles as well.
6. Protect your valuables
Carry limited cash and one credit card. Write your credit card and phone number down on a piece of paper and store it way from your valuables so you can immediately call the card issuer if it is lost or stolen. Keep one copy of the number with you and leave one at home with someone. Also, make copies of your passport and keep a copy in your luggage and one with someone back home. Notify your credit card company before you go and let them know the countries and time frames when you will be traveling. Split up your cash and put in different hidden areas of your luggage.
Carry a dummy wallet and keep a small amount of money in this wallet. Your “real” wallet will have your cash and credit card preferably in a pouch around your neck. If you are forced to hand over your valuables, give them the “fake” wallet that contains minimal cash, and they will leave you alone. The rest of your money is hidden away. They make pouches that you can wear around your neck and under your clothing that are large enough to hold your passport, cash and cards. This is the safest place to keep your valuables. Never keep your valuables in a rear pants pocket or exterior back pack pocket.
7. Avoid looking lost or confused
Getting lost in a foreign country is a normal occurrence; however, try your best not to appear confused or distraught. When you are lost, or perhaps turned down the wrong street, don’t pull out a map in public to get your bearings. This will be immediately noticeable and the help you are offered might not be the help you want. Go inside a store, cafe, etc. to look at your map or phone or ask for help by someone who works in one of these businesses.
Planning and preparation is always your best defense in reducing risk and ensuring your travel safety. Remember, don’t travel less, just travel smarter.
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Photo credit: dwilson_CTG