When planning international travel for 2020, it is important to understand the personal safety issues like terrorism, crime and health related concerns that exist around the world. Reviewing precautions to stay safe when traveling out of the country is a necessary and prudent step in trip planning.
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 international travelers 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 to petty crime is far greater. Also, in today’s connected world, we have to be concerned about cybercrime and of course staying healthy while out of the country. In all cases, there are things that we can do and behaviors that we can change that will significantly reduce our risk of encountering adverse situations. 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, actual or potential threats of terrorism and even health threats. 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 provide U.S. Consular information with detail about the country, customs, culture, areas to avoid and health risks. Counter Threat Group also has a travel resource tab that connects you to resources, including the State Department, for international travel.
Current China Concerns
As of this writing, China has been elevated to the State Department’s highest travel advisory level 4- Do Not Travel. This is due to the Coronavirus outbreak. Many commercial carriers have suspended routes to China. It remains unclear how widespread the virus is throughout China. As a result, the U.S. State Department doesn’t have confidence that China can assure the safety of Americans. There are still too many unknowns about the virus.
Also, anytime travel is planned for China, you should be aware of an elevated risk of cyberthreats and the risks of using open networks. A VPN (Virtual Private Network) should be installed as a precaution for safe use of mobile devices and computers before traveling anywhere in the world.
One of the most popular destinations for International travel is Europe. We continue to see an uptick in terror related threats throughout Europe. ISIS 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, or against western interests.
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 safety 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 Caribbean
Other popular travel destinations are Mexico and locations throughout the Caribbean. Mexico and most of the Caribbean Islands are currently at travel advisory level 2- Exercise Increased Caution; however, Some states within Mexico are at level 3 – Reconsider Travel, mainly related to gang and drug violence. What is most concerning about this is that violence, at times, spills 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. Also, ask about the particular security protocols for the resort and talk to others who have recently traveled to your distention. Traveling off the resort areas on your own is ill-advised and generally not safe.
7 Tips for Staying Safe
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 or other violent 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 the sight of the public.
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. Also, to be safe when walking around in other countries, don’t assume that pedestrians have the right of way.
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. 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 a terrorist targets a hotel, it will generally be a large western branded hotel, so to reduce risk and stay safe, avoid these hotels.
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, so to stay safe, don’t let your behaviors identify you as an American. If you are identified an American traveler/tourist, in the eyes of the pick pocket, you are gullible and 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. In 2017, 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.
Be safe with you money. Carry limited cash and one credit card. Write the credit card phone number and the last four numbers of the card 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. 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 personal items. Also, make copies of your passport and keep a copy in your luggage and one with someone back home.
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 a safe place to keep your valuables, especially in a crowded environment. Never keep your valuables in a rear pants pocket or in exterior pockets of a back pack.
7. Avoid looking lost or confused.
Getting lost in a foreign country is a normal occurrence; however, try your best not to visibly 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