Traveling safely in an unsafe world

April 11, 2003

Getting overseas is still doable, as long as you're vigilant.

 

Traveling safely in an unsafe world

Jump to:Choose article section...Leave the good luggage at home Scope out your hotel for safety features

Getting overseas is still doable, as long as you're vigilant.

By Barbara Schibly, MD
Preventive Medicine Physician/Green Bay, WI

The whole world is now well aware of the potential risks of international travel. But the hazards aren't new and, for the most part, shouldn't cause you to pass up that foreign medical meeting or vacation. As a veteran of the Gulf War with the US Navy, I have extensive experience traveling in hostile areas of the world. So I know firsthand that planning and taking extra care can help make your trip abroad a safe one.

Basic safety overseas means avoiding potentially dangerous situations, keeping a low profile so you won't be targeted, and developing an emergency plan of action in case you do encounter problems. The Department of State provides consular information sheets that offer crime and security information on every country in the world.

"Whenever there's a perceived threat to Americans, we issue a public announcement to alert travelers, or, if the situation warrants it, a travel warning advising Americans to avoid travel to that particular country," says Andrew Laine, spokesperson for the Department of State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security. He recommends checking the Bureau of Consular Affair's Web site for alerts and warnings before leaving the country.

"Because potentially dangerous situations can develop rapidly," Laine advises, "you should also call the consulate when you arrive at your destination for an updated security briefing."

Before leaving home, develop an emergency plan of action that you can implement if you encounter problems abroad.

"When something bad happens overseas, that's not the time to try to figure out what to do about it," says Gary Rhodes, director of the University of Southern California Center for Global Education's Safety Abroad First Educational Travel Information (SAFETI) project. SAFETI provides security tools for students studying abroad including an emergency action planner that you can access at their Web site. [See "For more information"]

Leave important phone numbers and a detailed itinerary at home with a family member or friend, and tell that person to notify both the Department of State and the consulate or embassy of the country you're visiting if you should require their assistance. The contact should let those agencies know that you're in that country, that you're in trouble (giving as much detail as possible), where you were staying, and what your itinerary was.

"If you get into trouble overseas, you'll want to call someone outside the area you're in for help," advises Alon Stivi, a combat veteran of the Israeli Special Forces. He's president and director of training for Direct Measures International, a company that provides security training for corporate executives overseas.

"Don't rely on the consulate staff, because if a crisis develops, the consulate may be overwhelmed, or you may not be able to reach them," Stivi says. He suggests agreeing on a code word—such as a name that no one ever calls you—that you can use to signal your contact at home that you need help.

"If you're held against your will, for example, you can use that word to convey that you're in trouble," he explains. Memorize emergency phone numbers and consider renting a satellite phone to carry with you in case phones overseas aren't working or you can't reach them.

Leave the good luggage at home

Tourists are always potential targets—whether it be of a terrorist or a common thief—so bring clothing that helps you blend in with the population. Leave jewelry, expensive equipment, and things that identify your nationality at home. Carry traveler's checks and one or two credit cards rather than large amounts of cash. If allowed, take a small amount of foreign currency with you so you don't need to use airport currency exchanges where pickpockets often lurk. Place your wallet in an inside pocket. Wear a money belt under your clothing. Your purse should have a shoulder strap that you can wear across your chest.

Security experts recommend using sturdy, hard-sided luggage that can't easily be cut or opened except by officials. But don't take the good stuff—expensive luggage is an invitation to thieves and, when you carry or claim it, can draw attention to you. Have your name, phone number, and address on the inside and outside of each bag, but use covered name tags to conceal your identity and nationality. Don't lock your luggage; airport security has the right to open and inspect it.

There are a few other things you can do to reduce your risk of becoming a victim of airport terrorism or a hijacking: Avoid unnecessary stops by scheduling direct flights whenever possible. Move quickly from the ticket counter to the secure area and, when you arrive at your destination, leave the airport as soon as possible. Note the location of exits. If you sense anything suspicious, leave the area immediately.

Memorize your passport number, and purchase a plain cover for it so you don't reveal your identity or nationality when filling out landing cards and passing through customs. Keep a photocopy of your passport with you, and with relatives at home. That could be a lifesaver if your passport is stolen. The same advice applies to credit cards and your driver's license. Don't discuss your travel plans with anyone while on the plane or in public places.

If possible, arrange for a hotel vehicle to transport you from the airport. If you must use a taxi, select one that is clearly identified with official markings.

"Don't take the first taxi that pulls up," warns Stivi. "If someone wants to use a cab to kidnap you—a definite possibility in some parts of the world—that vehicle will arrive first." Check the photo on the license to be sure it matches your driver.

"If you're traveling alone on a group excursion, ask someone from your group to share a taxi," Stivi advises. "Avoid sharing a cab with strangers. But if you must, don't get in the front seat and allow them to sit behind you."

Stivi advises checking a map to estimate the time it should take you to reach your destination.

"If the ride seems excessively long, assume you're being taken elsewhere, and do whatever you need to do to get out of the vehicle," he says. "When it became clear that he was being abducted, one of my clients pulled a round object from his briefcase, placed it against the driver's neck, and threatened to shoot if he didn't stop immediately. That action probably saved his life."

Whether you plan to rent a car or use public transportation, contact the State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs and the Association for Safe International Road Travel for security and road safety information.

Scope out your hotel for safety features

Hotels overseas often don't have the security features common in hotels in the US, so you'll need to select one carefully. Large chains managed by American companies are usually your best bet. Call ahead and ask about the hotel's security before booking a room.

Ask for a room on the second through seventh floors—the first floor is too accessible, and floors higher than the seventh often can't be reached by fire equipment. When you arrive, let the bellman open and inspect the room to be sure it's vacant. Before dismissing him, inspect locks, security chains, and dead bolts, and be sure the telephone works. If you find a problem, request another room.

Keep the security chain on your door when you're in the room, and don't use your name when answering the telephone. Meet visitors in the lobby, not in your room, and place valuables in the hotel security vault. When you leave the hotel, place the "Do not disturb" sign on your door and turn on the television and a light so the room seems occupied.

Ask the hotel concierge which areas are safe to walk in on your own. When traveling by foot, Stivi advises walking in the direction opposite that of pedestrian traffic so you can see who is coming toward you.

"If you see someone suspicious, cross the street, make a U-turn, or stop until he or she passes," he says. "Don't make eye contact."

Have a person you can call if you get lost—even if it's the desk clerk at the hotel you're staying at. If possible, let someone at your destination know you're coming and when to expect you. If you don't show up on time, they'll know to start looking for you.

Some of these tips may sound a bit cloak-and-dagger, but following them should go a long way toward insuring a safe trip abroad.

 

For more information

Association for Safe International Road Travel
Information about road conditions, traffic, seasonal hazards, advisability of night travel, and safety statistics www.asirt.org
301-983-5252.

Bureau of Consular Affairs, Department of State
Consular information sheets, public announcements, and travel warnings including location and phone numbers for American consulates or embassies in every country; information on currency, health conditions, and crime; and information about terrorist threats and other short-term conditions that pose significant risks to the security of American travelers. www.travel.state.gov
888-407-4747

Direct Measures International
Training for Americans working or traveling abroad www.directmeasures.com
866-4DMIUSA

SAFETI, University of Southern California Center for Global Education's Safety Abroad Handbook
Tools for planning for emergencies overseas, including emergency cards for contact information www.usc.edu/dept/education/globaled/studentsabroad/index.html

 



Barbara Schibly. Traveling safely in an unsafe world.

Medical Economics

2003;7:77.