Travel Safety In Turbulent Times

As lighthearted as yesterday’s post was, today’s is quite serious. We live in turbulent times. It seems as though each night, when I am about to slide into a deep sleep, the BBC news alert chime sounds on my iPad and, as I bolt awake, I think “What the hell happened now?” Terrorist attacks, in-country unrest, and even airline turmoil can make even the most unflappable person rethink his/her plans. So, what is a traveler to do?

Before we get to the answer, let me state this is NOT about avoiding any particular country, ethnicity, or religion, it is about staying safe whether you are deep in the Middle East or visiting Los Angeles for the weekend and my tips go beyond keeping your belongings safe, ensuring you don’t post exact locations on social media, and keeping your electronics covered as you navigate a busy street. Now that we have that covered, let’s continue.

So, what is a traveler supposed to do? The short answer is to keep your wits about you at all times.

I’ve been lucky. For all my travels, I have only been caught up in a few small incidents abroad, including:

  • A political demonstration in Tokyo that involved too many people in too small a space which got a bit contentious with pushing and shoving.
  • A worker’s strike in Lima that devolved into a riot of fistfights, breaking windows, throwing bottles, and general mayhem.
  • A border detention between Costa Rica and Nicaragua looking for foreign drug traffickers that lead to a day of questioning while my passport was held.
  • The closure of Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem due to heavy Hamas activity in the region and subsequent warnings.

While each incident was a bit unsettling, they were good learning experiences. The long answer to the question I posed at the start and one that I live by as my personal tenant is to EXERCISE COMMON SENSE. To me, exercising common sense while traveling is made up of the following six directives:

  1. Do your research! Before you travel, be sure you know where you are going, the current political climate, and any government warnings. You can read warnings on the U.S. State Department’s website but I prefer to amp up my studies by reading what the United Kingdom’s government site has to say. By reading, and weighing, both advisories I feel better prepared to make a decision and properly prepare.
  2. Do NOT panic! In the event something happens when you are traveling, the worst thing you can do is to panic. When you go all lizard brain, you run the risk of heading into danger instead of away from it. Think of this way – the reason U.S. Navy SEALs (and other elite Armed Forces) are so effective is because they train, train, and train some more. SEALs spend about 18 months of dedicated training before they are called SEALs. What can you take from this? Develop a plan for travel safety and know it! Know it so well that no matter what happens (in theory) you can enact it immediately. Have a Plan B for:
    1. Presenting your travel documents (passports, visas, etc.).
    2. Communicating with emergency contacts at home.
    3. Departure from the affected locale. This is especially important in situations like the terrorist incidents in London and the crowd stampede in Turin. ALWAYS know your exits and be sure to choose alternate means of egress.
  3. Get registered. If you are a United States citizen traveling abroad, sign up for S.T.E.P. to help the nearest embassy or consulate assist you in the event of an incident. Check your with your country’s government website to determine your non-US equivalent.  The theory is the same as when you go back-country hiking – let someone else know where you are and when you plan to return.
  4. Get travel insurance. This was not a priority for me when I was younger but as I’ve gotten older (and wiser) it is something I’ve come to appreciate. I wrote an earlier post on this which you can read here. Read the fine print and be sure to use a reputable provider like BHTP.
  5. Ensure you have a stash of local currency. This can be helpful if there is an emergency to cripples cash machines or local infrastructure. Try to have at least $100 in small bills. Also take an extra credit card that you keep in the same place as your passport copy – very helpful if you get robbed and your main documents/cash/cards are stolen.
  6. Be aware of your surroundings. My personal rules are probably a bit extreme (and maybe odd) but have been effective in keeping me safe wherever I go.
    • Avoid crowds. This is easy for me, since I don’t like crowds, but many people love to be part of the scene and will gravitate towards gatherings of people. The scary thing is that close quarters makes it easier for n’er-do-wells to stab you, throw acid in your face, or pickpocket you. As we’ve seen recently, crowds make it easier for terrorists to wreak havoc with accessible weapons that wouldn’t alert any law enforcement – cars. I like my personal space and while I enjoying seeing places like local markets, outdoor art festivals, and other local color, I always listen to my inner voice and if something doesn’t feel right, I move on.
    • Know where the exits are located (yes, it bears repeating). Be sure to have at least two alternate ways to get away. I always position myself in a spot where I can see everything, take cover quickly, and get away in a few directions. I’ve been this way forever and even practice this stateside. If there aren’t any easy exit points determine where you can take shelter/hide. Behind a concrete planter, under a bar counter, between two trucks, and so on.
    • Survey your surroundings. Scan the horizon, the crowd, the scene and be aware of anything that looks sketchy. To me, someone wearing a ankle-grazing trench coat on an 80°F/27°C  80°F/27°C sunny mild day bears a second look. I’d rather say my mea culpas when I am wrong that be right and have done/said nothing.
    • If you see something, say something. This is critical. Just like above, it is better to be wrong than be right and have kept silent!

I saw this graphic from the London Metropolitan Police over the weekend and thought it was a great reminder.
The world is a beautiful, scary, fascinating, and fulfilling place and it is worth seeing as much of it as possible but life is unpredictable, bad things happen, and people are hurt/killed. Thankfully, those incidents are still in the minority. If you want to go to the music festival, go. If you want to party in Paris, do it. Just be informed, be prepared and be realistic. Maybe someday we won’t need reminders like that from the Metropolitan Police but until then, I invite you to keep traveling, keep living, and stay safe.

What do you think? Are these tips easy to follow? Have I overlooked your favorite safety tip for travel? Let me know in the comments and thanks for stopping by!