Travel can be stressful, and there are plenty of things for travelers to think about before leaving for a long trip overseas. Amid the packing and the goodbyes, don’t forget to think about how you will stay safe during your travels. Whether your trip is short or long-term, follow these guidelines and preparatory tips to ensure your time in an unfamiliar place is memorable, productive and—most importantly—safe.
Do Your Homework
Before you leave, take some time to research your destination. Get the facts on crime risks and the geopolitical climate in the area. Check for travel advisories, and ask your host or sponsor when and where you should use extreme caution. If possible, speak with someone who has recently traveled to the location to get ideas on what to expect and how to act.
Often, the key to staying safe is blending in with natives to avoid making yourself a target. Research customary clothing practices for someone your age and gender, and do your best to pack items that will conform to the local norms. You may find that this will make your travel experience richer as well as safer.
A fantastic, free resource is the US Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). STEP is a free service “to allow US citizens and nationals traveling and living abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest US embassy or consulate.”
According to STEP, the main benefits of enrolling are to:
- “Receive important information from the Embassy about safety conditions in your destination country”
- “Help the US Embassy contact you in an emergency, whether natural disaster, civil unrest, or family emergency”
- “Help family and friends get in touch with you in an emergency”
You can also check here and read about any current travel advisories in your destination country specifically for US citizens.
Know the Risks
The biggest mistake travelers can make while visiting any unfamiliar place is to be naïve about the risks. Unfortunately, tourists and foreigners are often easy targets because of the following:
- Criminals assume tourists have money.
- Most foreigners don’t speak the language or know how to call for help.
- Criminals know it is unlikely a tourist or foreigner will testify in court.
- Foreigners are often too caught up in their travels to pay close attention to surrounding dangers.
Know that you are a target and concentrate on making yourself a difficult target to deter criminals and stay safe.
The key to being a successful traveler is to practice situational awareness. Be alert and always have a plan or escape route should you be confronted with a threat.
Criminals are not unlike predators in the wild. They evaluate their victims and pounce on targets that present the lowest personal risk – meaning they choose targets based on who is the least attentive, appears the weakest or who is least likely to get them caught or injured.
Practice situational awareness by:
- Constantly staying focused on your surroundings
- Noting escape routes during your everyday activity, including police stations, open stores or busy restaurants
- Knowing how to identify those who are following you or paying undue, uncomfortable attention to you
- Listening to your body for natural signs of fear, apprehension or suspicion
Don’t be a Bullseye
No matter where you are traveling, follow these steps to avoid drawing unwanted attention from criminals and thieves. These guidelines apply to travel in any unfamiliar place, whether in the USA or abroad:
- Be careful where you read maps. Pulling out a map on a street corner or outside a train station sends the signal that you are lost or that you wouldn’t know where to go for help if attacked.
- Do not count or display money in public. If a criminal sees that you have money, you are an automatic target. It doesn’t matter if the thief sees you pull out $1 or $1,000.
- Only use ATMs that are in safe, secure locations, such as a bank or financial institution. Always shield your transaction with your body or hand so nobody else knows your PIN.
- Do not bring fancy or expensive-looking jewelry with you.
- Never leave your baggage unattended or accept unexpected/unknown packages.
- In general, maintain a low profile – do not attract attention to yourself.
- Vary your daily travel routes to make it more difficult for anyone to catch on to when and where they will have an opportunity to attack or confront you.
- Remember that safety in numbers is always a good rule of thumb.
Criminals thrive on strangers’ information because they can use it to plan an attack. The more you let others find out about you and the more you let your guard down, the greater your vulnerability. To ensure your safety:
- Do not leave credit card or ATM receipts behind anywhere. Even if you throw them out without tearing them up, they could have enough information on them to assist a criminal.
- In general, avoid providing more information about yourself than necessary to strangers, even if they seem friendly and harmless.
- Refrain from providing unnecessary itinerary details.
- If you’re staying in a hotel, do not leave any sensitive, personal information or items behind during the day.
- If the area you are in is particularly unsafe, consider leaving the “Do Not Disturb” sign on your hotel door while you are out to ensure your belongings remain safe.
Ultimately, staying alert and aware will be your best defense in making sure you get home safely. Always be on guard and recognize how potential predators may view you.
If you ever find yourself in trouble while abroad, your local US Embassy is always your best bet for receiving help. They can help with anything from replacing lost or stolen passports, assisting injured or ill passengers, to assisting with emergency evacuations in a major crisis such as a natural disaster or civil unrest. Familiarize yourself with the location and phone number of your local embassy while abroad; you can find an official directory here.