FOR TROUBLED TIMES
In the post-9/11 world, travel safety has become a central concern whether here or abroad. Even if you aren't flying off to Timbuktu, we all face the threat of potential terrorism from organized terror groups or random individuals. From years of traveling, I have developed some
One of the most important tips when traveling is always to leave a small footprint (i.e. keep a low profile). If terrorists or local hoodlums don't notice you, you will be far safer than if you stand out in the crowd. Don't wear clothes or jewelry with the American flag on them while overseas. The American flag is a red flag for some people who hate the US or merely equate Americans with money. Don't advertise your nationality or your net worth. Try to blend in with the locals. Don't run around with a camera hanging around your neck. Take your pictures and then put the camera away.
If you plan to rent a car overseas, be sure that the country in which you plan to drive is driver-friendly. Western Europe is such an area; India isn't. When driving, never pull up close to the back of another stopped car while waiting for a light to change. Always leave space between you and the car in front. This will allow you to escape if someone approaches your car to rob or kidnap you. If you are riding in a taxi, always sit in the middle of the back seat. That makes it more difficult for a would-be assailant to grab either you or your possessions. Ask your hotel to suggest a reputable driver. This also can resolve translation problems that you might have by having the hotel tell the driver where you wish to go.
At all cost, avoid being an ugly American. Learn some key phrases in the countries in which you are traveling. Simple phrases like "hello" or "thank you" in the local language smoothes interpersonal contacts. Also, learn some history of that country and attempt to get an idea of how and why they view the US the way they do. In many parts of the world, we aren't viewed as positively as we think we should be, and that viewpoint is often tragically well deserved. Therefore, it behooves you to get some insight about what the locals are thinking about you as an American when you deal with them.
If you haven't traveled much overseas, using tour groups is a good idea for an initial trip, and it is required in some countries. After a couple of trips, you may wish to do your own thing. However, before taking off, always check with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (http://www.cdc.gov/) for suggested shots and health precautions while traveling. Another site is the US government site (http://travel.state.gov/passport/). This will provide links and information for everything that you will need for overseas travel. Another critical link is http://travel.state.gov/travel_warnings, which will provide updated travel alerts or where travel might be too risky. When you get to your international destination, always locate on a map the location of the nearest US embassy or consulate.
When you are at your hotel, always meet visitors in the lobby and never give out your room number. Know where the stairs are in case of a fire or explosion. If possible, ask for a room toward the back of the hotel and away from the lobby. This will minimize the danger in the case of a terrorist bombing. In addition, when eating in a restaurant, always stay away from the front entrance and always face the doorway so that you will able to see what is going on at all times.
When you are out sightseeing, be alert to what is happening around you. Try to do your walking around during daylight hours. Avoid all public disturbances. Don't flash large bills while paying for things; you are only asking for trouble.
Even if you take all the prudent precautions, you could find yourself in a hostage-taking situation. Follow all the orders that the kidnappers give you. Here again, attempt to keep a low profile in a hostage setting. However, be aware of your location and alert to the possibility of a rescue attempt or rapid deterioration of the situation. In either scenario, stay close to the ground and don't play Rambo.
If you find yourself in a country that is experiencing social unrest because of terrorism, coup d'état, or riots, contact the US embassy or consulate or one that is friendly to US interests. Stay inside your hotel as much as possible. When you need to go out, avoid main roads, government offices, military installations, and radio and television facilities.
Travel, whether here or abroad, is a priceless opportunity for learning and enjoyment. By following these suggestions, you will minimize possible troubles while traveling. Enjoy your trip.
This article first appeared in the Dixon Telegraph on May 26, 2004.