Erawan shrine before the terrorist attack. (Photo: Thinkstock)
A shooting at the touristy Dolmabahce palace in Istanbul. Bombs going off at the Erawan shrine and in the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok. Mass shootings on the shores of the Mediterranean at a beach resort and at the Bardo museum in Tunisia. Terrorism in Paris. Terrorism at a Nairobi mall. Some of the world’s most popular travel destinations feel like they are under attack.
“The truth is, anything can happen anywhere,” says Jack Ezon, president of Ovation Vacations. “So many of my New York clients are afraid to go to Paris, but look what occurred right in their own backyard on 9/11. You can’t let it stop you from traveling and you can’t live in fear.”
“People are sad, but life has to go on,” says Andrea Ross, owner of travel company Journeys Within, who is currently in Bangkok.
As they say, if you stop traveling, the terrorists win. Don’t stop traveling — just travel smart. Here’s what to do before you go, once you’re there, and in case of emergency to safely travel abroad in the age of terrorism.
Istanbul’s Dolmabahce palace before the attack. (Photo: Thinkstock)
BEFORE YOU GO:
Remember the odds are in your favor. In 2014, 24 private-sector U.S. citizens overseas were killed as a result of incidents of terrorism. And most of those fatalities were in places you’re probably not traveling to, like Syria and Afghanistan. “Road accidents are the major non-natural cause of death of American citizens abroad,” explains the State Department’s Michelle Bernier Toth, Managing Director for Overseas Citizen Services. (But that’s another article.)
Sign up for the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. While it’s always a good idea to register your trip abroad with this free program, it’s especially important if you’re heading to an area where you’re worried about terrorism or unrest. “It’s our main mechanism for communicating with U.S. citizens in affected countries,” says Toth. You’ll also receive info on current safety conditions at your destination.
Book through a travel advisor. This may be one of the situations in which it could be beneficial to have a trusted travel agent help you plan your trip, rather than simply booking yourself online. A travel advisor can be an advocate you can turn to in a time of crisis when you’re far from home. “They can help you if you need it,” explains Ezon. “They have the pulse of what going on and have lots of information at their finger tips. Travel advisors can reach out to their hotels and their local partners on the ground. They can charter planes and get people home.”
Choose a nicer hotel to stay in. There is a certain appeal to an Airbnb rental or an off-the-beaten-path local hotel to really get the feel for a place. But in an area where you may encounter trouble, it’s probably not the best choice. “Stay at a nicer property — upgrade a little,” suggests Andrea Ross, owner of the travel company Journeys Within. “You’ll have more of a safety net.” Nicer hotels will have a better plan of action if something happens, not to mention they are likely to have some English-speaking staff and CNN on their TVs so you can stay informed.
Invest in travel insurance. There’s always that “do you?/don’t you?” question when it comes to travel insurance. But traveling to precarious locations abroad is one of those “do” times. Just be aware that all plans are all different, so you have to read the fine print. For example, does your policy cover evacuation? And what qualifies as “terrorism” (which is usually covered) versus “civil unrest” or an “act of war” (which are usually not covered)? Still, policies can be helpful with the details in a crisis situation, when flights suddenly get overbooked, says George Taylor, VP of Global Operations at integrated risk management company iJet.
Set up a check-in plan with friends or loved ones. Whether you decide to email once a day or tag your location on Facebook, it’s a good idea for people back home to know where you are. Whether it’s a terrorist attack or an earthquake, when crisis happens, “a lot of time and energy is wasted on trying get in touch with people” and figure out their whereabouts, says Taylor.
Let credit card companies know you’re traveling. Contact the fraud departments and tell them the locations and dates of your trip so your credit card doesn’t suddenly get shut off when you really need it.
Take some cash. While you never want to travel with large amounts of money, when things go wrong, cash is king.
Paris (Photo: Thinkstock)
ONCE YOU’RE THERE:
Get your bearings. It’s nice to aimlessly wander the streets of new city, but not if your safety could be at risk. “Wandering is less appealing in this type of situation,” advises Ross. “You have to be a little more aware of surroundings. Before you go, know, ‘I’m going to be in the south of the city.’ And know what route you will take back to your hotel.”
Keep a business card from the hotel on you. It’s happened to the best of us — you’re exploring a neighborhood, take a wrong turn and can’t quite find your way back to your hotel. When you ask for directions, you realize you also can’t remember the exact name or correct pronunciation of the place. If you have a business card, all you have to do is hop in a (government licensed) taxi and show it to the driver.
Have a working phone. “You need a way to communicate with others,” says Taylor. And preferably you want to be able to have something more immediate than email in case of an emergency. Taylor suggests adding international to your current cell phone plan or buying a local SIM card. And while you’re at it, program in the local American Embassy’s phone number, as well as the number to your hotel.
Travel light. It allows you to move more freely, plus it makes you less of a target for run of the mill crimes like mugging.
Familiarize yourself with the uniforms of local police. It makes it easier to get help quickly if you need it.
Take a guided tour. “You have an extra level security with a local,” explains Ross. They know the lay of the land, and if the police are yelling something in a foreign-to-you language in a crisis, the guide will know what they’re saying.
Be extra alert. “Very often people on holiday let down their guards and are not as aware of what’s going on around,” explains Toth. It’s easy to become engrossed in the sights, but you have to make an effort to be vigilant. “Look for things like unattended packages, weird behavior, and people over dressed for environment,” says Taylor. For example, it’s warm and humid in Bangkok right now. So if you see someone wearing a big heavy jacket, that could be a red flag.
Tweak your itinerary. “If you’re concerned about what’s happening in Istanbul and Bangkok, that doesn’t mean you have to be afraid of the entire country of Turkey or Thailand,” says Ezon. “Instead go to Cappadocia or Phuket. The countryside or smaller islands are often less of a target than areas with more dense urban populations.” Have to fly into the city to get there? “Stay in an airport hotel,” suggests Ross. They’re easy to get to and they are usually on the outskirts of the city.”
Learn a few phrases in local language. You want to be able to communicate the basics in case anything goes wrong.
Follow @TravelGov on social media. If there’s any situation brewing or happening, you can get updates and instructions.
Related: How Not to Be a Bad American Abroad
Tunisia (Photo: Thinkstock)
IF SOMETHING HAPPENS:
Head back to your hotel. “It’s a home base where people in the know can reach you,” says Ross.
Touch base with the local American Embassy. It’s their job to help you, and they can better assist if they know where you are and what your situation is. Plus, “It’s comforting to know that someone knows you’re there,” says Ross.
Stay on twitter and social media. “Really, it’s of the best sources for information,” says Ross — especially in chaotic situations. (Don’t forget to follow @travelgov!)
Check in with people back home. Whether it’s via social media, email or the phone. They’ll be worried.
Avoid crowds. In the wake of a crisis, don’t use public transportation during rush hour. Instead travel at off times or use a licensed taxi. And stay away from crowds and congested areas. “People are on edge, so if they think something is happening and panic there could be a stampede or other dangerous situation,” advises Ross.