Take these precautions to maximize safety and eliminate stress during your trip.
When you're preoccupied with packing, navigating airport security and collecting local currency for an upcoming trip to a far-flung locale, it's easy to overlook standard health and safety measures. But with a variety of travel risks out there -- from theft and cybercrime to Zika and terrorism -- it's vital to stay informed and exercise vigilance to steer clear of harm's way. Use these expert-approved tricks while jet-setting abroad to avoid stressful and dangerous situations.
Conduct plenty of research.
Investigating potential political uprisings, travel advisories and warnings concerning the area you're eyeing is key, says Wendy Perrin, CEO of travel-planning site WendyPerrin.com. Perrin suggests enrolling in the U.S. State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, or STEP, to receive instant alerts from the closest consulate or U.S. embassy about natural disasters, political unrest or other emergencies. She also recommends mapping out the route to your accommodations in advance. "When you first land in a foreign airport, it's the moment [...] when you may be at your most sleep-deprived, disoriented and vulnerable, making it easy to make mistakes such as jumping into an unmetered cab with a disreputable driver," she explains.
Take preventative measures ahead of your trip.
Before your trip, check out the Traveler's Checklist on the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs website, says Maureen McNicholl, an American citizens services officer for the State Department. Get informed, collect required documents, enroll in STEP, and insure your trip, she says, stressing the importance of staying attuned to country-specific information, exit-and-entry details, health advisories and local laws and restrictions. Understanding short-term eminent risks and current U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations is also critical, she adds. Plus, the checklist guides users on how to easily pinpoint need-to-know information, including the location of the nearest embassy and health recommendations from the CDC.
Understand the risks.
Theft is a top threat to Americans traveling overseas, says Bruce McIndoe, chief executive of iJet International, a travel risk-management company. Travelers are often vulnerable to losing their credit cards, money and cellphones with scams like someone unfolding a map in front of them on a table to distract them. Other common dangers include food- and water-borne illnesses, as well as motor vehicle, bike and moped accidents, he explains. Perrin also cautions against focusing so much on unlikely risks like terrorist attacks "that you fail to take basic precautions against the things that are most likely to ruin a trip, such as a traffic accident, pickpockets, food poisoning or sunburn."
While the health risks and vaccinations required vary depending on your desired destination, it's important to understand what the recommendations are, explains Dr. Phyllis Kozarsky, travelers' health consultant to the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine at the CDC and a professor of medicine at Emory University's School of Medicine. Regardless of where you're headed, make sure you're up to date on routine immunizations like measles, mumps and rubella, she cautions. Beyond that, consult the CDC's website to know what other vaccinations you'll need for your next trip.
Follow standard health protocols to avoid contracting an infection.
The Zika virus is still active, so it's important to know which destinations are impacted by viewing the CDC website, Kozarsky says. Beyond reading current recommendations and general travel advisories, it's also key to study threats specific to the area you're planning to visit and consider your itinerary to stave off potential illness. A corporate executive staying at a hotel in Bangkok versus someone working at a refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border would discover very different health recommendations, Kozarsky explains. If you are going to a Zika-impacted area, know the latest travel advisories, and arm yourself with an insect repellent like DEET or use mosquito netting, she says.
Take photos and make copies.
In the event that your credit card, passport or visa is stolen, it's wise to have photocopies of essential documents, McNicholl says. "Make a couple of copies and leave them with a trusted family member or friend," she says. She also recommends keeping your passport with you and hidden at all times in a front pocket or tucked-away zipper compartment in your bag to avoid theft. And McIndoe suggests bringing pictures of both sides of your credit cards, as well as copies of your driver's license and medical card in case any of these critical documents or items is lost or stolen.
Keep emergency information within easy reach.
Whether you're planning a quick overseas jaunt or an extended trip, it's smart to plug important contact details into your phone, Perrin says. She also advises keeping your hotel's business card on you to show taxi drivers and other locals who may not speak English. Make sure your cellphone is activated for overseas use in case you need to reach your hotel immediately or make calls in an emergency. If you have health concerns, "have your medical records scanned and available," advises Dean Sivley, president of travel insurance provider Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, emphasizing that it's an easy way to achieve greater peace of mind and make your trip more enjoyable.
Dodge protests, rallies and large crowds.
"Pay attention to the local police advisories," McNicholl cautions. "Stay away from any demonstrations or big crowds," she says, noting that peaceful protects can turn violent quickly. It's also smart to use main streets after dark or a buddy system to avoid putting yourself in a vulnerable situation, McNicholl adds. Perrin also suggests dodging major transportation hubs at rush hour. But if you're concerned about terrorism threats abroad due to a recent travel alert or advisory, keep in mind, "there is a big difference between the probability of a terror attack occurring in a country you're visiting and the probability of your becoming a victim of that attack," she says.
Don't be a patsy for pickpockets.
It may seem like a no-brainer, but "if you can, blend in with the crowd," McNicoll says. Dress like a local, she advises. Perrin also cautions against sporting new white sneakers, noting, "They're a dead giveaway that you're a tourist." And make sure to leave flashy jewelry and valuables at home to prevent becoming a victim of theft. Another simple trick for dodging sly swindlers and pickpockets: Look like you know where you're going. And whatever you do, resist the temptation to take out a map in public to prevent labeling yourself an unsuspecting visitor, Perrin adds.
"You need to read the policy language on how [your insurer defines] when terrorism coverage applies and when it doesn't," Sivley says. He also advises factoring in the cost and coverage of policies and understanding the triggers for when insurance benefits kick in. For instance, if you're concerned about Zika, it's wise to get a cancel-for-any-reason policy to recoup more of your trip cost. That said, it's critical to understand different coverage stipulations. While you can take advantage of trip cancellation coverage and reimbursements for medical emergencies, typically policies do not enable you to cancel a trip due to fear of exposure to a known event or peril, like Zika. You can protect a higher percentage of your trip with a cancel-for-any-reason policy at a higher premium, but different providers assess cost and coverage differently, making it essential to read the fine print and understand the caveats for emergency evacuations, disease outbreaks and other dangers, he cautions.
Avoid scam artists.
When you're traveling somewhere exotic, be very aware of your surroundings and dodge known tricks and rip-offs. One common scam is handbag-snatching, Perrin says. Other common hoaxes include "the fake street fight," when boys pretend to get into a fight, approach you asking for money and then run away with your wallet, and "the crowded subway car," where a large group aims to distract visitors while an accomplice takes off with your wallet, Perrin explains. "Personally, I wear jackets with internal zippered pockets that nobody else's hands can reach," she says. She also recommends putting small bills and credit cards in different areas as an extra precaution.
Avoid untrustworthy Wi-Fi connections and text messages.
"Finding any Wi-Fi hot spot and hooking up to it is not a good plan," McIndoe says. "Poking around websites indiscriminately is not a good plan either," he adds. Rather than logging on to a free network, consider using your own reliable Wi-Fi hot spot. Doing so can protect you against online scammers. McNicholl also advises staying vigilant of threatening text messages. Anything that seems like an emergency situation that needs to be resolved with money is a red flag, she explains. In the event your phone is stolen, you can protect your personal information by having the ability to wipe your phone remotely or ensuring your phone and other electronic devices are encrypted.
Liz Weiss is the Travel editor for Consumer Advice at U.S. News, where she writes and edits consumer-focused travel content that offers trip-planning inspiration and helps consumers make smarter travel decisions. She has been covering the travel industry for nearly five years at U.S. News & World Report. She also manages the En Route blog, and has been interviewed on a variety of outlets, including MarketWatch and Fortune. Prior to joining the Consumer Advice team, Liz oversaw the development and content creation for U.S. News Travel's Best Cruises, Best Travel Rewards and Best Vacations franchises. A native of Washington, D.C., she received a bachelor's degree from George Washington University. You can follow Liz on Twitter or email her at email@example.com.