While trips to third world countries require more thorough preparation, whenever you travel outside the U.S., there are steps to take that help ensure a safer trip.
For overseas trips, gather as much information as you can about local current events within the destination country. Watch world news reports, read online versions of foreign domestic newspapers and check the Travel Warnings, Consular Information Sheets, and Public Announcements on the U.S State Department’s website (www.state.gov). Also check U.K and Canadian Government versions as they may have stronger ties to certain countries and therefore, better information on current conditions.
The State Department sometimes issues travel warnings that recommend Americans avoid certain countries especially when deteriorating political conditions warrant heightened security countermeasures. If your plans include a country on this list, check your life and health insurance policies before leaving. They may exclude coverage for injuries or death within certain countries.
Prior to leaving, prepare a plan for family members at home. If you’re traveling alone on business; in an emergency, what do you want your family to do? Do they know where your financial records or will are? How about other important documents… birth certificate and healthcare records?
Before heading to the airport, leave a copy of your passport/birth certificate/Social Security card, your prescriptions and other important records at home along with a copy of your itinerary. Better, scan copies of important documents and save them as a PDF file or Jpeg in a safe place; perhaps on an encrypted USB thumb drive that can be kept in a secure, yet accessible location.
When making copies of passports, be sure to copy the last page since it often includes important numbers and information that consulates require to expedite a replacement. If your passport is lost or stolen while you are away, you will save time by being able to email copies of these documents to the local consulates responsible for issuing temporary replacements. However you store them, make sure that someone at home knows where those copies are. Many of our corporate clients leave such information with us or their family attorney. Take additional copies with you that you can leave in a hotel safe.
Beyond copies of your important documents, you should also carry an extra week’s worth of your prescription medicines. Health and safety standards vary from country to country and certain medications may not be available.
Let your family know who to contact in the event of an emergency. Many companies have emergency procedures in place for overseas travelers; let your family know who coordinates the program and what steps need to be taken.
If you are taking a business trip to an unstable or volatile country such as Uganda or Columbia, find out about your company’s kidnap insurance and their policies –just in case. You may want to consider kidnap insurance of your own. We also recommend purchasing an emergency medical evacuation plan. For instance, Interfor works with MedjetAssist but there are similar services that will pick you up and fly you back to your local hospital or to the nearest suitable hospital on a medically equipped jet with a team of trained emergency medical personnel. These plans are fairly inexpensive, often just a few hundred dollars per year and are generally much better than the plans offered by credit card companies, so do your homework.
Morbid as it may seem, make out a letter of instructions in the event of your death. Get fingerprinted and obtain copies of your dental X-rays for identification, especially if you travel overseas on a regular basis. It may seem extreme, but many victims of terrorist bomb attacks or catastrophic accidents go unidentified for months, leaving families in emotional and financial chaos. It is not fatalistic to plan for such contingencies; it is wise.
When you arrive in any foreign country, think about protecting yourself immediately. First and foremost, spend as little time at the airport as possible, and avoid heavily glassed areas.
When leaving an airport in an unstable or third-world country, never take the taxis waiting in line at a taxi stand; it leaves you more susceptible to kidnapping. Taxis waiting in line at airports or hotels are there specifically to pick up travelers. They are more likely to contain someone who is targeting foreign tourists for robbery or kidnapping than a pre-arranged car service that is recommended by your hotel or contracted by your company.
Also it is a good idea to convert money into the local currency prior to your departure. Aside from paying higher exchange fees at the airport, thieves target Westerners exchanging large amounts of cash. And, if you’re traveling to a developing country, they may not have the credit card and ATM facilities to which we are accustomed.
If you are planning to be in a country for more than two or three days, let the American Embassy or consulate know that you are there. If you contact them, your name will go into a database of citizens traveling within their jurisdictions and they will be a great source for help in case of an emergency. Most consulates will allow you to pre-register prior to arrival, especially in volatile locations.
As you begin traveling within a foreign country, try not to advertise the fact that you are American and a tourist. Realistically, US citizens are not always looked upon favorably, especially now. In fact, Interfor’s most recent analysis indicates that anti-American sentiment is at an all-time high in many areas of the world that were previously considered safe by our standards.
Be discrete with maps; avoid wearing clothing with American logos that tend to announce you and your home turf. That does not mean trying to wear native costume but if your normal vacation travel garb is something along the lines of a baseball cap, NY Yankees jersey, fanny pack, sandals and shorts, you should try to dress a little more conservatively so that you blend more easily into a crowd. We recommend something closer to business casual attire—you don’t look so much like someone who is clearly on holiday and frankly, if you avoid the typical “Ugly American” look, the benefit will be that you probably get better service.
Leave expensive watches and jewelry at home. Remember even Americans of modest means seem wealthy in comparison to the citizens of some poor countries and are attractive targets. If you are traveling for business, don’t advertise your corporate affiliation or title on your luggage or on other items.
When choosing a hotel, make safety not price, your prime consideration. Do not just book the hotel nearest your destination. Make the quality of the neighborhood in which your hotel is located a top consideration. Avoid hotels that have underground garages; terrorists target hotels with underground garages.
Major European-owned chain hotels are now your best bets as they most frequently have adequate security and reasonable hygiene practices in place. We used to recommend American chains for these same reasons. However, they are more likely to be targets in today’s political environment. European chains may not have all the amenities you are accustomed to, but they tend to have superior security when compared to smaller local hotels.
Be particular when selecting a room. Try to select the floor that you stay on. Do not accept a room that has a balcony on a low floor with a sliding door. Rooms with sliding doors can provide great views, but, how often do you really use them? Sliding doors are open invitations to petty criminals and kidnappers.
It is of utmost importance that you locate emergency stairs upon arrival, so that you know how to get out of your hotel in case of a fire or bomb attack. Also, try to avoid staying on high floors that cannot be reached by ladders during a fire. (And remember that firefighting equipment generally has a much shorter reach outside of America, particularly in third world countries.) If the chances are high that a terrorist bomb could explode in front of the hotel due to the ease of vehicle access and the probability of such an attack is within reason, do not accept a room that faces the street. Put your safety first, and get another room. Never hesitate to switch hotels if your needs are not met, or if you sense something is wrong – your instincts are probably right.
When traveling with your family rent or purchase a cell phone that works in the country where you will be traveling or use unlocked SIM card phones that operate on a local network. (This is important for business travelers as well since working pay phones are becoming scarce in many countries). Some American service providers offer phones that work internationally; or you can rent a phone when you arrive from a provider like travelcell.com or mobalrental.com.
Have your children memorize and write down the cell phone number; the name and address of the hotel in which you stay and teach them how to dial an emergency contact back home, like a grandparent or family friend from a public phone. Work out a plan with them to follow if they become separated from you. Additionally, it can be very helpful to learn basic words and phrases in the local language such as “help” or “hospital” or “American Consulate” or “police”, especially in countries where English is not spoken.
If your children are older, say in their teens, have them carry enough local currency to take a cab back to your hotel. Have all family members carry picture ID in a secure location, separate from their wallets (perhaps in an interior pocket) that won’t be reachable by pick-pockets. Be especially careful with your passports as demand for stolen ones is at an all-time high on the black market.
Your chances of being a victim of crime or terrorism are low in most developed countries, probably not much higher than in an American city, and even in developing countries you are probably relatively safe if you are careful. So, there is no reason for paranoia. However, in thirty years of managing the safety of corporate executives and their families, we have found that it never hurts to take common sense precautions that can help keep yourself and your family safer and ensure that your vacation or business trip is a success.