You're getting ready for a business trip, or maybe you're finally taking that dream vacation. No matter where your journey takes you — to the next city, across the country, or around the world — you face similar safety concerns. Keeping yourself, your family and your possessions safe will be top of mind. This article provides tips to help keep you and your valuables safe and secure when you travel. Additionally, you can find useful information on accessing health care while overseas.
Secure Your Home Before You Leave
There are things you can do before you leave home that can help keep you safe and minimize the inconvenience in case something goes wrong. It's a good idea to make two photocopies of all important papers you'll be taking with you (e.g., driver's license, passport, corporate ID). Keep one copy in your suitcase, and leave another with a trusted friend or relative. Put a small flashlight in your purse or briefcase; it can come in handy (e.g., if your car breaks down). And if you have a cell phone, bring it; you'll be glad to have it in an emergency.
Because empty homes and apartments are targets for burglars, secure your home before you travel. The steps listed below can help you avoid the distress and inconvenience of dealing with a crime.
Secure Your Home
- Make sure all door and window locks are in working order and locked before you leave.
- If you have a home security alarm, be sure to activate it. If the alarm is hooked up to a security company, inform them of the dates you will be away and provide a contact phone number.
- For fire safety, unplug appliances such as air conditioners, irons, and toasters.
- Give your departure/return dates to the local police and a trusted neighbor so they can keep an eye on your house.
- Leave a complete copy of your itinerary, including contact numbers, with your office, a family member, and/or a friend.
- Either stop mail and newspaper deliveries or ask a trusted neighbor to collect them for you.
- Put household lights and appliances on timers so they turn on and off at appropriate times. Tune a timed radio or television to a talk-show station so voices will be heard by anyone listening outside.
- Arrange to have the grass mowed or snow shoveled while you're gone.
- Leave a car parked in your driveway. If possible, ask a neighbor you trust to move it periodically. Alternatively, ask your neighbor to park in your driveway at night.
- Keep your usual telephone answering messages — don't mention that you're away.
Choosing a Hotel. Guidebooks and Internet sites can provide information about the cleanliness, convenience, and services offered by hotels. They can also provide information about which areas of a city are safe and which are not.When consulting a guidebook, use one with a recent edition date to be sure the information is current and accurate. If using a website, check to see when the site was last updated. Always make reservations ahead of time and guarantee them with a credit card to avoid the inconvenience of having to find a hotel in an unfamiliar city.
Checking In. Verify the security features of a hotel at check in. If you cannot determine the answers yourself, ask hotel personnel. Some safety issues to consider:
- Are hallways and elevators well-lit?
- Is the front desk staffed around the clock?
- Do guestrooms have double-locks and peepholes?
- Does the hotel employ 24-hour security personnel and, if so, how can they be reached?
- In some smaller hotels, the outside doors lock at a certain hour. If that is the case, what is the best way to re-enter?
Safeguard Your Key. Know where your room key/card is at all times.When you're in your room, always put the key in the same place — the night table is a good choice — so you can find it quickly. If you leave during an emergency, take the key with you; if the exits are impassable or if it's a false alarm you will need to get back into your room.
Inside Your Room. Use all available locks and chains on doors and windows while in the room. Always look through the peephole before opening the door, and never open the door to a stranger. When you leave your room, lock all luggage; use a cable lock on a laptop computer. Put anything of value in the hotel safe, and ask for a receipt for anything you've entrusted to the hotel.
Fire Safety. Major hotels have smoke alarms and sprinkler systems, and emergency evacuation instructions will be posted on the back of the entry door to your room. Additionally, there will often be fire safety information in the room — either on a pamphlet or card, or as part of the TV menu. Read this information and make sure you understand it.
General fire safety precautions:
- Familiarize yourself with the fire escape routes and locate the two exits nearest to your room in case the primary one is blocked.
- Always keep your room key on the night table so that you can find it in a hurry.
- Never smoke in bed.
- If there is a fire outside your room, always feel the door before opening it. If it is hot, do not open it — telephone for help.
- If you leave the room, take your room key.
- Never use elevators during a fire or suspected fire; they could shut down, trapping you inside. Take the stairs.
- To help keep smoke from entering your room, soak sheets and towels and stuff them under the door.
- Stay close to the floor for the freshest air and hold a wet washcloth over your face.
- Do not attempt to run through smoke or flames.
- If you are forced to stay in your room, telephone for help, turn off the air-conditioning and heating systems, and open your window slightly for ventilation.
To avoid being stranded, make sure your car is in tip-top shape before you set out. Get good directions to your destination; you don't want to get lost in unfamiliar territory. Detailed driving maps are available on the Internet. If you belong to an automobile club, they usually provide maps free of charge. When you're on the road, keep this advice in mind:
- Keep your gas tank at least 1/4 full.
- Never leave luggage, camera or computer equipment, phones, or other valuables visible in your car. Keep valuables on your person if you can, or lock them in the trunk of the car.
- Always look in the back seat before you enter the car.
- Carry an emergency roadside kit (e.g., flares, a flashlight, first aid kit, blanket).
- Avoid poorly lit areas and don't drive in deserted areas at night.
- Close windows and lock the car every time you leave it — even if it's just for a minute. When driving keep car doors locked — especially while stopped in traffic.
- Leave ample room between your car and the car in front of you (i.e., an escape route). If another vehicle bumps your car from behind do not stop. Go to a well-lit service station or the nearest police station.
- Don't stop and offer assistance at breakdowns or accidents. They may be staged by criminals. Instead, note the location and use your cell phone or drive to the nearest phone and call 911.
- Police use flashing red and blue lights. Do not pull over and stop for any vehicles using another color flashing light; instead, proceed to a public location or the nearest police station.
- If someone attempts to take your car by force, let them. Possessions can be replaced; you can't be. Report the incident to the police immediately.
There are a lot of things you can do to reduce your risk of becoming a victim of a crime. Among them:
- Wear comfortable clothes and shoes that will allow you to walk briskly (or run) if needed.
- Don't wear yourself out. The more exhausted you are, the less alert you will be.
- Read about the city you'll be visiting. Buy a map to familiarize yourself with the city layout to avoid becoming lost in dangerous places.
- Seek advice from hotel personnel and guidebooks about any special precautions you should take or any areas you should avoid.
- Leave expensive — or expensive-looking — jewelry at home to avoid catching the eye of a thief.
- When possible, use credit or debit cards and travelers' checks instead of cash; never count your money in public.
- Travel in a group when you can or walk near other people (e.g., when leaving a theater).
- When in public, avoid drawing attention to yourself as a tourist: Don't stand on street corners looking at maps. Try to walk confidently; this will deter many criminals.
- Use caution when using ATMs and don't carry too much cash around with you — many places accept credit or debit cards and there are ATMs and banks everywhere.
- After dark, stick to main streets if you don't know where you are going. Avoid areas that are not well-lit.
- If you feel uncomfortable or lost, approach a police officer or a friendly storeowner to get your bearings or directions.
- If someone threatens you for your wallet or other valuables, give them up without a fight and get out of the situation as soon as possible. No possession is worth your life.
- Always walk away from trouble such as angry mobs, arguments, riots, and police action. Never respond to insults and provocation directed at you; instead, calmly walk away.
Wherever tourists go, pickpockets and thieves generally follow. By staying alert and taking a few precautions, you can reduce your risk of falling prey to them.
The first rule to remember is to stay alert at all times. Thieves often work in pairs - one to distract you while the other robs you. Criminals are always coming up with ingenious ways to distract victims, such as starting an argument or faking a fainting spell. While tourists focus on the distraction, a second criminal lifts the loot from purses, pockets, and backpacks.
Pickpockets work in crowded areas, pushing, wedging, or bumping into people to distract them. Play it safe and carry your money in a hidden money belt or a pouch around your neck. Skillful pickpockets can pick just about any pocket, so keep only small amounts of cash in a handbag or wallet. Men should carry wallets in a front pocket, and women should carry their purses with the strap across the chest, or held under one arm. It should not be dangling over the shoulder.
Following are a few general rules that are second nature to seasoned travelers:
- Be wary of unsolicited help. People offering to help you across a busy street, for example, may be trying to distract you.
- Think twice about deals "too good to be true." Gems drastically less expensive than they would be at home are probably cut glass. Bargain-basement-priced antiques are probably fake.
- Listen to other tourists' stories about scams in the area, and be on the alert for the next imaginative rip-off.
Starting Out to Stay Well
If you'll be abroad for an extended period, get a check-up, and discuss your itinerary and any concerns with your physician. Not all general practitioners keep current on worldwide health issues. Therefore, before you travel abroad, research the medical considerations at your intended destination on your own. Ideally this should be done four to six weeks before you plan to travel. If you need immunizations you may need to get them over a period of weeks or months.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) can provide excellent, up-to-date information specific to the countries or regions you will be visiting, including vaccinations you may need and preventative medications that may be required; disease and safety risks and how to avoid them; and food, water, and insect precautions. You can access CDC Travel Health information on the Internet or by phone (877-394-8747). See For More Information. Some precautions to take to help ensure a comfortable trip:
- Pack your preferred cold medicines and pain relievers - finding your favorite brands will most likely be impossible outside of the U.S.
- Food and drink you are not used to can cause intestinal disturbances. Ask your doctor to recommend medication to take with you - just in case.
- If you need prescription medications, pack enough to allow for travel delays. Do not pack prescriptions in your suitcase; if possible carry them with you. Some doctors suggest packing a backup supply of your medications and storing it separately, in case your original supply is lost or stolen.
- Pack photocopies of your prescriptions in case a medication is lost. Have your doctor or pharmacist write the generic names on your prescriptions. Drugs may have different patent names in different countries, but generic names may be easy to identify.
- All medications - prescription or other - taken abroad should be left in original containers, clearly labeled. Check with the foreign embassy of the country you are visiting to make sure required medications are not considered illegal narcotics.
- Check with your health insurance provider to find what its policy is in the event you need medical treatment in a foreign country. Bear in mind that the U.S. Social Security Medicare program does not provide coverage for hospital or medical costs outside the USA. You may want to consider purchasing supplemental medical insurance.
- Consider how you will find appropriate medical assistance should you become sick while abroad. Your credit card company may offer a service that will put you in touch with English-speaking doctors in the area. Additionally, the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (IAMAT) provides a directory of English-speaking doctors who meet certain standards and who will charge according to an established schedule of fees. See For More Information.
If you are flying a long distance, allow time for your body to adjust to the time change. Get enough rest, and research how to obtain safe food and water at your destination, if necessary. Use guidebooks, other travelers, and the CDC hotline for information. Eat a balanced diet and drink plenty of bottled water. Wash your hands often and shower regularly to help ward off infections; always treat open cuts and wounds promptly.
Avoiding Trouble Abroad
A good travel guide can provide a lot of useful information about the people and the customs of the country you'll be visiting and thereby enhance your experience. There are many good guides available in bookstores and on the internet. Below are some things you can do that will help you avoid problems.
Obtain a Consular Information Sheet From the U. S. Department of State before you go. It is especially important to get an information sheet if your destination is in a (potentially) troubled area of the world. These updates describe crime and security conditions, political disturbances, and areas of instability for each country. The Department of State can also provide a list of countries that US citizens are forbidden or strongly advised not to enter. Both are free from the State Department Citizen Emergency Center. See For More Information for contact information.
Do not carry, purchase, or sell any illegal drugs. Most countries punish those in possession of illegal drugs harshly. In any country, use of illegal drugs, and association with persons dealing with illegal drugs, invites danger.
Avoid touchy subjects in conversation. While part of the fun of travel is to exchange ideas with the locals you meet, remember that a friendly discussion on a subject such as politics, religion, and/or sex can escalate into an uncomfortable debate. If you do discuss such topics, it's wise to first listen to others' views rather than sharing your own.
Know what you can and cannot photograph. In some countries, it is illegal to photograph certain things (e.g., bridges, airports, religious objects, shrines). A good guidebook should warn you of such restrictions. If you are in doubt ask an official. If you wish to take pictures of local people, always ask permission first.
Learn key phrases in the language of the country you are visiting. Although residents of many countries speak some English, you'll appear more confident, and people may be more willing to help you, if you try to speak their language.
Know the location of the United States Embassy. Embassy personnel can help you deal with most crises (e.g., reporting a robbery to the local police; obtaining medical or legal services, replacing a lost or stolen passport). It will be easier to replace your passport if you carry extra passport photos and a photocopy of the first two pages separately from your passport.
The key to a safe, enjoyable trip is advance preparation. Find out ahead of time what you need to know to ensure your safety and cope with unforeseen events so that you can relax and enjoy your trip. Bon Voyage!
For More Information
Traveler Beware! An Undercover Cop's Guide to Avoiding: Pickpockets, Luggage Theft, and Travel Scams
by Kevin Coffey
Published by Corporate Travel Safety
Traveler's Tool Kit
by Rob Sangster
Menasha Ridge Press
Consumer Information from the Federal Government
The quarterly Consumer Information Center catalog lists more than 200 helpful federal publications. For your free copy call 1-888-8-PUEBLO or visit http://www.pueblo.gsa.gov.
Centers for Disease Control http://www.cdc.gov
You can find information on travel health risks and recommended vaccines in the section titled "Travelers Health." CDC also maintains the international travelers hotline at 1-877-FYI-TRIP (1-877-394-8747).
Transportation Security Administration http://www.tsa.gov
This site provides information about air travel security and restrictions.
International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers http://www.iamat.org
IAMAT provides information on English-speaking doctors abroad.
U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs http://travel.state.gov This site offers Consular Information Sheets and international travel information.