So This is Christmas…Is Travel Safety Gone?

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“I’m currently in Sydney where an insurgent group has taken hostages in a cafe a block from my hotel. Ironic to think I’m running into more trouble here than you in Kinshasa ;)” wrote my friend Idir earlier this month.

I’ve been thinking a lot about travel safety since ISIS has stormed across the Levant. The big travel story of the year is not Ebola. Ebola is a human tragedy and inflicted countries have done better or worse at containing it, however the travel angle is overblown.

ISIS has overturned the old rules about who, what, when and where are targets. Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic in Before the Beheadings reflects on how he, as a Jew, a decade ago was welcomed into Islamic terrorist groups to observe. Where once a journalist might enjoy some measure of protection, now journalists are hunted.

John Lennon’s Happy Xmas (War is Over) has been on rotation this week while I am in LA and the message of hope seems ever-receding.

In the self-centered, show-off, one-upmanship culture that has risen with social media, I worry that horrific events by individuals or groups, motivated by religion or otherwise, will continue to grow in public settings, targeting innocents.

If nowhere is safe, what should a traveler do? Reading the US State Department travel alerts and warnings you would think it reckless to leave the US. In addition to numerous country specific warnings, there is not only a Worldwide Caution but also a Worldwide Travel Alert. Someone outside the US can be forgiven for thinking the greatest risk is visiting US schools for the regular mass shootings we have. All of these exceptional events, though, pale in probability to the more mundane, statistically risky activities like driving a car.

I believe it is vitally important for the world to continue to have travel, to continue exchange among peoples. Each travel decision is highly personal: you live with the consequences good and bad.

5 suggestions for travel planning:

  1. In most places, most of the time, men, women and children go about their daily lives without incident. Don’t let hysterical media paint the whole picture.
  2. Don’t assume places are safe or not without valid information. Events have shown any place can be a target. Others may be safer than assumed because they are low profile.
  3. Events change fast, stay up to date right through arrival. Get information from credible, local sources. Beware emigres who left a country a decade ago, they are often biased and woefully out of date.
  4. Be prepared to cancel or change a trip. The smart move can be to bail.
  5. Know how to reach emergency contacts, from medical to police to diplomatic. And know what they can and can’t, or won’t, do for you.

5 suggestions on the ground:

  1. Keep a low profile. Dress like a normal person. Unless you are on safari, don’t dress like you are are on safari. Do you need a vest and convertible pants to visit the Louvre? Carrying a local newspaper or shopping bag can help you at least look like a local expat, if not a local.
  2. My 3 ‘D’ rule: don’t be drunk, drugged or debauched, especially if you don’t speak the language or know the legal system.
  3. Stay in busy places. Stay near traffic flow on streets, not off by doors and alleys.
  4. This will be controversial, but I believe you should carry some cash. Cash solves many problems on the spot, even as mundane as needing a taxi because a street feels unsafe. In case of robbery let them take the cash. Better than pretending to not have anything or being dragged to an ATM.
  5. Put down the damn phone. Pay attention to your surroundings.

Readers, what are your travel safety tips?

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[…] Christmas I reflected on travel safety. ISIS and broader religious-fueled terrorism has upended the travel map in many places. Everyday […]

7 years ago

Occupy Central aka umbrella movement was peaceful and organized, at least during my visit last month. Hong Kong is more like a Chinese city than ” Asia World City”. I feel the pain and lost of the local people.

dale m
dale m
7 years ago

Quick response in regard to comment by Denise: I visited the protest site at Central / Admiralty several times while there in October, and felt completely safe – even welcome. It was easily the most memorable part of that trip — why I travel. Some street demonstrations in Greece — same same. A little common sense and caution goes a long way in those situations.

Good good comment about putting the bloody phone down!

7 years ago

Excellent piece. I especially like the newspaper and shopping bag tip. You are spot on about the safari clothes being worn inappropriately. Thank you for continuing your thoughtful and practical writing.

7 years ago

I try to avoid large public gatherings or demonstrations. When in Hong Kong in November, despite my curiosity, I did not visit Occupy Central, for instance.