How to Not Be a Victim While Traveling Abroad

Paradise is only a flight away.  You’ve waited for this vacation for months, paid your hard-earned money, and taken care of items around the house to ensure your home and property isn’t a target while you’re out of the country.  But what have you done to ensure you aren’t a victim in that place you’ve dreamed of visiting?

Let’s face facts – violence, crime, and con men exist everywhere.  Even in the most serene of places, bad stuff happens.  Recently, the news recounted a story of a brawl that happened at Disneyland involving a number of people.  When I was in Croatia last December, one of our group had a pocket picked.  It happens, but being aware is the single most important thing you can do to minimize such things happening to you.  People always say that they could never imagine it happening to them – and that is often why things happen to them.

What’s the alternative?  Stay at home?  Only travel to places you know?  Does that really ensure your ultimate safety?

So, how do you help protect yourself?  You want to relax, and you deserve to relax.  Just don’t relax to the point that you become an easy target.  Here’s a list of things you can do to minimize your chances of being a victim whether you are traveling to Atlanta or Zanzibar.

  1. Pre-arranged transfers to and from the airport are always the best option.  Is it the cheapest?  Doubtful, but often you’ll be in a country where the language differs greatly from yours.  By having your ride set up in advance, the driver is already paid (except for a discretionary tip), they know your name, they know where you are going, and there is usually a company involved to add another layer of accountability.
  2. Stay at hotels and/or resorts with a good reputation.  Here again, cheap is not always best.  Reputable properties earn that reputation from thousands of travelers.  They have a vested interest in making sure their guests are comfortable and happy.  Does that ensure they are perfect?  No, but your chances of becoming a victim of theft is reduced (not eliminated).  If your room has a safe, use it!
  3. Never use independent taxis unless absolutely necessary. Always arrange taxis through your hotel whenever possible.  If that’s not possible, ensure the rate for your ride is agreed upon before you get into the taxi.  Not all taxi drivers are crooks, but it’s a best practice to keep in mind.
  4. Leave your expensive and irreplaceable jewelry at home.  This should be a no-brainer.  Do you really need to wear your $85,000 wedding ring to the pool?  If you really need to wear a wedding band, buy an inexpensive stainless steel band to show commitment to your spouse.  (Silver is nice, but it will tarnish significantly in pool water)
  5. If you go exploring on your own, be back at your resort/hotel by dark.  If you are out after dark, just remain alert and don’t go down dark alleys or visit places that would be suspect even at home.  There is often safety in numbers, so keep the exploring to areas that have people around you.
  6. I can’t help but shake my head whenever I hear or read that someone couldn’t believe their rights were violated when outside the USA.  I can’t stress this enough – the rights you enjoy as an American in the USA are NOT the same rights you may or may not have overseas. You are a visitor in a foreign land.  No one likes an arrogant American screaming that they have rights and expecting that they should be appeased because of that fact.  If you are arrested, be compliant and do not argue. Do not proclaim what you believe to be your rights.  You are not in America.  Request to speak with a representative from the US Embassy/Consulate. Remember, your rights as a U.S. citizen do not transfer to Mexico, Canada, or any other country.
  7. Do not sign documents at a police station that you do not understand, especially if it appears to be a statement. Request a translator, or again, ask to speak with a representative from the US Embassy.
  8. Do not overindulge in alcohol in public places. Doing so can make you an easy target, and just isn’t a smart idea.  Personal story – I was in Brussels a number of years ago and had an incredible meal at a local restaurant.  I had a few Belgian ales and decided to walk back to my hotel.  I went an entire mile in the wrong direction before realizing it.  Luckily, I did realize my mistake and turned around, but it was still embarassing.
  9. Do not buy, possess or use illegal drugs. Chances are that they are illegal there too!  Even if the culture is tolerant, don’t risk it.  Marijuana may be tolerated in Jamaica, but as a tourist that tolerance is not a given.  It’s just not worth the risk to your personal freedom or safety not to mention the potential financial disruption to your vacation or your job security back home.
  10. Currency exchange counters at the airport don’t really offer the best exchange rates in your destination.  If you want to have some pocket change for any immediate needs like tips, change only  a small amount of money.  Many bigger cities in the US allow you to order currency in advance of your trip.  It can be expensive to do this, but it can make arrival easier.  Having as much of your trip pre-paid will minimize the amount of cash you need when traveling.  Visa, Mastercard, and American Express are widely accepted, and their exchange rates and foreign currency fees are generally more reasonable than exchange offices.  NEVER change currency with anyone on the street.  Keep the majority of your cash in some place other than your wallet or purse.  I personally use a travel wallet buried deep in my backpack.
  11. If you are arrested or approached by a police office and they appear to be seeking a bribe, refuse to pay them and request that you be transported to the police station and have the US Embassy notified.
  12. Only use ATMs inside hotels or bank lobbies. Avoid using ATMs located in the open or directly on a street unless it is near a bank.  Should you use an ATM on the street, keep aware of your surroundings.
  13. Enroll in the U.S. State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to let the US Embassy know you will be in the country and how to contact you.
  14. Keep a list of important phone numbers including the emergency numbers for police, fire and medical response; the nearest US Embassy/Consulate; and an approved medical provider or hospital.  In addition to keeping this information on your phone, carry a printed copy in your luggage.  It’s also a good idea to keep a couple of copies of your passport in case your actual passport is lost or stolen.  While it’s not official, it can help with identification and a speedy replacement.
  15. Do some research on the area(s) to be visited to learn more about potential threats to your safety including planned protests or demonstrations, labor strikes, natural disasters or an increase in drug cartel violence.
  16. Travelers, especially females, should never leave their drinks unattended in public places.
  17. Don’t assume that you can drink the water! Even though most higher end hotels and resorts have their own filtration systems, the water might still you an upset stomach.  If you have any doubt, use only bottle water and skip the drinks that need ice cubes.

Lastly, and possibly a self-serving recommendation, use a trusted travel agent to plan your trip.  Many agents keep tuned to happenings in destinations and can give you a heads-up if there are any potential issues.  Personally, I will state whether or not I’d feel safe traveling somewhere, and if I’m not comfortable traveling to a place myself or taking along my wife, I won’t recommend it.  Does that happen?  Definitely.  And if a client insists, I make all sorts of notes about my recommendations against it.

There’s a lot of world out there, and never enough time to see it all.  Stay safe!

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