Stay Safe in Dangerous Times
Terrorist attacks, wars and civil unrest have become a regrettable feature of the global landscape. When business demands require travel to one of these hotspots, certain precautions can keep you reasonably safe.
Should your travel plans include dangerous geographic regions, the U.S. State Department (https://travel.state.gov) is a valuable resource. Since a country can morph overnight from perfectly safe to risky business, make sure to bookmark this site for easy reference. Then, check in before you leave for your trip, and frequently during the duration.
The U.S. State Department Travel Alerts and Warnings
The State Department issues travel alerts to prepare American citizens for various contingencies posing significant risks to their security. Besides potential violence, these alerts also address natural disasters, anniversaries of attacks and even high profile events such as sports competitions, elections and international conferences. Check out https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/alertswarnings.html for real-time updates on potential problems.
The State Department also provides travel warnings for regions it deems dangerous or volatile, advising citizens to avoid the risk of travel there. Conditions might include unstable government, civil war, frequent terrorist attacks or a prevalence of violent crime. Because embassies have closed in many of these areas, the federal government can do very little to help Americans who get into trouble. Current travel warnings are available at https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/alertswarnings.html.
In addition to offering an ongoing list of nations in “alert” or “warning” categories, the site also provides a search function allowing users to refine information about specific destinations. As an added precaution, register your travel plans with the State Department.
The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (https://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/go/step.html) is a free government service provided to U.S. citizens who are traveling to or living in a foreign country. STEP allows you to enter information about your upcoming trip so the Department of State can better assist you in an emergency, as well as notify family members of your situation.
What YOU Can Do to Stay Safe
While no one can be 100 percent sure they won’t encounter trouble when visiting high-risk areas, a number of measures can make a safe trip and return much more likely. Here are some tips:
- Obey local laws. Violations we consider minor in the United States can generate heavy penalties in foreign countries. Don’t risk exorbitant legal fees or incarceration by traveling in restricted areas, using illegal substances or removing a “souvenir” from public property. Most important, never accept a package to carry with your luggage – even for a promised free vacation or other reward. Criminals often scam innocent travelers to transport illegal drugs and other contrabands.
- Watch your spending. According to the State Department, U.S. citizens actually have been arrested for exceeding their credit limits. Before you leave home, call your credit card company to inquire how you can contact them from abroad in case of emergency. The 1-800 number printed on your card won’t work from other countries.
- Point your camera with caution. In some countries, snapping away at security-related institutions such as government buildings, military facilities, police stations and border areas carries the risk of arrest.
- Buyer beware. Local custom authorities might deem that antique vase or necklace you bought at a street bazaar a national treasure. This can happen even when the “treasure” is simply an excellent facsimile. The State Department suggests you take particular care in Egypt, Turkey and Mexico. Before you shop there – or anywhere abroad, for that matter – get familiar with local antique regulations. On required travel documentation, record your purchases as reproductions.
- Document prescription medication. Check with your destination’s embassy here to assure your meds are not classified illegal narcotics in that country. Have your doctor write a letter describing your conditions and medications, with generic drug names duly noted. Always tote medications in their clearly labeled, original bottles, and carry your physician’s letter at all times.
Except for prescriptions or physician-approved medications, stay away from purchasing or possessing other drugs. Illegal substance charges can land you in prison before your case even comes to trial.
- Do not tote firearms, ammunition, knives or weapons of any kind. This warning applies to Mexico, too. The State Department reports that U.S. citizens have been arrested after law officials found a single bullet in a vehicle’s trunk.
- Stay away from political activities, especially demonstrations. Participation is an invitation for arrest – especially when a peaceful action turns violent.
If, in spite of your best precautions, you are detained for any reason, contact the closest U.S. Embassy or Consulate for assistance. While U.S. consular personnel cannot compel local officials to release you from prison, they can provide a list of local attorneys; help you understand local judicial protocols; and contact your family and friends.