Texas Tech University

Make yourself safe when you travel abroad

Saint Augustine, who lived around 400 AD in an age when taking trips was fraught with many more dangers than today, is credited with saying: "The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page."

Yet as we approach the summer travel season, those who may want to "read other pages" see an increasingly frightening world and wonder whether it's safe to go beyond our borders.

And no amount of reassuring data will take away the worries; just because the chances of getting involved in a violent terrorist incident are less than being struck by lightning, for the unfortunate few who are, those probabilities are meaningless.

First a bit of reassurance. The world seems a more dangerous place than in decades past because there are many more highly publicized terrorism-related events — exactly what the terrorists want. But if one maps out where they occur, the great majority happen in a handful of places: parts of the Middle East, North and West Africa, East Africa and Central/South Asia — not exactly major tourist destinations.

For example, in 2015 more than half the world's terrorist incidents took place in Africa. Of course it's the violent incidents publicized by our 24-hour news cycle that grab our attention, especially the gruesome terrorist acts in places we once considered safe and ideal vacation spots — such as Brussels, Paris, Istanbul, the Mediterranean coast or even California.

Closer to home, Mexico has received considerable negative publicity because of ongoing drug-related violence and the high rate of kidnappings. But as with most large countries, it's important to note millions of Americans enjoy visiting that country each year uneventfully, and many parts of Mexico are just as safe as the safest parts of the U.S.

So the first important decision for a traveler is choice of destination because there is a middle ground between throwing all care to the wind and taking off to see the charms of mountainous Afghanistan or the beaches of Somalia — or hunkering down at home and refusing to leave the city limits. Here are some tips:

Of the world's 200 some countries, it's easy to cross off the obvious danger spots — those with U.S. Department of State travel warnings which say "avoid travel to..." Beyond those, it's possible to use current geopolitical trends and weed out countries which might have been attractive in the past, but are currently of concern.

Such decisions are highly personal and based on an individual's own risk tolerance, but tourism will likely suffer this year in places like Turkey (terrorism), the Greek islands (refugees fleeing Iraq and Syria), Western Europe (potential terrorism targets), Kenya (terrorism) and Israel (militant knife attacks).

There is also a correlation between dictatorships and personal safety — but who wants to vacation in North Korea?

But even for those with the lowest threshold for danger, much of the world remains available, including all possible terrains and climates, with spectacular attractions and touristic treasures.

And the honest truth is no place in the world is entirely safe — Washington D.C.'s subway is just as much a target as Paris'. But driving the Marsha Sharp Freeway at rush hour isn't entirely safe either.

Regardless of your destination, the highest probabilities for unpleasant events overseas relate to stomach "readjustment" (try local yogurt); lost passport or credit cards (keep an e-copy in the "Cloud" and accessible from anywhere, and have paper copies of your passport bio page and credit cards); local scams (find out from the hotel what they are) and unavailability of familiar medicines (take enough of what you need for the entire trip).

Ambassador Tibor P. Nagy, Jr.

Ambassador Tibor P. Nagy, Jr.

Less likely but still possible are serious illness or injury (get medical evacuation insurance and make sure your health insurance is valid overseas.) Also consider trip insurance in case you have to change your plans. The least probable is being the victim of a violent incident, and even here there are steps you can take to mitigate risk.

  • If staying more than a few days in any one location, register with the U.S. Government's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) at: https://step.state.gov/step/; This will get you on the embassy's radar in case they need to contact you or pass on some urgent news. Also, have the embassy's 24-hour number on hand before you get in case of need.
  • When entering or leaving major international airports, get through the unsecured zone as quickly as possible. Historically, it's been the curbside and ticket counters which have been terrorist targets, so get inside the secure perimeter without delay.
  • If possible, don't select the one hotel at your destination which is where most westerners or locally influential people stay. Over and over, such hotels have been targeted by terrorists for their potential high profile victims and publicity value;
  • When staying in any hotel, try for a floor between the second and eighth. Lower floors are the most vulnerable to attacks, and in many countries rescue equipment is limited to the eighth floor in case of fire;
  • If staying in a location where hotels are vulnerable to criminal or terrorist attacks, minimize your time in the lobby area or any restaurants and bars close to the outside. And, based on my overseas experiences, one of the first things I do in a hotel or restaurant is look for potential exits;
  • If caught up in an attack in a hotel or restaurant, do your best to stay calm and, if at all possible, flee; if not, hide and barricade your hiding place with whatever is at hand (furniture against a hotel door). Once security forces arrive, let them come to you — do not make any sudden moves or run to them — as they will be highly agitated, probably not understand English, and be ready to shoot anyone they consider a threat.
  • In most cases, terrorists are not interested in taking hostages and then negotiating their release; instead, they want to cause as many casualties as possible before surrendering their own lives. If you can neither flee nor hide, your best chance for survival is to fight any way you can with whatever you can (chairs, fire extinguishers, bar stools, lamps).
  • If you are in proximity to an explosion, under no circumstances go to the window if inside, or toward the area of the incident if outside. With many such incidents, the terrorists plan a sequence of events to maximize casualties. At our embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, for example, most casualties were caused by flying glass from the truck bombs after people had gone to the windows in reaction to the initial gunfire and grenade explosions.

While the above points are important, the most critical element to staying safe abroad is exercising situational awareness. From my own experience I'm convinced the Good Lord gives everyone their own personal "radar," and we would do so much better if we only paid attention to it.

If, in any situation, a person or object seems out of place, and you feel something is wrong, you are likely correct. If it's a hot, clear summer day in London and a nervous looking man, sweating profusely and wearing a bulky outercoat gets on the bus, get off immediately. If there is a package on the subway which "feels" wrong and doesn't seem to belong to anyone — change cars and get off the train. It's your radar, and it can keep you alive and well!

Hopefully, one day our entire world will turn safe, serene and bucolic. But until that happens, by exercising common sense precautions, you can still enjoy the delights and wonders international travel offers without unduly risking your safety and security. Just take your "radar" with you.

TIBOR NAGYis vice provost for international affairs at Texas Tech and served as U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia from 1999 to 2002 and to Guinea from 1996 to 1999.