Author of Be Ready for Anything and Build a Better Pantry on a Budget online course
I’ve written often about how we shouldn’t let fear get in the way of us living the lives we want to lead, and that includes visiting the places we’ve always dreamed about going to see. Currently, I’m on an extended research trip to Europe and wanted to share a few tips for those who want to travel overseas.
Maybe you’re going for a vacation, or perhaps it’s a business trip. Whatever the reason, those interested in preparedness and survival will want to have a plan for all the “just in case” moments that life throws at us.
This isn’t a tactical guide – one of my favorite bloggers, Greg Ellifritz of Active Response Training is working on a book like this that I’ll certainly be buying on the first day it comes out. This is a common-sense guide for everyday people who want to be prepared no matter where they are.
Obviously, some people have no interest in traveling outside their home country – and that’s totally up to you. This article is for those who want to travel and isn’t meant to try and urge you to do something you don’t want to do. So if you hate the TSA so much you refuse to fly, dislike Europe/Africa/Asia/South America/wherever, think there’s too much to see in America to leave it to go elsewhere, or think I’m an idiot (or choose your favorite derogatory term)for traveling, this probably isn’t an article you’ll find useful.
Check the US State Department Travel Advisories for your destination.
If you are heading outside of the country, you can easily search “US State Department Travel Advisory (Country Name)”. You can also search right on the government website.
1 is considered the safest – you would just use the same precautions you’d use at home. 4 means that the situation there is very dangerous and it is advised not to visit the country at that time. The website is updated regularly but is, of course, no guarantee. Crime can happen anywhere – you could also be a victim of crime in your own country.
I personally wouldn’t travel to a country with a rating beyond a 2 unless you have friends or family there locally. And even then, it might be better to meet with those loved ones in a safer country you both can visit.
Obviously this is not a foolproof way to know that your destination will be completely safe – no place on the planet is completely without risks. But if you exercise common sense and good situational awareness, you should have a vacation free of danger.
Register with the Department of State.
Travelers are encouraged by the State Dept. to register their destination and local contact information. In the event of a sudden crisis, the local embassy will contact you with warnings and instructions for getting out safely. The program is called STEP – Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.
You certainly don’t have to register your trip if you’re concerned about the government knowing your whereabouts, but if I’m going to be in a place for more than a couple of days, particularly when traveling alone, I usually do register. You’ll need your passport number to register.
Map your route to the US Embassy.
Whenever I arrive at a new destination, I locate the US Embassy. This is your place to retreat if things suddenly devolve and you need help fast. I locate this on a paper map that I keep with me at all times. If it’s fairly nearby, I usually walk to it within the first day or so to ensure I know how to get there. If you show up at the Embassy due to an emergency, you must have your passport with you to be allowed in.
Also, if for some reason you are arrested or detained, you or the people traveling with you should alert the local Embassy. In many cases, they’ll be able to help you. And as a reader pointed out, if you have a medical emergency while abroad, they can help you find a physician and facility where English is spoken (or help arrange for a translator).
Check the news before you go out each day.
Every time you go to a tourist area or attraction of some sort, do a search for that place on Google News. Hate on Google all you want but they do provide links to local stories that you can then translate. Here’s how to set up certain keyword alerts on Google based on your location or destination to get notifications if something goes wrong.
One day I had planned to go to Syntagma Square in Athens, and I found an article on Google news that a march was planned at that location in the afternoon. Did things get hairy? I have no idea. I didn’t go there. I went someplace miles and miles away from the potential protests.
As Toby and Selco repeated constantly during the survival course I took in Croatia, your motto should be, “Don’t be there.” Considering everything going on in the world today, wouldn’t it be silly to go someplace where a protest could become a riot? And protests always have the potential to become riots – all it takes is one idiot doing something inflammatory for all hell to break loose. Again, this is not just a thing that happens in other countries. (Portland, Oregon, anyone?)
Be aware of your surroundings.
For the love of all things cute and fluffy, don’t stick your nose in your phone. When you do this, you leave yourself open to pickpockets, those who will slash the strap of your purse and take off with it, and all manner of crime. If you need to stop and look at your phone (for example, if you’re using it to navigate or to coordinate with other travelers), find a place where you can put your back against a wall and don’t become so engrossed that you’re not using your peripheral vision.
I generally lean against a wall casually as if I’m getting a text message and look up and around every couple of seconds. I try to stay off my phone when traveling because I want to be there for the experience, but sometimes you get turned around and need to use navigation. If you’re using a paper map, this same tactic keeps you from having quite as much of a blind spot. (Nothing screams tourist like a paper map, however.)
This same awareness applies when you’re taking photos. Don’t become so engrossed in getting the perfect shot that you aren’t paying attention to the folks around you.
Respect the locals.
In every place, I have personally traveled, I have been greeted warmly and treated nicely. Remember when you travel outside the country that you are not in the United States, and therefore local customs and languages take precedence over your own. Don’t try to compare everything with “how it is at home” – not only will you have a better time if you embrace the local culture, but you won’t be looked upon as an ignorant tourist.
Learn just a couple of phrases in the local language and even if your accent is horrible, people there will appreciate your effort. Hello, thank you, excuse me, and of course, where is the bathroom, are all key phrases that will make your trip more pleasant and help locals to see that you are there to learn and enjoy their country.
Do some research beforehand to understand basic things like if you have to pay to use public restrooms, if you need to BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper), and the proper etiquette for going into someone’s home. (Shoes on or off, for example.)
Go in with a willingness to embrace the culture and your trip will be a lot more fun, for both you and those in your host country. Remember, in this situation, you are the foreigner.
Don’t party too much.
When you travel, it’s fine to go out and have a drink or two. It’s not so fine to go out and have a drink or ten. The same thing goes if you imbibe in other mood-altering substances. You don’t want to dull your wits when you’re in a place where you don’t know your way around and you don’t speak the language.
As well, whether you’re a man or a woman, take your drink with you everywhere you go if you happen to be out at a bar. Take it into the bathroom with you. Watch the bartender pour your drink. As in the United States, there are cases where drinks get spiked with drugs like GHB, also known as the “date rape drug.” You could be robbed, raped, or trafficked in these situations, regardless of what country in which it occurs.
If you really want to overdo it with the local beverages, buy them at the store and take them back to your apartment or hotel.
Stock up on a few supplies for your apartment or hotel.
When I arrive at my destination, I hit a grocery store on the first day to purchase things I don’t really have any intention of eating. I spend $20-30 on non-perishable food that doesn’t require cooking: canned beans, crackers, peanut butter, chocolate, and that type of thing.
If these things are unopened, you can leave them behind for others. If you opened them, it’s best to put them in the trash so you aren’t leaving a mess for other people to clean up.
Remember water preparedness.
I also buy some bottled water for the room or apartment.
As you drink the bottled water, refill the bottles with tap water. You can always empty them down the sink the morning you’re leaving and then discard the bottles.
As well, I never travel without my Lifestraw water bottle. I find that the water in different countries often disagrees with my stomach, so I filter it before drinking and have never had a problem since. Water bottles from companies like Brita do not filter out the same types of bacteria and viruses that products Lifestraw and Sawyer do.
The other great thing about having that water bottle is the money it saves. I can carry it into the airport empty, then fill it from the water fountain when I get through security – no more $8 airport extortion water!
Don’t keep all your money and credit cards in one place.
One of the worst mistakes you can make is loading up your purse or pocket will all your important stuff. You need to separate these things in order to make sure you always have something to fall back on if you are robbed.
I carry my passport in this snug under-clothing RFID-blocking money belt, along with an additional credit card and some cash. I keep a couple of cards in my luggage, and then I keep the main one I’ll be using, along with cash, in my purse or fanny pack. RFID blocking is more important than ever, as thieves walk around with scanners that can read all your personal information.
Your plan should almost always be bugging out instead of hunkering down.
If you get an inkling that things might be going bad where you are, get out. There’s a fine line between paranoia and instinct, of course, but you need to be watchful and alert to changes in your environment. If you have a bad feeling, pay attention to it.
In nearly every situation, your emergency plan while traveling should be getting out. You should have multiple ways to leave in the event of an emergency – sometimes airports or other forms of public transit are shut down. Plan A is leaving the fastest way possible. Get a plane ticket to anywhere that is more peaceful and then plan your route home from there.
Your backup plan should be buses or trains outside the area of danger. Learn about the schedules and where the stations are from your apartment.
Another possibility is renting a car. To do this, you may require an international driver’s license. These can be acquired for $21 at your local AAA office and must be used in conjunction with your regular driver’s license. It makes renting a car faster and easier.
Finally, if all of these options fail, you’ll want to go straight to the American Embassy (or embassy of your country, if you’re a reader from outside the United States.) Again, do NOT forget your passport.
In a few very extreme circumstances, you may need to shelter in place for a day or two before you can get out. This is the reason you have a week’s worth of food on hand. But this should never be your Plan A when traveling – this is something you’d do only if it was too dangerous to get to the airport, bus station, or embassy.
In an absolute worst-case scenario in which I need to bail out fast, I have a small survival kit and a backpack I would take and I would leave everything else behind. I can get clothes and shoes anywhere and have travel insurance to cover the expense.
There’s more information to come.
In the next few days, I’ll be sharing more information about my travel survival kit, how to build a quick survival kit at your destination, and some of the details of my trip. As well, I’ll be publishing the work of some local writers and interviewing people who are sharing their stories about different kinds of calamities they’ve faced.
I’m also going to be launching a new website about traveling and working remotely for those who are interested. You can follow my trip here on Instagram until then.
What are your best travel tips?
Do you have any tips for traveling outside the country? Any lessons learned? Have you ever run into trouble and if so, how did you handle it? Share your stories in the comments – I’d love to hear them!