Given the state of global terrorism and the focus on civilian targets, if you are traveling abroad for business or planning on taking a family vacation overseas, there is one thing you should know before you depart: You, the individual, must protect yourself.
Travelers cannot rely on foreign law enforcement or governmental authorities to ensure their safety.
Although the odds of becoming a victim of terrorism are low, and the acts of violence are random, there are specific steps that you can take to decrease the chance that you or your family might be victimized. Your planning, however, should begin before you leave.
Before you depart for an overseas business trip or vacation, you should acquire as much information as you can about local current events within a destination country. Watch world news reports, read foreign domestic newspapers and the Travel Warnings, Consular Information Sheets and Public Announcements on the U.S State Department’s Web site (www.state.gov).
Travel warnings are issued when the State Dept. recommends that Americans avoid a certain country. If you plan on heading to a country on this list, check your life insurance policy before you leave. Your policy may exclude coverage for a death that occurs within a country on the list.
You should also prepare a plan for the family members you leave behind at home. If you are traveling on business and suddenly you become a hostage, what would your family at home do? Would they know where your financial records are? Where your will is located?
Before heading to the airport, leave at home a copy of your passport/birth certificate/Social Security card and other important records. And make sure that someone at home knows where these copies are located.
Also, leave a reserve of cash at home. What if you are traveling abroad and terrorism shuts down the aviation system, as it did on Sept. 11? Would your family at home have access to funds until you got home? Or, if you should be killed, would your family have funds to hold them over until your death has been confirmed?
Morbid as it may seem, you should make out a letter of instruction in the event of your death. Further, you should get fingerprinted and obtain dental X-rays for identification. It may seem extreme, but many victims of the Sept. 11 attacks went unidentified, leaving families in emotional and financial chaos for months. It is not fatalistic to plan for such contingencies -- it is wise.
When you eventually arrive in a foreign country, be thinking about protecting yourself immediately. First and foremost, spend as little time at the airport as possible, and avoid heavily glassed areas. Also, when leaving an airport upon your arrival, never take the first taxi waiting in line at a taxi stand; it leaves you susceptible to kidnapping. Always hail a moving taxi.
As you begin traveling within a country, never advertise the fact that you are an American. You must be realistic and remember that U.S. citizens are not always looked upon favorably in many parts of the world. Be mindful of showing American flags or currency. If you are traveling on business, don’t advertise your corporate affiliation or title on your luggage or other items, such as clothing.
When choosing a hotel, make safety, not price, your prime consideration. Do not just book the hotel nearest to your destination. Make the quality of the neighborhood in which your hotel is located a top consideration. Avoid hotels that have underground garages; terrorists target hotels with underground garages. When selecting a room, be particular and try to select the floor that you stay on. Do not accept a room that has a balcony on a low floor with a sliding door. Rooms with sliding doors can make for great views, but, frankly, how often do you really use them? Sliding doors are open invitations to criminals, kidnappers and terrorists.
Also, try to avoid staying on high floors that cannot be reached by a ladder during a fire. If the chances are high that a terrorist bomb could explode in front of the hotel, do not accept a room that faces the street. Put your safety first, and get another room. Never hesitate to switch hotels if your needs are not met, or if you sense something is wrong. Your instincts are probably right.
Before beginning any sightseeing, make your very first destination a walk to the nearest fire exit at your hotel. Know how to get out of your hotel in an emergency. Instead of sightseeing, maybe consider not leaving your hotel at all. If street crime is prevalent in your destination country, book a suite and conduct business meetings at your hotel. In some cities and foreign countries, it simply does not pay to travel around much.
In general, while abroad, stay away from crowds. And finally, never become complacent -- never let your guard down. That is the single-best piece of advice for anyone seeking to avoid terrorism.
Juval Aviv is President & CEO of Interfor, Inc., an international investigative and corporate intelligence firm, as well as the author of “Staying Safe - The Complete Guide to Protecting Yourself, Your Family & Your Business”, published by HarperCollins Resources and due in bookstores July 20, 2004.