A shooting and explosion at the touristy Dolmabahce palace in Istanbul. Bombs going off at the Erawan shrine and in the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok. Mass shootings on the shores of the Mediterranean at a beach resort and at the Bardo museum in Tunisia. Terrorism in Paris. Terrorism at a Nairobi mall. Some of the world’s most popular travel destinations feel like they are under attack.
“The truth is, anything can happen anywhere,” says Jack Ezon, president of Ovation Vacations. “So many of my New York clients are afraid to go to Paris, but look what occurred right in their own backyard on 9/11. You can’t let it stop you from traveling and you can’t live in fear.”
“People are sad, but life has to go on,” says Andrea Ross, owner of travel company Journeys Within, who is currently in Bangkok.
As they say, if you stop traveling, the terrorists win. Don’t stop traveling — just travel smart. Here’s what to do before you go, once you’re there, and in case of emergency to safely travel abroad in the age of terrorism.
BEFORE YOU GO
1. Remember the odds are in your favor.
In 2014, 24 private-sector U.S. citizens overseas were killed as a result of incidents of terrorism. And most of those fatalities were in places you’re probably not traveling to, like Syria and Afghanistan. “Road accidents are the major non-natural cause of death of American citizens abroad,” explains the State Department’s Michelle Bernier Toth, Managing Director for Overseas Citizen Services. (But that’s another article.)
2. Sign up for the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.
While it’s always a good idea to register your trip abroad with this free program, it’s especially important if you’re heading to an area where you’re worried about terrorism or unrest. “It’s our main mechanism for communicating with U.S. citizens in affected countries,” says Toth. You’ll also receive info on current safety conditions at your destination.
3. Choose a nicer hotel to stay in.
There is a certain appeal to an Airbnb rental or an off-the-beaten-path local hotel to really get the feel for a place. But in an area where you may encounter trouble, it’s probably not the best choice. “Stay at a nicer property — upgrade a little,” suggests Andrea Ross, owner of the travel company Journeys Within. “You’ll have more of a safety net.” Nicer hotels will have a better plan of action if something happens, not to mention they are likely to have some English-speaking staff and CNN on their TVs so you can stay informed.
4. Invest in travel insurance.
There’s always that “do you?/don’t you?” question when it comes to travel insurance. But traveling to precarious locations abroad is one of those “do” times. Just be aware that all plans are all different, so you have to read the fine print. For example, does your policy cover evacuation? And what qualifies as “terrorism” (which is usually covered) versus “civil unrest” or an “act of war” (which are usually not covered)? Still, policies can be helpful with the details in a crisis situation, when flights suddenly get overbooked, says George Taylor, VP of Global Operations at integrated risk management company iJet.
5. Set up a check-in plan with friends or loved ones.
Whether you decide to email once a day or tag your location on Facebook, it’s a good idea for people back home to know where you are. Whether it’s a terrorist attack or an earthquake, when crisis happens, “a lot of time and energy is wasted on trying get in touch with people” and figure out their whereabouts, says Taylor.
6. Let credit card companies know you’re traveling.
Contact the fraud departments and tell them the locations and dates of your trip so your credit card doesn’t suddenly get shut off when you really need it.
ONCE YOU’RE THERE:
7. Keep a business card from the hotel on you.
It’s happened to the best of us — you’re exploring a neighborhood, take a wrong turn and can’t quite find your way back to your hotel. When you ask for directions, you realize you also can’t remember the exact name or correct pronunciation of the place. If you have a business card, all you have to do is hop in a (government licensed) taxi and show it to the driver.
8. Have a working phone.
“You need a way to communicate with others,” says Taylor. And preferably you want to be able to have something more immediate than email in case of an emergency. Taylor suggests adding international to your current cell phone plan or buying a local SIM card. And while you’re at it, program in the local American Embassy’s phone number, as well as the number to your hotel.
9. Take a guided tour.
“You have an extra level security with a local,” explains Ross. They know the lay of the land, and if the police are yelling something in a foreign-to-you language in a crisis, the guide will know what they’re saying.
10. Tweak your itinerary.
“If you’re concerned about what’s happening in Istanbul and Bangkok, that doesn’t mean you have to be afraid of the entire country of Turkey or Thailand,” says Ezon. “Instead go to Cappadocia or Phuket. The countryside or smaller islands are often less of a target than areas with more dense urban populations.” Have to fly into the city to get there? “Stay in an airport hotel,” suggests Ross. They’re easy to get to and they are usually on the outskirts of the city.”
Still concerned about going overseas? Check out more important travel safety tips.
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