If your job requires international travel, stories about the violence, drug wars, political unrest, and terrorism taking place in countries all over the world have probably caught your attention. For example in Mexico, we’ve heard accounts of tainted alcohol, gunpoint robberies, kidnappings, and even drug-related violence that has occasionally caught a tourist in the crossfire. Mexico is certainly not alone in this respect, however—nearly any country (including our own!) can pose risks to American tourists.
This is why it is so important to weigh the relatively rare instances of tragedy against the fact that the vast majority of travelers from the United States return unscathed and energized by their experiences with new and interesting cultures. The key is taking steps to reduce your overall exposure to risk by being an informed, mindful traveler who takes precautions when necessary.
This article is the first in a series of three that will explore the steps businesses and their employees can take to minimize the risks of international travel. They include tips for traveling safely, information about the State Department’s new travel warning system, details regarding travel insurance and medical assistance, as well as conversations with experts in these areas.
So how can we strike a balance between the risks of international travel and the continued advancement of our companies’ interests abroad?
To answer this question, I recently spoke with John Makowski, President of Makowski Global Security Solutions, LLC and former Director of Global Security for Briggs and Stratton. As you can imagine, he’s well-versed in the steps international business travelers can take to increase their odds of safety in foreign countries. Whether you’re planning to travel for business or pleasure, the following tips can help you enjoy your time abroad with peace of mind.
- Avoid large crowds. Crowded areas provide an opportunity for pickpockets to steal valuables like wallets or passports without being detected. In some countries, large gatherings of people might also indicate a demonstration or protest that could potentially get out of hand. Either way, it is best to steer clear.
- Use trustworthy transportation. If you’re travling for business, the ideal situation is to use transportation that has been coordinated and vetted in advance by your company. Otherwise, work with hotel staff to arrange safe, reputable transportation. If possible, make sure the driver matches any license or credentials posted in the vehicle.
- Carry a color copy of your passport. Your passport is your way in and out of the country, so leave it in your hotel safe if you have one (along with any other valuables), and carry a color copy with you instead. It’s also a good idea to place additional copies in your luggage, your briefcase, etc.
- Travel with a group whenever possible. A lone tourist is much more vulnerable to a robbery or attack, so stick with your group as often as you can. If you’re hoping to venture out and explore, an organized tour group is your best bet.
- Avoid “risky behavior.” According to Makowski, examples of risky behavior include drugs, sex, and alcohol. Expecially on an international business trip, it’s best to limit these types of behaviors, since they will only reduce your ability to effectively identify and respond to potentially risky situations. Additionally, depending on the country, attracting negative attention from local authorities could be dangerous.
- In riskier countries, avoid Western branded hotels. In countries where Westerners may be at higher risk, it is often a good idea to avoid staying in common Western branded hotels. These locations can become targets for terrorists and others who wish to harm Westerners.
- Cooperate with robbers and kidnappers. Although it may seem counter-intutitive at times, Makowski explains that it is best to cooperate with robbers and even kidnappers, since there is no way to know for sure whether they have weapons or even how many people in the area may be working with them. For example, in an “express kidnapping” situation (a type of kidnapping where a traveler is picked up and driven around to ATMs to withdraw money until they don’t have any left), the kidnappers typically let their captives go once they’ve gotten all the money they were looking for.
- Put together a safety net. Makowski often instructs his clients to put together a “safety net,” which he defines as all of the contact information for people and places with which a traveler will be in frequent contact. All the information from the safety net is then left with the traveler’s friends and family at home in case they would need to reach or locate that individual quickly.
- Be aware of your surroundings. This covers a variety of different things—such as avoiding areas where people seem to be gathering, keeping an eye out for anything unusual when using public transportation, reporting unaccompanied packages, following your instincts by leaving when you feel uncomfortable, and walking with confidence and intention. Avoid looking down at your phone as you walk, and try not to carry a map in your hand.
- Use travel apps on your phone. At the same time, your phone can be a useful tool as a visitor in a foreign country. A translation app can help you communicate with locals in a pinch, and a currency conversion app can ensure you know what the currency exchange rate is no matter where you are.
- Try not to travel after dark. In general, it’s best to avoid travel by car or foot after dark. If you must drive somewhere, stick to main roads in well-lit areas.
- Be well-acquanted with the Department of State’s website. On its site, the DOS describes the safety level of each country in the world and also includes the locations and contact information for United States Consulates and Embassies. Do your research before you go, and be sure to bring contact information for the nearest embassies and consulates in case of an emergency.
- Enroll in STEP. This is the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, a free online enrollment that allows travelers to register their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. You will be sent up-to-date information from the Embassy about the area to which you are traveling, and you family, friends, and the Embassy would be able to contact you in case of an emergency.
- Make sure you have a travel insurance plan with travel medical assistance. Last but certainly not least, a travel insurance policy that includes travel medical assitance often covers services like identifying a medical facility appropriate for the level of care needed, arranging transportation if necessary, contacting family members to update them, paying a good portion of medical costs, and more! Ideally, you would have this coverage through your employer and will just need to make sure you have the necessary contact information with you at all times.
While no one can ensure safety when traveling abroad, these tips are definitely a step in the right direction.
Interested in learning more? The next article in the series continues the conversation by looking at the Department of State’s new travel warning system and how you can use that information to make travel decisions for your organization.
Disclaimer: Makowski Global Security Solutions, LLC (MGSS), offers reports, services, training, evaluations and opinions of various types without liability for the content, decisions, or actions taken based on the information provided. All work and information is provided in good faith and based on current information, industry practices and various sources.