Proceed With Caution

Simple safety measures and knowledge about destinations can help to keep travelers out of harm's way

December 23, 2007|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Special to The Sun

A BIRD FLU OUTBREAK IN CROATIA AND England. Kidnappings in Brazil and Mexico. Hate crimes in Moscow. Student protests in Caracas, Venezuela.

Americans who travel internationally face increasing risks to their health and safety, according to travel security experts. Their overarching message: Travel smart.

As travel security expert Katherine Parramore, senior managing partner of Training & Development Resources in Potomac Falls, Va., frames it: "The rest of the world does not live in the insular world we live in. The minute you leave this country, all the things you know about travel are off."

While terrorist incidents tend to dominate the headlines, risk-management firms report the chance of being involved in an attack as one in 10 million. The chief threats in most foreign destinations: petty crime, health dangers and personal injury accidents.

But the threat can be averted with planning and what experts call "situational awareness" while traveling.

"Most of the travel advice out there is good advice, and most people ignore it," according to former Secret Service agent Chris Falkenberg, whose New York City-based firm, Insite Security, provides security services to wealthy families and executives.

"The way to make it relevant is to do the research. If you're going to Mexico, recognize that express kidnappings [where the victim is snatched at an automated teller machine, then held for ransom] are big there. If you're traveling in Russia, know that there is an intolerance for homosexuality. For a gay traveler, that's a risk. None of this is about having a 250-pound guy at your door; it's planning, it's mitigating."

Not surprisingly, technology is playing a big role in keeping travelers safe. There are blogs and Web sites dedicated to travel concerns around the world.

The incidence of terrorism, infectious diseases and natural disasters has also given rise to companies such as iJet Intelligent Risk Systems, a firm in Annapolis that monitors developments in more than 150 countries. Among other things, iJet sends out daily intelligence briefings as well as emergency alerts to corporate clients worldwide. Recent dispatches, delivered to a client's mobile phone, e-mail account or PDA, included warnings about the mysterious plume of smoke in London, transportation strikes in Rome and Paris, and the existence of counterfeit 100 Euro notes in Spain.

The firm has also formed a partnership with the Safe Traveler, providing a leisure outlet of its services to travelers. At safetravel, travelers can download intelligence briefs about their destinations and sign up for the same emergency advisories.

"We help define the threat by location by focusing on predictive intelligence: what's going to happen. We're talking about major demonstrations, transportation strikes, baggage-handler strikes, nurses' strikes and major weather coming in," says Bruce McIndoe, iJet's president. "We're going to be paying attention to anything that would disrupt your travel or transportation plan and track you with real-time alerts. Trust me, you don't want to drop into a city that's having a World Cup game and not know about it."

Travel safety basically breaks down into two categories: advance planning and situational awareness. Here are some best practices.

Preparation pays off

Research the culture so that you conform to local customs. "Even in a country like Greece, it's just not appropriate to go into a cathedral if you're not in a knee-length skirt and have your shoulders covered. Leave the belly ring at home," says Parramore. The same goes for any fancy jewelry or watches.

Make a copy of your passport and other official documents to carry with you. Also, be sure your passport is valid, because rules have recently changed. Some countries, for example, will not allow entry if a passport is within six months of expiring.

Falkenberg suggests packing a smoke-inhalation mask and a high-output flashlight bright enough to blind an assailant.

If you have serious health issues or plan to be traveling in remote regions for adventure travel, he advises retaining a firm such as International SOS, which provides medical evacuation coverage as well as access to a network of in-country clinics. Some credit cards also offer medical evacuation coverage.

If you're taking a laptop computer that has sensitive materials, consider encrypting its contents.

And when you arrive at your destination, build a fallback plan. Every time he travels to a new place, Kris Coleman, president of Red Five Security in Fairfax, Va., locates the hospital, English-speaking doctors and the U.S. Embassy or Consulate. "Were something to go wrong, I'd have a basic plan," he says. "Know what the resources are. Know what's available to you."

Hotel smarts

Parramore thinks of a hotel as the "choke point." It's the one place a tourist will depart from and return to each day, making it a source of vulnerability. The key: Vary your routine.

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