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International Travel Safety

Thirteen million passports were issued by the U.S. Department of State in 2010, yet 70 percent of Americans still don’t have a passport, which could indicate that Americans are either content with traveling domestically or that economics and safety fears might be hindering international travel plans. Traveling abroad is safe provided you research and plan before you go—whether you are traveling across the border into Mexico or “across the pond” into Europe, the Middle East or the Far East. It’s imperative that you understand the health risks, cultures, customs and the political climate of every country you travel to. Smart travelers are prepared travelers carrying the required travel documentation, who are properly vaccinated and who understand security issues related to travel in the age of terrorism.

Travel Documents

Always carry a copy of your passport on your person. Leave a copy with friends or family before traveling—especially your visas, traveler check and credit card numbers and personal information. Leave them a copy of your itinerary, power of attorney and travel insurance. Keep one copy with you. Do not keep your copies with your originals. Leave your social security card at home.

If you have children, don’t be timid about discussing guardianship should a worse case scenario occur and you cannot return home to them. Make sure your legal affairs are in order before traveling. Carry emergency phone numbers on your person and change for a pay phone.

Security Risks

Travel smart, travel light, be aware of your surroundings. Don’t travel off the beaten track, stay to larger hotels with security. Book hotel rooms on higher floors to deter easy entry, but on a floor that fire equipment can easily reach. Avoid traveling alone, especially if you are a woman. If you are a hiker, travel in groups; know your country’s borders especially in high-caution areas. Use common sense and be cautious of areas that make you an easy target for pickpockets and assault: crowded subways, elevators, train stations, festivals, narrow alleys, poorly lit streets, tourist and market places. Make sure you seem knowledgeable and purposeful even if you are lost. Only ask those in authority for directions if you have that option.

Number one rule: if confronted by thugs, don’t risk a fight—give up your valuables.

  • Do not leave any luggage unattended, even for a moment.
  • Do not make assumptions regarding travel. Make sure that your transportation is official and marked as such. Do not enter unmarked vehicles.
  • Overnight trains are a haven for robberies along tourist routes.
  • Keep your hotel room locked at all times.
  • Use the hotel safe, do not leave valuables in your hotel room.
  • Do not go out alone at night. Even if going out with a group, let someone know when you expect to return to your hotel.
  • Do not accept food or drink from strangers. Criminals DO drug tourists and sometimes use sleeping gas in travel compartments.
  • Don’t carry large amounts of cash—use credit cards, but just one or two.
  • Leave valuables at home in the States.
  • Never leave your children alone while you go out—ever.

Health Risks

Know what vaccinations you need before you travel and carry proof those vaccinations with you. Check with the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control, as well as your embassy or the country’s consulate, to view current health concerns for international travelers. Many countries have strict laws on drugs. If you are carrying a prescription, make sure that you have a copy of that prescription and a labeled bottle to carry them in, especially if your prescription is narcotic. If it is narcotic, get a letter from your doctor that you are required to take the drug for your health needs. Take an extra pair of eyeglasses with you and enough contact lens replacements.

Hospitals often are cash only, paid up front before you are served, and do not accept credit cards or insurance. It is up to you to check your insurance policy to see if it covers international travel, hospital stays and evacuations. If it does not, you need to consider purchasing Travel Medical Insurance.

  • Social Security Medicare/Medicaid does not cover you outside of the United States.

Cultures and Customs

You are subject to the laws of the country you are visiting, not U.S. laws, unless you are on U.S. Embassy soil. Ask your travel agent about the laws and customs of the country that you are visiting and do your own Internet research. Check often with the U.S. State Department and the news media about new developments in the country and the region you plan to visit. Ignorance will get you nowhere in a foreign court of law.

U.S. Department of State Registration

Sign up for the State Department’s free, online Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. The U.S. State Department can help you if your passport is lost or stolen or if you are the victim of a natural disaster such as a typhoon or an earthquake. The State Department reports that they helped evacuate over 16,700 U.S. citizens and their families after the Haitian earthquake and 15,000 during the 2006 Lebanese civil unrest. The Smart Traveler Program provides you with travel alerts and warnings as well as country fact sheets and can get emergency messages to you, if needed.