With the approach of the holiday season, many of us begin making plans for overseas travel. While the world is becoming smaller, it is also becoming more dangerous, especially for Americans. Robberies have always been common, but kidnappings have increased significantly since 2009. Mexico is now averaging 49 kidnappings per day. International agencies report that many of those abductions are U.S. business persons and have involved organized crime assisted by taxi drivers and local police. This risk is also prevalent throughout most of the world and requires the American traveler to be better prepared.
A key element of safe, international travel is Situational Awareness. Before you travel, it is important to identify specific risks in a region or city. Travel agencies and online services are not a reliable source of information, often downplaying risks with statements such as, “You will be safe if you stay in the tourist areas,” or “Attacks against tourists are rare.”
While these statements might be generally true, more accurate information is available from the State Department which continuously monitors international crime and threats against Americans travelling abroad and publishes that information. Using Mexico as an example, the State Department issued the following warning on November 20, 2012:
The number of kidnappings and disappearances throughout Mexico is of particular concern. Both local and expatriate communities have been victimized. In addition, local police have been implicated in some of these incidents. We strongly advise you to lower your profile and avoid displaying any evidence of wealth that might draw attention. Carjacking and highway robbery are serious problems in many parts of the border region and U.S. citizens have been murdered in such incidents.
Travelers should also research the local area on their own, paying particular attention to crimes committed near the resort, hotel, airport, and tourist areas. Recently, a colleague travelling in Bogota, Colombia, sent me an email warning of a new threat to business travelers.
Local newspapers were reporting that women were welcoming businessmen to their country with an embrace and “Mi Amor.” Unfortunately, the embrace included a drug dispensed with lapel stick pin that caused confusion and disorientation. Once drugged, the victim was robbed or held for a ransom. This type of information is not widely available from the U.S. search engines, so it takes some digging to find it.
A large part of travelling safely is avoiding risks—don’t make yourself an easy target. Below is an abbreviated list of simple actions that will make you less of a target:
Ø Arrange transportation. Arrange for an airport pickup before departing the U.S., which can be done through most hotels or vetted driving services. Avoid using taxis waiting at the airport and never use a “homeboy” that is trolling for business near the baggage claim. Be sure to get the name, cell phone number and a photo of your driver if possible. Never assume that the person holding the sign with your name is the right person. Avoid driving as it opens many opportunities for problems. When travelling from the hotel, use the concierge to arrange a driver. Avoid hailing a taxi from the street as freelance drivers often have questionable records.
Ø Local currency. Obtain a small amount of local currency before leaving the U.S.—typically enough for the taxi and service gratuities, and use credit cards for everything else. Avoid using currency exchange counters and automated teller machines (ATMs) at foreign airports. Not only are they expensive, but they lure predators. Before travelling, I often buy a preloaded, debit card and then withdraw local currency from the hotel ATM.
Ø Important documents. Make copies of important documents such driver’s license, passport, and health insurance card before you depart. Give a copy of each to your emergency contacts in the U.S. Carry copies with you as the originals should be locked in a hotel safe—not carried in a wallet, briefcase or backpack that can easily be stolen.
Ø Itinerary. Enroll with the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program and file your itinerary. In case of an emergency, enlist the help of the U.S. Government. Be sure to keep the Embassy contact numbers in your wallet or as a speed-dial number on your smartphone.
Ø Smartphone. Smartphone service outside the U.S. is highly dependent on your service agreement and does not typically include international voice and data. Don’t assume that your iPhone or Android device will work overseas, and be sure to ask your service provider for a single-month global data plan—paying roaming data rates of $15 per megabyte could easily translate to into several hundred dollars.
Ø Hotel security. Assume that anything in your hotel room can be stolen. Theft of electronics is especially problematic as they are easily exploited for personal, financial and corporate information within minutes.
International travel is always exciting. With just a few precautions, it can be done safely.