Traveling the world tops many people's wish lists. It's one of those dreamy declarations that frequently follow the statement, "If I won the lottery…"
Despite tough economic times and post-9/11 fears of flying, millions of Americans travel abroad each year. Although the staple destinations -- London, Paris and Rome -- are still popular, more exotic locales have become more fashionable in recent years [source: CDC].
Vacationing abroad should be all about having fun and experiencing a new culture, but there are also safety issues to consider. Tourists can get into a lot of trouble in an unfamiliar place, from catching a disease, to having a run-in with some unfriendly locals, to getting hit by a car when they're looking the wrong way (particularly in countries where residents drive on the left, like Great Britain). Each year, more than 6,000 Americans die while traveling internationally [source: U.S. Department of State].
You can reduce your chances of getting into a dangerous mishap by taking a few precautions before you leave, and while you're away. This article covers five of the most basic -- and most important -- ways to stay safe when you travel.
Plan Before You Go
The last thing you want is to arrive at your destination and find out that the country is embroiled in a civil war or coup attempt. Read up on the country (or countries) you're visiting and check with the U.S. State Department to make sure there aren't any travel alerts or warnings for that country. (Other countries keep their own websites to alert foreign travelers. For example, Canadian travelers can check with Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada before they go, and British citizens can go to the Foreign & Commonwealth website.)
Register your trip ahead of time with the U.S. State Department, so that they can get in touch with you while you're away if there's an emergency in your family or an urgent situation in the country you're visiting.
Familiarize yourself with the country's local laws and customs, and learn at least a few words of the local language. You can buy a language computer program, video or book. Memorize a few important phrases, such as "Where is the U.S. embassy?" and "I need medical help." Bring a travel dictionary or digital language translator with you in case you get into trouble.
Make sure you have all the paperwork you need before you go, including:
- Your passport, visas and other travel papers -- as well as copies. Make sure you also leave a copy of these documents and your credit cards with a friend or relative at home.
- Health insurance that will cover you at your destination. You may need to purchase a specific plan for your destination to cover you on your trip.
- An international driving permit. Check beforehand whether the country will accept a U.S. driver's license.
- Prescriptions for any medications you're taking with you.
Every country has its own culture, customs -- and germs. Traveling to a foreign country can expose you to diseases like malaria and African sleeping sickness, as well as bacteria your immune system has never been exposed to at home.
Before you travel, familiarize with the illnesses that are common in your destination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) keeps an updated list of health information for countries around the world, and the World Health Organization (WHO) keeps track of international disease outbreaks. Also take note of conditions in the country you're visiting, such as high altitudes or humidity, which might affect your health.
Check with the CDC or ask your doctor to find out if you need any vaccine(s) beforehand. Try to get vaccinated at least one month before you leave, because some vaccines take a few weeks to reach full potency. Your doctor should give you a checkup to ensure you're healthy enough to travel.
Find out whether your health insurance will cover you if you do get sick abroad. Generally, U.S. health insurance isn't accepted in other countries. It might be worth buying a traveler's health insurance policy specifically for your trip. If you're traveling alone, most policies will cost you less than $100.
To avoid getting sick while you're away, wash your hands regularly with warm water and soap or use an alcohol-based sanitizer gel.
Check with the CDC before you go to find out whether you can drink the water in the country you're visiting. If not, stick with bottled water (be careful about ice cubes, which can also get you sick). Use insect repellant containing the ingredient DEET if you're visiting a country where malaria is prevalent.
If you do get sick and need to find a hospital or doctor, visit the U.S. State Department's list of U.S. embassies and consulates around the world to find a medical professional near where you're staying.
Protect Your Belongings
Let's just be clear here: Leave the diamonds at home. Don't bring anything with you that you'd hate to lose. If you do bring any valuables with you, leave them in the hotel safe when you go out. The same goes for important documents, such as your passport and travel visas.
Don't carry more than small amounts of cash. Instead, use traveler's checks or a credit card -- both are traceable and replaceable if you lose them. Pickpockets are rampant, so carry your money in different places on your body, rather than together in a highly visible fanny pack. For example, put your credit card in your jacket pocket and your cash in your front pants pocket. If you do wear a money belt, place it under your shirt or jacket so that it's not visible. Women who want to carry a purse should choose one with a thick strap and wear it across the chest.
Bring your credit card numbers and the phone number of your credit card company with you and put them in the hotel safe when you go out. That way, if your credit card is stolen, you can report it right away and put a freeze on the card so the thief can't use it.
Keep your belongings close to you at all times. When you put your suitcase on the curb in front of the hotel, don't wander away from it -- keep your eye on it at all times.
Stay away from anyone who attempts to part you from your money, including scam artists who offer you items at "bargain prices" or who approach you on the street and offer to give you a local tour. Be wary if someone bumps into you or tries to otherwise distract you (such as by asking you for the time) -- the person might be a pickpocket.
Crime happens abroad, just as it does wherever you live. To avoid ruining your vacation by becoming a crime victim, exercise some simple common sense.
- Don't travel alone. There is safety in numbers.
- Don't share your personal information (including your hotel room number) with anyone you don't know.
- Be careful about your interactions with strangers. Don't give out more information than absolutely necessary. If someone makes you uncomfortable, politely get away from that person. Never invite a stranger up to your hotel room -- only interact with them in a public location.
- Limit your outings at night, both on foot and by car. If you do travel at night, stick to well-lit and well-traveled areas.
- Never get into a vehicle that isn't clearly marked as a licensed taxi.
- When traveling on a train, lock your compartment, if possible. Try to travel during the day, because criminals are more likely to rob passengers on night trains.
If you are a victim of a crime abroad, contact the local police, as well as the nearest U.S. embassy, consulate or consular agency for help. They can help you replace a stolen passport, get medical care and navigate your way through the local criminal justice system.
Keep a Low Profile
You don't need to announce that you are a tourist to anyone within earshot. In fact, making your presence known can be a dangerous proposition in countries where kidnappings and terrorist attacks are common.
To avoid becoming a target, follow these tips:
- Exercise caution around crowded, touristy places, such as tourist attractions, marketplaces and packed subways or train stations. Also stay away from desolate, remote areas or alleys where you'll be alone.
- Don't draw attention to yourself. Wearing a fanny pack and a camera around your neck are like flashing billboards that you're a tourist. Dressing expensively or ostentatiously will make you look like an easy target for thieves.
- Look as though you belong. Figure out where you're going ahead of time. Walking around with a big map will quickly identify that you're not a local. If you do need directions, ask a police officer or go into a hotel or restaurant.
- Watch out for anyone who seems to be staring at or following you. Report any suspicious activity to local law enforcement officials, or to the local U.S. embassy or consulate.
- Know where to go if you get into trouble, whether that's the nearest U.S. embassy, a police station or hotel.
HowStuffWorks hikes El Caminito del Rey, a very dangerous hiking path in Spain that was closed to the public for 15 years after several deaths.
More Great Links
- CDC. "What You Need to Know About Vaccinations and Travel: A Checklist."http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/content/vaccinations.aspx.
- CDC. "Your Survival Guide to Safe and Healthy Travel."http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/content/survival-guide.aspx.
- Sejvar, et al. "Leptospirosis in 'Eco-Challenge' Athletes, Malaysian Borneo, 2000. CDC.http://www.cdc.gov/Ncidod/eid/vol9no6/pdfs/02-0751.pdf.
- U.S. Department of State. "A Safe Tip Abroad."http://travel.state.gov/travel/tips/safety/safety_1747.html.
- U.S. Department of State. "Tips for Traveling Abroad."http://travel.state.gov/travel/tips/tips_1232.html.
- WHO. "International Travel and Health."http://www.who.int.ith/.