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Feb 19, 2015 | 09:00 GMT

Staying Safe on Spring Break

VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
Passengers wait at a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia. Preparation is the first step in making sure that your trip is safe and enjoyable.
(CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images)

With spring break season approaching for our American readers, now is a good time to provide a primer on how to plan a safe vacation for the entire family or for individual children. This information can also be useful to our international subscribers who want to make sure they stay safe during their travels.

Scoping Out a Destination

The key to staying out of harm's way while traveling or working abroad is to know and understand — in advance — some of the idiosyncrasies of each country's bureaucracy and the security risks that exist there. This knowledge should guide one's decision on whether to even travel to a particular destination and is helpful when planning and implementing proper precautions for the environment the traveler will be visiting. Fortunately, finding safety and security information for a destination country is easier than ever in the internet age.

The first step American travelers should take before beginning a trip is to see what the U.S. government says about the destination country.

Travelers should read the consular information sheet and check for travel warnings and pertinent public announcements before embarking. Such information can be obtained in person at passport agencies inside the United States and at U.S. embassies and consulates abroad. This information can also be obtained by calling the U.S. State Department, but the quickest and easiest way to find it is online.

The State Department issues travel warnings for only a handful of countries, and many countries do not have any active public announcements pertaining to them. But the department maintains an information sheet for every country, even those the United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with, such as Iran and Cuba. The consular information sheet is a useful source that provides details about what documents are needed to enter the destination country in addition to information on crime, security, political stability, in-country medical care, currency regulations and road safety. It also contains contact information for the U.S. Embassy and U.S. consulates in the country (if there are any).

It's a good idea for travelers to print out a copy of the consular information sheet and take it with them on their trip. At the very least, travelers should print out or write down the phone number of the U.S. Embassy — including the after-hours phone number. This number generally rings into the Marine on duty at the embassy's security command center, normally referred to as post one, or to the embassy's duty officer. The paper with the embassy contact numbers should be kept separate from the traveler's wallet so that if the wallet gets lost or stolen, the contact information will not be lost with it. The same advice is applicable to citizens of other countries.

Consular information sheets generally do not provide advice or security recommendations to travelers. They are intended to outline the facts, and travelers are then supposed to use the information to make their own judgments and determine their own courses of action. However, if the consular information sheet for a destination country actually breaks this protocol and makes a recommendation, the traveler should take that recommendation seriously.

It is also prudent for American travelers to register with the U.S. State Department before leaving the country.

This would be helpful if something were to happen while they are abroad or if there is a crisis in the country, but it would also be useful for someone trying to locate them in case of a family emergency in the United States. Registration is free through a secure website and only takes a few minutes. Foreign citizens should also register with their respective embassies if their governments offer similar programs, as Australia does through its Smart Traveler program.

Looking Beyond Consular Reports

To ensure that I'm getting a balanced look at a specific country and to obtain more detailed information, I generally like to find travel advice from several other countries as well, including the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

The U.S. State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs coordinates daily with the British, Canadian and Australian governments, so the four countries will have largely the same big picture of the security environment in a specific country. It is very unlikely that the United States would issue a travel advisory for a particular country that the British government considers perfectly safe, and vice versa.

Granular differences in reports, however, are valuable. The anecdotal cases that foreign governments discuss in their travel sheets may differ from those included in the U.S. consular information sheet, providing additional insight into the security situation in the country. For example, once while compiling a travel brief for a client, I noted in a British advisory that British citizens in a particular city had been victimized by local criminal gangs that had begun to engage in express kidnappings — something that the U.S. consular information sheet did not mention. Express kidnappings, or short-term kidnappings meant to drain the contents of the victim's bank account via his or her ATM card, were new to that country. Even though we had seen the tactic used elsewhere in the region, it was helpful to be able to warn our client of the new threat. So in that case, reading the British advisory in addition to the U.S. consular information sheet was well worth my time.

Another great source of granular information is the annual crime and safety report issued by the American regional security officer for a particular country or city. Sometimes these reports are posted on the embassy's website, but they are also available on the Overseas Security Advisory Council's website. While some OSAC material is for constituent use only, crime and safety reports can be read by anyone — and no login is required.

It's also important to remember that conditions in a destination country can change. If government travel sites were checked far in advance of the trip, they should be checked again shortly before departure to ensure that no critical changes have occurred.

Considering All the Possibilities

When travelers leave the United States, they are no longer subject to U.S. laws and regulations but to the laws of the country they are visiting. Therefore, travelers need to learn as much as they can about those local laws before they arrive.

Travelers should also keep up with the political situation in their destination country and the region it is in. Many websites, including Stratfor, are excellent sources of political and security information.

General information on the country and its government, culture, customs and so on can be found at the library or online through any number of websites such as the National Geographic Society or the CIA's World Factbook.

Travelers should also familiarize themselves with maps of the areas they will be visiting. This will help them identify key locations such as their hotel or embassy, avoid being victimized by unscrupulous cab drivers and keep them from wandering into dangerous areas.

The destination country may also have informative government websites, such as a site run by the government department of tourism or the country's embassy in the United States. For obvious reasons, these sites should be read carefully. In most cases, the destination country's government will want to be as positive as possible to encourage tourism. Therefore, such sites rarely provide any information on crime and security because they fear it could scare away tourists — and their money. If such sites do acknowledge security problems, it is a strong indicator that the problem is too large to ignore. Therefore, travelers should pay close attention to the warnings.

Thinking About Health

Prior to travel, one should also visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's travel health information site. This site provides a wealth of information about the vaccinations required for specific countries and regions and gives important tips about avoiding insect-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever, as well as food- and water-borne ailments like cholera and amoebic dysentery. The CDC also issues travel health precautions and warnings in addition to information on sporadic outbreaks of dangerous diseases.

Travelers should consult with their doctor well in advance of their trip as well to ensure that their vaccinations are up to date and that they have time to get all of the required vaccinations before they depart. Doctors can also prescribe anti-malarial medication if needed. Even travelers in good health need to make sure that they have the appropriate vaccinations and should take steps to avoid contracting dysentery and other food- and water-borne illnesses. (It's very hard to have fun on vacation when you are sick and unable to leave the hotel room.) Many times, travel health clinics will not only give vaccinations but will also issue handy medical travel kits that contain adhesive bandages and an assortment of over-the-counter pharmaceuticals such as pain relievers and anti-diarrheal medicines. Sometimes these kits will even contain prescription antibiotics for use in case of severe dysentery.

Is Additional Insurance a Good Idea?

Another thing to consider is insurance. Travelers should check their homeowner's insurance policy or call their insurance agent to determine if their policy will cover losses or theft abroad. It is also prudent to find out if travelers' health insurance will cover them overseas. In many instances, insurance companies will pay for all or a portion of medical coverage overseas, but travelers will often have to pay for the services up front and then get reimbursed by the insurance company after returning home. Travelers should therefore ensure that they have a way to pay for any necessary medical treatment. The U.S. Embassy can provide assistance in the way of emergency loans to pay for medical treatment, but such assistance requires a lot of paperwork.

Travelers should also determine whether their medical insurance will pay for the cost of medical evacuation (medevac) in the case of a dire medical emergency. For example, a colleague of mine in the State Department had to be evacuated from Khartoum with cerebral malaria because local medical professionals could not stabilize him and did not have adequate facilities to care for him in Sudan.

Travelers going to a destination with very poor in-country medical care or where their insurance will not pay for medical evacuation should seriously consider purchasing a medical insurance policy for the trip that will cover the cost of medical evacuation, which can run up to tens of thousands of dollars. Chances are, a medical evacuation won't happen, but if it did, the cost of not having the coverage would be staggering.

Of course, preparation is merely the first step in making sure that your trip is safe and enjoyable. Stratfor has published two series of analyses, one on travel security and the other on personal security, that can help you determine the next steps.

Scott Stewart supervises Stratfor's analysis of terrorism and security issues. Before joining Stratfor, he was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations.
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