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Sunday, August 3, 2008

While being in a foreign country may be fun, there is always danger abroad, just as there is danger at home. All visitors from any country should learn what the dangers are in foreign countries and how to protect themselves no matter how sure they are that they are safe. There is always the possibility that something can go wrong, so, as they say, it's better to be safe than sorry. Whether by yourself or with family or friends, safety is important.

Research the country you are going to before you go. The best and fastest way of researching is to search on the Internet for legal information[1] and things you should know well in advance to your traveling to that country. A streetwise traveler should also know emergency numbers, and at least a bit of the language (like the word for "help"). Also find out places to avoid, like alleys, bad neighborhoods, and red light districts. Your government may have resources available to travelers that will outline what you need to be prepared for.
Know the local customs. There are many gestures that you may be accustomed to, but are frowned upon in other countries where they may be seen as the opposite of their intention. For instance, the thumbs up "OK" sign that is used in much of the West is a nasty hand gesture in other countries. Your travel agent should be able to help you with determining the customs you're used to that might have the opposite effect in a different country.
Learn how the locals dress. If the locals are dressed in a moderate way, you should dress the same. You don't want to draw unwanted attention to yourself, especially at sites of religious importance.
Before arriving in any country, get the addresses and phone numbers of your country's embassy and any military bases (if applicable). From some countries, such as the USA, it is possible to register with a consulate online, ahead of travel. Once you have done this, if there arises any kind of natural disaster or military conflict, the consulate will know that you are in-country, which is the first step in being able to offer assistance.
Make three copies of everything before you leave. Make copies of your passport, travel itinerary and tickets, credit cards, driver's license, and any other important documents. Copy the back of everything, as well. This can make it easier for you to recover if any of your documents are stolen, but keep the copies in separate locations, and keep them safe. You can also consider making scans of your documents and e-mailing them as attatchments to yourself to be printed off when and if needed.
Contact your country's embassy upon arriving. Advise them of your location and your name, especially if you are in a politically turbulent foreign country. If possible, travel to the embassy, or at least spot it on a map and know how you can get there if you need to.
Avoid looking like a tourist. Generally, don't wear any of the following:

* Jewelry
* A nice pair of sneakers (especially white ones)--you might be tempted to because you might be doing a lot of walking, but a nice pair of sneakers will show people that you are indeed a tourist (which makes you look like a target to thieves).[3]
* Fanny pack
* Tote bags imprinted with a tour group operator name or symbol
* Obviously new apparel
* Electronics - if you must bring them, put them in the oldest, most beaten-up backpack you can find

Check to see if tap water is safe. Even if it is safe, remember that it may be treated with different chemicals than your home country and could still make you ill. Drinking water contaminated with chemicals or bacteria can make people sick, especially children and the elderly.[4] Also, when buying water from a vendor in the streets, make sure that the cap is still attached to its ring.

Be careful with sexual encounters. STDs are common to all cities across the world, even your own. The occurrence of STDs like AIDS and syphilis is higher in some cities, especially among prostitutes. Remember, the only guaranteed protection is not having sex in the first place, but if you do, wear or require your partner to wear protection that reduces the transmission of disease. If you're a woman, take precautions against date rape.

Keep your personal information secret. No one but you needs to know where you are staying, where you are going, and when you are doing it. No matter how trustworthy a person seems, it's not important they know your personal information. If somebody asks where you are staying, then lie. When checking in a hotel, don't say your room number out loud at any time. Ideally, the hotel clerk should be discreet about it also (writing the room number on your key envelope) but if you think others heard your room number, simply ask to have it changed.
Safeguard your room. Ask for a room that is not on the ground floor or near the elevator or fire stairs, as they tend to get thieved more often. Bring a rubber door wedge and put it under your door every night, just in case. If someone has a key or picks the lock, the rubber wedge will give you enough time to make a commotion and call for help. If you don't have a wedge, put the chair up against the door knob. Put a "do not disturb" sign on your door when you leave so that people think you're in there. Leave the TV on at a moderate volume so that people cannot tell if your room is occupied or not. Keep your valuables out of sight in a safe or in a not-so-obvious container (like a bread box).

Be polite and non demanding. If you are quiet and respectful, you are less likely to draw attention to yourself through your behavior. Depending on the local customs, however, do not assume that being extra friendly is beneficial - it may be interpreted as an invitation that you never meant to offer, especially if you are female. Avoid doing anything (having drinks, doing drugs) that makes you loud or belligerent in any way. Not only will you draw attention to yourself in a negative way, but you'll also be more vulnerable because you're not completely alert.
Carry your documents strategically. Do not place your credit cards, cash, ID cards, and passport all in the same place.

* Keep cash and credit cards separate from ID cards. By keeping things separated you eliminate the risk of having them all stolen.
* Always have some cash stashed away in a shoe, a hidden pocket, or in yet another shoe, in case you need immediate cash for taxi ride or something fast to eat. Do not carry too much cash, and never flash it all when you pay.
* If you have a wallet, wear it in your front pants pocket instead of in the back and your pocketbook close to the body. To be extra safe, prepare a mugger's wallet - an inexpensive wallet with a small amount of real cash plus fake sample credit cards and IDs. Use this fake wallet in case you are mugged and have to give it up. Throw it towards them but aim for further than them. As they run to get the wallet, you have the chance to run the opposite way to get away from them.The muggers are more interested in the cash and won't take the time to examine the fake cards and IDs until later.

Walk facing the traffic. This way no cars can sneak up behind you and commit a crime. It has also been known for thieves on scooters to snatch handbags as they drive past. Keep you handbag/suitcase on the side of your body that is away from the traffic.

Be alert when using public transportation. Steer clear of unlicensed taxis. Better still, hire a car, or get a bus or train. Try to get a seat at the front of the bus, as you will be near the driver. You should never go on the top floor of a bus late at night. It really is not safe up there, and there have been some horrific crimes committed there. If you are getting a train, try to find a seat in a busy carriage somewhere in the middle of the train. This means you will only have to walk down half a potentially lonely and poorly lit platform.
Never get into a car with a stranger. If it is a certified taxi driver, then make sure by asking for identification. If you find out too late that you are in an illegal taxi driver's car, break away through windows or the door.
If driving, be alert to changes in the rules of the road. Some countries will drive on the left side of the road, others on the right. In the U.S., you drive on the right side; in Japan or the UK, you drive on the left side. Driving on the opposite side of the road to what you are accustomed is a significant adjustment; in particular, be very careful when turning to be sure you end up on the correct side of the road.

Be especially careful at night. This is the most dangerous time in any country. Do not go anywhere you don't know, and again, make sure you stick to well lit areas. It has been known for people (especially women) to be raped, murdered or kidnapped (a lot of these crimes taking place late at night). There's also the greater risk of drug and gang activity.
Never give your passport to a hotel clerk. Some countries have laws that require that hotels hold the passports of their guests (such as Italy, where handing over your passport overnight is usually perfectly safe). If you feel uncomfortable about parting with your documents, you can often get a certified copy of your passport information that you can substitute. You might also make a good quality photocopy of the main passport page and demand the hotel hold that instead.
If you are traveling a country with a history of foreign citizen kidnappings and suspect you might be a potential victim of a kidnapping, do not leave your hotel/place of residence at the same time every day. Do not use the same route to go to or from a specific destination (e.g. an office) every time.
Stock up on food and water in your hotel room as soon as you arrive, especially if there's the possibility of kidnappings, riots, and anything else that might call for you staying in your hotel. You may think you are wasting money on items you do not need, but they could save your life in a worst case scenario. If you do not use them, offer them to the hotel as a thank you for a nice stay.
If you are on your own, try to befriend some other travelers. There is safety in numbers.

If you are in a country where political tensions are high, be extremely careful. It has been known for tensions to erupt, resulting in terrible consequences. Bombs have exploded and killed hundreds. If you find yourself in this situation when you are in the country, do not go outside of where you are staying. The army may be called in as well. This can bring about devastating gunfights in the street. You may have to stay there for quite some time, to let things calm down.
Unfortunately, not everyone is caring during a dangerous situation. Some people adopt the "every person for him/herself approach". Be careful whom you trust.
Do not take favour or help from stranger, especially while you go to exchange money. Do not exchange your currency with illegal operators/agents.
Try to avoid late-night pubs.


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