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With daily news updates of turmoil in the Middle East, now’s a good time to review some safe-travel tips for making your way through political hot spots. Pick a country, any country, and you will find places where you should not tread. Add in political upheaval, and the best parts of town get as rough as the worst parts of town. Here are some techniques for safer travels, wherever you go.
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Know Before You Go
Get educated about the various local cultures, their history and reasons for potential unrest before you embark on your trip. Grab an up-to-date travel guide to learn about the country, its laws and its customs. There are always interesting facts to learn, and some of them might just help if you do get into trouble. Bring the guide with you, for further study during downtime on your trip. Just make sure you aren’t walking the streets with your nose in the travel book, looking like a hapless tourist. You will stick out and you won’t be as aware of your surroundings, making you an easier target for local troublemakers.
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Learn the Lingo It’s always a good idea to learn some key phrases of the primary language in a foreign country. For example: “How do I get to the American Embassy?”
“Where is the bathroom?”
“I do not understand you.”
“I only speak a little of your language.”
“One beer, please.” These are all great phrases to learn. Just make sure you are pronouncing them correctly, or you could be adding to your trouble, instead of helping yourself.
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Memorize the Lay of the Land
You should know the streets like the back of your hand. Know the geographical features like waterways and mountain ranges. Know which way the big river flows. Learn the features of the land, both natural and manmade, to give yourself a sense of direction and a sense of comfort. Do your best to have a photographic memory of your maps. If you can pull off the trick of knowing “you are here” on the map in your head at all times, you’ll never be completely lost again. This kind of planning ahead also works for more than just getting in and out of a city overrun with an angry mob. A mental map with a “you are here” feature can be a great help in the wilderness, too.
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Don’t Forget Your Map and Compass
Like I mentioned with the travel book, don’t walk around with your map flapping in the wind. You’ll look too much like what you actually are…an outsider. Keep the map both in your head and on your person, just keep the paper map out of view. Don’t forget a compass, either. If you can’t read the street signs, or the roads are laid out in a confusing way, a compass will be really useful. This will seem really obvious, but it’s worth mentioning: If you have a poor quality map (or one you printed out at home) the rain or a spilled drink will ruin it very quickly. I know someone who had the rain turn their ink jet map into a useless watercolor picture. Photo: bios
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Set Up a Call Schedule
Have a “check in” plan set up before your trip. Have a friend, family member or coworker expecting a phone call from you at a certain time every day or every other day. This way, if you run into a problem and are unable to make the call, someone else knows that something is wrong. Photo: kristoferb
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Keep Track of Your Passport
This one is very obvious. Lose your passport somewhere, and you may not get out of the country, at least not very easily. Your passport is your ticket home–guard it as such. You may need to use it as identification and it will make a BIG difference if you are stopping by the local U.S. Embassy. Guarding your passport is a no-brainer.
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Keep a Copy of Your Passport
Let’s say you are robbed and your passport was stolen. You can plan ahead for this kind of problem by keeping a photocopy of the relevant passport pages. Keep this copy in a secure location, so you have it as a backup. Realistically, it’s not worth much more than the paper it’s printed on, but it’s better than nothing.
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Bring Your Driver’s License
Many foreign countries honor driver’s licenses as a form of identification, whether for renting a vehicle or for identifying yourself to the local police if need be. It’s also a great piece of secondary identification to your passport.
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Copy Important Documents
Keep a copy of your driver’s license, birth certificate, medical insurance papers and any other important documents in a secure location. You will want to protect these copies as much as the originals, because the document copies would give identity thieves everything they need to take over your data. Speaking of insurance, call your medical and dental insurance companies well before your trip to find out their policies for coverage of your treatment while you are traveling abroad. Don’t just expect the dirt floor hospital you end up in to accept your insurance.
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Bring a Sat Phone and Keep it Well Hidden
I have a friend from Burma currently living in the U.S. who was very proud to get a satellite phone as a gift for his parents back in Burma. That phone is worth roughly a year’s wages in that part of the world. Now they can talk often, but this luxury causes them all some worry. Tient’s parents must keep the phone a secret, because people kill for these phones in their part of Burma. This is not an isolated theme. A sat phone is a hot piece of gear to have in developing nations, and other places that are off the beaten path. If you needed it, it could be a lifesaver. But if it was discovered by the wrong people, it could be a serious liability.
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Do You Know Where Your Embassy Is?
Figure out where the U.S. Embassy is, and memorize its position like a homing pigeon so you’ll know which way to run in case of mayhem. These folks are your best link to home in many cases. You also need to know the nature of the local “outpost”. It could be an embassy, a consulate or a diplomatic mission. As I mentioned earlier, learn how to say “How do I get to the Embassy?” in the local language.
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Know Someone at Your Embassy
When you are doing research before traveling to a hot spot, or if one flares up around you, make a phone call to the local Embassy or U.S. outreach. Speak with a fellow American if possible, and let them know your situation. Make sure they know your location and details. Find out any relevant information about the local conflict, too. The State Department’s Office of American Citizen Services and Crisis Management (ACS) supports our overseas embassies and consulates in providing emergency services to Americans traveling or living abroad. They also assist in non-emergency matters of birth, identity, passport, citizenship, registration, judicial assistance and other matters.
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Blend In
In addition to not carrying your guide book and map in the open, dress and look more like a local, to a point that is reasonable. Observe the local customs of dress, and understand who needs to cover up what. Don’t be too chatty or too loud either. Your different language or manner of speech will be a dead giveaway that you are not from around those parts.
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Be Familiar With the Local Transportation
What do the local taxi cabs look like? How do you spot a fake taxi that would drive you down a back alley and rob you? How do you catch the bus? What parasites would you catch if you rode that animal? There are many things to consider when learning the local transportation system. Learn them. It matters. Photo: transportobserver
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Money Makes the World Go ‘Round
Don’t keep all your money in one spot. Also, find out the easiest and safest ways to get more money, if you run out or get robbed. Always be sure that you have plenty of the local currency on you for things like tips and bribes.
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Hire a Guide…Or a Body Guard
A reputable guide or body guard may be worth their weight in gold, if they can keep you out of trouble. Don’t just hire anybody. Do your best to check them out with reputable people.
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Safety in numbers
Always travel in a group, or at least with one other person. It’s just too easy for several criminals to get the better of you, especially when they have numbers and a “home court” advantage. Photo: Gamko
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Safe Meds, Food and Water
“I want a bottle of water, and I’ll uncap it myself, thank you.” Add that phrase to your linguistics studies before your travel. Be in charge of your food, water and medicines as much as possible. During mayhem, don’t expect the food, water and wine to keep flowing like they always did. Keep a back-up stash of tamper-evident food and drinks wherever you are staying. Photo: wufel
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Smart Traveller Enrollment Program
The State Department has a great program for travelers called STEP. This is the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which is a free service and offers many safety benefits. When you sign up, you will automatically receive the most current information about the country where you will be traveling or living. You will also receive Travel Warnings and Travel Alerts when appropriate. The State Department assisted U.S. citizens in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, evacuating over 16,700 U.S. citizens. During the civil unrest in Lebanon in 2006, they assisted nearly 15,000 U.S. citizens. In 2004, they helped thousands after the tsunami in the Indian Ocean.
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Guard Your Plane Ticket
It’s a tough call where you keep such a valuable item. If you keep it on your person, it could be taken if you are robbed. If you leave it somewhere, it could disappear while you are gone. Today’s technology can make up for ticket loss in some cases, but an airport that is behind the times may insist on that physical airplane ticket. Talk to your airline about ticket replacement and ticket requirements before you travel. Schedule direct flights whenever possible. Minimize your time hanging around in the airport, if possible.
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Each year, over 6,000 Americans die abroad. Most of these folks are living overseas and succumbing to the typical fates like accident, illness or age. But, unfortunately, some are lost due to violence. Be vigilant as you travel. Be skeptical of new friends. Don’t drink the water, and learn all you can before you have to travel overseas, especially to the world’s “Hot Spots”. For more travel information and to sign up for the STEP service, visit the State Department’s travel website at www.travel.state.gov Photo: lipton sale

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