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Situational Awareness Travelling Abroad

I was recently doing some research and came across several stories from travelers who had been robbed or mugged during their travels to specific countries. I found myself going through the stories and shaking my head at the fact that each of the individuals in question had suffered some sort of robbery or mugging and rather than analyze what they had done wrong were instead pointing fingers at the people of a given country and blaming it on the country and its people.

Issues with mugging, pickpockets, thieves and thugs exist in every single city in the world. Washington D.C. has a 31.4 in 100,000 murder rate compared to Cancun’s 2 in 100,000 murder rate. You are 29 times more likely to get killed in a violent crime in the capital of the United States than the beaches of the Riviera Maya in Mexico, one of the “most dangerous countries in the world” according to Western media, yet you have the exact same chances of being mugged in a dark alley late at night if you choose to disregard the common sense rules of situational awareness, regardless of what city you are in. Each year, the State Department issues dozens of advisories with the intent of keeping Americans safe as they travel abroad.

Unfortunately some of these warnings go unheeded. Mexico, Mali, and Israel have been targeted by the most travel advisories in recent years, but that Americans are more likely to face life-threatening danger in Thailand, Pakistan, and Honduras. Indeed, warnings and deadly violence are correlated on the whole. And fortunately, some travelers - at least those headed to the Philippines or Egypt - seem to heed these advisories, as those countries see drop offs in tourism following warnings. Basic Situational awareness could have prevented many of the unfortunate circumstances Americans have faced as they travel the world.

Now please don’t begin thinking that it’s unsafe to leave the confines of our borders that is not the case. Travelers should understand the risk of terrorism and crime in a cold, logical, statistical way. Your odds of being killed by a terrorist overseas or in the air are 1 in 20 million (Washington Post and Time). Your odds of being struck by lightning are 1 in 10 million (New York Times). Your odds of being killed by gunfire in the United States are 1 in 32,250 (New York Times). Luckily terrorists' targets are predictable. They lash out at high-profile symbols of our powerful and wealthy society: cruise ships, high-rise hotels, embassies, and military bases. If you melt into Europe and avoid places like Hilton Hotels and Burger King, you'll avoid terrorist targets and have a more enriching vacation at the same time.

Americans are travelling outside of our borders more than ever before. According to recent stats from the National Travel and Tourism Office, in 2016 the US saw an increase of more than 8 percent in the number of American citizens jetting off to international destinations. In 2016, a total of 66,960,943 U.S. citizens traveled outside the country, compared to the 61,783,913 who did the previous year. And just where were they going?

For the most part, these travelers didn’t stray too far from home; more than half of the year’s international travelers — 37,403,398 to be exact — stayed within the confines of North America, with Mexico proving to be the year’s most popular destination (25,181,630 trips in total), followed by Canada (which saw about half that traffic, with 12,221,768 visits). Europe was the third most popular destination, with 11,831,870 Americans headed to the region, followed by the Caribbean (6,579,691), and Asia (4,388,391).

When training professionals in preparedness programs, we use terms like vulnerability assessment, threat environment, and situational awareness. While these have specific meanings in the context of community preparedness, they also translate into daily living, especially when traveling.

When you are at home or work, you are in a familiar environment, where you know the risks and you can control many of them. When traveling -- even to a known place -- there are new challenges and unfamiliar environments. Situational awareness is the number one rule of avoiding issues while out and about in a street environment, regardless if you are an expat abroad or living in your home country. I’m sorry, but if you don’t notice two or three people coming up behind you on a darkened street at 11:30 at night you deserve to be mugged if only to teach you a lesson that you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life: pay attention to your surroundings.

The most important rule is to maintain 'situational awareness' in all circumstances. That involves being aware of the environment and potential threats around you at all times. If you can anticipate higher-risk situations you’re likely to encounter, you'll have a better idea of what to look for to reduce risks and plan appropriate responses.

Like everything in preparedness, planning starts well before the event. Conduct a simple vulnerability analysis —what are the adverse events or conditions you can anticipate at each stage? This would include the possibility of mechanical failure, effects of adverse weather, and other causes of breakdown or accident. There are a multitude of sites that offer informational assistance in preplanning for travel.

The US State Department has a site that provides the most up to date travel warnings. This should be accessed multiple times leading up to your departure date so you’re not surprised by whatever situation may develop.

Mexico tops the list with 28 warnings in an 8-year period. It’s worth noting that these warnings are regionally specific, targeting sites where crime syndicates are particularly active. Popular tourist destinations like Mexico City and the Yucatán peninsula (including Cancun) are generally regarded as safe.

Most other countries on this ranking are participants in ongoing international conflicts (e.g., Israel, Pakistan, Afghanistan), or are sites in which extremist groups regularly carry out terrorist attacks (e.g., Mali, Nigeria, Syria).

North Korea is an interesting exception, as the government itself presents a danger to American travelers. According to the State Department, foreigners are liable to be jailed for unspecified reasons, or for seemingly innocuous infractions like interacting with the locals or taking unauthorized photos.

How do State Department warnings square with the actual likelihood of crime abroad? Reliable, global data on crime is difficult to come by, but the State Department tracks the incidence and causes of American deaths abroad. We used that dataset to identify countries where Americans are most likely to experience life-threatening danger while traveling.

In the table below, we rank the foreign countries in which the most Americans were killed between 2009 and 2016. Before ranking, we filtered the data to include only homicides, executions, deaths in terrorist attacks, and drug-related deaths.

So what can you do to not be a statistic? It’s really very simple. Pick your head up from your phone and use the senses you were equipped with at birth. In 2017 that does seem to be at times a difficult task, when you board a train in Copenhagen, or enjoy a museum in Madrid or are just walking the streets of London, do so with your head up and your eyes and ears aware of your surroundings. The weapon of choice for terrorism lately isn’t always and AK47. Increasingly we are seeing large vehicles being used to run down innocents on the sidewalks or along areas where people would normally congregate. Being self-aware could give you the second or two required to move yourself and whomever you’re with to a safe area. Be responsible for your own safety. Trust your feelings always. Choose to pay attention to what is going on around you.

Follow the local news; be aware of what’s happening in the area before you arrive.

General Awareness-

Before you leave, get travel insurance and register with S.T.E.P. If you’re insurance doesn’t already cover you overseas. I know heaps of people (usually British for some reason) who get injured overseas and have to head home or pay medical costs up front. Register with S.T.E.P. (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program)

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 attachments to yourself to be printed when and if needed. You may be able to store your important documents in an online "safe" for more security.

Health warnings are an important part of safe travel, which is why U.S travelers are always advised to visit their general practitioner prior to travel.

Make sure your doctor approves you for international travel. If you’re pregnant or have an illness it may be best to stay home.

Get any vaccines that are suggested for the area you are traveling to. The CDC keeps a list of recommended travel vaccinations based upon your travel destination. There are instances where you may want to opt out of the vaccinations. You can discuss this with your doctor.

Be knowledgeable of current outbreaks. For example, the Zika Virus is a highly talked about diseases in 2017.

Ask if the tap water is safe before drinking it or using it to brush your teeth.

Know the location of safe spots in your area, such as a US Embassy, or embassy of a friendly nation to the US, hospitals, and possibly churches or synagogues.

Keep the address of your hotel on you, in both English and the native tongue written in both your phone’s notes (or snap a photo) and in a little notebook (phone batteries die). Everyone in your group should do this as reality is, you might lose your friends.

Avoid looking like a tourist, generally, don't wear any of the following: Excessive or expensive-looking 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) If you must wear sneakers, make sure that they are not the type that would attract attention. Fanny pack - A pickpocket could easily unzip (or take a knife to) and empty the contents of the fanny pack without you being aware. 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.


Have a cell phone with an international voice and data plan or buy a local SIM card wherever you travel. Unlock your phone before departure from the US, keep it on and charged at all times.

Have different ways of sending and receiving messages (e.g., email, cell phone, SMS, FB, WhatsApp, Viber, WeChat, Google Project Fi for Fi-ready phones, etc.). Do not underestimate the ability to call emergency services when necessary. You may not have Wi-Fi access always.

Carry paper copies of emergency and assistance-provider contact cards. Know local emergency numbers.

Protect your personal information. Be discreet on social media about yourself and your plans. Be cautious.


Consider safety when traveling. Avoid stops in high-risk areas or airports. Familiarize yourself with current conditions. Learn basic survival phrases in the local language (e.g., “I need help”, “Call the police.” “I need a doctor”).

Avoid travel to countries with an active US Department of State travel warning. Stay in contact with your family and friends to help minimize unnecessary anxiety. Share your itinerary and contact with your family.

Pair up: Use the “buddy system” travel in groups. Do not leave your friends behind. Know how to get there and back. Avoid hitchhiking.

Observe road safety while taking local transportation or as a pedestrian. Choose safe transportation always. Road crashes are the leading cause of death and injury for travelers. UCEAP strongly discourages owning, renting, or operating any motorized vehicle while abroad.

If caught in a dangerous situation, remain clam, stay low, and run away as safely as possible.

Be aware of cultural differences and abide by local customs and laws. You are a guest in a foreign country.

Avoid demonstrations; they can turn violent without warning. If caught in a demonstration, leave immediately.

Avoid large public gatherings. Choose public activities carefully. Always identify exits.

In the end if you use some situational awareness and think about the position you’re in objectively you will be fine. In the end trust your gut. To avoid trouble abroad, travelers should use common sense and always maintain a high state of situational awareness. The same general rules apply to any city around the world: avoid hustlers, muggers, gangsters, pimps, and pushers. Westerners who want to avoid danger while traveling will arrive in their host country with a basic knowledge of local threats, laws and customs. Furthermore, they will avoid danger zones and maintain situational awareness — and exercise common sense — at all times.

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