The State Department has issued a worldwide travel warning for the next three months, a rare type of alert that encourages U.S. travelers to “exercise particular caution”… everywhere.
From the advisory:
Current information suggests that ISIL (aka Da’esh), al-Qa’ida, Boko Haram, and other terrorist groups continue to plan terrorist attacks in multiple regions. These attacks may employ a wide variety of tactics, using conventional and non-conventional weapons and targeting both official and private interests. This Travel Alert expires on February 24, 2016.
U.S. citizens should exercise vigilance when in public places or using transportation. Be aware of immediate surroundings and avoid large crowds or crowed places. Exercise particular caution during the holiday season and at holiday festivals or events.
Now, the State Department is known for issuing extreme travel warnings, often based as much on reputation as actual danger, but it also typically provides specifics. A common warning will cite the specific country or region, along with the known dangers from which travelers have to protect themselves.
Coming as it does on the heels of the Paris and Mali attacks this alert may well have good intel, but it is singularly useless as an exercise in public policy. Issued during the busiest travel season of the year, it amounts to little more than an admonition to “be scared everywhere, of everything, for the rest of the winter.”
Despite this frivolous bit of statecraft there’s good reason for travelers and their families to take this issue seriously. The recent attacks in Paris and Mali have shocked a world grown increasingly complacent about the domestic threat of terrorism, and there are some good precautions that can make this year’s vacation far safer.
Know Your Network
Anyone traveling for work, education or through any kind of organization should make sure he knows his own network before takeoff. This may involve nothing more than finding out whom to contact and how in case of trouble, but in the event of a crisis that business card can become a lifeline connecting you to resources and assistance from back home.
As an issue of importance, it is, said Brian McNary, vice president of Pinkerton’s Global Risk Group, “first and foremost.”
“If you’re there on business reach out to your company, because they [often] have deployed resources and assets specifically to understand the situation and render aid,” he said.
How much help, exactly, an overseas employer or school can provide depends on the situation, but for travelers stuck in a crisis zone that corporate account can often mean emergency lodgings or even evacuation. By contrast, the State Department does its best to act as a resource and intermediary for Americans abroad, but it very rarely renders direct aid.
For business travelers, students, NGO workers and anyone else traveling as part of an organization, make that group your first call and get turning the wheels that might get you out. Speaking of which...
Know Your Exit Strategy
Otherwise known as “know how you’re getting home,” this is perhaps the single most universal piece of travel advice next to “don’t spend it all on booze.” This one is non-negotiable.
“I [was] in the middle of a Red Shirt protest in Bangkok in 2010,” wrote travel photographer Gary Arndt, the author of Everything Everywhere. “I was literally between hundreds of cops in riot gear and several thousand protesters… I had a taxi driver nearby who would drive me to Pattaya with an hour’s notice for $100.”
Having an exit strategy isn’t about paranoia or scoping the room. It’s about having a plane ticket home, the wherewithal to call a cab, and enough lay of the land to get out of a situation. During a crisis police and emergency services will have their hands full, and downtown is usually a pretty terrible place to be. Knowing how to leave without help will matter.
Build a Line of Communication
The worst feeling in the world is watching a loved one’s vacation spot appear on the news. Danger overseas is alienating and distant. Our loved ones feel far away from help and home, but that’s fixable.
For travelers, it’s as easy as reaching out to social media. As we covered shortly after the Paris attacks, social media has created a near-perfect emergency broadcast platform. It’s widespread, free and accessible over wifi even when the cellular networks go down. Post a Facebook status update, tweet, or even a snap if that works, but get a message out.
It’s more reliable, and certainly faster, than hoping that official channels will inform family and friends. Hotels and the rare travel agent won’t have much useful information, when they’re willing to field frantic calls in the first place. Schools and employers can act as more effective nexuses, but they’ll take time and will have other priorities. Getting the word out in person is always a more effective option.
Just pick a network that friends and family know to check, not your first Facebook update in six years. Certainly part of the joy of seeing the world is the freedom it brings, so there’s no need to carry an active cell phone or touch base every few days.
But make sure people know where to look if a bomb goes off.
Practice Good Risk Management
For employers or educators sending people abroad, having a well-rehearsed and up-to-date plan is critical. In the wake of a crisis, there’s no time for personnel to scramble for the org chart. A response needs to be crisp, clear and efficient.
Have a plan, McNary said, and practice it. Ossified crisis management plans “are nothing more than a very nice paperweight.”
“What happens is these emergency action plans tend to hard code things like a key person identified by name with a phone number attached to it,” he said, “but [then] that person has moved up in the organization or moved out of the organization.”
Prepare clear lines of authority and communication. Whose card does every employee have when leaving the office? Who gets the 2 a.m. phone call, and what is that person empowered to do? Ideally this responsibility should be shared among a team so no one can get overwhelmed if a crisis hits them hardest.
But above all else, prepare employees and students well. A little bit off education can go a long way.
“Advance preparation is at least as important,” McNary said, “as the ability to act when something has occurred.”
“It doesn’t have to be a war zone," he added. "Just knowing what kind of petty, opportunistic crime exists in Buenos Aires, for example, is a way of preparing your employee.”
Carry the Right Tools
I always have three things in my wallet at all times overseas: an ATM card, a photocopy of my passport and $100 American. (The latter being enough cash to be useful, but not so much I’d mind losing it.)
A smartphone, preferably on airplane mode, will also prove handy in a crisis although more cumbersome to carry around on vacation.
This is, for all intents and purposes, a bug-out bag. Together these four items are everything a traveler would need to escape a crisis, find safety and let family and friends know not to worry. In particular, carrying (not flashing) a little bit of cash and an extra bit of paper are such minimal hassles that every traveler should simply do so as a matter of course.
It seems silly right up until you need the very first cab going anywhere.