When it comes to travel in 2017, 84 percent of people said they are somewhat concerned about their safety, according to a recent survey conducted by Global Rescue, a provider of medical, security, evacuation, and travel risk management services. Not surprisingly, Europe, along with Africa and the Middle East, has emerged as a top-three destination in terms of concern level.
In the wake of recent attacks in Paris, Nice, Berlin, Brussels, Istanbul, and Sweden, terrorism remains top of mind as a perceived travel threat, despite accounting for about three percent of U.S. citizen deaths overseas. In fact, 55 percent of survey respondents ranked it as either first or second on a list of greatest threats they see while traveling in 2017; 44 percent rated health and medical issues as a top-two threat; and 37 percent ranked crime as a top-two threat. Traffic incidents — the leading cause of death for U.S. citizens abroad — came in fourth, with 23 percent rating it as a top-two threat. The good news is that nearly all participants (96 percent) said they are still likely or very likely to hit the road this year.
Still, there’s no doubt the world is an unpredictable place. “We all know we can’t avoid a terrorist attack,” says Patricia Aguilera, director of American Citizen Services at the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. “They will come without warning.” With that in mind, we spoke to both Aguilera and Scott Hume, director of Security Services at Global Rescue, about what people should do if they find themselves traveling when a terrorist attack strikes.
1. Do your homework.
Precautionary measures should begin before you book your trip. The first and foremost thing a traveler should do is check for safety advisories on the destination. Head to travel.state.gov to familiarize yourself with the current conditions in the country, and load up on other country-specific information, such road safety and entry requirements. If you see a travel warning or alert, the U.S. State Department recommends reconsidering or postponing travel to the destination. “There are plenty of places that have travel warnings and have pockets that are safe, but for the most part, we recommend reconsidering if that’s the destination you want to visit,” says Aguilera. “Carefully read those travel warnings because each one is different. It’s tailored to the situation on the ground — some are for high crime, and some are based on the possibility of being kidnapped. Everyone’s comfort level is different — and our goal is to inform.”
2. Enroll in STEP.
Once you’ve picked your destination, Aguilera recommends registering in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). This provides travelers with localized real-time updates and security announcements. It also offers information on demonstrations and protests, so you can plan accordingly. Should something occur, travelers will be notified on which areas to avoid.
3. Share your itinerary with loved ones.
It’s crucial to share your itinerary with your loved ones, including where you’re going, who you’re traveling with, and where you’re staying, so they may reach you in the event of an emergency. Don’t forget to communicate any changes to travel plans, too.
4. Avoid high-risk areas.
If you can, take a direct flight instead of stopping in a place that may have a travel warning, Aguilera suggests. Another tip: Minimize the time spent in areas of the airport where it’s less protected, and make sure you get to a secure area as quickly as possible. “Based on the terrorist incidents in the last couple of years, the [attacks] have happened outside the secure area,” she says. Hume also recommends using a taxi or ride sharing service to reduce exposure to crowds and large gatherings while traveling within a city.
Beyond location, vacationers should also consider when they’re traveling. Plan a trip when it may be less frequented by tourists, Aguilera suggests. “Terrorists want to have a high value impact,” she says. Visiting during an off-peak season means your surroundings will likely be less congested. Last but not least, consider the hotel — make sure to choose a property that has high security standards, as well as Wi-Fi.
5. Make an exit plan.
Before you go, make a note of where the safe havens are located — police stations, hotels, and hospitals, to name a few. If you’re traveling with other loved ones, formulate a plan of action in the event that you are separated and cell coverage is spotty. Pick a designated meeting spot and time, Aguilera suggests. Hume also notes that establishing and reviewing a rally point with travel companions each day can be helpful. Of course, knowing the layout of a city is also vital.
6. Carry cash and a paper map.
“Always have local currency and an ATM or credit card available. This will allow you to pay for transportation and other needs in the event of an emergency,” says Hume. Hume also recommends carrying a paper map in case cell service or internet connection is limited and you need to navigate the city. Ensure your travel companions are using the same map. Local maps are often provided by hotels.
7. Purchase travel insurance.
Part of preparing also means investing in insurance. “Each traveler should look at the fine print as to what they’re getting insured,” says Aguilera. “When you purchase an airline ticket, they might insure you to return without any penalties or fees in case of an incident. There’s also insurance to be medevacked out in case of a medical emergency. Medical insurance is perhaps the most important thing that people should consider spending an extra few dollars on.” As medical evacuations can be a costly procedure, it’s best to be safe.
8. During the attack, run or get low.
Travelers will have two options if they find themselves in the midst of a crisis or terrorist attack. Assess the situation — if you’re not immediately in the vicinity of the attack, run, Aguilera says. If there’s a shooter in place, drop to the floor or get as low as possible in order to get out of the line of fire. Once you know the danger has passed (and you’re not harmed), get to safe place — a hotel nearby, friend’s house, police station, hospital — as soon as possible.
“If a traveler should find themselves in a dangerous situation, remember to move away from the area as quickly and safely as possible. Follow all instructions from emergency personnel, and do not attempt to return to the scene to help or gawk. Remember that your life is not worth recovering luggage or capturing a cell phone video,” says Hume.
9. Listen to local media.
Aguilera advises that everybody tune into the local media to find out what the local authorities are saying. They will likely advise you as to the next best steps to take, whether it’s to stay put or avoid transportation.
10. Don’t contact the embassy unless you are injured.
“We recommend taking the phone number of the closest embassy to you, so you’re able to call if you’re injured,” says Aguilera. That being said, the embassy will focus on those who are injured. It’s important to have a plan to communicate with someone back home. “If you are safe and physically unhurt, call your loved ones,” says Aguilera. “During an emergency, cell phone service can be spotty and landlines can be locked, so get word back to your family members.”
Consider a satellite phone or utilize and internet connection to communicate via email, messaging app, or social media, Hume suggests. But make sure to have another way to communicate as well. “Cellular networks can become quickly overwhelmed, as was the case in Brussels and Paris immediately following the attacks, so having alternate means of communication is a must,” says Hume.