The Geopolitical Risk Consultant and the Nervous Tourist

10 practical tips for staying safe if a security situation deteriorates

In the aftermath of the attacks in Paris on the night of Friday, November 13th, I’ve heard from people who are nervous about undertaking planned travel to Europe and other destinations where terrorist attacks recently occurred. Apprehension about travel is understandable, especially since several attacks throughout 2015 have targeted areas popular with tourists, such as the popular beach town of Sousse in Tunisia, the Central Railway station in Ankara, and the often sold out Bataclan concert hall in Paris. Although most people’s trips will be safe and fun experiences, it’s always best to be prepared and ready to deal with an emergency situation if it arises.

Although I’m a geopolitical risk consultant, and mainly work with businesses and organizations operating abroad, I also frequently prepare travelers for their business and personal trips by providing them with briefings or mini-simulations with easy to follow tips for how to react during any type of emergency. I’ll skip the tips about how to avoid becoming the victim of petty crime, like never sharing your itinerary with strangers, and stick to the basics of being prepared and responding to a deteriorating security situation. These are the broadly applicable and useful tips for any travel, regardless of purpose or destination:

  1. Register your travel with the State Department or other applicable government entity and memorize the phone number of your embassy or consulate closest to your destination. If you register your travel and provide contact information, which can be easily done online, you help to ensure that the State Department (or other government entity) can communicate with you in the event that citizens need to be notified of emergency information or informed of evacuation procedures. Make sure you actually memorize the number of your embassy or consulate, since saving it in your phone will not help if your phone gets left behind or broken during an emergency.
  2. Buy travel insurance. In the event that something happens in your planned destination before you leave, you’ll be able to postpone or cancel travel, without losing money. It’s also a good idea to carry travel medical insurance that covers medical evacuation, especially if you have a medical condition. Without such insurance, you could be left with massive medical bills.
  3. Always be aware of your surroundings. This doesn’t mean that you need to obsessively scan the crowds around you while ignoring your activity. However, this does require that you regularly check your surroundings. Do not walk around with all your attention on the phone screen in front of you. Similarly, do not walk around with a big map that blocks your view and automatically identifies you as a tourist. Look at a map of your destination before you leave and learn the positions of easily identifiable landmarks to help you navigate. This requires some preparation before you leave, including learning the basics of the organization of streets at your destination. For example, in Washington D.C., numbered streets (10th, 11th, 12th) run north to south, while lettered streets (D, E, F) run east to west. Just this simple realization can help you navigate better without a map. While you’re at it, check for information about areas that are best avoided, or places that are safe during the day but considered dangerous at night.
  4. Memorize emergency numbers for ambulances, police, and fire services. In the event of an emergency of any kind, you want to be able to quickly reach the relevant first responders. In most areas, such authorities will speak English, but confirm this in advance, and learn a few phrases in the official language at your destination, so that you to communicate the nature of your emergency and provide details. If you have a medical condition or severe allergies to latex and/or certain medications, carry this information on a card in your wallet, or wear a medical alert bracelet while you’re abroad. First responders will check for such documentation before administering aid.
  5. Always know two exits out of a building. Wherever you go, make sure that you know of a second way to leave a building, if the main entrance is blocked or inaccessible. That means taking a look at one of those ubiquitous fire safety maps that are posted in many places. Yes, it takes a moment, but it could save your life. As you walk through a museum, mall, convention hall or hotel, keep an eye out for exit signs in the applicable language; for example, “sortie” in French, “salida” in Spanish and “ausgang” in German.
  6. Keep passports, extra cash and any crucial information on your person. It’s annoying to carry a money belt or second wallet stuffed into your pants pocket, but you should never keep your passport or all your cash in a purse or backpack while abroad. Always keep the passport and a second stash of cash on your person, since you may be separated from your purse or backpack in an emergency situation. You never want to be caught without any identification or sufficient money for a cab ride back to your hotel. It’s also a good idea to keep a small map with your passport and extra cash.
  7. Do you best to blend in. Repeatedly, we’ve heard stories of hostages being identified as foreigners and targeted by terrorists. Keep your jewelry understated. Avoid wearing clothing that reveals where you’re from, such as college sweatshirts, baseball caps, or overly patriotic attire. Refrain from wearing graphic t-shirts with symbols that could be considered inappropriate or rude. Avoid drawing attention to yourself by keeping conversations quiet and private.
  8. Avoid traveling during periods of increased tensions, such as following a major natural disaster, during elections or major strikes, or while mass protests are ongoing. Although it’s perfectly safe to travel in the US during the election period, since transitions of power in the US are peaceful, this may not be the case in countries where elections are often accompanied by violence, mass demonstrations, or military coups. Know the political situation at your destination. It’s a good idea to postpone travel if you have any concerns about your ability to reach your destination or remain safe while there. If you are already at your destination when mass protests or instances of violence occur, remain at your hotel, contact your embassy or consulate, and make a plan for leaving the city or country.
  9. If something happens- above all, remain calm, seek shelter and notify family of your status. This is not easy to do, as many people can tell you from experience. Try to breathe evenly and and analyze your options for getting away from a deteriorating situation. Your first goal is to make sure you are safe. This often means sheltering in place, unless you are in a building that is under attack. If you are on the street when something happens, enter the nearest hotel, shop or office building and stay clear of the door and windows. Do not remain on the streets. Once you are safe, use your phone to call the emergency number if you are injured and need medical attention. If not, refrain from calling, since first responders will be overwhelmed with calls. Contact family members to tell them you are safe, and notify the State Department. In most instances, you will be told to shelter in place until the incident is over.
  10. In the aftermath, assess the overall security situation and make plans to return home. Once the situation is resolved, find your way back to your hotel and stay in touch with your embassy or consulate. If the situation is successfully resolved, continue your trip and leave as planned. If the security situation appears to be further deteriorating, or if additional attacks or outbreaks of violence take place, make a plan to leave as soon as it is possible to do so safely. In the event that borders or air space are closed, shelter in place until such restrictions are lifted, and/or take a train or other means of transport to the nearest bordering country to fly home from there.

I hope these will be helpful for anyone who is apprehensive about traveling in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks. If you have a more specific question, feel free to leave a comment.