From Jerusalem to Miami, Simple Tips for Safe Travel

Tuesday, May 25, 2010
Travel Writer

I am a passionate swimmer who can’t pass up a beach. I jump into the sea every chance I get, even if the breeze is a mite chilly and the water temperature barely grazes 60.

From Miami to Scotland, Brooklyn to Uruguay, I have left my bag on the beach while splashing in the surf, and in 15 years, I have never had anything stolen. That’s partly because I’m lucky. But mostly, it’s because I have a careful system designed to minimize both theft and the damage such theft would cause to my trip.

I never pack anything truly indispensable. Instead of a wallet, I take only the money I think I’ll need (a few bills for water or an ice cream) and a metro ticket. I pack a towel, sun block and the key I need to get back indoors — and that’s it. I carry a modest-looking tote that I place close to the surf line, the better to keep my eye on it as I swim back and forth nearby.

Whether you’re crossing Midtown or crossing time zones, small but carefully considered safety measures can really pay off. A stolen wallet can bring your entire vacation to a screaming halt. Missing keys can derail an entire day’s plans; a preventable illness can turn a honeymoon into a medical nightmare.

The worst-case travel scenario is playing out in an Iranian jail, where three young American hikers languish. Held on vague, disputed charges for nearly a year, they had apparently veered unwittingly into Iranian territory while hiking along the border of Kurdish Iraq. That’s a spectacularly bad vacation outcome, a miscarriage of justice — and an extreme reminder of the value of planning.

Any trip abroad should start on the U.S. State Department’s travel information clearinghouse, www.travel.state.gov. Here you’ll find straight-to-the-point, practical information for every country: how reliable the hospitals and roads are; how to avoid common crimes and scams; specific local health risks; and contact information for the nearest medical facilities and U.S. embassies.

For those contemplating travel to edgier regions, the website frequently updates its travel warnings and travel alerts. The warnings detail “long-term, protracted conditions that make a country dangerous or unstable,” while the alerts tip off travelers to short-term situations with the potential for chaos, such as coups d’etat or natural disasters. (Anyone planning a hike on the Iran-Iraq border would do well to note that both countries have travel warnings.)

On the State Department’s site you’ll see that Israel also has a longstanding travel warning; read the fine print and much of it is focused on Gaza and border checkpoints, while scores of Americans safely trot through Tel Aviv. Read widely, talk to people who’ve been to your destination, and filter it all through your best judgment.

And bear in mind that even supposedly “safe” places like Western Europe often have different ideas about what constitutes danger.

Barcelona, for instance, seems to have more pickpockets per square inch than any place I’ve ever traveled; virtually everyone who’s vacationed there has a theft story, and the problem gets worse every year. Take your eyes off your bag for a half-second in a restaurant or park and concerned locals will rush over to admonish you about thieves.

But if you complain about all the crime, these same locals may look at you in wonder. “Stealing a wallet isn’t really crime,” I’ve heard dozens of Spaniards say. “Look at what you have in the U.S. — all those guns and murders!”

Yes, but if you suddenly lose all your money and can’t even get back to your hotel, that’s cold comfort. Rule One: Don’t ever concentrate your valuables so that the loss of one purse, bag or wallet means total disaster.

Always travel with more than one bankcard; leave at least one, and a little cash, somewhere else (in your toiletries kit, for instance). Pairs traveling together have an advantage, as one person can spring for the taxi, lunch and phone calls while the other works on recovering lost items. Photocopy passports; stash one copy in your suitcase and another with a relative back home. If the original goes missing, it will be far easier to replace.

Insist on service. When my husband’s wallet was stolen — yes, in Barcelona — his bank wanted to mail a replacement card to Brooklyn while he survived on heaven-knows-what for a month in Spain. “I’ve been a good customer for years,” he told them firmly. “I am abroad and I need access to my money, now.” They finally agreed to overnight a card to his hotel.

Some people swear by money belts, but I’m not a big fan. I figure that locals in Amsterdam and Haifa don’t wear money belts, so I follow their lead and try to blend in. (Ridiculous but true: On the first day of my first trip abroad in 1997, with Italian lire stowed safely against my stomach under my sundress, I ordered a gelato in Florence — and realized paying in cash would involve undressing!)

Last but not least, consider a backup plan for a worst-case health scenario. Always bring two extra weeks’ worth of medications; you never know when a volcano will blow and you’ll be stranded in London. Any kind of travel involves new environments, lots of distractions (that’s the point!) and physical stress — all of which can leave you vulnerable to accidents or bugs.

The State Department website is one resource for supplemental travel health insurance. In an emergency, you’d receive prompt, Anglophone treatment and evacuation to first-world medical facilities. The cost is generally no more than a few hundred dollars, a small price to pay for peace of mind. 

 

 

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Barcelona, above, is a beautiful city, but it’s also known for its pickpockets.

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