Travel Risk Awareness Primer

A basic primer on managing personal risk while traveling internationally

Top view of a compass on a map

Photo by Himesh Kumar Behera / Unsplash

Summary

Foreign travel can be an amazing experience. You get to see the world and meet people from different walks of life. It is of my firm opinion that some of the best education you can get is by traveling in a manner that allows you to be involved in a different culture, landscape and experiences outside of your normal baseline.

That being said, however, traveling abroad may exhibit some risks that often go unnoticed by most travelers because they are unfamiliar with enhanced precautions practiced by most experienced travelers. I’ve spent nearly 20 years working in risk management and I’ve had the fortune to travel to nearly 45+ countries with a large majority of them considered high risk. As a global risk advisor, a significant portion of my time is managing travel risk for my clients which has always been a unique risk to manage, because of the complexities of each destination, the traveler’s profile and a multitude of other parameters which have the potential to affect each travel segment.

In order to avoid the risks associated with traveling abroad, below is a list of distilled travel risk management domains that I have relied upon for myself and my clients over the years that I thought would be useful for most individuals as well. Hopefully, the information is useful to most readers, and while this is the first topic I wanted to address in this space, it is certainly a risk domain that I look forward to expanding upon later.

Emergency Resources

Understand what emergency resources are available to you for each area you find yourself in. Resources to identify will include law enforcement (especially tourist police), hospitals and clinics, safe transportation options, embassies, ect. The time to find an emergency resource is prior to an emergency, not during an emergency.

Attempting to discern what is a reliable emergency resource during a potentially life threating incident is akin to calling the insurance company when you think you might have a heart attack. Definitely not advisable.

An excellent source of information for emergency resources is to view the Department of State’s travel page and list of emergency resources. Other locations which may be more rural will require some sleuthing, but a small amount of effort might save your life, or the life of someone you know. It’s an easy habit to get into before traveling to a new location and over time becomes second nature.

Communications

Communications can be key when traveling. Make sure you have a phone that works in your destination. For some regions, that may mean carrying multiple SIM cards, and viewing a couple of travel pages or destination specific forums will quickly give you an idea which networks are worth the money. For travel to countries with more restricted telecommunication infrastructure, use of a VPN may be needed for your data-enabled communication apps such as Skype, Signal or WhatsApp. When traveling internationally, it is considered best practice by security professionals to utilize an effective VPN service for the duration of travel and to avoid unsecured networks if possible.

Situational Awareness

This category involves a bit more than knowing what cafes are most popular in the area. Having an understanding of what is considered a normal baseline for a new location is absolutely critical. For travel to a completely new destination with a different culture, that may take a little bit of time. Taking extra steps before you depart, such as downloading digital maps to your phone, identifying high profile venues or prominent landmarks as area anchors will be useful in for expanding your level of awareness for an immediate area. Marking emergency resources on your digital offline map can also be another habit that helps you understand what and where everything might be and can better prepare you for rapid contingency planning actions, if required.

Another useful strategy to get useful context about a new destination, expand your own culture awareness or find out more about the general area is to set up a Google Alerts feed or Twitter feed to monitor destination specific news cycles before you arrive. If you have been spending a little time regularly reviewing destination specific news cycle reports delivered to your email inbox, you will definitely arrive with a far greater perspective of the current environmental drivers which may be affecting the destination. After you arrive, doing a quick daily check each day of the news feed will continue to keep you well informed, which is never a bad thing.

Personal Item Accountability

Always keep your belongings and personal items close to you. Do not leave anything valuable unattended if it can be easily accessed by others who might wish to take advantage of it or even harm someone because they feel insecure about their own belongings. While out and about, avoid showing your money, especially if you find yourself in a bar or a club and even more so if you are traveling alone.

Threat Awareness

Keep an eye out for places where criminals and other threat actors congregate as such individuals often gather in certain areas where they can easily observe others and that includes airports, train stations, bus terminals and even public places. The State Department and other agencies commonly define non-violent crimes as “Petty Crime”, but I can assure you that it doesn’t feel petty to you if you find yourself in a situation where you have been robbed, mugged or in another similar circumstance.

If you are in these areas, take the appropriate precautions with your personal items and be aware of common social engineer tactics or conversations with strangers who ask questions veering into a personal nature. Keeping your lodging and other personal information confidential should be an obvious habit for safety’s sake, but little bits of information pieced together from multiple sources can quickly be exploited by experienced criminals and other threat actors.

While traveling, then always keep an eye out for any signs of danger or unusual activity in order to avoid being harmed by anyone who might wish to harm someone else. Intuition can be a powerful tool, so if a situation or someone just doesn’t feel right, don’t ignore that thought and seek a safe exit at your first opportunity.

Active Threat Response

Unfortunately, we all live in a world where violence can affect us and our communities, no matter if we are traveling or not. Being prepared for violence is generally not something most sane individuals think about, but having a basic understanding of options available to you in an active threat situation is something all individuals can benefit from. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has published an excellent foundation for active threat response based on the Run, Hide, Fight process, which enables rapid assessment of a threat incident with basic response protocols based on the situation and individual specifics.

Regardless if you find yourself traveling or not, the basic principles of the Run, Hide, Fight protocols will apply for the majority of active threat situations. An excellent training video which I frequently use for active threat response training can be found here.

In short, no one hopes never to find themselves in an active threat situation. However, understanding the basic principles of response can literally be a lifesaver, and while a short sub 6 minute training video will not replicate active response training, at a minimum, it is a wise investment of time for yourself, your family and other loved ones to review and refresh that knowledge on an as needed basis.

As a personal note, I have found myself in active threat situations with each situation underscoring how critical it is to be prepared for the unexpected and to understand available options when confronted with violence. Even if you are not trained in active threat response or survival tactics, having a basic understanding of the Run, Hide, Fight protocols and basic principles of human behavior can potentially save your life.

Closing Items

While travel safety is an interesting topic, the attention to safety and security outside of the business traveler realm is often an afterthought. The reason for that to me is rather obvious, given the reluctant nature of most personalities who subconsciously excuse themselves from a reality where an adverse incident could impact their personal travel plans, especially if planning holiday travel.

That said, regardless if the travel is for personal or work-related purposes, following the above travel safety guidelines as a general practice will benefit you, and potentially those you travel with as well. Most of the travel safety habits will take minimal time, but will dramatically reduce your travel risk.

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