Jake Johnson

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Jun 9, 2022

I’ve spent many years of my life in other countries. Given what I do for a living, I’m usually responsible for the safety and security of others in different environments, including some of the world’s most remote and dangerous locations. In 2006, I joined the U.S. Army, migrated to special operations warfare and became a Green Beret. For about 13 years, I served multiple tours of duty in the Middle East and completed missions in places like the Central African Republic, Colombia and Panama.

Since leaving public service, I have earned my living either extracting people from dangerous situations or serving as a corporate security advisor to businesses and their executives, operations, and personnel or families intent on visiting places where safety and security are critical factors. When clients ask me how to prepare for international travel, I usually highlight the five greatest international travel security risks. If you prepare for each of these safety concerns before going abroad, you are likely to prevent or significantly mitigate the consequences of the most common travel-related incidents and crises.

1. Medical Events and Accidents

Of the medical events or accidents that can occur while traveling, I have found automobile accidents to be the most common. Motor vehicle crashes are the number one cause of non-natural deaths among U.S. citizens living, working or traveling abroad. Apart from being subjected to different traffic patterns and unreliable public transportation vehicles, travelers may find traffic laws not being enforced or people driving more aggressively.

It can also be difficult to access medications when traveling. Don’t expect to find a pharmacy on every corner. Have your doctor issue a couple of rounds of prescriptions – and keep in mind that the names of brand medicines are often different by country and language. Leave them in the original prescription bottle with the prescribing label on it, or your medications may be confiscated by customs.

Before you depart for your trip, research the locations of the best hospitals, local police station and, most importantly, local U.S. embassy. Write these down on a piece of paper and carry it in your pocket. You want to be able to show this to first responders, locals, or taxicab drivers if you are injured and unable to speak or cannot communicate in the local language.

2. Lost Passport

Losing your passport is stressful enough. Losing it on a weekend or after hours when embassy staff aren’t working is the worst-case scenario. To avoid passport problems, maintain physical and electronic copies on your phone. If you’re traveling with others, consider exchanging digital copies in case someone loses their phone. Push your passport deep into your hand-held items and try to use a paper copy when possible to avoid leaving your critical documents on a counter somewhere. You can also leave a photocopy with a friend or relative who can then fax it to the nearest embassy or consulate in the event your passport becomes lost, damaged or stolen.

3. Petty Crime

Tourists are often lucrative targets for criminals, since they typically carry large sums of money and other valuables. When traveling, practice being less conspicuous. Leave your expensive jewelry, watches and designer handbags at home. These items will only make you more attractive to pickpockets and muggers. If you shop at an expensive store or mall, stay aware of your surroundings as you exit the location to reduce your chances of being followed or accosted in the parking lot.

Keep your money, credit cards and a photocopy of your passport in a money belt inside your clothing to avoid becoming an easy target for local crime. Also, carry only what you may need for a particular day. If you must carry large amounts of cash, spread small amounts around several locations on your person. If you can hand over a small amount of money quickly, you significantly reduce your personal injury risk and financial loss.

4. Severe Weather and Natural Disasters

I once helped rescue a group of travelers in a remote, tropical region of Asia. They were alarmed at emergency sirens during the night, only to learn at that a typhoon was preparing to make landfall close to their location. Before you depart on your trip, research the types of severe weather and natural disasters that occur in areas you’ll be visiting. Be aware that many countries in earthquake zones don’t have building codes or construction standards on par with those in earthquake-prone cities like San Francisco and Tokyo. Also, avoid selecting hotel rooms on floors above the reach of local rescue ladders.

5. Civil Unrest

The world is more polarized than it used to be, and civil unrest is more common. One of the things I look at before I travel – or if someone sends me a travel risk assessment or travel request – is whether an election will occur during the travel itinerary. Go to the U.S. Department of State website and enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). You’ll get updates on your destination country and warnings of danger in the area. Also, the U.S. Department of State will be more easily able to contact you or your family in an emergency. If martial law is declared, immediately contact the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate for instructions and be prepared to shelter-in-place for up to 10 to 14 days, if necessary.

Prevention Is Everything, but Travel Insurance Sure Helps

At a minimum, simply preparing for the five travel security risks outlined above will greatly improve the likelihood that you’ll stay out of danger while traveling internationally. But don’t count on just being lucky. The small cost of a travel insurance policy dwarfs the amount you may have to pay for a major medical, security or safety crisis. Don’t just rely on your gold club card’s travel insurance offering. It is typically not comprehensive and won’t cover anything outside of catastrophic emergencies (e.g., death, loss of limb, emergency medical evacuation).

Traveling Abroad? We Can Help

By preparing for the most common safety concerns of going abroad, you can take your trip with confidence. In addition to providing protection and immediate response and recovery in crisis situations, our experts help private clients assess travel risks and provide intelligence to support pre-travel planning and mid-trip itinerary changes. Learn more about our security strategy consulting services and how we can help protect you and your family while traveling