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How to Stay Safe Abroad in Uncertain Times

09/17/2013 03:47 pm 15:47:25 | Updated Nov 17, 2013

2013-09-17-cn_image.size.travelstaysafeturkeysyria.jpg The courtyard of Istanbul's Blue Mosque. (Ken Wells/Getty)

As the U.S., Russia, and other nations discuss a way forward on Syria -- and whether that involves a military strike or not -- I'm still fielding worried questions from travelers who are unsure whether to cancel trips to Turkey, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, western Africa, and other places with significant Muslim populations. These are places where, yes, pockets of anti-American/anti-Western sentiment do exist and where there could possibly be some sort of incident over the next few months. Of course, the same is true of certain neighborhoods in London and Paris. And New York City too, for that matter.

So here's what I'm telling most of these travelers: I'm headed to Morocco myself in November. Go ahead and travel. Just be smart about it. How? Read on.

Shortly after September 11, 2001, I went to Turkey on assignment for Condé Nast Traveler to test how to travel safely in a Muslim country. In 2006, when the United States was at war with Iraq (like Syria, a Muslim country bordering Turkey), I went again to southeastern Turkey, spending a week close to both the Syria and Iraq borders. I've traveled through Syria as well -- with no guide, in a rental car that I drove myself -- and I've also traveled in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Israel, and the West Bank. (And let me just add that most people you meet in Syria, Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon are unbelievably friendly, hospitable, and generous. In Syria, had my rental car broken down on the road, the next person passing by would have invited me for coffee in his home with his family while he fixed the car.)

So, while I'm no counterterrorism expert, I think I'm in a position to suggest a few smart things that travelers headed to uncertain areas can do, say, carry, and wear.

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To make sure that my advice is up-to-date, I spoke with Dan Richards, CEO of Global Rescue, a security-services and medical-evacuation company that gets travelers out of harm's way in times of crisis -- say, if a government declaration says you should leave the country -- and that I myself have a membership with and have recommended to friends and relatives. According to Richards, the only change since the War in Iraq, in terms of recommended precautions for travelers to take, is that better and cheaper technology exists today for maintaining your ability to communicate in an emergency.

Should you get caught in an incident, you can easily lose the ability to communicate by cell phone, says Richards. "Cell-phone capability is typically unavailable because cell phone towers have been destroyed or are blocked, so people who would normally rely on their smartphones can't use them." Internet access could be unavailable as well. So it's wise to carry a communication device that does not depend on Internet or cell-phone technology. Richards recommends either an Iridium satellite phone -- today you can rent one for about $50 per week -- or a DeLorme inReach satellite messenger device, which allows two-way text messaging by satellite with anyone anywhere in the world. Should a crisis occur, even if you have Internet access, Richards does not recommend relying on Twitter. "The problem with Twitter is the amount of misinformation that gets tweeted," says Richards. "The information is only as good as the source you're getting it from."

The likelihood that any individual traveler would get caught in an incident is, of course, extremely low. Do not confuse the probability of an anti-Western incident happening in a country you're visiting with the probability that it will happen to you. Also keep in mind that some spots are more precarious than others. "Most likely we will be in a quiet period until we see what develops. If there is a U.S. strike, in Israel there is a very real possibility of increased activity," says Richards. "Turkey is very different. Turkey would more likely be impacted by demonstrations and civil unrest, whereas Israel could be the recipient of increasing rocket attacks and acts of terrorism."