Most travelers arrange their trip months in advance, especially when the destination is exotic and far away. You do everything to arrange the trip -- getting visas, immunizations, travel-appropriate clothes, insurance, and whatever it takes to get ready for your long-anticipated journey. Naturally, you pay close attention to the news and the weather in your intended destination.
But when incidents, such as protests, strikes, or even riots occur close to your departure date, you are right to consider what will become of your dream trip. In the case of extreme events, such as riots or natural calamities, you question what you should do. Should you go and "see what happens," or should you cancel, despite impending penalties, because you want to err on the side of caution?
The easy decisions are those that involve real, palpable danger on the ground. The events in Egypt today are a good example of a destination in turmoil that should be avoided. But when there are no obvious signs of imminent danger, such as a strike or even a protest, you should be able to proceed with your travel arrangements if you follow some simple but very helpful advice that will help minimize your risk of getting into trouble abroad.
Here are five steps that every international traveler can take to avoid problems in today's volatile world.
1. Anticipate that circumstances might change and be ready to act. You are as likely to encounter a strike in Rome as you are in Bangkok, Cape Town, or any other city in the world where workers have a gripe to air. While usually not dangerous, such incidents can seriously disrupt your travel itinerary and cause unexpected delays. Aside from making sure to purchase travel insurance that covers you for trip interruption issues, be prepared with a working smartphone that's set up with international calling features. Calling home on your cell phone can be expensive, but if you need to reach an emergency contact at home, the extra cost and huge convenience of being able to make that call is priceless. But be sure to avoid calling just to say hello and only use the service in an emergency. Also, be prepared with several forms of identification, so if one is lost, you can prove your identity and your citizenship. I always carry my driver's license as well as my passport when I travel, and I keep a photocopy of my passport packed away in my carry-on (not my checked bag) as a backup.
2. Sign up for STEP. Do yourself a huge favor and sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) where you can register your travel itinerary with U.S. officials. In a pinch, the embassy or consulate in the destination you're visiting can track you in the event of a true emergency, and even more important, help you make your way home safely.
3. Have some emergency money. You're going abroad, to a country that might not speak English, and who knows what unexpected event might occur that will have an unanticipated cost. If you can't afford to set aside an emergency fund and even an extra credit card, you really can't afford the trip. Even if you have travel insurance and even if your travel providers agree to cover any unanticipated expenses, you might need to pay out of pocket. You should set aside at least $100 and, if possible, more, in smaller bills (like $20s) for easy exchange.
4. Know where the problems are, and avoid them. Do your research by following news reports to know where the at-risk areas are, and keep those locations off of your itinerary. Don't be lured by the excitement or seeming anonymity of a big crowd. In fact, stay away from big crowds unless you're attending a music festival or similar event.
5. Travel with a tour provider. The potential for sudden safety issues is one of the many reasons I recommend traveling with an experienced tour operator. Group operators, such as ours, have eyes and ears on the ground in all of the countries where we offer tours. Our contacts tell us what's going on, and give us the most up-to-date information on the status of incidents in the country. Guides traveling with you know whom to call and what to do if help is needed. And the people on the ground who have been entrusted with your enjoyment as well as your safety are generally well-connected and able to make things happen quickly. Itineraries can be rearranged and tours shuffled around, so that in the end, you might not even be aware that there's an issue that is being avoided by the changes.
There are no guarantees when it comes to traveling, and situations can change quickly. But keep these tips in mind, use your best judgment, and stay up-to-date on news as it's happening to be a well-informed traveler.