In the aftermath of tragic attacks around the world, from Nice, France to Jakarta, Indonesia, many travelers are contemplating postponing and canceling upcoming trips. And as many international globe-trotters are already aware, the U.S. State Department has issued a Europe-wide travel alert through Aug. 31, cautioning American citizens of potential near-term attacks at tourist-heavy sites, as well as public transportation and at major events expected to attract large crowds. But in spite of escalating travel fears stemming from recent tragedies, there are protocols to put into practice in the unlikely chance you encounter an extreme event. U.S. News chatted with Patricia Aguilera, director of American citizen services for the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs and Wendy Perrin, founder and editor of travel-planning site WendyPerrin.com to bring you expert-endorsed tips for staying calm and safe if a terrorist incident strikes while abroad.
Conduct Plenty of Research
As you craft your itinerary ahead of your trip, it's critical to do your homework and understand which places pose the greatest risks. Familiarizing yourself with current safety and security alerts and advisories, as well as need-to-know, country-specific information available on the State Department's website is key for any trip, Aguilera says. "Read what we say in our travel warnings and alerts," she says, and judge for yourself if you must travel to a risky destination or if you can modify or postpone your travel plans.
Though it depends on your destination and the current political climate and threats in the region, it's wise to "stay away from rallies, demonstrations, large public gatherings," Perrin says. Aguilera expresses similar sentiments. "Even peaceful demonstrations can turn violent," she cautions. To stay attuned to recent security announcements and real-time alerts, sign up for the State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, Aguilera says.
Aside from educating yourself on any dangerous places or current alerts, Perrin suggests preparing yourself ahead of time by programming your cellphone with helpful local emergency contact numbers for your hotel or the police, for example. "Consider carrying a satellite phone or satellite text-messaging device because if an attack occurs, you could lose your ability to communicate by cellphone," Perrin explains. "Internet access could be unavailable as well. Satellite devices do not depend on cellphone or internet technology and are much less expensive to rent than they used to be," she adds. Regardless of your preferred communication device, Perrin also stresses the importance of ensuring you have an extra battery for your electronics. She also advises bringing a copy of your passport, along with a hotel business card, written in the local language, to easily hand to a taxi driver or police officer in the event you need to return to safety quickly.
Alleviate Psychological Fears
"Don't confuse the probability of a terrorist attack with the probability of becoming the victim of a terrorist attack," Perrin says. "Know where the real dangers lie," she explains, pointing out that the single greatest cause of death for U.S. citizens abroad is motor vehicle accidents. "Understand the psychological reasons why your fear of a terrorist attack is out of proportion to the risk," she says. "We're less afraid of risks we feel we have some control over (such as skiing and driving), even if it's only the illusion of control. One incident with multiple deaths has a much greater impact than many incidents involving a single death, which is one reason why we fear plane crashes more than car crashes, even though the latter are far more likely." The reality is, many of us don't understand the safety risk of one place or another, Perrin says. "Anything can happen anywhere at any time. We try to weigh the risk of one country or hotel or tourist site over another by looking at the historical record of violent incidents there, but we don't know how relevant the historical record is. We don't know if the future will be different than the past," she says.
Invest in Insurance
Aside from protecting yourself in the event of a terrorist attack, travel insurance can be a smart investment for a variety of reasons. Perrin points to a horizon membership from air-medical transport membership program MedjetAssist as an ideal choice for widespread coverage, including a political threat, violence or an act of terrorism. "You get access to a 24/7 crisis response center, a veteran security expert to advise you and response services to come to the rescue if necessary," she explains. Other providers have stipulations for emergency response services that are only available after a so-called "qualifying security event" occurs, such as following a warning being issued by the U.S. State Department, Perrin explains. MedjetAssist, on the other hand, allows you to leave a place because you're uncomfortable, regardless of whether a major crisis has been announced, Perrin says.
If You Are in an Attack, Follow the Appropriate Protocol
If you find yourself in a terrorist attack, "the first thing is just to get to a safe place," Aguilera says. She recommends following the practices outlined by the British National Counter Terrorism Security Office. It's best to "stay calm and run, and if you can't run, hide," she says. After leaving the area, contact friends to ensure they know you're OK, she says. Aguilera also cautions that it's critical that a loved one, friend or family member has a detailed itinerary for you that includes your travel dates, so it's easier to reach you in the event of an emergency.
If you're unable to connect by phone, rely on social media to alert your friends and family that you're all right. "Mark yourself safe via Facebook's Safety Check feature," Perrin suggests.
[See: 9 Ways to Travel Better.]
Make an Exit Plan
Before traveling abroad, Perrin advises mapping out an exit strategy. "Know the layout of the city or area you're visiting, know your available transportation options, know your closest safe haven, have a local fixer or advocate," she says. Perhaps, you "have a friend or work colleague who lives nearby, or an ingenious hotel concierge," she adds.
It's also a smart idea to "stay in a hotel that has CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera and local news channels – so that it’s easy to monitor the news – and that has reliable, high-speed internet access, so you can check local English-language news and help sites," Perrin says. Apart from keeping track of the latest developments on the news, you should "follow relevant Twitter feeds that can provide reliable, accurate updates and alerts," she says, pointing to @TravelGov, @RedCross and even your accommodation's feed, though the best source will vary depending on your location.
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