"Is it safe there?" If you're heading out of the country for an upcoming spring or summer vacation, you may be asking that question. And the short answer is, "nowhere is completely safe, but you can avoid the worst trouble spots."
The starting point for any test of safety is as simple as the headlines or the evening news: Obvious don't-go places include the "usual suspects" of countries at war or subject to terrorism. But the U.S. State Department's current Warnings and Alerts lists are much longer. The Department issues warnings "when long-term, protracted conditions that make a country dangerous or unstable lead it to recommend that Americans avoid or consider the risk of travel to that country. A Travel Warning is also issued when the U.S. government's ability to assist American citizens is constrained due to the closure of an embassy or consulate or because of a drawdown of its staff." The current list of Warnings includes:
-- Several Mideast countries, including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Israel West Bank and Gaza, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen.
-- Closer to home, Colombia, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, even Mexico.
-- And in Asia, besides the obvious no-go North Korea, the list includes the Philippines, especially the far south.
-- The current short-term "Alerts" list includes only Kenya and Egypt.
-- And the more general "worldwide cautions" list, in addition to the areas noted for warnings, mentions even Europe, South Asia, and the several central Asian "stans" as potential targets for al-Qaida attacks.
-- And the State Department doesn't even bother with areas such as Cyprus and Greece where civil unrest outbreaks have occurred.
All in all it's enough to make you think about staying in bed. Fortunately, the threat levels for most popular tourist destinations in Asia, Europe, and the Caribbean seem low enough that they won't deter most travelers.
Aside from avoiding the most obvious trouble spots, what can you do to minimize the risks? Sadly, many of the standard "tips" about keeping safe are obvious, impossibly general, impossible to follow, or ineffectual -- or maybe all four. Although violent crime remains rare in most countries you might visit, petty crime seems to be a worldwide growth industry. Among the problems you're most apt to encounter: pickpocketing and purse-snatching, rental car break-ins, and hotel room theft.
Clearly, although you want to follow the usual precautions against being involved personally, you can't guarantee that you won't run into some form of petty crime. But you can cut your risk and your exposure to loss:
-- Leave genuine jewelry, expensive watches, and high-priced gadgets you don't need at home. If you have to wear jewelry, make it fake, and wear a Timex.
-- Leave all but one credit card and any cash you won't need for the day in your hotel's safe, along with passport, tickets, and other valuable papers.
-- Keep what cash you carry in a secure money belt or zippered pocket.
-- Keep a secure list of your credit card numbers, customer service phone numbers, copies of your passport front page, copies of your tickets, and such. If any credit card or other document is compromised in any way, assume criminal activity, and act instantly to stop any losses, protect your arrangements, and minimize identity theft.
Before traveling outside the United States, checking in with the State Department's website (travel.state.gov) is a very good idea. And in case you're unsure about potentially unstable local developments, consider trip-cancellation insurance to cover any nonrefundable advance payments and deposits. Because most policies are pretty limited about what sorts of destination problems they cover, your best bet is a "cancel for any reason" policy.
(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins(at)mind.net. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)