How do we determine whether it's safe to travel?Knowledge equals comfort, say the experts.
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After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Travel + Leisure interviewed a variety of experts in the security and travel industries to find out how travelers can feel reassured about upcoming trips, particularly overseas. The consensus view is that while perfect safety is impossible, even if you stay home, you can boost your confidence by understanding the political situation abroad and taking simple steps to maximize your knowledge—and security. Here are a few tips.
• Know before you go. "The world is more fluid now, and that means travelers should review the security environment on a daily basis," says Craig DeCampli, executive director of the Overseas Security Advisory Council, a branch of the State Department that exchanges information on travel safety with private corporations and organizations. The department's Bureau of Consular Affairs issues travel advisories for every country in the world (202/647-5225; travel.state.gov). The British government's Foreign & Commonwealth Office (www.fco.gov.uk/travel) also publishes comprehensive briefings that often provide additional, more up-to-date information. For unofficial advice, the Lonely Planet Web site (www.lonelyplanet.com) includes a lively discussion forum. Finally, keep abreast of developments by reading newspapers from the country you plan to visit. The Internet Public Library (www.ipl.org/reading/news/) has links to papers around the world.
• Consider your carrier. Thanks to the high level of security now in effect, U.S.-flagged airlines may be among the safest in the world, according to Neil Livingstone, chairman and CEO of the security assessment firm Global Options. Among foreign carriers, he says, "the one with the best security in the world is still El Al. British Airways also has very good security, as does Lufthansa." (For more on El Al's security procedures, see page 98.)• Be ready to speak up. "If you notice anyone or anything out of place on an aircraft or in an airport, tell someone in authority," says Livingstone. "I've seen case studies of a dozen airline attacks where the passengers recognized that the hijackers were behaving oddly before they seized the aircraft—but everyone was too polite to say anything."
• Register with the embassy. Americans can register with the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in their destination country once they arrive, and provide their contact information. Should the security situation deteriorate, an officer will try to reach them and offer advice on how to proceed. The Bureau of Consular Affairs Web site (travel.state.gov) includes links to U.S. Embassy and Consulate Web pages around the world.
• Have contingency plans. "You need to think, If I have to leave, how will I do it?" suggests DeCampli. "Consider the different possibilities so you're not caught flat-footed and unable to react in a prudent way." For starters, know the location of the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate and have a map of your destination. If you're in a remote locale, carry some cash and a small world-band radio; the BBC World Service is an invaluable source of information. A flashlight is useful in case the electricity goes out or you need to beat a hasty retreat under cover of darkness.
• Go for high- or low-end hotels. "Luxury hotels, if you can afford them, often have very good security," says Livingstone. "And an out-of-the-way dump is good, too. Mid-level hotels that attract large numbers of tourists may be the riskiest. Hotels outside the city center are always better than ones in the middle of things" when the security situation is questionable. Since staying informed is important, book a hotel that has CNN or another 24-hour news service as well as a reliable, direct-dial telephone system.
• Don't stand out. Try to look like the locals. Don't wear green golf slacks, your college sweatshirt, religious symbols (particularly Jewish ones), or an American flag or recognizable logo. Don't be loud or boisterous. If you see trouble, don't rubberneck: Get as far away as possible. And in general, don't travel with large groups. "Typically the person least likely to experience a premeditated attack is the footloose and fancy-free sort," says Robert Young Pelton, dangerous-travel guru and author of Come Back Alive, a handbook for risk-taking travelers. "People who don't have a schedule, who don't take bus tours or go to museums on Sunday, are not targeted by terrorists."
• Don't forget about ordinary crime. Crime in New York and other major cities may be down, but terrorism hasn't put all the pickpockets, muggers, and thieves out of business. "You don't want to walk around with a big video camera hanging off your shoulder and your wallet sticking out of your back pocket," says DeCampli. "That's just smart advice, and it still applies in these times."
• Remember that prudence is not the same as fear. "Seasoned travelers are already back in the sky," says Priscilla Alexander, president of the travel agency Protravel International. Many overseas destinations are safer than ever in objective terms, thanks to heightened security. Moreover, bargains abound, because of the downturn in the travel industry around the world.
But if after weighing the risks you're still uncertain about going on vacation, there's nothing wrong with staying home. "Do what your heart dictates," says luxury walking-tour pioneer George Butterfield. "I don't think anyone who's not comfortable with it should travel right now."