How to Stay Safe Traveling in Risky Countries
Wendy Perrin is the founder of WendyPerrin.com, where she shares her unique and extensive knowledge of travel solutions and travel planners. Prior to founding WendyPerrin.com, Wendy spent two decades as Condé Nast Traveler‘s Director of Consumer News and Digital Community, and she is also currently serving as TripAdvisor’s Travel Advocate. Follow her on Facebook and @wendyperrin for all her best tips.
If you’re waiting for that perfect moment to travel to the Middle East, it’s probably never going to happen. It’s like waiting for that perfect moment to have a baby: You can always find some reason why now is not the optimal time.
At least once a week a reader emails me asking whether it’s safe to go to Israel, Egypt, Turkey, or [fill in country perceived as dicey] right now. I’ve noticed that the people asking have one thing in common: They’ve never been to the country in question. And I think that very fact makes it harder for them to put the risks in perspective. If you’ve traveled in a supposedly precarious country before, you know first-hand how much less risky it is than all the media noise would indicate, you realize that the statistical probability that you will be the victim of a terrorist attack there is tiny, and you have no need to email me.
The news media never report the extent to which everyday life goes on as normal at a destination—because that’s not news. As I pointed out in Is It Safe to Travel To Turkey?, “Television and news coverage always make an incident in a foreign country seem more alarming than it actually is. If news sources were to report the extent to which life at the destination goes on as usual, with people going about their everyday routine unaffected, it wouldn’t sell ads, and the news sites wouldn’t get traffic.”
I’m writing this from Marrakech, by the way. It’s my fifth trip to Morocco. And in those five trips I’ve had so few safety concerns that it no longer even occurs to me that there might be risk involved in traveling to Marrakech.
So, in my opinion you should just go ahead and go. But be a smart traveler by doing three things:
(1) Book your trip through a Trusted Travel Expert.
Proven destination specialists like those on my WOW List have the latest security information at their fingertips, know which areas in a country are safe and which aren’t, employ the savviest guides and drivers, and know how to keep you from harm. Earl Starkey, Trusted Travel Expert for Turkey, has been keeping travelers safe there. Last summer, when the financial crisis hit Greece, Christos Stergiou, Trusted Travel Expert for Greece, kept travelers safe in that country. And currently Joe Yudin, Trusted Travel Expert for Israel, is keeping travelers safe in Israel.
“I felt totally safe,” says Nadika Wignarajan, a WendyPerrin.com traveler from Bayonne, New Jersey, who returned recently from a trip to Israel arranged by Joe. She and her parents were there when an Israeli Border Police officer was critically injured by a Palestinian driver who deliberately struck him near Hebron—just one attack in a wave of increased violence since the start of October.
“Joe and his team have their ears to the ground and know what’s going on,” says Nadika. “I knew my guide wasn’t going to take us anywhere that wasn’t safe. There are parts of New Jersey that are more dangerous. We felt safer in Israel than in some areas of New York City where you don’t want to go at night.”
In fact, Nadika adds, there are advantages to being in Israel right now. “There are fewer tourists than usual. The religious sites are crowded, and there are cruise ships bringing in a lot of tourists, but other places were not crowded, and the hotels weren’t that busy; they were going out of their way to do stuff for us.”
“The biggest misconception travelers have,” says Joe Yudin, the Israel-based travel specialist who booked Nadika’s trip, “is that there is constant violence everywhere. That just isn’t the case. The second biggest misconception is that there is tension in the air. Not true. Yesterday I spent the entire day in an Arab village in the Gallilee, and everyone was nice, pleasant, accommodating, warm, smiling. There have been a few bad incidents, and these unfortunately are played up in the news over and over and over. But the fact is that usually there is no violent crime on our streets. Yes, there have been a few wars and everyone here is a soldier and knows what to do in wartime, but this isn’t a war. This is a wave of violence that we usually do not have. It brings the level of violence here up to the regular level of violence you find in Western cities.”
(2) Give yourself peace of mind via MedjetAssist’s Horizon Membership.
Even intrepid seasoned travelers who are able to put risks in perspective—and who understand the difference between the probability of an incident occurring in a country and the probability of an incident occurring to them while they are in that country—can still wonder how to lessen their risks when traveling there. If an incident occurs and does impact your trip, what are the smart steps to take?
You might not know the answer, but you can turn to someone who does. MedjetAssist, the air medical transport membership program that gets you from a foreign hospital that you happen to find yourself stuck in to a hospital back home that you trust—something that most travel insurance policies won’t do for you—recently added a new membership level that reduces your risk when your security is threatened: Horizon Membership offers assistance should a crisis—a terrorist attack, a political threat, violent crime, or the like—strike. 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.
Actually, MedjetAssist Vice-President and COO John Gobbels points out, if required, a crisis team can come in and remove you from a situation even if it’s not been a declared a major event or incident—even if it’s just because you’re feeling uncomfortable due to the current situation on the ground and want to get out of that place. Some other companies’ emergency response services benefit kicks in only after a “qualifying security event” has taken place, says Gobbels—for instance, after the State Department has issued a Travel Warning, or after the event that was merely threatening has escalated into a dangerous situation.
(3) Take smart precautions.
If you’re headed to Israel or elsewhere in the Middle East:
1. Enroll in the U.S. State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), so the Embassy can send you security updates and help you in an emergency.
2. Choose a hotel that has CNN, BBC, and Al-Jazeera, so you can monitor the news in the mornings and evenings. Also make sure the hotel has reliable Internet access, so you can check local English-language news Web sites.
3. Avoid public gatherings and demonstrations.
Don’t get caught in an angry mob.
4. Avoid public transport.
Use a driver.
5. Stay away from border areas and avoid bad neighborhoods the same way you would in New York City or Chicago.
“Don’t wander alone in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem, Hebron, Bethlehem, or Nablus,” says Joe Yudin, my Trusted Travel Expert for Israel.
6. Don’t photograph government buildings, military installations, airports, train stations, policemen, guards, or anyone who doesn’t want his/her photo taken.
7. Carry your hotel’s business card—the one written in the local language—so you can show it to non-English-speaking locals (such as a taxi driver) and get back to your hotel in an emergency.
8. Carry a cell phone programmed with emergency numbers (for the police, your hotel, and medical emergencies)
9. Carry a mini-flashlight (in case you’re caught in the dark).
10. Don’t focus on the wrong risks. Don’t get so caught up in avoiding risks that are highly unlikely—e.g., a terrorist attack—that you forget to focus on those risks that are much more likely to damage a trip—e.g., traffic accidents, pickpockets, food poisoning, sunburn.