10.04.10

How to Travel Safe

The U.S. State Department issued a travel alert for Europe on Sunday, urging American citizens “to take every precaution” when venturing abroad. Security experts tell The Daily Beast what travelers can do to protect themselves.

Is it fear season again? The U.S. Department of State suggests so, as it issued a travel alert for all of Europe on Sunday due to the risk of al Qaeda attacks on the continent. According to the alert, American travelers in Europe should be wary of public transportation systems and tourist infrastructure and should “adopt appropriate safety measures when traveling.” But, what exactly are the appropriate safety measures?

One of the primary concerns for travelers should be to “control that which you can control,” says Kevin Schatzle, managing partner of Provide Security, a security consulting firm, and a former Secret Service agent and New York City policeman. Schatzle urges travelers to take simple precautions, like checking the travel warnings posted by the State Department (www.travel.state.gov), applying for travel insurance to cover any expenses that may occur in the event of evacuations or medical issues, and looking up the contact information for resident security officers of American consulates abroad in advance. It’s also a good idea to check the travel warnings posted by the Canadian and British governments, as they may have additional information.

“Don’t travel like an American.”

Don Aviv, COO of Interfor, a global investigations and security consulting firm, recommends that travelers make digital copies of all pertinent travel documents, credit cards, prescriptions, and identification documents and keep the information on a flash drive as well as with a friend or relative in the States.

Because terrorist attacks are most likely to occur in well-populated areas, there are certain simple tactics of which travelers should be aware. Schatzle suggests travelers try to stay away from iconic hotels and crowded subways or buses, which have been the target of previous attacks in Mumbai, London, and Moscow. “It might be prudent to take a taxi or walk,” says Schatzle.

While staying at hotels, tourists should learn the emergency escape routes and be aware of the evacuation procedures. “It’s just good for people to not take for granted that there are lighted exit signs,” says Schatzle. “…Americans need to understand that they are not in America.” Aviv suggests staying in European chains, which tend to be less targeted than American chains abroad, and maintain similar health and safety codes as domestic hotels. Choose a room that’s not on the ground floor, but not too high that one can’t use the stairs for a fast exit.

In airports as well as domestic public transportation systems, the adage “if you see something, say something” is still the best bit of precaution. If a package or suitcase remains unattended for an unusual amount of time, travelers should alert authorities. But, travelers should leave the monitoring of other passengers up to the professionals, unless of course another traveler seems especially out-of-place or “if it’s warm and they are wearing several layers of clothing and there’s a fuse sticking out,” says Schatzle.

And of course “Don’t travel like an American,” advises Aviv. The baseball caps, football jerseys, and other obvious accessories that can stick out in a crowd should be left at home.

The cause for concern has been palpable abroad. In the last three weeks, the Eiffel Tower has been evacuated twice for bomb threats. On Sunday, the British government declared the threat of terrorism to have elevated from “general” to “high” for British travelers in France and Germany.

Intelligence officials in the U.S. and abroad point to the interrogation of Ahmed Sidiqi, a German captured in Afghanistan in July with ties to al Qaeda, as a major source of the caution. According to Sidiqi, Osama bin Laden had designated several European cities as attack targets.

Of course, given that the government’s warning designated the threat to cover an entire continent and offered no specifics on the threat, experts have expressed confusion over whether an attack is truly impending and what the target may be. “These warnings are what security consultants and terrorism experts hate the most,” says Aviv.

They aren’t great for travelers, either. Says Schatzle, “with a warning that is really opaque… it can be very scary, especially for those going on vacation.”

Lauren Streib is a reporter for The Daily Beast. She was previously a reporter for Forbes.