Eight Hints for Staying Safe While Traveling Abroad

Hotel room or apartment doorway with key and keyring key fob in open door and bedroom in background

Handy dos and don’ts for your next overseas business trip
By Sara J. Welch

Before Sara Bratell, a Swedish journalist, traveled to Rio de Janeiro last summer for the 2016 Olympics, she and her team received an intensive, two-day training program in safety and security. “The class was led by a retired police officer and a doctor who had served in several wars and catastrophes,” says Bratell, who is an on-camera sports reporter for Expressen TV in Stockholm. “It included everything from how to stop a bleeding wound to how to act during a potential terrorist attack.”

Of course, most women traveling overseas for work don’t have access to anything similar to the kinds of resources Bratell did. Fortunately, most don’t need to. Diversity Woman spoke to several experts in international travel to get their best advice on staying safe while traveling abroad. Here’s what they told us.

Know before you go
Some simple research beforehand on the places you’re visiting can save you problems once you’re there. Find out about potential hot spots so you can avoid them, learn about local laws and customs, and memorize a few phrases in the local language so you can ask for help and talk to the police, if need be. Jill Groshek, vice president of underwriting with Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection based in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, advises checking the US State Department website (travel.state.gov) for the most current travel warnings and alerts.

Be prepared for potential health problems
Groshek also recommends that all travelers refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website (cdc.gov/travel) for specific details about where they’re going, such as what foods and beverages are safe to consume, recommended immunizations, and other travel health information. Depending on the country, some medications and other items you can easily find in any American drugstore might not be available, so you should bring all the medications, toiletries, and supplies you’ll need for the whole trip, along with copies of any prescriptions. (Antidiarrhea remedies are a good idea, too.) In some countries (India, for example), it’s best to avoid fresh produce and drink only bottled water. And don’t accept a drink from a stranger that you haven’t seen being poured.

Check out where you check in
Stay safe in your hotel by choosing the right room, advises Janice Blochtein, director of Kiai Viagens e Turismo, a travel agency in Porto Alegre, Brazil. If you have a choice, don’t stay on the ground floor or in a room next to the stairs or elevator, or at the very end of the hallway. When returning to your room at night, be aware of any other people in the elevator; if you sense something is “off,” wait for the person or persons to get off before you do, and then ask someone on staff to accompany you to your room. In the elevator, “don’t necessarily assume you’re safe with an unknown woman,” Blochtein adds.

Use common sense
Always be aware of your surroundings, notes Groshek. “Inquire with the staff or concierge at your hotel about places to avoid, lock valuables and travel documents in a room safe, keep friends and family informed of your daily itinerary and check in often, and avoid excessive alcohol consumption.” Also, be discreet: don’t wear flashy jewelry, be careful when using electronics (a frequent target of thieves), carry as little cash as possible, and keep spare bills in a travel wallet hidden under your clothes (around your neck or your waist). Some travelers even carry a spare “dummy” wallet that contains a few small bills and expired credit cards, to distract thieves.

There’s safety in numbers
Whenever possible, travel in a group, Blochtein says, noting that she recently received a request from an 82-year-old woman who wanted to arrange a trip to Mexico—alone. “She was well traveled and wanted to go to all the tourist sites and really get to know Mexican culture, but she didn’t have a travel companion,” Blochtein recalls. She didn’t feel comfortable sending the woman by herself, so she put her with a larger group on a package tour. Blochtein also purchased travel insurance for her client and provided contact information on WhatsApp so that the client could reach Blochtein anytime, day or night. “I monitored her from the moment she embarked until she arrived back home,” Blochtein adds. The result? “She had a wonderful time and has already planned a second trip!”

Should you find yourself having to go places alone, “be street smart and trust your instincts,” Bratell says. “Evaluate the situation beforehand to think of ways to avoid risks, watch your belongings, and keep an eye out for the nearest escape route.” Bratell, who frequently had to walk around Rio by herself with a TV camera while filming events, also suggests trying to make contact with a local person you can trust: “I’ve done that every time I’ve traveled for work and I’ve always felt safe.”

Look like the locals
As the saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” That applies whether you’re traveling to Iceland or Indonesia. “Blend in with your local surroundings in dress, mannerisms, and customs,” Groshek advises. “That’s not just because it’s the polite and respectful thing to do, but because it demonstrates that you’re an intelligent traveler.”

Sara Kosyk, an operations manager with Academic Arrangements Abroad, a cultural tour operator in New York City, learned the importance of this advice recently when she took three groups of Americans to Iran on art- and archaeology-focused trips sponsored by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In Iran, so-called immodest dress is illegal, meaning that women must not only cover their hair so that only an inch or so shows in the front, but must also cover themselves down to their ankles and wrists and up to their collarbones. While she wouldn’t want to live with such restrictions permanently, Kosyk found that the effort she took to blend in was well worth it. Her concerns quickly fell away once she arrived, and she was able to enjoy her experience fully knowing she was less likely to stand out: “I’m surprised at how quickly I adjusted to my head scarf!”

Copy, copy
Make two copies of all your important documents—passport, visa, identification cards, credit cards (copy both front and back), travel reservations, itinerary, and so forth. Leave one set of copies back home with a close friend or family member, and take one with you but keep it separate from the originals. Carry your passport copy with you but leave the original, as Groshek noted, in your room safe. When this reporter’s passport was stolen while she was traveling in Argentina, the US Embassy was able to issue a new one in less than 24 hours because she had a copy of the original.

Keep a positive attitude

As it turns out, Bratell, the Swedish reporter, didn’t need any of the emergency medical training she received, but she did rely on many of the safety tips. “Working in Rio during the Olympics was an amazing experience,” she offers. “Sometimes it was hard, because I always had to watch my back and find that very fine balance between trusting the right people and being naïve, but once I did find it, my experience was fantastic. I met so many lovely people and learned and laughed so much during my time there.”

“Traveling makes you grow as a person,” she adds. “So don’t forget to smile, have fun, and be open minded.” DW

Travel writer Sara J. Welch attended the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, where she found the advance press about chaos and crime to be completely unfounded.

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