June 30, 2015

7 Safety Tips For Traveling to Dangerous Places

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Written by: Phil Derner Jr.
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Though I work in aviation, I would never consider myself a typical “travel” guy. I have tons of colleagues that are travel writers and consultants; though perhaps with a tinge of jealousy, I always enjoy their writing about trips to exotic locales, and tips on how to make their vacations to various beaches and relaxing locations easier and easier.

My international travel experiences are a bit different, though. Having spent six years working for a military-contracted airline, most of the dozens of nations I’ve visited were to less-desired areas of the world. These cities were often dangerous, either for crime, threat of internal political upheaval, or simply because I looked American, which made me a target for a slew of reasons (mugging, kidnapping, political disputes, etc.).

Regardless of where I was, I tried to take advantage of the opportunities and take in as much as I could. But no matter what, my number one priority was always safety, especially when I wandered off on my own, away from my crew. These are the tips I lived by.

1. Threats are everywhere, so don’t be complacent

Don’t think that because we were working with the military that our destinations and dangers were limited to Middle Eastern nations. I felt safer in Kuwait City than I do today on the 7 train in Queens. Crime and “anti-you” sentiment exists everywhere; former Russian states, Europe and even throughout the United States. You should always assess your environment and be ready for things that may come your way.

Whether you plan to wander the streets of Azerbaijan, or take a day trip to Boston for some wicked hot chowdah, it is important to be aware of the spectrum of safety measures you may or may not need to take. You must determine where you need to take these precautions, and in what level you may need to apply them in for yourself.

2. Learn local greetings, which may be different from a simple “hello”

It’s important to know the customs of other places, but looking up a direct translation of “hello” might only make you stand out as a tourist. This means that the locals you run into will subconsciously give you the pre-packaged tourist experience, not the genuine cultural experience that you desire. Worse, it can make you a target.

Therefore, learn the greeting that people use in various countries. Practice it with a little accent. You will likely not convince anyone that you reside there, but it shows you have respect for their culture, give you the tiniest ounce of street cred, and maybe show that you can’t be tricked so easily when trying to haggle for that cool necklace you can’t fly home without.

This even applies to the United States. You must be crazy if you think I don’t go to Georgia without dropping a “y’all” into conversation here and there.

On top of basic greetings, also know other basic phrases such as “thank you,” “please,” and “where is the airport?”

3. Map your way to your safe havens; Airports and Embassies

I wasn’t kidding about the “where is the airport” question. Before I set foot into any country, I always study the maps. I look at where I am staying, I learn a few routes and methods to get to the airport, and I plan on keeping enough local currency on me to action it. If you’re standing on the street as a coup d’etat fires up (think Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan), your best bet is to head straight for the airport. Know how to get there.

It is extreme, but you want to be ready just in case it hits the fan. If violence is spreading, infrastructure (ie: airports) can be the first to shut down; if not, your path to getting there can be closed off. Unless you have the luxury of retreating to a U.S. military base, the airport is your true way out of danger. In some places, police corruption can be worse than the street crime, and I also wouldn’t trust some of the hospitals out there either.

Your local embassy is another reliable place of safety, as it is usually well protected and offers assistance, communication and information. However, (and it is a big however), if the local upheaval specifically pertains to your own country, actually getting to the embassy could mean making your way through the thickest of violence. Exercise caution when choosing your safe haven.

4. Protect your documents

Outside of food and water, nothing is more important in my travels than my documents. When traveling about, there is no safer place to keep these than on my person. Leaving them in a hotel means they can get stolen and that I am separated from them if I need to make a quick escape to the airport. If I’m in a place where I worry about a mugging threat, I’d have no problem with putting my passport, Department of Defense ID card and some emergency cash in a little plastic sleeve and keep it in a hidden pants pocket or even taped to my thigh under my pants.

Don’t use your sneakers for hiding things. Aside from money, crooks in some places love American footwear, and it’s also a common hiding place. With that, don’t wear flip flops to these destinations; wear something you can move and run in just in case.

5. Wipe that smile off your face

A little schmoozing and smiling goes a long way in getting special treatment from a gate agent at the airport, or a free drink at a restaurant. But wandering the streets with a giant grin screams tourist, and it can make you look like a target. Sad but true, your smile and happiness will be looked at as affluence and weakness. People are less likely to mess with the serious-looking person.

6. Swallow your pride

Other countries are not the place to show your American pride. Anyone who knows me knows that I have almost a dozen hats with different American flags on each of them. When in other places, the flag patch comes off and I hide it along with any other flags that may be displayed on my clothing.

I’ve seen people wear baseball caps of Canadian teams just to not look American. I wouldn’t go as far as that, but I think it’s appropriate to do what you need to do so that your US flag or symbols don’t make you a target for violence, or kidnapping.

7. Observe, for safety and pleasure

Ultimately, you need to play it smart, and be aware of your surroundings. Know what can go wrong, and what you can do within reason in case it does. Be aware of every person around you. Learn about the world by seeing the normal things that people are doing, but also analyze threats in the process.

For me, my most valuable travel experiences were not relaxing vacations with tourist packages or trying fancy foreign restaurants. Instead, it was when I truly got to see how other people lived. Nothing in life has been more enlightening, humbling, or motivating, as seeing others cultures’ hardships, daily challenges or advantages. Respect the world and its various environments, and you will become rich with culture.

Be safe, my friends!

Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has airline experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. He currently runs NYCAviation and performs duties as an aviation expert for the media. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.

About the Author

Phil Derner Jr.
Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has aviation experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. He owns and operates NYCAviation and performs duties as an aviation expert through writing, consulting, public speaking and media appearances. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.



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