You’ve heard it before. You’re thinking about a trip to a destination with a recent (or even long) history of conflict, violence, or criminal activity. You express your concerns on social media and many others who have been there trouble-free respond with, “You’ll be fine! Just be aware of your surroundings.” But do you know what that really means, or what to do if the situation in your surroundings goes sideways? The answer to these questions is often no, which is why it can be really bad advice for traveling safely in high-risk areas.
Fortunately, there are many steps you can take to really develop good situational awareness of your surroundings and prepare yourself for a potentially dangerous situation. Before discussing those, please understand this is not about giving certain destinations a bad name or perpetuating negative stereotypes. This is about risk assessment. For eight years I worked as a military security specialist, and for the last 12 years, I’ve worked as a drug war analyst focusing on violence in Mexico. I’d like to use my background and expertise to help travelers — especially the more vulnerable segment, like women traveling alone and travelers in wheelchairs like me — stay safe while abroad.
Before you can determine if something or someone is out of place, you need to know what “normal” is for your destination. Some of this you can find out through official websites like the US State Department travel page, blog posts, or just talking with other people who have been to your destination. However, the best way to determine patterns of normalcy in a new place is to spend some time there and just observe. This is obviously harder to do if you’re only going to be in a city or other location for a day or two. Yet, you can still observe certain patterns. How do people move about? Are they rushed or walking slowly? Try to pick out the tourists from the locals. Are people talking loudly, or behaving in a more reserved manner?
Once you’ve gotten a feel for the normal pace of things in your surroundings, you’re more likely to be able to pick out what’s not right. Is someone dressed noticeably differently than everyone else, or moving at a very different pace? Has a person been waiting in one place much longer than someone normally would? Is someone acting very agitated, particularly when engaged with a police officer or business owner? Is a delivery truck in an area where such vehicles are prohibited or stopped in a No Parking area for a long time? Remember, you’re looking for people or things (like certain types of vehicles) that don’t fit or belong in a particular place.
If you do find yourself in a situation where your “spidey sense” is tingling and your instincts are telling you something is off, you need to have a plan for what to do. In the security industry, we call this “getting off the X,” or removing yourself from the target area. Are you in a small café or shop with no easy exit? Do you have to navigate through heavy crowds to get to safety? Do you know what the local police look like if you want to report suspicious activity, and is it safe to do so? That sounds like a strange question, but sadly there are many countries in the world where the police are corrupt and working with local criminal groups. You need to do your homework and find out if the local cops at your destination are reliable.
The most important tip of all is to trust your instincts. Often, we underestimate our ability to sense danger, and we ignore all sorts of alarm bells in our heads. As a female wheelchair user who usually travels alone, I’m probably the most vulnerable kind of traveler on the planet! However, I know what my personal limits are, and I’m okay with possibly missing out on something or cutting an activity short if I start to feel uncomfortable. If you’re at a beautiful tourist site or busy shopping area — both huge targets for terrorists and pickpockets alike — it’s easy to get distracted and forget to have that critical situational awareness. If your gut tells you something is wrong, trust it! Be prepared to walk away and head to safety immediately.
The world is a pretty big place, and unfortunately, some of the most beautiful travel destinations are also some of the most dangerous. This shouldn’t automatically deter you from going there, but never accept the advice of “just be aware of your surroundings” as a guarantee of safety. Know what it means to truly be aware of what’s going on around you, and have a plan in place for getting out of a potentially dangerous situation when your instincts kick in. Now you’ll actually be prepared for safer travel!