Michael J. Kelly is CEO of On Call International, which for nearly 20 years, has provided fully customized travel assistance plans protecting millions of travelers, their families and the companies they work for. www.oncallinternational.com
Traveling outside of the United States nowadays requires a great deal of planning and forethought. Whether your group is small or large, these 10 valuable points will help ensure a safe and successful journey.
1. Always carry an IDP. According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), International Driving Permits (IDPs) are valid in more than 150 countries and can be necessary if you plan to drive during your travels, since many countries do not recognize U.S. driver’s licenses. Note that applicants must be at least 18 years of age, present two passport-sized photographs and a valid U.S. driver’s license to avoid any hassles. An IDP from AAA or the National Automobile Club costs approximately $15 and can be paid by check, money order or major credit card. While traveling, I recommend keeping the IDP in a safe place as sometimes it can be just as valuable as your passport.
2. Protect your passport. Your passport is the most important document to pack when traveling overseas. I suggest having a few copies in different places. I always keep a copy in my overseas suitcase and with my family members at home. I also have a picture of it stored in my phone for emergency purposes. Make sure you have your destination’s U.S. embassy contact information on hand just in case your passport is lost or stolen. Having a travel assistance membership also can help. For example, On Call International assists with lost and stolen documents, which can aid in the passport retrieval process.
3. Enroll in STEP. In addition to sharing your itinerary with a trusted friend and/or family member, don’t forget to register your trip with the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) if you’ll be traveling out of the country. It only takes a few minutes to fill out the online form, and you’ll not only automatically receive timely updates on travel alerts, but the information you enter (including your emergency contacts) can help the embassy or consulate locate you in the event of an emergency.
4. Protect your luggage. While you can use a normal lock for your suitcase, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has the right to cut it off if they need to inspect it. Consider investing in TSA-approved luggage locks, which are sold in airports and retail stores nationwide. That way, you still have a lock after the inspection because TSA officials use a universal master key to open it (they are also required to leave you a note before re-locking it). Also, make sure your luggage is properly identified with your contact information including full name, current address and phone number. Because black luggage is most common in the airport, it is important to have a key distinguishing feature on your suitcase, whether it be the stitching, a ribbon or just a different color or print. I recommend taking a quick photo with your smartphone of your items such as luggage, purse, etc., so you can easily show these to others in the event you misplace them or they go missing. If you misplace your bags in the airport, the first thing you should do is report it missing to a TSA official and your airline. Next, if you have On Call International’s services or those of another travel assistance company, notify them immediately so they can start hunting it down with your airline while you continue your travels. Do not miss your flight if you still can’t find your bags. Your stuff can always get on the flight, although you may not be able to.
5. Understand the risks. Different places require different levels of precaution. For example, Western women traveling to some parts of India have reported incidents of verbal and physical harassment by groups of men in crowded locations such as market places, train stations, buses and public streets. And some large cities in India such as Delhi experience the highest number of crimes against women. Before your next trip, check out the Department of State’s Country Specific Information page for trustworthy guidance regarding the security landscape of your destination. Having a good handle on the security nuances of your destination can go a long way in preventing potential security mishaps from occurring on your trip.
6. Develop cultural awareness. An important part of traveling abroad is paying close (and sensitive) attention to a country’s culture. For example, consider learning some important key words and phrases in the country’s language, such as “please,” “thank you” and “help me.” Google Translator is a great site to reference. They even have a mobile app that you can download and use on the fly. In addition to the language, learn anything and everything you can about the country’s cultural norms, values and customs. This can include dress codes, local attitudes toward women, appropriate (and inappropriate) hand gestures, views on timeliness, limitations of local law enforcement and more. In addition to your trusted information sources, CultureCrossing.net is a great place to go for cultural information on commonly visited countries around the world.
7. Be street smart. Pickpockets are very common in all parts of the world. Unfortunately, pickpockets can happen in any large crowd environment. I suggest that women wear cross-body bags to have more control of their belongings, and men put a rubber band around their wallet to create resistance against their pants while sightseeing or navigating crowded public venues. Limit fancy jewelry or handbags and follow the local cultural standards so you blend in and are less of a target. Pickpockets are often well trained, so keep an eye on your personal belongings at all times.
8. Keep a closed-door policy. Most hotels will be filled to capacity and guests should expect constant foot traffic in and out of hotels. Think of your room as your home, and if someone is knocking on the door, make sure to ask the individual on the other end why they need to come in. If you didn’t request a hotel bellhop to bring up towels or shampoo, it’s best to stay safe and communicate via phone or through the door. Don’t open your hotel door to so-called “room inspectors” who will swipe a valuable or two as they pretend to check the quality of housekeeping. When leaving your room for the day, keep your hotel key with you, instead of at the front desk, and leave the do-not-disturb sign on your door so your room appears occupied.
9. Mix up your money. While credit cards are useful when visiting any foreign destination, it’s also beneficial to have some currency from the place you are visiting. Don’t use an ATM machine if someone is standing around you. Make sure to watch out for suspicious cameras meant to record your movements and/or the keyboard as you enter a PIN. Don’t keep all your valuables in one place. In the event something gets stolen, you should have some extra cash or credit cards stored in the hotel safe or another secret, secure place. Credit card companies can provide travelers with a new card very quickly; be sure to check which cards have the best policies before heading abroad. Travel assistance companies also can assist travelers with credit card replacement and obtaining emergency funds in the event a wallet or purse is lost or stolen.
10. Get covered. Travel assistance companies provide proactive travel assistance to prepare for travels abroad before travelers leave home. On Call International also provides assistance for travelers who may experience emergencies of all kinds, including emergency medical evacuations back home or to a safe and qualified local hospital, access to a 24-hour nurse helpline, security assistance including political and natural disaster evacuation, as well as worldwide legal assistance, translation and interpreter assistance, and help with lost or stolen travel documents and credit cards. C&IT