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5 Steps to Stay Safe in Unstable Foreign Countries

Former attorney Elizabeth Avery has visited 54 countries in the past 25-plus years. During her international travel, she's experienced plenty of slippery situations, from run-ins with pickpockets to near misses with low-grade civil wars, deadly wildlife and medical quarantine zones. 

"Travelers can unwittingly find themselves in threatening situations, even in relatively safe countries," says Avery, who currently resides in Washington, D.C., and is founder and president of Solo Trekker 4 U, an Internet company that connects those traveling alone for business or leisure with luxury hotels and top tours.

If an international traveler has his wallet pick-pocked while in a high-crime city in a foreign country, he could have a friend or family member send a cash money transfer via a trusted online foreign exchange service like Western Union. Using a provider that offers a wide-variety of currencies can come in handy if an emergency strikes in a country with a currency that is hard to access from other foreign exchange providers.

It’s important to note that risks often are restricted to certain cities, towns or regions that can be easily avoided.

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The following suggestions can help travelers stay confident and safe while working abroad.

1. Research Potential Risks

The U.S. State Department is a good first stop, as it publishes international travel information on virtually every country in the world. It provides travel warnings, which advise about more serious long-term conflicts like unstable governments and civil wars, and issues alerts for short-term events that may pose a risk, such as unstable national elections or health outbreaks. 

2. Find a Local Travel Guide

Travelers should find a vetted local travel guide who speaks the language and understands the culture, Avery says, like an independent concierge or tour operator who can act as an interpreter and leverage their local relationships in the event of an emergency. Travelers working abroad who lack local contacts can establish them with the help of their hotel who can help arrange tours, taxis and guides because they have an established vetted relationship, says Warren Chang, vice president and general manager of airfare search engine 

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3. Pack Smart

Along with locating local assistance, Avery recommends dividing money and credit cards between multiple suitcases so pickpockets and thieves can't steal all the money at once.

Michael J. Kelly, CEO of medical, travel and security assistance company On Call International, recommends making multiple photocopies of important travel documents like a passport, visa and itinerary. Individuals can also leave the originals secured in the hotel room safe and additional copies in their luggage.

4. Stay in Touch

Anyone who's visiting a high-risk destination should pre-arrange regular communications with someone at home, either by phone, text, email or Skype. Chang also suggests bringing a pre-paid satellite phone for reliable mobile coverage in unreliable areas. If the traveler misses her check-in appointment, the contact at home will know that something is wrong and be able to alert authorities.

For the same reason, it's important to communicate and inform the U.S. State Department of travel plans via the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, Chang says.

5. Be Vigilant

Finally, it's always important for international travelers to be aware of their surroundings and avoid walking in remote areas. "If you find yourself on a dark street at night in a remote city and a problem occurs, there's nothing better than a nice, shrill whistle," says Avery, who always carries a sailing whistle on her keychain when traveling.

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