It's summertime, the living is easy and many of us have plans to unplug, unwind, get away and travel to that perfect vacation destination of our choice. While relaxation and fun are certainly at the top of the agenda, personal safety is an important part of that.
"In most cases very few people do adequate research of their [vacation destination], because lets say in the United States they are thinking well what could happen here?" Fred Burton of Stratfor, a publisher of global intelligence and analysis told CNN in a phone interview. "Its just important to do research as to whether or not you are traveling to New Orleans as it is in traveling to Mumbai."
Burton should know. He used to travel the world for the U.S. State Department as a special agent in counterterrorism. He orchestrated the arrest of Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind behind the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, and investigated the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Al Qaeda's New York City bombing plots prior to 9/11, as well attacks against diplomats in Yemen and Sudan. He currently serves as vice president of intelligence at Stratfor, and spoke with CNN to discuss some tips on how to stay safe while you travel.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Before you depart, a small amount of research about your destination is important Burton says.
If you are traveling overseas, check the State Department website and read about the country you are visiting. The site usually has "wonderful information on safety, crime, violence, terrorism as well as medical," Burton said. "I've seen over the years a lot of people fail to recognize the medical vulnerabilities in some of these countries," before they travel, and end up getting sick during their vacation.
The same holds true if you are traveling within the United States. Burton recommends researching the town you are traveling to with an eye towards local crime that maybe reported on local news websites in the area or on the website of the local police department. "Most people don't do this simply because of either lack of knowledge or lack of situational awareness," and could save themselves from any unnecessary trouble he said.
ESSENTIALS FOR YOUR SUITCASE
Along with all your sunscreen, sandals, iPod and books for the beach that you have packed away, he suggests a few other items that could come in handy.
A must according to Burton is a small portable high-end flashlight that can also be deployed as a weapon if needed to strike or blind an assailant at night, in addition to keeping things illuminated in the event of a power outage, or guiding you through the stairwells of your hotel in the event of an emergency.
Paracord is another helpful multi-use item that can help tie things off if you are strapping luggage to a car, serve as a tourniquet, or even help to lower someone off a balcony at your hotel in the event of an emergency.
"I also always carry a small high-end knife," that you can clip to your pants Burton said. It can be used for everything from cutting fruits and vegetables as you travel, to cutting a seat-belt if you are involved in an accident.
Burton also recommends bringing some type of rescue belt which he says is popular with the U.S. Forest Service, and backpackers for its multi-use capabilities, as well as making sure you have a good first aid kit that includes Epipen that can be used to treat life-threatening allergic reactions caused by insect bites, foods and other causes. A quick discussion with your doctor before you go is always a good thing he says.
SITUATIONAL AWARENESS OF YOUR LOCATION
If you are traveling overseas and staying in a hotel, you want to "minimize the time hanging around in the lobby, and hanging around in the hotel bar," Burton said depending on what country you are in, and correlate that with the research you did before you left.
For both domestic and international travel, Burton says it is important to make sure you have a functional lock on your door that is not unsecure in any way, as well as making sure you have fire sprinklers or extinguishers nearby.
If you are staying in a high-rise hotel, Burton recommends staying on a lower level floor in a room with a balcony that allows an additional way of escape in emergency situations.
"If I have a balcony, I make sure that I take a peak out to see what it looks like below me, and what is around me," he said. "And then I grab my flashlight and the first thing I do is take a walk from my room to the fire exit, make sure it works, make sure it is clear of obstruction, and I walk that route literally outside to the street to show me where it is going to dump out into," because such exits are occasionally not what they are supposed to be, especially in overseas locations.
"HIDE IN PLAIN SIGHT"
"In the course of your research you should have a good understanding of culture and location," Burton says in order to blend into the local environment as best you can to avoid sticking out and drawing attention. "I'm still amazed after all the years in this business how many people look like tourists wherever I go," which is especially critical when you travel abroad he said.
As you are out walking around, you never want to keep all of your cash and credit cards in one wallet in the event of robbery he says. "I always carry a throw down wallet which is a wallet that is old, and I stick a very visible twenty dollar bill in it so if you are robbed on the street, you can hand that to your bad guy, and yet you still have your other cash and credit cards in another pocket."
BE PREPARED FOR UNFORESEEN EVENTS
Events beyond your control do sometimes happen. Hotels in particular have become the target of terrorists in places like Mumbai, Jakarta and elsewhere in the world. Burton says there are steps you can take to minimize threats to your personal safety.
For international travelers, Burton recommends you register your travel with the State Department so that the respective embassy or consulate closest to your destination knows your itinerary. "They are working behind the scenes to already help you even though you don't know it. They are making arrangements to send either a foreign service national security officer or consular officer to attempt to locate you if you are at a hotel," that has been attacked he said.
If you are in a hotel that has been attacked, it is important to think of the basics by hunkering down and making sure your locks work, along with monitoring radio and television news reports if possible. If you have a telephone, make sure you have the number for the U.S. embassy or consulate closest to you, as well as a relative or friend back home with knowledge of your itinerary.
Familiarity with all the exit routes available to you from the hotel is also important.
Preparation is the best route to a stress-free and enjoyable vacation
While you don't want personal safety concerns to drive every aspect of where your vacation destination decision, Burton says a little bit of preparation beforehand goes a long way regardless of where your travels take you. "The name of the game is research and preparation prior, situational awareness while you are there, which will enable you to have fun."
Happy and safe travels to all!