Traveling to a foreign country, whether with a tour, a local, a friend, a group, or by yourself, introduces some measure of danger or risk to your safety. While all danger can’t be completely avoided, it can be mitigated to some degree by learning ways to avoid it and by being prepared for it.
In self-defense, there is a term called, “Get off the X,” which basically means, don’t be the target, get out of the line of fire, or move to somewhere safe. Unfortunately, traveling to another country already puts us at a disadvantage, and puts us on the “X”. Usually you have limited knowledge of the language, the city layout, and the customs and culture, all of which make you vulnerable. The more foreign you look, the more of a target you are.
Fortunately, there are some things you can do, to travel off the “X”. This is Part 2 of a 5 part series dedicated to traveling off the X.
*Disclaimer, I am in no way guaranteeing safety or validity to the following suggestions. They are just things I have found through research, classes, and experience that could potentially be useful.
If you can afford the nicer hotel in a nicer area, do so, even if it is marginally a step up, it can make the difference. Always ask for two room keys, even if you are staying alone, because it will look like you aren’t to anyone watching or listening, which is a common scam. This means sometimes ordering room service for two, instead of one, just to keep up the ruse. Avoid telling people where you are staying, and if you are being followed or suspect you are, don’t go to your room.
In your room, make sure the windows are shut, and locked. Bring along a door stop alarm and place it under the door, and have a weapon and a flashlight next to you on the bed. If you hear someone rustling your door, yell out something in a strong commanding voice, “Who’s there? I have called the police.”
Spread out your stuff, and hide important items throughout your room. Criminals will typically go fast, and go to where the bulk of your stuff is. You can get creative and bring along some tape to secure your passport up under the bed or desk, or empty shampoo bottles to stash some cash in. If your hotel room has a safe, use it, but also know that 90% of the hotel staff has access to it, though you can also assume the hotel wouldn’t be around long if it is known that their staff are stealing.
If your hotel has multiple stories, aim to stay somewhere between the third and sixth floors. Criminals often target the first two levels because it allows them to complete the job more quickly, and many hotels in foreign countries don’t have strict fire codes, so anything higher than six may inhibit your chance of survival in the case of a fire.
If there is a fire, jump out the window only as a last resort. Many injuries and deaths from a fire, happen because people freaked out, and preemptively jumped out of the window. Know where the exit stairwell is in relation to your room, and count the number of doors to it. If there is a fire, there is a chance the hallway will be filled with smoke, and you will need to crawl to the exit. Typically, if there is an exit sign, it is located high up and will be obscured by the smoke, so knowing how many doors and the direction is useful. If you are crawling stick to the side, because many people will run down the center in a panic. Most people die from smoke inhalation, so avoid smoke, especially thinking you can quickly run through smoke. If the hallway is compromised, stay in your room. Run water from the bath and try and soak the wall in as much water as you can. Soak sheets and press them up against the door, and block cracks to prevent smoke from entering. Make a phone call to emergency responders, which could be non-existent in some countries, so someone knows where you are.
Do your research before booking. The European Union has a list of approved airlines, their safety records, and, more importantly, the banned list. When I last visited Indonesia, I took three flights on banned airlines, and was sweating bullets the entire time. If you Googled these airlines, the first results page would be recent news articles reporting on crashes. They were the only way to get to the places I wanted to go though, so I endured the risk.
Planes are typically built well, and typically don’t crash. In fact, the odds of crashing is like one in a million. But it does happen. Most plane crashes happen within the first three minutes from take-off and the last eight minutes to landing. These are the times you want to be awake, alert, free of obstruction, tighten your seat belt, and when you want to have your shoes on. If the plane is going down, assume the brace position to avoid injuries that will inhibit you from exiting the plane and put the oxygen mask on immediately, even a couple seconds could inhibit your mental faculties.
Most people survive the crash landing, but die from smoke inhalation or fire, because they didn’t get off the plane quickly. If the plane goes down, get off it as quickly as possible, given there isn’t a hazard at the exit. Studies show you only have 90 seconds to get off the plane before probability of death increases dramatically. This is why it is important to sit in or within five rows of the exit row, to study the airplane safety card, to know where all the exits are, and to avoid panicking or freezing up. Don’t stop to help people. This is a common mistake. You may think you are helping, but you are actually getting in the way of people getting off the plane. The goal is to get as many people out in 90 seconds, and if you get out, then you are one less person in the way of someone else getting out. Obviously, this is a judgement call, and if you can help, do so, or if you have loved ones with you, definitely do what you need to do to help. This also means that the more fit and mobile you are, the more likely you are to survive. Don’t try to get your stuff, just exit.
Watch your stuff while on the plane. I always put my carry-on luggage in a compartment in front of me and across the aisle, so that way whenever someone opens it, I can see my bag and them. I usually lock it, and make sure that my valuables are with me. If I have a bag with me at my seat, I always lock it or bring it with me when I go to the restroom, or at least take important items, like my passport or money, with me. If something is stolen, ask people around you, the person that is the quietest or least helpful, is typically the guilty person.
Taxi cabs are often a necessary risk in traveling, but there are some things you can do to help prevent dangerous situations. A common taxi cab scam is when either an unregistered or masquerading or even a legitimate taxi cab driver will take you far out into a secluded area and either rob, mug, and potentially rape you, or demand a high fee to take you back into civilization. They may also attempt to kidnap you, and demand you to drain your account to be released. To help avoid this scenario, research ahead of time what taxi companies are reputable and how to tell a fake cab from a real one. Always use official taxi lines, and don’t accept rides from strangers approaching you. Always try to get your hotel to call a cab for you, or use their driver. Don’t share a cab with someone, even if they look nice and harmless. Some scammers work with foreigners to lower your guard. Don’t get into a cab if there is someone already in it, this person may be working with the driver. Don’t get into a cab if the back doesn’t have door handles on the inside. Always have a map, or route description for the driver and keep track of where they are. If you feel like they are not going the right way, demand that you be released immediately and do whatever you need to do to ensure you are released.
Another common taxi cab scam, is when they tell you certain places are closed, and offer to take you somewhere else. Don’t believe them. Every time I have ever been told a place is closed, or no longer existed, they have been lying. I’m not saying that it isn’t possible that they are telling the truth, and that they are being helpful, but tread lightly. They usually do this because they get commission at some sites if they take you.
Always agree on a price first, or make sure they put the meter on. If you can get an idea beforehand through a guide book, a local, or your hotel, of how much the ride should cost first, that will help you know whether they are trying to scam you on the price.
Now that you have completed Part 2 of the “Traveling Off the X” series, please go on to Traveling Off the X – Part 3, where you will learn about getting out of potentially bad situations, keeping your faculties, and defending yourself.
“As I’m buckling my seat belt, I automatically think about what I’ll do if there’s a crisis. But I’m not a nervous or pessimistic person. Really. If anything, I’m annoyingly upbeat, at least according to the experts. I tend to expect things will turn out well and they usually do. My optimism and confidence come not from feeling I’m luckier than other mortals, and they sure don’t come from visualizing victory. They’re the result of a lifetime spent visualizing defeat and figuring out how to prevent it. Like most astronauts, I’m pretty sure that I can deal with what life throws at me because I’ve thought about what to do if things go wrong, as well as right. That’s the power of negative thinking.” – Chris Hadfield, An Astronauts Guide to Life on Earth