Travel security: playing it safe

When travelling internationally, be sure to check to see if you require a visa. Even if you don’t plan on leaving the airport, a visa can be required for your layover. (Photo: © Anna Penigina |

When travelling internationally, be sure to check to see if you require a visa. Even if you don’t plan on leaving the airport, a visa can be required for your layover. (Photo: © Anna Penigina |

The thrill of travel far outweighs the risks for most common destinations — given their huge influx of tourists each year. Forget the lure of the safe backyard barbecue and Sunday drives. For the restless, the curious and for the adventurous, there is no substitute for seeing and doing afar and coming home with a broader mind and irreplaceable memories.
Often, basic alertness to your surroundings is a fine protection against crime. Many holidays abroad carry the possibility of low-level offences, such as petty theft or minor assault; however, some locations have more dangerous situations, which can change drastically and suddenly, depending on the country’s social and political climate.

The Government of Canada’s regularly updated travel advisory page offers a country-by-country search or map view of threat ratings. As of the date of publication, 10 countries are red-flagged as “avoid all travel” ( In addition, approximately 100 require high degrees of caution. Of these, several are popular tourist destinations at which people by the millions still manage to have wonderful, safe holidays: Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Saint Lucia, Dominican Republic, Thailand and Peru.

Diplomat Robert Fowler was kidnapped in Niger and held captive for more than four months. (Photo: Facebook/Young Diplomats of Canada)

Diplomat Robert Fowler was kidnapped in Niger and held captive for more than four months. (Photo: Facebook/Young Diplomats of Canada)

Beyond obvious safeguards:
• Ensure your purse or wallet is secure and positioned to avoid pickpocketing;
• Put a small amount of cash or change in your pocket to avoid cracking open your wallet for small purchases;
• Don’t wear/bring expensive-looking jewelry or purses;
• Depending on the culture, don’t look directly into strangers’ eyes;
• Use a heavy-duty luggage lock to protect against theft (more as a deterrent than actual prevention method.) The alternative is having your suitcase wrapped in cellophane at the airport;
• Be aware of your surroundings when using an automated banking machine. Try to avoid using machines that are directly on a street, especially in the evening.

At all three stages of travel — prior to departure, while travelling, and upon return — simple precautions take little effort and offer a high return on that minor investment.

Before you go
Plan with one eye to the news: Familiarize yourself with recent and upcoming events and political or social changes at your destination. Monitor online media for updated information. For example, this summer, visitors to the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games will descend on Toronto. This en masse arrival will create crowds, transportation delays and city-wide disruptions. This, in turn, can affect rates of related crimes, such as pickpocketing, assault and unruly gatherings. While these games are highly publicized in Canada and the Americas, overseas tourists may arrive here to a big surprise.
In less stable countries and economies, federal elections may trigger violence or riots. Also, national holidays may impact provision of reliable transportation, health care and other critical services for travellers.

Certain places in South Africa, such as this one on the N4 near Witbank, feature signs warning of vehicle hijackings. (Photo: Zakysant )

Certain places in South Africa, such as this one on the N4 near Witbank, feature signs warning of vehicle hijackings. (Photo: Zakysant )

Immunizations and medicine
Once the destination and timing are set, research your destination with respect to medical immunization and travel requirements. Certain yellow fever-prone areas, including South America and sub-Saharan Africa, require travellers to carry their yellow immunization card with them. Frequently, malaria-prevention medicine is also recommended for the same areas.
Photocopy your medical prescriptions and pack medications together in clearly labelled bottles. Travelling with Ziploc bags full of unlabelled and mixed medication, so tempting when packing in a rush, can result in confiscation, uncomfortable questioning in windowless rooms, or imprisonment. In Malaysia and Singapore, airports are full of signs providing explicit warnings relating to illicit drugs (or drugs suspected of being illicit). And as countries such as these practise capital punishment, come prepared with small amounts of clearly labelled and document-supported medication.

Documentation and emergency contents
In addition to obtaining required visas, taking digital photos of all trip documentation — such as itineraries and booking confirmations — ensure that someone is aware of your travel plans. In truly unstable or dangerous environments, arrange phone check-ins with this person at the same time each day. This guarantees that — in the event of a debilitating health or security problem — tracking, recovery or investigation can start within 24 hours of the incident. It also helps embassy or police staff establish a timeline.

Take photos of the valuable items you put in the hotel safe before you lock it.  (Photo: © Berlinfoto |

Take photos of the valuable items you put in the hotel safe before you lock it. (Photo: © Berlinfoto |

Research your airline
When booking airline travel, especially to an African or Asian destination, confirm that the airline is not on any banned lists. The European Commission tracks this information (, as do other countries and associations. An often-overlooked element is the layover destination. In terms of practicality, confirm if a visa is needed for your layover. Even if you don’t plan on leaving the airport, in many cases, a transit visa is required.
Some airlines also make unannounced stops in higher-risk areas, either to board additional passengers or to refuel. A friend was recently on an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Toronto to Harare, which was billed as having only one layover, but it stopped in Addis Ababa and then made a second landing in Rome without that information being pre-announced. Once boarded, travellers have no power to refuse to go to this destination, regardless of its safety or security situation.

While travelling
Are we there yet? The highest vulnerability point of a trip comes when you’re in transit. Airports, offices, hotels, tourist destinations, shopping areas and national parks all offer some form of security. It may be police, private security companies or the informal security offered by a crowd — after all, there is safety in numbers. When travelling between two points, people have a handful of options: public transportation, taxi, walking, a driver (usually for business travel), or unlicensed cab. Locals generally know the safest way to travel and many will provide this advice freely.
The onus still rests on the traveller to inquire about the best option; often front desk staff at reputable hotels will offer guidance. But as we’re in the middle of the Airbnb revolution (Airbnb is a global, independent person-to-person lodging rental company), accommodations are no longer always in recognized international hotels. But don’t let that stop you from walking into the local Hilton or Shangri-La lobby to ask for their advice on safe transit methods. Alternatively, ask your Airbnb host.
In South Africa, for example, public transportation is operated by mini buses or extended cab vans that are hailed by showing a number of fingers, each one indicating a different destination. These vans, packed with passengers, are driven incredibly recklessly and are involved in numerous accidents and countless near-misses. More attention seems to be paid to the stickers adorning these vehicles (the Transformers toy and movie franchise seems to be the most popular at the moment) than to the lines painted on the road or the requirement to look forward while driving. Therefore, public transportation is effectively not an option.
Inconveniently, most South African taxi companies are also seen as unsafe — but more for personal security reasons than safety. That leaves you with a self-drive option or using a designated driver or chauffeur company. Narrowing your
options even further, self-driving in South Africa is also not recommended for people who are unaware of the dangerous parts of the country’s roadway system. Certain intersections are plastered with signs warning against vehicle hijackings, where thieves use spark plugs to shatter windows as you slow for a required stop or yield sign.
Driving in Chile offered a fast lesson in knowing the political situation on the street — literally. Unaware of the massive student protests going on, I was caught up in a large and uncontrolled crowd at dusk. Trying to evade the throng, I took several unfamiliar turns and ended up in a dark industrial area. With a slight language barrier, lack of a GPS and map, it took more than an hour of white-knuckle driving and asking for directions before I was able to return home without coming up against the protest.

Kidnapping: statistics and avoidance
Kidnapping is another risk encountered almost exclusively while in transit, and is categorized as a higher-impact, lower-likelihood security threat. Often financially motivated, it can also be ideological (in the case of the latter, outcomes are not as optimistic). Financial kidnappers may telephone their demand for payment in exchange for the victim’s safe return, or they may ask the victim to withdraw money from an automatic banking machine, usually at the daily withdrawal limit.
Kidnapping may be a crime of convenience (intercepting a person as they leave a bank) or a highly planned act. Adjusting your daily routine and route, even if by 10 minutes, is a useful foil.
Statistics on kidnapping rates by country are available online, including on the  Australian government’s Smart Traveller website (

Handling hotel risks
Temporary lodging, often hotels, has its own set of risks. Unlike kidnapping, hotels are classed as being higher-likelihood and lower-impact for risks usually involving theft, armed robbery, breaking and entering or assault. Several simple precautions at the time of booking or check-in will reduce those risks. First, avoid the ground floor of a hotel as it’s more likely that non-hotel guests will have access to this area. Second, travel with a small rubber doorstop. As many hotel employees have universal room keys (which can also be taken from them and used by non-employees to gain access), a chain lock and doorstop can provide additional safety measures that are controlled solely from the inside of the room.
Last comes the endless debate over the room safe: to use it or not to use it? I use it, despite the fact that some can be picked up and carried out of the room or opened with a master key or simple tools. Many hotels have an insurance policy that covers contents of a safe, but not items stealthily stashed around the room. Also, hotels don’t have many quality hiding spots. Put valuable items in the safe and take a photo documenting what’s there before you lock it. The real question becomes: what is safer — the hotel room or carrying valuable items (jewelry, passport) with you for the day?
Another simple precaution: Limit the number of people coming in and out of your room, especially in hotels that do not inspire a sense of confidence. For example, room-cleaning service is not truly needed daily and can be limited to every few days. This has the added benefit of being the environmentally friendly option. Hang the Do-Not-Disturb sign outside your room. You can also request cleaning at a specific time when you’re still in the room.
When travelling, I am perpetually amazed by the careless way people treat their private information. Never is this more obvious than during check-in at a hotel. The complete strangers waiting in line behind you could be a captive audience to your conversation with the check-in clerk. Would you announce your home address to these people? If not, perhaps ask the clerk to simply hand you the hotel room card and envelope with the room number written on it instead of loudly and clearly enunciating this information. I’m most keenly aware of this when travelling alone.

Female travellers
Feminist or not, the discussion of women travelling alone is an important one and touches on a basic dissimilarity between men and women: the perceived difference in strength and defensive abilities between the genders. Maybe you took martial arts, are a professional boxer and carry mace or brass knuckles. (Note: Avoid carrying any weapon that could feasibly be taken from you and subsequently used against you by an assailant.) However, even a woman with solid self-defence skills is perceived as being more defenceless than a man, and therefore is more likely to be targeted. Also, worldwide cultural views of women differ. In Canada, we can expect to be seen as equals in (almost) all aspects of our lives, but this is not the case globally. Many countries have fewer laws and cultural prohibitions against assaulting women, either verbally, physically or sexually.
While in university, I visited London, England, with several girlfriends as part of a multi-stop European tour. After dinner one evening, while walking along a busy street, we were told by several men that a better route to our destination was on a side street. Thinking it was as populated, well-lit and busy as the road we were on, we took the advice. After a few minutes, we noticed that the people who had given us the advice had split into two groups, one walking in front of us and one walking behind. Bending to tie my shoe and see how the latter group responded, I noticed that they hung back rather than pass us. We stopped walking and, silently
signalling one another with raised eyebrows and eye movements, we ducked into the nearest restaurant and phoned a taxi.
Intuition plays a large role in staying safe, as do simple tests of your environment. If someone seems to be following you, take a few unusual turns to test that theory. Placid acceptance of a situation that “feels wrong,” based on the desire not to behave in an unusual manner or draw attention to oneself can be dangerous.

Police perils
Approaching local police in London would also have been a good alternative, as London has a similar public security structure to Canada’s and police there have a good reputation. However, in higher-risk countries, police can pose as much of a threat as the criminals. Where the rule of law is lax, police may use their position of power to detain vulnerable people, extort bribes or assault individuals with impunity. In these situations, it becomes a case-by-case judgment call: If an alternative exists that provides a reasonable expectation of safety, it may be better to avoid involving the police, and instead rely on informal protections — crowds, busy tourist attractions, or large, busy hotels and restaurants.
Several years ago, while driving south from San Diego towards Rosarito in Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula on a family vacation, we crossed the border into Mexico. Unlike the incredibly busy and strict border crossing that heads into the U.S., the Mexican border control was, at the time, non-existent, except for a welcome sign. We sailed through, past a sign advising drivers about car insurance.
Very soon, we were pulled over by a police officer who asked us to produce rental car insurance papers for Mexico. We didn’t know rental car agreements in the U.S. did not include insurance across the border. A well-established performance ensued: This officer proceeded to “call his superior officer.” A fellow officer arrived moments later on a motorcycle. Listening gravely to the first officer’s report, he assured us that he didn’t want to confiscate the car and hold us overnight in a Tijuana prison. The only way to avoid this was to pay a fine on the spot. The police officer stuck his head right inside the driver’s window, reached in, and took all of our cash.
He then guaranteed our immunity from further pursuit by the law by making a note in the system that we were not to be stopped again. Not reassured by this, we said we were returning immediately to the U.S. and meekly requested a $20 bill back in order to pay for water and gas before getting in the two-hour lineup to return to the U.S. We ended our short-lived Mexican holiday with a police motorcycle escort, complete with flashing lights, to the U.S. border.

After the trip
If you don’t feel well upon your return, take action. For example, after visiting a tropical location, especially where there is malaria or yellow-fever, if you have flu symptoms or other malaise, such as digestive problems, act on them. Malaria test kits (for home use) are sold in many destinations and are a useful thing to have at home upon return. Symptoms can be delayed. If your doctor isn’t taking your recent travel into account and is dismissing the illness as minor, you can insist on additional tests or consult a travel medicine specialist.
Check bank statements regularly for several months after your trip to ensure that you were not defrauded while travelling and that no unusual charges have appeared on your account. Banks will often flag international expenses and call you to confirm that you are travelling. You can avoid unlawful post-vacation charges by advising your bank and credit card provider of your travel return date.
International travel, especially to unusual destinations, is one of life’s great joys. Some degree of culture shock often produces the most memorable trips. Calculate risk in these journeys, and then travel wholeheartedly. Just prepare for the destination you’re visiting, and go there with eyes wide open.

Jessie Reynolds O’Neil lives in Toronto, and worked for four years as the senior security analyst for Barrick Gold Corp. She trained employees on security for international travel, and currently provides contract services relating to security, investigations, international industry software systems, data analytics and legal ethics and compliance programs. She travels whenever she can.

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Jessie Reynolds O’Neil lives in Toronto, and worked for four years as the senior security analyst for Barrick Gold Corp. She trained employees on security for international travel, and currently provides contract services relating to security, investigations, international industry software systems, data analytics and legal ethics and compliance programs. She travels whenever she can.

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