It used to be that you could get away to the boulevards of Paris or the beaches of Thailand without thinking twice about your safety. But anyone traveling for the holidays this year faces the fresh memories of the terrorist attacks in Paris and the deadly mass shooting in San Bernardino, California — and the U.S. State Department's ongoing Worldwide Travel Alert predicting that "the likelihood of terror attacks will continue" and advising U.S. citizens to "exercise vigilance when in public places or using transportation." The alert remains in effect until Feb. 24, encompassing a period when a record 100 million-plus Americans will travel more than 50 miles from home by road, air, rail and sea during the 17-day year-end holidays, according to AAA-compiled data.
So what's a traveler to do? Two veteran security experts with counterterrorism and law enforcement experience, Gregory Boles in L.A. and Arturo Mendez in New York, both with Kroll, the global leader in risk mitigation, gave us tips for remaining safe while traveling for these holidays. Some may sound familiar, but good advice bears repeating if it keeps you safe.
1. Stay informed.
Scan travel alerts, warnings, and restrictions. For domestic road trips, go to the website of the relevant state transportation department. For international air travel, read the alerts page of the State Department and its counterpart in your destination country, such as the U.K.'s Foreign Office. Stay tuned to radio and TV for news of unexpected disruptions and violence. Boles notes that additional security screening at airports these days often causes longer delays than before, so budget even more time for check-in. Check Twitter updates from the Transportation Security Administration.
2. Plan ahead.
Keep the contact information of the local U.S. consulates and airline offices with you so that you can call, text, or email them if you find yourself in or near a terrorist strike or other violence. If such a circumstance forces you to flee quickly, you don't want a heavy bag impeding your exit, so pack light, says Boles. In your small carry-on bag, "keep an extra outfit and your medication," Mendez says, in case your main bag is lost or stolen or you're in an incident you must flee and you can't access your main bag. Bring an iPad or other tablet that you can stow unobtrusively in a backpack or handbag as a backup to your phone to keep you informed and in touch if you're caught in an attack.
3. Buy travel and emergency medical insurance.
In a violent strike, you might need to be evacuated quickly or you could be injured. Insurance will help you cover the cost of both. If you're injured in an attack on U.S. soil, your own health insurance should defray medical costs. Foreign travel is a different story, and that's where emergency medical insurance is essential. You'll be able to use one provider for both travel insurance and medical coverage. Insurance experts say it's best to buy such coverage early, say, when you buy your ticket, to make sure you get the features you need. Look specifically for a plan that reimburses your costs in case you have to cancel due to terrorism. Try these sources for advice and information on plans and providers: The Centers for Disease Control, Consumer Reports, and Frommer's.
4. At the airport or train station, stay alert.
In the new normal, people with vile intentions commonly target transportation hubs for acts of violence that can affect a lot of people at once. So keep your eyes peeled and keep a low profile, says Mendez. You can no longer cavalierly disregard the old saw about saying something if you see something: A bag left unattended (or one that someone else asks you to carry on for them) needs to be reported. Look around and locate exits, bathrooms, and police in case you need to run to a more secure location and need help. If you are going to meet a party, make sure it's in a secure area where there's access control, some security present, and a lot of activity. Don't stand next to a pile of bags or a waste container because these are places where terrorists have been known to stash explosives. And you don't want to be anywhere near hiding places that could go boom.