If you’ve recently considered going on an overseas vacation, you’re probably scared out of your mind. There’s a constant bombardment of news talking about the new threat, the bad Mexican liquor. While bad liquor is the biggest issue today, it’s not the only threat. In fact, it’s not the biggest part of the problem.
What’s more troubling is the consequences. Many are finding out just how difficult it can be to handle medical and financial situations once the initial threat has passed.
In the video below, Heidi and Corey Sorrem share their experience with tainted alcohol in Mexico. And the problem isn’t unique to Mexico or alcohol. I’ve shared my experience with a fellow American who let down his guard while traveling here in Colombia. He was drugged and robbed by two innocent-looking young ladies.
Travel can excite, relax, and enlighten. But it can also be dangerous.
Often, it’s not the initial threat that causes the biggest problems. What do you do when you’ve been robbed? Who do you contact if you’re sick? How do you contact anyone when you have nothing left?
When all you want is to get home safely, how do you make that happen?
You may be familiar with the 5 Ps: Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance
In this case, proper planning can be a lifesaver.
So here are my 5 steps to a safe vacation
Consider going somewhere that you speak the native language
A foreign language can make a trip seem more exotic. But it can also cause stress and potentially increase risks.
A few years back, I stayed in a hotel in Baños, Ecuador. As I sat recovering from a long hike, the owner of the hotel came up and asked me if I could translate for a doctor. I agreed and was escorted to a room where two American women were sitting with a doctor. One of the women had eaten something that didn’t sit well with her. The situation turned out to be a simple issue, but the doctor spoke no English and the women spoke no Spanish. She could have been in big trouble if it were something severe.
If you’re reading this, you speak English. The great news is that there are all sorts of fantastic tourist destinations where English is spoken. If you’re looking for that Caribbean vacation, consider Belize, Jamaica, or St. Kitts and Nevis.
Even if English is not the dominant language, many countries like the Philipines use English regularly.
Connect with expats before you go
Chances are, anywhere you go for a short vacation will have an expat community. These people are happy to help out and give you suggestions on where to go and what to do. More importantly, they can help you navigate the systems if problems arise.
Every country has its own laws, customs, traditions, and standards. These are a part of the draw of visiting a foreign country. But they can also be a risk if you need to navigate them in an emergency.
Further complicating the matter is that neither you nor the locals understand the differences. What seems absurd to you will be natural to the natives, so they are unlikely to fill you in on any potential problems you may encounter. By finding someone who knows both cultures, you have a much better chance of navigating the regulatory and cultural hurdles before they become overwhelming.
In November 2016, I co-organized a WordCamp in Medellin. One of the things I did was to work out a discount with a local hotel for our speakers and attendees. During the event, one of our guests who flew in from Peru came down with the flu and needed a doctor. He was blown away to find out that there was no charge for the in-room doctor visit because it was covered by the hotel’s health insurance.
Little things like that can keep a minor issue from turning into a complete disaster. And it’s local knowledge that can guide you properly. Don’t expect your travel agent or the newest website to know these things.
You don’t need to be attending a conference to benefit from local knowledge. Technology has made these connections more viable than ever.
Facebook is a great way to find expat groups. Here in the Medellin area, there are so many that I can’t keep up with them all. There’s “Colombians and Expats of Medellin”, “GringoPaisa”, “Medellin Rooms, Apartments and Expat Info”, and many more. I’m also a member of expat groups for places I’ve never been, such as Peru and Chile.
These groups are filled with people who live in these places. By joining these groups before you visit a country, you can get some great 1st hand knowledge and be better prepared for your trip.
Although Facebook is the social platform that I use for my travel research, feel free to check your preferred platform for similar groups.
If you’re staying at a fancy resort, this may not help. But if you are just traveling, you can look for American hosts on websites like Airbnb. Depending on your situation, you may simply rent a room in a home or an entire home. In my experience, the hosts have always gone out of their way to provide great advice and can serve as an emergency contact if something goes wrong.
Keep people informed of vacation plans
Let me be the first to admit that I have never followed this advice myself. I’ve probably visited half a dozen countries without notifying anyone.
Now that I have a family, things are going to have to change. My days of bouncing from country to country without so much as an internet connection are over.
About a year ago, a young woman went missing here in Colombia. Her family was worried sick and her mother even flew to Colombia to find her. Nobody had any idea where she was and kidnapping quickly became the accepted theory.
It turned out that she had taken a trip into the jungle and gotten sick. She was being treated at a local clinic and the only person who knew her whereabouts was with her. They had no Internet or way of contacting the outside world. After nearly a week in the hospital, she was released and was able to return to the city she had departed from.
Simply advising ANYONE where she was going would have saved her family a week of horror.
Anytime you visit a foreign country, it’s in your best interest to notify the State Department. The State Department can help inform you of emergencies and contact family if something happens to you.
Understand that the State Department is not a magic organization that will take care of all your problems. They can help you get a new passport if yours is lost or stolen. They can set up alerts if you go missing. And they can inform you of potential risks in the area where you are traveling and how to avoid them.
That’s about it.
Despite their limitations, it’s still good to notify the State Department where you are going. You can do this through the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program: https://step.state.gov/
Friends and family
Your friends and family are the ones who can provide the most support if something goes wrong on your vacation.
In the case of a medical emergency, direct family members may be the only ones who can assist you. Obviously, hospitals around the world won’t just accept the word of some person who claims to be your friend to make decisions on your behalf. So issues like transporting you back to your home country for care could come down to a direct family member being present.
Friends can be just as important, especially if they have travel experience. They can provide advice, money, and other forms of assistance if something goes wrong. While we don’t recommend making travel plans public, you should let your closest friends know where you are going and how often they should expect to hear from you.
Create a bug-out packet
Bugging out is probably the last thing you want to think about while on vacation. And there’s really not much you can do to bug-out in these situations. But you should still have an emergency packet.
This packet should include all of your most important documents. When you need to keep these documents with you, you should have a copy of them in your packet. Whenever possible, keep the original in your document packet and carry a photocopy with you.
In most countries, you can get away with only carrying a copy of your passport with you, while keeping the original stored someplace safe. In fact, some places require you store your passport with the hotel desk and carry a copy with you. Other countries require you to have your passport and visa with you at all times. This is something you can find out from the expat groups on social media.
Obviously, your credit card needs to be with you if it’s your primary means of securing cash. But you should include a copy in a safe place so that you can contact the bank if it is lost or stolen. You should also have an emergency credit card in this packet.
Here are some documents you might consider adding to your bug-out packet:
- Credit cards
- Driver’s license
- Hotel and transportation receipts/reservations
- Emergency contact details including phone number and address
Even if you are in a country that doesn’t require you to keep your passport on hand, always keep some form of identification on you. Most of the time, your driver’s license will be fine as long as you have a copy of your passport. This serves two purposes. First, it’s a real document that can be checked against your passport if there are concerns that your passport copy has been tampered with. Second, it gives you something to hand off to a cashier or waiter if you find out after a purchase that your money is missing and need to run for that emergency credit card.
Have cash and credit on hand
Unexpected expenses are one of the leading causes of frustration on a trip. And frankly, they can often be a safety issue. Landing to find out that your “all expense paid trip” didn’t include transportation from the airport is a headache. Coming up with emergency medical bills is a disaster.
Always have a small stash of a couple hundred dollars in $20 bills on hand. This can help you get quality transportation or some much-needed food if you’re out and about. Even if you have local currency on hand, U.S. dollars can often be seen as a benefit.
Keep local currency for regular use and store this emergency fund someplace where it won’t be seen during normal transactions. This can be a watch pocket or even in your socks. It probably won’t stay hidden from a full blown robbery, but it will help you out in the more common snatch robberies.
In Argentina, there is a set government rate for currency exchanges. But on the black market, you can get a much better exchange rate. I’m not recommending that the beginner traveler start looking for black markets to exchange their money but be aware that a little U.S. money can often have more purchasing power than the same amount of local currency.
Likewise, an emergency credit card is always good to have available. This may not be something you want to keep on your person, but you should have it in case unexpected costs arise. There are some additional advantages to credit cards as well. In the case that your regular bank card is stolen or blocked, you can use the credit card as a backup and pay it off through your connected bank account. Banks will often block cards when used for the first time overseas even if you’ve informed them in advance of your travel.
In some countries, it’s standard to ask a customer how many charges they’d like to be billed. This really confused me the first time I ran into it here in Colombia. I couldn’t understand why they were asking me how many charges or “quotas” I wanted. But it’s like a credit from the business. So if a medical bill or other big expense comes up, you can pay for a portion of it right then and handle the rest later.
It’s usually best to store your emergency credit card in your bug-out packet.