Safety and Common Sense Tips for Traveling Dads
I’ve traveled extensively during my lifetime. I’ve been to 71 countries, 35 states and even a territory or two.
Throughout my travel career, one thread always resonated with me: How do I get to where I’m going safely, efficiently and enjoyably.
Well, as a former U.S. Government employee who completed diplomatic missions for the Agency for International Development, Voice of America and Department of State, I can honestly say that safely, efficiently and enjoyably were often thrown out of the window given the political and in-country dynamics at the time of travel. Examples:
1) I was in Pakistan shortly after 9/11. Not a good place for someone who was American to be at the time.
2) Four hotels I’ve stayed in during my missions were subsequently firebombed. Nothing like seeing the room you stayed in fully engulfed in flames on the evening news.
3) A flight I regularly took from Kathmandu, Nepal, to New Delhi, India was highjacked a week after I took the flight one year.
4) During a mission in Nigeria, my colleagues in the second of two cars in our entourage were forced off the road, beaten and robbed. I did not find out until I returned to the US as we could not reach them (of course, their phones were taken). Even though subsequent trips were in an armored Embassy vehicle, road banditry is a huge problem in Nigeria
So whenever I got on a plane to go anywhere abroad, I used a checklist of things I could do in the air and on the ground to lessen the probability of things going wrong. Here is my list of hopefully helpful hints for international travel:
- Check with the U.S. State Department for Travel Advisories for the countries you will visit. These advisories fall under four categories: 1) Exercise normal precautions, 2) Exercise increased caution, 3) Reconsider travel and 4) Do not travel. The Advisories contain a wealth of information, including personal safety, crisis, your health abroad, driving and road safety, customs and import restrictions and even traveling with firearms. Studying these advisories is the number one thing you can do to better your chances of a successful journey.
- Copy your documents. Keep a color copy of your Passport declaration page and visa for countries you will visit in a different location from where you store your passport.
- There are many online checklists for travel so you don’t forget anything. Google them and print your favorite!
- Fire safety. I would often visit cinemas in India, where at one point over the years, cinema fires were rampant. Wherever you go in a public place, look for a way out BEFORE you may need it. When I go to a restaurant or public place, it’s the first thing I check. In hotels, know where emergency stairwells are, and be careful, some will allow you to exit your floor, but subsequent floors may be locked to re-entry! Hotels in so-called Third World countries may lack sprinklers, smoke alarms and emergency warning horns. If there is a fire emergency, never take elevators and be sure to take your room key should you need to return to your room and shelter in place. Fill the tub or sinks with water and plug any gaps on doors with wet towels. There are many other points to cover with hotel safety, you can find a comprehensive guide from the US Fire Administration here: usfa.fema.gov/…/hotel_motel_safety_handout.pdf
- Road safety. Though extensively covered in State Department Advisories, I’ll add my .02 cents. If you have seatbelts in the bus, taxi, limo or personal car you are driving or riding in, USE THEM! For some reason, we let our guard down when on vacation, as if the Travel Gods will protect us on foreign roadways. Tragedies during travel are real. Be smart. If you are traveling with young children too small for seatbelts, remember to lug child safety seats with you and only take transportation that allows you to securely mount your child safety seats. Be sure to obtain an International Driver’s License from AAA. Remember, if you receive a traffic violation overseas, many nations require payment ON THE SPOT, including Western nations like Germany and Spain. Don’t ask me how I know this!
- Common sense safety. Avoid any demonstrations or situations where you do not understand what is going on. Read the demeanor of those around you and trust your feelings. If it doesn’t feel right, get moving. If they seem upset or unruly or seem to be following you, keep it moving. Keep your room key with you at all times. Do not leave your keys at the front desk. Avoid known high crime areas. Stay on established roads and streets. Shortcuts while walking or driving can end in bad situations so do not turn up that alley because it’s closer to your hotel. Keep your wits if an emergency occurs, and understand how to contact authorities BEFORE you may need them. Keep your children in your sight at all times. Don’t let them venture off on their own! Don’t be an “Ugly American.” It’s great to be proud of the USA. Bragging about the US at bars and other public places can get you in a world of trouble quicker than you could ever imagine. Respect the culture and people where you are. Keep a low profile, and go with the flow. When in Rome…
- Health safety. Make sure you have all medications you may need, and then add another 50 percent in case you are delayed for whatever reason. Study the hospital and emergency services situation in the country you are visiting. During a trip to Guyana in the late 1990s, a colleague who lives there had an emergency with her sister. When the “ambulance crew” showed up 45 minutes after calling clearly smelling like marijuana, they took us from hospital to hospital, with my unsecured friend and I bouncing around in the back, only to be denied entry because of a lack of health insurance. So the question begs: Does your insurance cover you overseas? If not, seek out companies that offer insurance while traveling. Be sure to compare the fine print on coverage you may seek. Medical evacuation insurance is a must if you travel to areas where the health care system is in poor stead, with Guyana and many other nations being examples.
I’ll keep this short and sweet. Domestic travel safety’s highest priority involves staying out of areas with high crime. If you go to Baltimore, Maryland for example, once you travel past the very popular Inner Harbor and Fells Point tourist areas, you enter a part of the city that is rife with crime and poverty. I’m not picking on Baltimore, but I grew up there and know the deal. This type of scenario repeats itself in most major cities across the US, where there are areas where you are relatively safe, and areas where you should not venture into – period. Study online forums where comments can be the difference between a safe vacation and tragedy. Many of the “common sense” items discussed in the International Travel section also apply for domestic travel – be smart!
Airline safety, is listed as a separate rubric here because of the mindless actions I see every time I fly.
Thankfully, airline safety is just that – safe. According to the National Safety Council, the odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident are 1 in 98 for a lifetime. For air travel, the odds are 1 in 7,178. According to Federal Aviation Administration data, the recent death of a passenger on Southwest Airlines was the first non-health-related fatality on a US airline since 2009. That’s a remarkable safety record, one that cannot be equaled when you travel internationally.
So what mindless actions do I see? Mostly, folks do not take airline safety briefings seriously. When the Southwest jet recently lost cabin pressure due to the window blowout, cellphone video taken by other passengers showed people with oxygen masks over their mouth, instead of mouth and nose as instructed on EVERY flight safety briefing. At 35,000 feet, there is very little oxygen in the atmosphere. Blackouts and death can occur if you don’t get oxygen quickly after a mishap.
One of my infamous “favorites” is the folks that strip down to prepare for a flight. Yes, off come the shoes and maybe the socks, and they enter their own special world of relaxation. During your travel career, did you ever travel on a 747 jet? The 747 remains my favorite aircraft ever, but realize the exit doors are over 30 feet off the ground. So here’s a scenario: Your jet is involved in an accident on landing where you run off the runway. Everyone is alive, but the jet’s wings and other debris are scattered everywhere. The risk of fire is very high, and a quick evacuation of all on board is critical to what everyone hopes is a 100 percent survival rate.
So when it comes time for you to jump from the plane because the door slide failed to deploy, there you are with your bare feet, looking down on a field with jagged metal and broken glass. You hesitate, and the ripple effect is like rubberneckers on your local roads who create traffic jams looking at a roadside crash.
Does this seem like an implausible scenario to you? Next time you fly, look at the lack of preparation for inflight emergencies. People in shorts and flip-flops. People with headsets on and talking through the safety briefing. People sitting in the exit rows that clearly don’t have the strength to lift and remove a 44-pound window.
The safest way to dress on a plane is to wear casual slacks and clothing made of natural fibers like cotton and wool. Should there be a fire, the last thing you want on your person is an outfit made of synthetic fibers that will melt under high heat. Wear tie up shoes so they won’t be blow off your feet in a crash. High heels are a no-no for two reasons, you won’t have balance during an emergency rush, and you may puncture the emergency chute with those pointy heels.
Lastly, if you have four shots of booze and pass out on the flight, heaven help you if an emergency occurs. Have a drink, but be sure you are in control of your wits should a situation develop.
Remember, if you survive a plane crash, you may have less than 90 seconds to get out of the downed plane alive, even less time if there is a raging fire. Be smart, be alert and survive!
I hope you’ve found this guide useful, and be sure to discuss these tips with your families, even your younger children.