No, I haven’t been robbed, mugged, kidnapped or carjacked while travelling in foreign lands. I have, however, endured my share of mishaps, and even a few catastrophes. Like the time I washed my passport in Tuscany, necessitating a last-minute, white-knuckle dash to the Canadian embassy in Rome. Or the time my bank card was eaten by an ATM in Switzerland and my credit card was simultaneously frozen because the vigilantes at Visa thought they detected “unusual activity” on my account. Or the time I went swimming with the rental car keys in my bathing suit pocket, leaving me stranded in remotest Cape Breton with no money, clothes, transportation, lodging, phone or dignity.
Yes, bad stuff can happen. But a lot of it can be prevented, or at least minimized, with a little knowledge, foresight and planning. The key is to anticipate how you might get into trouble and take steps to forestall problems. “A few minutes thinking about what can go wrong and preparing for those eventualities can make all the difference between a fun, memorable trip, and a trip that’s memorable for all the wrong reasons,” says Kevin Coffey, a California-based police detective specializing in travel security.
Before you leave
When you’re travelling, the old saying of hoping for the best and preparing for the worst holds true. We’re going to show you how to avoid the most common disasters, but you can’t foresee every potential danger. So take a few commonsense precautions no matter what your destination.
For starters, try not to keep your money, credit cards and travel documents together in the same place. Make photocopies of your passport’s identification page and keep them separate from the originals; in the event your passport is stolen, lost, damaged or destroyed, a copy can help expedite replacement.
Sign up with the Registration of Canadians Abroad database (voyage.gc.ca) and keep abreast of travel reports and warnings issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Note the location and contact numbers for Canada’s embassies and consulates in the countries you’re planning to visit. Provide family and friends with your itinerary, and keep a list of emergency contact information with you at all times.
Curing what ails you
“The most common problems people have while they’re travelling are health-related, not crime- related,” says Coffey. “What happens if you get sick overseas? What happens if you have to be hospitalized? It’s a much more likely scenario than, say, getting mugged, but people still don’t plan for it.”
For Canadians travelling outside the country, planning for illness means purchasing supplemental health insurance from a provider like Blue Cross. Canadian embassies or consulates can assist in medical emergencies by providing lists of local doctors and hospitals, and can even arrange medical evacuations in a pinch, but even short hospital stays in foreign countries can cost tens of thousands of dollars—and that won’t be covered by your provincial health plan.
Fortunately, supplemental health plans are surprisingly affordable. For an Ontario traveller heading to the UK, for example, Blue Cross quotes medical coverage for as little as $46 a week, and this includes up to $5 million of emergency medical care.
Life on the street
The second most common source of travel difficulties is car accidents, says Coffey. “It can be very different overseas than it is in North America.” Indeed, in some Latin American and Middle Eastern countries, you’re better off not getting local authorities involved in minor fender benders, because the police may shake you down for bribes, and the judicial system may automatically side with nationals in dispute with foreigners.
Do a little research beforehand and determine whether it’s even worth attempting to drive in certain countries. Canadian consular officials can help out by providing names of lawyers and information about local laws and regulations, but their ability to intervene in or influence investigations is limited. Nor will they post your bail, pay your fines or legal fees, or ask local authorities to give preferential treatment to you because you’re a Canadian.
Hands in your pockets
Coffey says it’s much more likely travellers will be victims of simple theft rather than more serious crimes such as physical assault or robbery. Pickpockets are endemic to many parts of the world, including Europe, and it pays to be vigilant and aware of your surroundings.
“Be especially wary around bus stations, train stations and subways—anywhere crowds gather and you’re likely to be jostled,” Coffey says.
Be aware of the most common tactics, such as reaching into backpacks and extracting wallets and passports, or cutting the straps on shoulder purses. It’s also extremely common for thieves to steal purses while tourists are dining. “For whatever reason, women continue to hang their purses off the back of their chairs in restaurants, making themselves easy targets,” says Coffey, whose website CorporateTravelSafety.com hosts dozens of videos of real pickpockets in action all over the world. “Familiarizing yourself with how pickpockets operate is the best possible defence.”
Beaches are another favourite hunting ground for thieves. “Travellers think they’re being cautious when they pull into the parking lot at a beach and promptly lock all their valuables in the trunk of the car. First off, thieves can recognize a rental car from a mile off, and they will often stake out parking lots. When they see you putting an expensive-looking camera in the trunk, they simply wait until you walk away and jimmy it open.” His advice: if you have to leave valuables in the car, put them in the trunk before you arrive at the parking lot.
Coffey also notes that hotel room safes aren’t all that safe: be wary of hotels that provide a combination for your room’s safe, as opposed to a code that you can set yourself. In the former case, combinations often remain at their factory default settings and could be the same for all safes in the hotel, or they may be known by unscrupulous hotel employees.
“If the thieves are maids or hotel employees, they’ll seldom take everything from a safe,” says Coffey. “Instead, they’ll open a wallet or purse and take a few bills here and there.” Instead of using room safes, he recommends theft-proof purses or wallets that can be locked to desks or bed frames.
As with most safety advice, common sense should be your guide: use at least the same vigilance you would at home. Even though you’re on vacation to relax, be careful not to lower your guard.