Traveling to Politically Unstable Areas

You are on your dream trip visiting the pyramids of Giza in Egypt.  After spending the day gazing upon these ancient wonders, you rest your head on your pillow in your hotel in Cairo, tired, but excited from being able to experience something you had only read about in your textbooks in school.  A few hours later, you wake up to a startling rumble outside of your hotel: you peak out the window and you are witnessing a full riot.  What do you do?

Traveling to politically unstable places is par for the course for those who prefer adventure travel.  We’ve seen uprisings over the last few years in many classic adventure travel destinations – Lebanon/Israel 2006, Tibet 2008,  Thailand 2010 and Egypt 2011 just to name a few – and many people who have set aside a big chunk of their time and money were caught in the middle.  We actively encourage people not to avoid traveling to these places.  The experiences these destinations offer can be extremely rewarding with some proper preparation.  So, here are some things you can do prior to your trip that can ensure your safety in case things go down.

Pre-Trip Planning

Locate your Embassies and Consulates – prior to your trip you should print out maps of locations and contact information of your home country’s embassy and consulates. Technology is great, but if you are relying on internet access, the government often hits the kill switch (Egypt and Tibet). Carrying around a couple of slices of dead trees is certainly worth the price of your safety.  Your smart phone, iPad and Laptop become a brick if you are without power.  Bring the paper.

Also, spend some time on Google Earth getting look of what the buildings and the surrounding area look like. While a piece of paper and a map are helpful, getting a full visual can go a long way in helping you to get to safety faster.

You may be traveling to places far away from your home country’s embassy, so you should have a plan of what to do in case you need to get there.

Plan Alternative Exits – Many uprisings happen in capital cities or centers of political power.  Before you leave, explore if their are alternative cities or borders that you could leave by plane, car, bus or train in case of emergency.  Figure out what you geographical or political challenges would be and give yourself options.  Many people who were in Lhasa in 2008 were able to drive and cross the Nepalese border in Nylam.

Make Sure Your Red-Tape is in Order – This one is uber-important anyway, but you should be very diligent to make sure that all your visas, passports and permits are in proper order.  Sometimes authority figures will look for even the smallest reason to keep you from leaving as everyone is viewed with suspicion in these circumstances.

Buy Good Travel Insurance – Research the best options prior to leaving as travel insurance is often times a scam.  You don’t want to find that out after everything is getting out of control.  Travel Insurance Review is a great independent site to do your research.  This can help you cover the costs of having to get out of Dodge quickly.

Familiarize Yourself with Local History and Current Events – Each situation is going to take a life of it’s own.  The riots in Bangkok were much different than the ones in Egypt in their purpose and how the local government handled the violence.  Knowing ahead of time what the climate is like will give you a better path to navigate if things go badly.

Knowing the local customs is always important, but even more so in a pinch.  Being able to know how to conduct yourself around them will keep you from doing anything stupid unintentionally.

Stash Some Cash – Cash is always king and keep it socked away so it isn’t easy for anyone to get at it.  Make sure you know the local customs if you intend to bribe a local official as some places it works and others it will land you in hot water.  However, in the event that things get hairy, cash might be the only option for getting a car, train, bus or plane ticket.

Now that you’ve prepped yourself, what do you do when the @#$% hits the fan and you have to leave?

Contact the Airline That You Flew in on First – Airlines are notoriously bad at helping with changes to itineraries, but in an emergency, they can still be the easiest and most cost effective way getting home.  In Egypt, the US Embassy is chartering flights for 1,200 people a day, but they prioritize for those that have medical conditions first.  If you do get on a charter, you’ll have to reimburse the government the cost of the flight and the government isn’t exactly chartering Southwest at $99 one-way.  However, if your only choice is a charter, TAKE IT.

Stay Away from the Windows – If you are in a hotel or residence and you have to hunker down for a bit, it might be tempting to take a peek outside to get a live view of what you’d be watching on CNN.  Don’t.  Stray bullets, molotov cocktails, rocks, tear gas, etc are not things that discriminate in the middle of fracas.  If you can move to a room that faces an inner part of the hotel, that would be ideal.

Don’t Film or Take Pictures – I know it is tempting to film something to put on YouTube that might make it on every news network, but when people are doing bad things to each other, they don’t shrug off someone they see trying to document what they are doing.  Leave the filming for the journalists and the locals.

Move in Groups of 3 – 5 – If you are traveling alone, find some people to stick with.  You don’t want to organize a 100-man group, but being alone can make you a target.  If you are in a large group, break into “platoons” of 3 – 5 that can all get in one cab or car together.  Communicate rendezvous or rally points.

Wear Earth Tone Clothes – If you find yourself wearing that neon-green I *Heart Florida t-shirt, switch it off for something that would blend in a little better.  You don’t want to draw unintended attention to yourself and wearing clothing that blends in can help you keep a low profile.

Watch Your Mouth – Once you get home, you can wax political all you want about the injustices and horrors you witnessed, but while you are there, keep it to yourself.  In fact, meddlesome foreigners are particularly held in contempt whether it is right or not.  This isn’t the time to argue, it is the time to get away.

Traveling to Politically unstable areas can be incredibly rewarding to adventurous types–most of the time you won’t have any incidents and you will be able to experience the great parts of these cultures beyond the nastiness you see on the news.  However, in case something does happen, with just a little effort, preparation and some common-sense, you’ll greatly reduce your chances of something going wrong if you get caught in the middle.

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