Traversing the Jungle

by Judith A. Filangeri

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Travelling is an adventure, but it's a jungle out there. It always has been. The highwaymen and pirates, flimflam artists and scammers are with us today under new names. Does that mean we should lock ourselves in our safe little house of bricks and never venture forth? Of course not. But best to go fore-armed. (The scope of this article is limited to US travel. Foreign travel safety tips deserve their own space.)

Your baggage, if you're travelling by air, should have covered luggage tags, and use your office address and your cell phone number. Why announce to thieves that your home is empty? A card with your name, address, and cell phone should go inside your bag as well to help the airline identify it in case it gets lost. When you go through security, keep your valuables in view. Don't walk through the body scanner until your valuables have entered the carry-on scanner. If you have to put your carry-on bag on the floor, put your foot through the strap. Luggage looks amazingly alike, so it's a good idea to mark your bag in some way for easy identification at the luggage carousel. A ribbon tied around the handle works pretty well for that.

Especially if you're travelling alone, smaller hotels are considered safer because in a smaller hotel, the staff is more likely to become quickly familiar with you and other guests and know who doesn't belong. Strangers hanging around a small hotel lobby are more noticeable. When you check in, make sure there's enough privacy at the reception desk so that no one can overhear your name or room number. Room numbers should be kept confidential and never written on the key itself, just on the key envelope. Most hotels do that now, but the check-in clerk should also not loudly announce the room number. Seek a hotel in an upscale, busy area, where there are restaurants and stores open late, because busy streets are safer streets. And if you're travelling alone and likely to be returning to your room late at night or going to your car either very late at night or very early in the morning, find out before you book if the hotel will provide an escort to your room or your car.

When booking, ask for the location of the room you want. A room not on the ground floor and near the elevators and away from emergency exits or any renovation work is better. Be aware of what's around you. In the elevator, stand near the elevator buttons with your back to the wall so that if threatened, you can turn and push all the buttons at once with your back. And have your key out when you leave the elevator, so you don't need to stand and hunt for it at your door. Hotel room doors should have double locks, including a dead bolt, and a peephole. Most name brand hotels have that, but if traveling to an area where you're not sure, bring along a security doorstop for extra protection. They're light and easy to pack. And as tempting as it is to put the "Please Make Up This Room" sign on the door, that really announces that the room is empty!

If someone gets into your room when you're not there, you can minimize the damage. Hotel room thieves move fast, going for what they can see. If you must take valuables on your trip, either lock them in the front desk safe or the room safe, if there is one. If you have to bring expensive clothing with you, hide it on hangers under other garments.

Out on the street, try not to look like a tourist. Dress down unless you need to dress up for a special event. That means avoid jewelry. One tourist in NYC was almost strangled when someone grabbed her fake gold neck chain through a train window. Another thing not to hang around your neck is your camera, obviously. If you have access to a safe, consider carrying only one credit card on you. To avoid tempting a thief with a wad of bills, separate your money and keep enough for small purchases accessible and the rest stashed deep.

Then there's the whole map issue, which is a real Catch-22. You'll look like a tourist if you look lost and more like a tourist if you're poring over a map. So consult the map before you hit the street and keep a much smaller pocket guide with you. If you need to ask for directions, approach a family. If you rent a car, the same rule of thumb holds. The car shouldn't look like a tourist, either, so don't keep maps and guidebooks in full view. You want to avoid a hatchback, where your luggage is visible. Do you need to be told to lock the car doors? Probably not. But if you've got a handbag or computer bag, loop the handle through your seat belt and don't drive with open windows. Also, whether you're walking or driving, ask the concierge to mark your map with the parts of the city that might be dangerous.

Are you sure you want to take this trip? Just kidding. Seriously, though, most of these suggestions are just common sense and take minimal time and effort. And if even one of them saves you the hassle and hazard of being a victim of a crime, isn't it worth it?

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