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TRAVEL INSIDER

Hints for Safer Travel in a Dangerous World : Security: Consultant's book offers important advice on avoiding everything from terrorism to petty theft.

July 04, 1993|JAMES T. YENCKEL | WASHINGTON POST

The terrorist explosion that damaged the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, last month and the periodic bombings that plague London are sharp reminders that much of the world, including popular tourist destinations, can be dangerous.

This should not be seen as a reason to stay home. But whenever and wherever you travel, you ought to keep your eyes open.

One of the best resources for travelers looking for advice on personal security abroad is a slender guidebook, "The Safe Travel Book" by Peter Savage (Lexington, $12.95), which has just been published in a revised and updated edition. A former Foreign Service officer in Latin America, Savage is the director of a consulting firm that advises corporations on how to keep their employees safe on international business trips.

Savage's tips on traveling safely, whether it's on a business or vacation trip, range from how to avoid life-threatening possibilities to protecting yourself against more mundane hazards. By his account, the most common traveler's injury is "stubbed and broken toes from walking barefoot in an unlit, unfamiliar hotel or guest room."

As Savage readily acknowledges, reading his book could "tend to scare people away from travel" because he details so many potential disasters. Indeed, his book has been criticized by some travel agents, he says, as "bad news." But he considers this shortsighted. In his view, to be aware of the possibility of danger is the best way to avoid it.

As a frequent traveler himself, Savage constantly keeps alert to what is happening around him whether he is in an airport, a hotel lobby, a restaurant or walking on the street. In truth, his customary precautions do make him sound a bit like a paranoid fussbudget, but, he says, "I pay attention, and I've never had a problem."

The good news he offers is that air traffic security has improved in the aftermath of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December, 1988, making "airports and airlines an unattractive target for terrorist adventures." On the other hand, the breakup of the former Soviet Union has brought economic turmoil to parts of Eastern Europe, and street crime against tourists is increasing in the new republics. Instability in some nations of Africa, Latin America and Asia also has an ominous portent.

But just when you think maybe you would be safer vacationing this summer at a nearby beach, Savage puts the threat of danger abroad in perspective. Although American travelers "should be increasingly alert to the hazards of overseas travel in certain parts of the world," he says, crime statistics indicate "that it is safer to travel abroad than it is to walk down a city street at night in the United States."

In fact, after a stubbed toe, Savage's research indicates that the most frequent problems afflicting travelers abroad are lost luggage on a flight, being bumped from an oversold flight, dehydration or diarrhea from drinking impure water, being "ripped off" by currency exchange traders or taxi drivers, and pickpocket theft at popular tourist sites.

Still, the potential for more serious problems always exists. Business travelers often are dispatched to troubled parts of the world, and a stable destination can erupt suddenly and intrude on a vacation trip. Savage's book has advice for practically any conceivable hazard affecting personal security.

If you are bound for a country where an unstable situation could result in upheaval, Savage suggests you get answers to several important questions before you go:

* Is there an "overriding development" at your destination that means you should not go? Violence can't always be predicted, but you should put some effort into analyzing the situation. Savage offers offbeat sources of information for an up-to-date report, including such international organizations as the World Bank in Washington, which has people traveling abroad constantly.

* How safe is the airport where you will be landing? You can check with the Department of Transportation's toll-free Travel Advisory number, (800) 221-0673. A recorded message reports any known, credible and current threat to airlines or other public transportation systems in the United States or abroad. Earlier this month, the message warned travelers that U.S. officials considered the international airport in Lagos, Nigeria, as unsafe because effective security measures were not being maintained. I wasn't aware of the number until I read his book.

* Are there particular problems to be avoided? These could range from a rash of street holdups to a nationwide shutdown because of a visit from the Pope. One quick source of information is the U.S. State Department's Citizens Emergency Center, (202) 647- 5225. It provides recorded reports on situations that might affect the security of American travelers in every country.

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