I’m writing this as I scroll through my various news feeds, each fresh with news about the recent Paris and Beirut attacks in major civilian districts. Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine was hit by a bomb not too long ago and there was a hostage situation in a Sydney cafe earlier in the year. Syria is practically a no-go zone as its citizens flee its lands in seek of refuge, and even nature has shown its harsher side, with recent earthquakes in Nepal and Japan.
Travelling to another country away from home often seems perilous, and the one question I always get asked no matter where I go, whether I’m travelling in a group but more so when I’m solo, is the question “Is it safe?” If you keep up with the news, nowhere seems to be particularly safe these days, so if you are booked to travel to any of these ‘dangerous’ places that have been popping up in the news in the near future, the question you are most likely asking yourself is:
Should I cancel my trip?
There are calls from all around for people not to show fear, to let life go on as usual and not cower before these acts of terror. I think it makes good common sense overall, but if you’re booked on a vacation to a place that has just been affected, it might give you pause – there is an entire world out there to be explored, do you really have to go to that one affected place? Will you really be able to relax properly in a place you saw in chaos not too long before?
Or as a typical Singaporean parent might say: “Aiyoh you got see the news or not, so dangerous! Better not to go.”
It’s okay to cancel your trip, but do it because you’ve taken a measured look at the situation, considered all the factors and decided it was not for you, and not out of ignorant fear. There might be practical reasons not to go like cancelled flights or blocked roads, or emotional reasons like high-strung family overly shrill about your safety and a bad gut feeling… There is no need to be apologetic about your choice to go ahead or cancel, just don’t be ignorant about it.
I cancelled my trip to Bangkok during the Bangkok Shutdown – I was just planning to chill out and shop for a weekend, and while I had planned to go ahead, sudden news of the bomb blast later that same evening (on the day before my trip) prompted my decision to cancel – I didn’t want to spend my vacation weekend on tenterhooks. There were plenty of stories from people who went ahead on their trips to Bangkok reporting back how life went on as usual, but I don’t really regret that decision as Bangkok is easy to get to from Singapore and I managed to get refunded quite easily.
A few years before that when the H5N1 virus was a big thing in China, I cancelled my trip to Beijing while my family went ahead, and I do regret that a little bit now because they had a ton of fun and came back healthy and hale – I don’t remember why exactly but at that point it just didn’t seem like a risk I wanted to take, but I do wish I had just gone ahead.
There are no right or wrong answers here, just what feels right for you.
Check in with your travel and accommodation providers – when it comes to disaster or terrorism situations, most of them are quite amenable to last minute cancellations or can provide alternatives if you want to rethink your destination. Jetstar gave me a voucher for the Bangkok cancellation without too much fuss which I then used on another trip, and Agoda gave a full refund for the hotel booking.
What if I go ahead with my travel plans?
Most of us don’t usually think beyond buying our plane ticket and hotel accommodation when it comes to travel, but if safety is looming in your mind on your next trip, here are some things to consider doing:
Register your trip with your local Embassy in that country
There’s a sense of big brother-ness in letting your government know about your travel plans, but on the other hand it puts you on the embassy’s immediate list of people to look out for when things go awry. You can think of it as an additional eye looking out for you, to get you home or reach out to your family in case of emergencies.
Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has an eRegister where you can put in your travel details and contact number for your overseas trip. For my non-Singaporean readers, check if your country has something similar.
Also, look out for travel notices and make your own judgement calls from there – the current one about Paris advices caution when in the city but does not deter travellers from going there. Those about Egypt and Nepal would make me think a little deeper about how much I really want to see the place versus any possible risks. Travel notices tend to err on the side of caution, so do your own research on the ground and ask locals if you can as well.
Make sure you have the right Travel / Medical Insurance
I’m a big proponent of buying travel insurance because you never know when stuff might happen to you. I’ve been fairly lucky that my biggest problems tend to be lost items or delays, but if you get caught in a sudden situation like Paris, having travel insurance can ensure that you are able to get help immediately (most insurers have a hotline to contact in times of need) and ensure you don’t end up spending a fortune trying to get out safely.
Make sure you have a look at your clauses to ensure that you are covered. Some insurers exclude certain ‘dangerous’ countries from their cover, so while that shouldn’t stop you from going to that place, you should probably either find a company who will cover you appropriately, or know that you will not be covered should things happen.
You can buy Travel Insurance via mobile apps last minute, or if you are forgetful like I am or travel fairly often, buy an annual plan so you can take the time to go through the terms and make sure you are covered.
Being vigilant about your own safety
Be a little more aware of your surroundings at all times, and don’t take safety for granted, which is really just good advice for your whole life and not just when you travel.
That doesn’t becoming super paranoid about all aspects of your travel, but look out for things like emergency exits in major tourist attractions, store emergency hotline numbers in an easy to reach place, or carry photocopies of your passport in a hidden place. Small things like these go a long way when shit hits the fan, and give yourself peace of mind in knowing that you are more prepared for any situations that might pop up.
Looking beyond media stories on the mainstream news can also paint a better picture of the actual situation on-ground. Media stories can be a bit sensational, and while social media isn’t always the most accurate of barometers either, all these things combined can give you a more balanced sense of what to expect. I usually try to read a few different news articles from various countries, and I turn to trusted twitter sources and my travel blogging networks for more on-ground info.
In short, keep on doing what you are doing and keep on travelling. When it comes down to it, getting caught in a bad situation is really a matter of unfortunate luck and circumstances, what you can do is make sure you are able to get yourself out of it quickly and safely by taking some small steps and prep rather than stick your head in the sand and try to avoid danger because you’ll never leave your house that way.
Be safe all you travellers out there!