I was doing my health and safety research for my upcoming trip to Cuba and thought you might find my process useful. I will share the steps I take to understand current health and safety conditions, what I bring with me, and some key practices I follow to mitigate risk. I suggest taking these steps for any international destination, but particularly if you like to travel off the beaten path. Put safety practices in place now to help ensure many more adventures to come.
My primary source for a country risk assessment is the US Department of State website. While there is some US-centric information such as embassy details, this site should still be quite useful for those of you from other countries. The country specific page includes a safety ranking, alerts, details on types of crime, and quality of medical care. There is crime everywhere, so don't let this discourage you from traveling to interesting places. However, it is important to know if the normal crime at your destination of choice is pickpocketing or kidnapping, or if there is a particular scam being run. Knowledge is power.
Should I Go?
This is a useful scale found at the top of the State Department country page, but you obviously want to read the details.
You can also change the scale descriptions to 1 = Boring and 4 = Adventurous. Note: This was only a poor attempt at humor and not a recommendation to visit a Level 4 country.
I save the embassy address and phone numbers (found in the right margin of country page) to my phone and also print a hardcopy. I also review the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) Crime and Safety Report for more safety information.
The State Department page offers a safety notification service called the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). This will be the first time I use it (guess I'm finally a smart traveler), but seems like a good idea. Please share thoughts below if you've used.
Check the Center for Disease Control (CDC) site to see what vaccinations are required and any current regional health concerns such as Zika. They provide comprehensive country-specific Travel Packing Lists, which are useful to review.
Tip: At least in the States, most doctor's offices don't carry travel vaccines. Do a search for, "travel shot clinic <city name>" to find a local clinic. Try and do this at least 4-6 weeks prior to departure.
A few tips for Staying Healthy
If you've been fortunate enough to not get sick abroad, this is not something you want to learn the hard way!
Food: Avoid salads and fruits you didn't peel or wash (with bottled water) yourself. Be careful with undercooked meat, eggs, and fish. I'm a medium rare guy, but I've seen enough open air markets with fly covered raw meat to err on the side of over-cooked. Believe me, I'm all about street food...it's a risk/reward thing.
Water: I've found you can find bottled water pretty much anywhere. If you've seen Slum Dog Millionaire, you may recall the scene where the bottle are refilled with tap water and the lid glued on...yikes! If in doubt, bring an individual water filter such as a LifeStraw or iodine tablets (and something to flavor the water). Remember, don't accidentally rinse your toothbrush in your sink. I did this my first night in Nicaragua and was just waiting to get sick (got lucky, though!).
Ice is a tough one, and not much fun to avoid when frozen concoctions are concerned. I'll generally ask if the ice is from purified water after connecting them to a lie detector. When in doubt...cerveza!
Antibiotics: Bringing a broad-spectrum antibiotic such as Cipro is a wise precaution and can help avoid being sick half your trip. I've found oregano oil to be extremely effective as a natural antibiotic without all the negative consequences and take it preventatively when traveling. Please consult your doctor. Bring your Pepto-Bismal and Imodium just in case!
These tips obviously don't apply to all countries; use common sense as well as the CDC and State Department resources to make an informed decision. I generally go by the premise that nice hotels and restaurants will take measures to not have their customers get sick, so tend to relax my rules a bit in nicer establishments.
what to bring for Personal Safety
Tactical Pen: You always need a pen when your traveling, so why not make it a tactical pen? It's made from aircraft-grade aluminum and has a hardened point for breaking a car window or self-defense. Predators look for victims with a lack of confidence. Just having something in your pocket to defend yourself may give you the confidence to keep the bullseye off your back..and it's there if you need it. Note: I've taken it through countless airports without issue. Pretty amazing, given the silly things security has taken from me.
$100 bill: Needless to say, you don't want to go to jail in a foreign country (I suppose not anywhere). If confronted by authorities, bite your tongue and be humble, apologetic, you didn't understand, etc. If they start to take you in or it appears to be an obvious shakedown, it's probably time to make your play. Proceed with caution...you are not offering a bribe and not pulling out a wad of bills. Say something like, "I'm sorry. I'm not from here. I'm sure there is a fine for this, may I pay it here?" Let them state the amount of the fine...while you cross your fingers. If you don't have the stated amount, show them what you have in your wallet and offer it all. Keep your money spread so they don't see all your cash. In addition to a "fake" wallet, I wear a money belt, and often Bluffworks travel clothes that have secret pockets (shhh) in which to keep a $100 bill for desperate times. A crisp $100 bill has a psychological effect and is hopefully hard to refuse. This could also be used if you get stranded and need a ride, or if the local boys are waiting in ambush and you need to slip out through the kitchen.
Fake wallet: Technically it's a real wallet, but it's not where I keep my ID, credit cards, or most of my cash. I keep a few expired (or unimportant) cards in it and a small amount of cash. It's primarily something to give a mugger, but is also good for small purchases to avoid revealing your money belt.
I'd love to hear your input and best practices as well, so please share in the comments below. If you liked this post, please join the Analytical Traveler community. Check out my other travel safety post below.