The recent worldwide travel warning for U.S. citizens in early August reminded us that it is important to be vigilant and cautious when traveling abroad. The State Department urged Americans to avoid politically unstable countries and dangerous activities like protests; have enough resources to change travel plans quickly; and sign up for alerts through the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. Furthermore, there are more general tips for international travel, like separating your money sources, scanning all your important documents, getting vaccinated, avoiding public displays of affluence, and limiting your credit card use.
Granted, considering various safety measures when leaving the U.S. seems pretty obvious, but have you actually thought about safety when traveling within the U.S.? You might be spared from dangers associated with exotic countries like violent political unrest, poor hygiene standards or lack of law and order; yet, moving around in the U.S. harbors its own hazards. Traveling cross-country can still make you a victim of theft, carjacking, or harassment. Being careless and negligent in unfamiliar places might even get you into trouble with local law enforcement. Thus, even though the U.S. is largely a very safe country, you want to take some precautions to travel as safely as possible.
1. Plan accommodation and transportation ahead
If you have never travelled across the U.S., you need to know that it requires a lot of planning. Unlike in some countries, sleeping in train or bus stations is usually not allowed – you might even get woken up by police officers. Also unlike in many European cities, train and bus stations aren’t necessarily centrally located and you often have to go far to find lodging. Hence, avoid getting off a bus or train in the middle of the night, it can be dangerous. Hostels and bed and breakfasts are relatively rare in the U.S., but you can find many affordable motels and hotels. Make sure you book them in advance (you can find deals for most cities online or in coupon magazines), so you don’t get stranded in the middle of nowhere with no place to stay. You should also be aware of what areas you are traveling through. Some cities, regions or states are more dangerous than others. You can check the crime statistics for each U.S. state on Instantcheckmate.com to look up what types of crimes are common at your travel destination.
2. Use a car and drive mindfully
The U.S. is a car-dependent nation. As there isn’t really a travel-friendly public transportation infrastructure except for in the big cities, I recommend exploring the country by car (unless you want to cover large distances and visit only a few places, then it’s more economical to use air travel). You can easily reserve rental cars online and pick up your car at a branch by the airport or in the city. Driving on freeways and interstates is pretty safe; however, you should beware of “bump and rob” attacks. Criminals bump a car and once the driver gets out to assess the damage and exchange information, the criminals steal the car and/or the valuables inside. These attacks are very rare, but always make sure if you get bumped by another car to pull into a well-lit, relatively busy area. If you feel uncomfortable, call 911. In addition, make sure you and your car are covered with comprehensive insurance policies.
3. Stay connected
It’s very important to stay connected via a cellphone, smartphone or another device that permits you to access wifi, especially if you’re traveling by yourself. If you use an American mobile phone service, find out whether your carrier has decent reception at your destination (particularly if you travel to unpopulated areas like national parks or the mountains). If you’re using a foreign mobile phone, look up if it has roaming capabilities in the U.S. If not, or if the roaming cost is too high, rent/buy a cheap prepaid phone or purchase a SIM card (if your phone is unlocked) here in the U.S.
Keep people – like family and friends at home or innkeepers and hotel concierges at your travel destination – regularly updated about your whereabouts. If you venture into parkland or wilderness, let somebody know about your route and your expected return time – and stick to it. However, be really careful about who you inform about your whereabouts – remember, especially in the age of social media and smartphones, it’s easy for thieves and burglars to find out whether you left your home/hotel. If they find out at what time you left and when you’re expected to return, they can conveniently clean out your house/room.
4. Manage your money storage wisely
Especially when you move around a lot, it’s crucial to keep your money in different places, as you won’t always have the opportunity to deposit it in a hotel safe or the like. First, thin your wallet out before you embark on your trip. You don’t need your library card or countless receipts when you travel. Second, it’s recommendable to carry several wallets with you: One is your actual wallet with one (or two, one as a backup) credit cards and bigger bills, the other a “dummy” wallet containing some small bills and a few sample credit cards. You can keep the dummy wallet relatively easily accessible in your pocket or bag, so you can use it to pay for small things and hand it to somebody in case you’re being mugged. If you’re in an area known for pickpocketing, the “dummy” wallet can stop pickpockets from getting to your real wallet.
Generally speaking, keep money close to your body, especially large bills and credit cards. On-body accessories like special bras or undershirts are ideal if you sleep in places without safe storage spaces. However, if you have a secure storage space available, such as a hotel safe, keep large amounts of money and credit cards there. If you go to the beach or hiking, take as little cash as possible with you.
5. Use your credit card carefully
Of course, traveling with a credit card is indispensable. Aside from its obvious convenience (you don’t have to carry a lot of cash, you can withdraw money from any ATM, you can make large purchases in case of an emergency, etc.), you will need a credit card to rent a car and book a hotel room. Moreover, if your credit card gets stolen, your maximum liability is only $50 (providing you notified your bank within 60 days after the theft) for any purchases made by the thief. And if the loss involves your credit card number, then you aren’t liable for those purchases at all.
Yet, traveling with a credit card also comes with some risks. Credit card companies can suddenly lock the card if they suspect strange activity (such as use in different state), but you can call them in advance and let them know about your travel plans to avoid this. Moreover, traveling can increase the possibility of your credit card information being seized by identity thieves. For example, one of the most popular travel destinations in the U.S., Florida, ranks first in identity theft. If you make credit card purchases like reservations on the road and you use a community computer (such as in a library or a hotel foyer), make sure to use secure sites and delete your browser history. Only use ATMs in well-lit, safe locations and be vigilant about spotting manipulated ATMs or fake credit card scanners that steal your information and your PIN.
Check your credit card statements regularly and carefully. Nowadays, you don’t have to wait until you get home to see your paper statements; you can quickly check every transaction online or even download an app on your smartphone that notifies you instantly about any transaction made from your credit card. Finally, if you suspect someone you know or met on your trip might have stolen your identity, run a background check to see if they have been convicted of identity theft before.
Traveling safely across the U.S. shouldn’t be a problem if you take the precautions mentioned above. The U.S. is such a vast and fascinating country to explore, it would be a shame if your cross-country trip were ruined by inadvertence and naïveté.