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Experience January/February 2023

Traveling With a Net

David Z Kaufman


  • Tips and insights into safety during different travel scenarios.
Traveling With a Net

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Cruises and escorted tours come with a safety net that individual travel lacks. When you travel with a net, if something happens to you, such as a heart attack or a bad fall, usually, someone is there to help.

On the other hand, depending on where your tour is going, a large group of presumably wealthy tourists can be an inviting target. Here’s what to know to ensure you’re as safe as possible.

Safety on the Seas

Imagine being crowded together with 2,000-4,000 of your closest nonfriends for a week or more drinking, eating, and playing. All rules of behavior are suspended. It usually works out. After all, cruise lines are expert at distracting you from discomforting experiences with other guests.

But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you have help, too. I was once on a cruise when a drunk knocked into my then-girlfriend. She was incensed and ran after him to give him a piece of her mind. Well, that went as you’d expect.

I had to intervene. Things went as well as you’d expect then, too. And, as usual, ship security was nowhere to be found.

Crime on cruise ships isn’t rampant. In 2019, 137 serious crimes were reported on cruise ships. But if something does happen to you at sea, things get weird and who’s in charge—if anyone—depends on many things, none of which are what you might expect on land.

Unless it happens while the ship is within 12 miles of land, an offense on a cruise ship takes place in international waters. In that case, the governing authority is the country under which the ship sails, and that’s almost never the United States. Any criminal matter would be tried using the laws of The Bahamas, Panama, or whatever other country the ship is registered in.

You have no constitutional rights then, a situation much like that of WNBA player Brittney Griner in Russia. The Federal Bureau of Investigation does engage in criminal matters involving Americans on cruise ships—sometimes. But the analysis is complicated, slow, and unlikely to do you much good even if the FBI does intervene.

Most crimes asea are drunk and disorderly; crimes of passion when drunk, such as assault or sexual assault; theft; and man overboard, which can encompass everything from a drunken accident to suicide to deliberate murder.

If the ship is in port when a crime occurs, local authorities have jurisdiction. Each country is also entitled to jurisdiction in waters within 12 nautical miles of its shores under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. After that, as a practical matter, nobody cares except (possibly) the FBI.

If something happens to you or yours, you should ask—rather, demand—that ship security take a report and investigate. Document any injuries, including any sexual assault injuries, with the ship’s doctor, if it has one, or the medical staff. To be blunt, this is usually amateur hour, but it’s all you have. Again, you have no rights.

How can you protect yourself on a cruise? When you’re in your room, lock and safety chain your cabin door, especially when you’re sleeping. If there’s a peephole, use it. Use your cabin safe for everything—no exceptions.

Carry only the minimum amount of money and only the documents you need. On board, you should need only your key card. Once you debark, you may need your travel documents and boarding pass to reboard the ship. Take minimum cash, only one credit card, and strap everything down to protect against pickpockets.

Remember, cruise patrons aren’t vetted for good behavior. Some, especially those who’ve had too much to drink, can be dangerous. Theoretically, cruise line employees have been vetted. But incidents can (and will) happen when unlimited drinks are available. The same holds true for the various guides taking you to that special discount house just a few blocks away.

Safety While on a Tour

Going on a tour can be fun. But you should still be careful.

It wasn’t that long ago that tourists traveling by bus to the pyramids in Egypt were attacked by terrorists. In 2016, terrorists attacked Istanbul’s international airport. The message is the same, no matter where you are: Be alert to your surroundings.

Watch what the police do. During my last trip to Paris, the gendarmes were always traveling in threes. When they stopped to talk to someone, one gendarme talked, one watched in front, and the third swiveled to watch behind. That got my attention. If you see something like that, it should get yours, too. It means they’re very serious. Leave the area right away.

Safety Where You Sleep

In many countries, you must surrender your passport when you check in to a hotel. In others, a copy of your passport is enough. When your passport leaves your possession, you’re without papers.

Recall what happens when you don’t have papers. You don’t have rights, either. When your passport comes back, what has been done with it or to it? There’s no way to know. I usually take with me several copies and try to give them to hotels in lieu of the passport itself.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes not. In my last trips to Paris and Rome, hotels accepted a copy of my passport. In Egypt and Nepal, they kept the passport and later returned it. Try to keep track of just who wandered off with your passport. I try to get a picture of them holding it. Just in case.

Most hotels will tell you they don’t have cameras in rooms, but they do have them in hallways. Airbnb claims its owners may have cameras in the unit but not in private areas, such as the bathroom or bedroom. Hostels, to my knowledge, make no such claims.

As President Ronald Reagan said, “Trust but verify.” Look carefully around your room. Start with the most important, and most attractive, places to worry about—the bed and the bathroom. Check for places that have clear, unobstructed views of the bed and bath and look for any small holes or items that seem out of place.

For instance, are there two smoke detectors on the ceiling? Is a clock radio oddly situated? Does the TV have two little red lights? If you find something, congratulations, you’re on candid camera. Govern yourself accordingly.

Even if you don’t find anything, take precautions, anyway. I don’t trust bedside alarms. Unplug it and put it in a drawer, or cover it with a towel. Don’t just unplug it. There could be a second power source.

Then take your phone’s flashlight and shine a light into any mirrors to see if they’re two-way. When you’re in your room, lock and bolt the door. Use the security systems provided, whether they’re deadbolts, peepholes to the outside, or whatever.

Safety in the Common Areas

On a recent trip abroad, I was exposed to a new—to me—move in elevator security. You had to use your room card to get to the floor where your room was located. I liked this one because it prevents a tagalong. Usually, you have to share the elevator, and that can be a security issue, inviting pickpockets, muggings, and room theft.

I try to be alone in the elevator. If I can’t, I stand with my back to the wall near the door. This way I can ring for help, protect against assault or pickpockets, and escape.

If you’re in a hallway or stairway, how wide is it? Can two people pass each other easily, or is it a squeeze? If it’s wide and someone is approaching on your side, be careful. Check behind you. Turn a little sideways. If it’s narrow, be extra careful, and turn completely sideways. You might even want to stop and let the person pass.

Watch their hands. Is there something in either hand? If so, what? Where’s your phone? In your pocket? Why not in your hand? Do you remember how to call emergency 911, particularly if you’re in a foreign country?

I once went on a vacation with my then-girlfriend, and we stayed in what looked like an appropriate motel, at least online. Imagine my surprise and dismay when, as we checked in, the clerk suggested several security precautions. For example, beware the car parking lot, watch for comings and goings from the restaurant to the rooms, and so on. I didn’t sleep much, and we left early the next morning.

If your instincts tell you there’s a problem, believe them—there’s a problem.