By MSNBC analyst & former FBI profiler
updated 3/20/2006 4:32:43 PM ET 2006-03-20T21:32:43

Nobody with good news calls in the middle of the night.  As a father of college-age children, the late-night sound of the telephone ringing was chilling.  Our youngest son and about hundred or so of his closest friends from college had caught a spring break cruise ship ride from Florida to the Bahamas.  Before he left I talked to him about all of the “be aware ofs.”  But he, of course, was 20 and far wiser in the world than his parents, so “not to worry” was his reply.  He didn’t know that his world was about to turn upside down.

Since Natalee Holloway disappeared nine months ago on a high school graduation trip to Aruba, personal safety on getaway trips has become a part of our national subconscious.  From Panama City, Florida, to Cancun, Mexico -- 100,000 young Americans travel here every spring break—and to points, ports, and beaches around the world, the risk to those seeking the sun-drenched 24/7 “party of all parties,” no matter what their age, are greater than ever.  A little common sense and preparation can save you from a world of hurt and pain, and can help insure that your trip to some hot beach is not the trip from hell.

Consider these factors:

1.   Know where you’re going before you start.  Use the Internet to research the city, state, or country that you’re traveling to and know both the good and the bad about your destination.  Some countries consider the use of drugs or the abuse of alcohol to be a very serious offense, something that can get you thrown in jail for weeks if not years.  In other countries the authorities will try to set you up in a sting-like operation, but their purpose is to force you or your parents to pay a bribe to gain your release.  Other demands can also be made of you, demands you don’t even want to think about.  But whether you think of them or not, they are real, as is the threat to your personal safety.  And if another language is spoken at your location, learn a few phrases like “I need the police” or “I need a doctor” or just “Help me.”

2.   Insure that someone at home has all of your travel and contact information, including a copy of your passport, the front and back of your credit cards and identification cards, and information as to where you are staying and who you’ll be with.  If this data changes, find an Internet kiosk and send the new information along so that you can be found or helped should the need arise.

3.   Cell phones are great, but many won’t work outside the U.S. or need to be set up in advance of your travel.  Don’t assume that your phone has this capability. Call your cellular provider to arrange such service for the length of your trip.

4.   There is always safety in numbers.  Don’t travel alone and try to travel in threes.  Never leave your wingman is a lesson naval aviator Tom Cruise learned the hard way in Top Gun.  The idea of three is the hope that no matter how crazy you and the situation get, out of three friends, one can be counted on to be the voice of reason.  In a worst case scenario, one can run for help while the second stays and stands by the third.  Remember, you’re all in it together. You should always be within eyesight of each other.  And don’t accept any offer to leave with a person you’ve just met.  Think of Natalee Holloway’s last known ride. 

5.   Avoid using stairwells or elevators by yourself.  Don’t tell any “new friend” where you are staying.  Put your valuables in the hotel’s safe, not under your pillow.  Remember not all “taxis” are really taxis.  Insure that you’re taking a safe mode of travel every time you go out at night and don’t open your hotel door to strangers.  If the person knocking on your door says he’s with the hotel, call the front desk to check before you unlock your door.

6.   Drink only from sealed containers or get your drinks directly from the bartender.  And don’t leave your drink unattended – you don’t know what someone could put into it.  Date rape drugs are many and varied, with the most common being “GHB” and “Rohypnol,” the latter of which is also called circles, the forget me pill, La Rocha, lunch money drug, R-2, rib, roach-2, rope, robutal, roofies, rophies, row-shay, ruffles, and wolfies.  These drugs are used to facilitate rape because they make the assault easier.  This “anesthesia” type of drug renders the victim physically incapacitated or helpless and unable to withhold consent to sexual activity.  Rohypnol is one of the drugs most commonly implicated in drug-facilitated rape.  It can mentally and physically paralyze an individual.  Effects of the drug are of particular concern in combination with alcohol and can lead to anterograde amnesia, where events that occurred during the time the drug was in effect are forgotten by the victim.  If your drink tastes or looks different than it should, e.g., salty, foamy, cloudy, or has some type of residue in it, just dump it. 

7.   Lastly, remember Spiderman.  Spidy had a sixth sense; he instinctively knew when trouble was around.  And so do you.  But we don’t always listen to that still, small voice within that says “this could be trouble.”  If you think you’re being followed, go into a safe place and ask for assistance, and always look sober and look like you know where you are and what you’re doing.  You only need watch the predators in any vacation bar or on any “booze cruise” that lurk just outside of your vision; they’re watching your every move.  Predators look for the lost, the weak, the vulnerable—usually the inebriated.  You don’t want to look like a zebra or gazelle that’s separated and lost from her herd or be too forward toward strangers.  Your overture of friendship to some can be a sign of vulnerability to a predator, and they can be very cunning as they work ever so stealthily to cut you out of the herd.  You don’t need to be paranoid.  Just know your surroundings, your limitations, set boundaries, and stay with your wingmen.

Hundreds of holidays, vacations, or breaks become nightmares because of behavior, accidents, alcohol, and drugs.  Almost 3,000 Americans are arrested overseas every year, many for possession of very small amounts of narcotics.  Accidents account for hundreds more victims, including drowning in pools and the ocean, automobile accidents, jet skis, and falls from buildings.  Many threats exist to any vacationer who doesn’t put his personal safety above his desire to party.  In parts of Mexico, for example, one can easily become the victim of robbery, rape, kidnapping, and murder – all of which are well documented.  Another little known safety issue in Mexico is the dozens of Americans who have fallen from the balconies of their hotels, this because many such balconies have rails that are only two or three feet tall (the U.S. standard is 42 inches).  Yet another issue is the lack of safety glass in hotel windows and sliding glass doors.  This accounted for our son’s call from Nassau.  “Dad,” he said, “we were wrestling around in the hotel room after a few drinks and my friend, while bouncing on the bed (and off the walls), fell through the sliding glass door onto the balcony.”  Evidently he just missed tumbling over the balcony (they were on the 6th floor), but the glass broke into large shards.  One big, knife-like piece cut his arm like a surgeon’s scalpel, and he was bleeding badly.  They wrapped a towel around the bleeding limb and caught a cab to the local hospital.  An hour later I got another call – Jon’s friend was in surgery.  “I’ll call you back,” I said, “but how do I find you?”  “Dad,” he said with some frustration, “we’re the only two white guys in the hospital – they’ll find us.”

Jon and his friend were on the next flight out of Nassau, and were met by my wife and his friend’s mother at Washington National airport.  His mother had already contacted a local surgeon, and they were soon getting a review of his injuries.  There was still glass in the wound that had been sewed up.  “Another 12 hours or so,” the surgeon said, “and he would have lost the use of his arm.”  Remember, if seriously injured; get home for medical aid as soon as you can.  Oh, and don’t drink so much that you fall through glass doors….

As for our other two children, Jeff got deathly ill on bad food while on spring break.  And, while on a medical missions spring break trip to Haiti, our daughter Jenna had a local woman thrust a baby into her arms, begging Jenna to take the infant back to America as it would surely die in Haiti.  Challenges come in many forms, shapes, and sizes.

Alcohol and injuries go hand in hand.  During spring breaks the average male reports consuming 18 alcoholic drinks per day and the average woman 10 such drinks per day.  One half of all men and 40% of all women drank until they became sick or passed out at least once.  If you’re drinking, don’t do it on an empty stomach and for guys, limit yourself to one drink per hour and for women, one drink per 1 ½ hours.  Nurse a Coke or two.  Don’t mix your drinks (e.g., beer and rum) and if you slur your words, walk funny, or feel sick, stop drinking.  You can’t drink yourself sober, but you can drink yourself into the hospital or worse.  Car accidents, alcohol intoxication, broken limbs, and date rapes are all the results of alcoholic abuse.  Alcohol is implicated in the three major causes of death among young people in America, including homicide, suicide, and accidents—including alcohol poisoning. 

Many see Spring Break as a time to blame their behavior on the booze, the music, or even the moon.  Your natural inhibitions may become fuzzy or even disappear when you believe that the party climate gives you an excuse not to be safe in all regards.  Sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise around the world.  In the U.S. alone, 5.5 million new cases of genital herpes, one of the major causes of cervical cancer, are identified every year.  Other types of sexually transmitted infections, to include AIDS, can result from just one unguarded night of fun under the sun.  Were you to be the victim of a sexual assault, do not expect a great amount of help from your hotel or local law enforcement in second and third world countries.  Hotels will be quick to suggest you immediately go home, this to preserve their “reputation,” while local police may explain the long process that you must go through to identify and prosecute your assailant.  Their implied message to you is “be glad you’re alive, count this as a learning experience, and pack up and go home.”  Case closed as far as they are concerned. 

And the predators?  Well, they continue to prowl.  There’s always another plane landing with people just looking for fun, a continuing source of potential victims for such predators.

Just like you know the amount of time that you can spend in the sun before you burn, you should recognize the pitfalls that await those who don’t know their own limitations, who don’t set boundaries, and who violate the rules of safe traveling.  No one wants to cramp your style and keep you from having a good time on break or vacation.  We just want you to come back safe and in one piece.  When you’re in an unfamiliar location and perhaps under the influence of something or someone, your chances of becoming a victim rise exponentially.  Be smart and be safe.  Good judgment and being responsible for yourself and your travel companions can help to insure that you get everything out of your vacation that you seek.  But nothing more. 

Clint Van Zandt is an MSNBC analyst. He is the founder and president of Van Zandt Associates Inc. Van Zandt and his associates also developed, a Website dedicated "to develop, evaluate, and disseminate information to help prepare and inform individuals concerning personal and family security issues." During his 25-year career in the FBI, Van Zandt was a supervisor in the FBI's internationally renowned Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He was also the FBI's Chief Hostage Negotiator and was the leader of the analytical team tasked with identifying the "Unabomber."


Discussion comments