updated 10/4/2010 5:06:44 PM ET 2010-10-04T21:06:44

During the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, a woman named Geraldine Larkin was browsing a bookstore near the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower when she heard what she thought were fireworks. Instead of immediately seeking shelter, she wandered back to the hotel. Some alert hotel patrons grabbed her and took her to the hotel’s restaurant, which they barricaded with a piano, then turned off the lights.

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Larkin survived the attacks thanks to the quick thinking of a few folks. Some 175 others weren’t as lucky.

Click for slideshow: Secret Service survival tips for travelers

While it is impossible to predict a terrorist attack, taking some precautions and preparing oneself should be a priority for all travelers, says Christopher Falkenberg, a former Secret Service agent who now runs Insite Security, a risk management and security consulting firm that services corporations and high-net worth families.

With Europe under an unprecedented terror alert, the U.S. State Department has issued a travel alert, warning of potential terrorist attacks. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies in Europe and the U.S. are concerned that terrorists have targeted airports, hotels and tourist attractions for attacks in the mold of those that took place in Mumbai, where 175 people were killed and 300 wounded by terrorists using small and relatively low-tech explosives and guns.

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If you have to travel to Europe, you can take some steps to minimize your risk, says Falkenberg. His advice, he says, “is relevant for everyone traveling, from the backpacker to the CEO.” (Full disclosure: Christopher Falkenberg is the husband of Forbes editorial counsel, Kai Falkenberg.)

Safety starts at the airport, which Falkenberg says is a dangerous place. Most attacks at airports happen in the unsecured area outside of security. Falkenberg’s advice is to get the airport, check in, then get past security as soon as possible. “Duty-free shopping on the unsecured side is not worth it,” he says. The “pre-security” parts of airports have been mentioned as possible targets in the European terror alert.

Falkenberg also advises that people secure their luggage with plastic ties. Transportation security generally frowns at locks, but will allow ties. The ties serve two purposes: 1. baggage thieves generally prey on luggage that’s the easiest to enter and 2. a broken tie lets you know that someone has rummaging around in there.

Ground Transportation
Also of utmost importance, Falkenberg says, is “nailing down your ground transportation.” Travelers are most vulnerable when traveling by car, bus or train. Falkenberg points out that in the history of U.S. presidential assassinations, only one president (Abraham Lincoln) was not traveling when he was assassinated.

Video: Expert offers travel alert advice (on this page)

Know exactly who is meeting you when you arrive at the airport. Have a photo of the driver if possible, and have the driver use a pseudonym for you and not your last name when holding up a placard. When you walk to the car or taxi, put away your phone and be aware of your surroundings.

Falkenberg also suggests that travelers choose hotels wisely. He suggests avoiding international chains or high-profile hotels (like the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower in Mumbai). “An attacker will choose the most high-profile place,” says Falkenberg. Stay at a local hotel instead.

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And choose your room wisely, as well. Get one that you can easily get out of. Falkenberg suggests a room between the 2nd and 7th floors, since most fire department ladders do not reach any higher than that. Also, get a room that faces a courtyard and not the front entrance, which is more exposed to car bombs. Do a walk-through of all potential exits.

Always carry one, wherever you go. “This can be your most valuable escape tool,” says Falkenberg. You can get out of a blacked-out hotel. You can use one to momentarily disorient an attacker. Falkenberg recommends one that uses lithium batteries. “Flashlights are legal everywhere and the TSA won’t hassle you,” he says.

Visualize your response
This might be the most important tip. Airplane crashes, hostage situations and terrorist attacks are “so far removed from our everyday life, that people freeze and don’t make rational decisions,” says Falkenberg. “During the Mumbai attacks, people who didn’t believe the sound they were hearing was indeed gunshots were vulnerable. The people who put time and distance between themselves and the shooters had a better chance at surviving.” In a hotel, plan your escape route. In an airplane, listen to the safety instructions, identify the exits and visualize a plan of escape. “People who read the safety cards and plan ahead have a better chance of survival,” he says.

© 2012

Video: Expert offers travel alert advice

  1. Closed captioning of: Expert offers travel alert advice

    >>> be on the lookout for any suspicious if traveling in europe . sweden, japan, the uk and the u.s. are reminding travelers of the potential for an al qaeda attack in europe . there are hundreds of thousands of americans in europe right now and just as many opinions about the alert.

    >> so we're just going to be a little bit cautious now getting on the train and in the airport.

    >> i'm still going to happily travel all through out europe . for right now i might avoid paris, berlin, london .

    >> reporter: george hobica is the president of what was your sense of security after staying in london ?

    >> i was staying in a hotel and they were searching cars in the area. i didn't know at the time what was going on. i thought it was kind of odd.

    >> what about places in london where a lot of tourists go, piccadilly or trafalgar square . were there still tourists frequenting those high-traffic areas?

    >> london was packed, very full trains. i think if people are paranoid, don't take the subway. stay in a hotel that's not a high profile hotel, maybe a b&b. stay on a lower floor. that's always good advice, stay on the first or second floor.

    >> the critics say this is not very helpful to tourists because it's not very specific. but what do you -- people who go to your website, what kind of advice would you give them about planning and booking travel now to europe ?

    >> i think contessa the chances of something happening to a particular individual are less than having -- drowning in your bathtub. nothing is probably going to happen. i don't want to sound pollyannaish --

    >> considering how many people travel in europe , even if there were a plot t likelihood you would be part of it -- but you just gave us a few pieces of advice. would you advise travelers to stay away from the eiffel tower ?

    >> absolutely. if you really want to play it super safe, stay away from major tourist attractions , don't take public transportation . don't stay in name brand large hotels.

    >> let me ask you, what's the impact on travel destinations, on hotels and restaurants and people who rely for a living on tourists coming through?

    >> i frankly think that people radio looking for an excuse not to go, this will be the ticket for them. most people are going to go. i think it's too vague a warning.

    >> george, thank you for sharing

Vote: Will the European terror alert keep you from traveling?