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Going on vacation? Don't let down your guard

Since Natalee Holloway disappeared almost three years ago on a high school graduation trip to Aruba, personal safety on trips has become a part of our national subconscious. Here are some tips from a former FBI profiler on how to stay safe while you travel.
Image: Spring break in Cancun
Students have fun during Spring Break 2008 at the Cocobongo nightclub in Cancun, Mexico, Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2008. Cancun continues to be the No. 1 foreign destination for U.S. college students during spring break.Israel Leal / AP file

Since Natalee Holloway disappeared almost three years ago on a high school graduation trip to Aruba, personal safety on trips has become a part of our national subconscious. Hundreds of thousands of young Americans travel on spring break every year; 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 help insure that your trip to some hot beach is not the trip from hell.

Consider these factors:

  • 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.  In other countries the authorities may 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.  Demands other than money can also be made of you.  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.”
  • 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, use your cell phone, Blackberry, or find a local Internet kiosk and send the new information along so that you can be found or helped should the need arise.
  • Yes, cell phones are great, but many won’t work outside the U.S. or may 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, to include a better international rate for your calls while you’re traveling.
  • There is always safety in numbers. Don’t travel alone and try to travel in threes. The idea of three is the hope that no matter how wild and crazy the situation can 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.
  • 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.
  • Drink only from sealed containers or get your drinks directly from the bartender. Don’t leave your drink unattended because you don’t know what someone could put into it.  Date rape drugs are many and varied. 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 unwanted physical 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 a form of amnesia, one 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.
  • 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  small voice 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 to watch the potential predators in any vacation bar or on any “booze cruise” that normally lurk just outside of your vision; but they may still be 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 to look too eager or available to 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.

Always put safety first
Hundreds of holidays and vacations can 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, car wrecks, jet skis, and falls from buildings.  Many threats exist to any vacationer who doesn’t put his personal safety above his desire to party.

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 percent 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. 

Drink a soda 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 involved in the three major causes of death among young people in America including homicide, suicide, and accidents to include 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, millions of new cases of genital herpes, one of the major causes of cervical cancer, are identified every year. 

We know, but can unfortunately forget, that some types of sexually transmitted infections, to include AIDS, can result from just one unguarded night of fun. 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 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’re concerned. 

Predators waiting for their next victim
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. 

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 a former FBI agent, behavioral profiler and hostage negotiator as well as an MSNBC analyst. His Web site, , provides readers with security-related information.