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