Editor's Note: This is the fourth installment in a series in which Stratfor discusses the many facets of travel security. Click here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 5, Part 6 and Part 7.
International travel necessarily entails logistical concerns — scheduling flights, tracking luggage, finding accommodations. Indeed, it can be easy to forget that such travel does not end when a traveler arrives at the airport of his or her destination country. Once a traveler has arrived, he or she must get from one place to another within the country — an act that presents entirely new risks to a traveler.
In general, it is safer to use low-profile private transportation than public transportation when traveling abroad. Safety, however, is not the only consideration most travelers have when planning to get around in their destination country. Money and convenience also play a part, in which case they may want to consider using public transportation. Regardless of the reasons public transportation is used, the risks involved in utilizing public transportation remain. In this installment in our series on travel security, we will explain these risks and the ways in which travelers can protect themselves while using public transportation.
What to Expect
The majority of crimes committed against travelers using public transportation in foreign countries are not violent but petty, such as pickpocketing. (That is not to say serious crime is unheard of; in Tokyo and Cairo, women-only subway cars are maintained to prevent women being groped, a huge problem in those cities.) In fact, airports, subway trains and stations and bus stations all over the world are notorious for pickpockets, as criminals look to prey on tired and disoriented travelers. The simplest and most frequently used tactic in these locations is the "bump and grab." In this tactic, pickpockets will misdirect their victim’s attention while removing a wallet from a pocket or backpack. Other methods involve the criminal using a razor blade to cut the bottom of a backpack or purse and removing the contents within, especially if the thief has observed a person putting their money in the bottom of a bag where they think it is safest. The "grab and run" is also popular method, especially if a person has put their purse or laptop bag on their shoulder and not across their body, or left it on a chair next to them.
On a bus or a subway car, travelers can fall victim to all manner of schemes. In Guatemala, for example, pickpockets frequently target foreign travelers packed into old school buses — the country’s version of municipal buses. Many travelers keep valuables in side pockets and in cargo pockets, which criminals will cut open to remove the contents. Baggage stowed under a seat is liable to be stolen by a thief sitting behind the owner. In some instances, thieves will take a bag from an overheard bin and quickly throw it out the window to an accomplice. It is not uncommon for street gangs to board buses and demand a tax be paid for passage through their territory — although they usually target the bus drivers. Moreover, buses and private shuttles also can be targets for criminals in rural areas where there is little or no law enforcement presence.
Travelers can counter these threats in a number of ways. The best place to put a bag is above or in front of the seat if possible, with other valuables placed in the lap. Important documents should be located on a traveler’s person, separate from money and other valuables. They should always keep important items well inside their bag, rather than in the outer pockets, especially in the top section of a backpack. Travelers should wear a smaller bag or purse across the shoulder and position it in front — men can place a smaller backpack with important documents on their chests instead of their backs. It is a good idea to keep small locks on bags because despite being seemingly easy to break, they deter theft by causing a criminal move on to easier targets. When exchanging money for a ticket or fare, a traveler should take care to not flash all his or her money at once — this is a surefire way to get unwanted attention. Travelers can keep a small amount easily accessible in a front pocket for small purchases but can keep the bulk of their money hidden elsewhere. Also, if a traveler is forced to evade criminals, keeping in mind possible safe areas — a ticket booth in a subway, for example — is highly advisable.
It should here be noted that airports and bus and metro stations are prime targets for terrorist attacks. These locations both offer militants the opportunity to inflict mass casualties and allow them to attack specific groups, such as U.S. tourists on their way to see a historic site or Israeli soldiers waiting at a bus station in Tel Aviv. Thus, situational awareness, the knowledge of how to identify threats and communication with employees or other passengers is critically important.
Taxis present a problem for travelers all around the world and should only be used if deemed safe by an associate or trusted local. Taxi drivers pose a number of threats, some of which, like overcharging for a ride, are relatively benign. Other, more sinister ones involve actively helping a criminal gang rob or conduct an express kidnapping on a traveler.
Taxi drivers, by nature, are in a position of power because they know where they are going and how much the ride should cost. One way to mitigate the driver’s power is through preparation prior to the ride. This can be done by researching travel blogs, contacting a hotel or asking business associates and contacts in country. A traveler should only use official taxis. Many cities will have designated taxi stands where a person can go to hail a taxi. A traveler can often get an estimated fare from this stand. It is generally advisable to never hail a taxi from the street. In some places, such as Mexico City or San Salvador, hailing a cab in such a manner makes it easier for kidnappers to grab a person standing on a curb.
A traveler should never take a "black" taxi, which can be an unofficial taxi or even a normal car. Not only is it illegal to do so, it also puts a traveler at risk for crime. Moreover, the drivers themselves run the risk being assaulted by official taxi drivers who see black taxis as an encroachment on their business. When getting in a taxi, a traveler should check to see if the door locks and the windows are operable. A traveler should never allow the driver to bring along a "brother" or "friend" — such a scheme is likely a prelude to an attack. More often than not, there will be metered taxis in a country. A traveler should never use a taxi if the driver refuses to turn on the meter, and if there is a question about the price in most developed cities, asking a witness at the final destination how much a taxi ride should cost is a good way to avoid being overcharged. In places where taxis do not have meters, a traveler should negotiate the price beforehand.
There are alternatives to public transportation. As stated before, using private transportation is generally safer than using public transportation. Cars and drivers can be hired in advance, upon recommendation by reliable local sources, other travelers or business contacts. Hotels can also make recommendations for private drivers or accredited taxi companies. A traveler can usually trust these drivers because they likely have a longstanding relationship with the hotel — they would not want to jeopardize that relationship by putting the passenger in danger. Private transportation is expensive, however.
Detailed and customized information about specific threats to travelers overseas can be obtained by utilizing a private security consulting firm. In addition, consular information sheets provided by the U.S. State Department and similar services provided by the British and Australian foreign ministries list common crime and/or transportation problems for particular countries.
As always, situational awareness is the key to being safe and protecting ones property. A traveler's awareness of the risk environment he or she is in can prevent risks before they occur — listening to music loudly with headphones or having one’s nose in a book is generally inadvisable. Even in relatively safe cities, absentminded travelers can fall victim to petty crime on a subway or bus. Travelers are best served making an ally or friend, be it the bus driver or someone in a nearby seat. In some cultures, such a relationship can foster a sense of responsibility in the local. Whatever the case, a traveler appearing likable will prove beneficial in the event he or she falls victim to the risks of public transportation.