My Itchy Travel Feet | The Baby Boomer's Guide To Travel

5 Tips To Avoid a Travel Nightmare

2011/11/10by Donna Hull

Last week, I reviewed a book to help boomers travel safely, Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us, by Mary Ellen O’Toole, PhD. Today, Mary Ellen is back to share 5 tips so that we don’t experience any travel nightmares.

As a former FBI profiler, I think about travel a lot differently than most boomers my age. It’s the instinct of most people to relax when they are away from home. They are often away from the hassles of work and other sources of stress. They are often going to a beautiful location, one they’ve been looking forward to going to for a while. The usual precautions that they often take at home suddenly vanish. They relax into a false sense of safety.

And it can be deadly.

Our instinct to relax and let down our guard when away from home is a dangerous one. After all, we are going to an unfamiliar place full of unfamiliar people. We don’t know many pieces of information that we generally do know at home. For instance, we don’t know the crime problems that are typical in a given area. We don’t always know the basic laws or customs. Sometimes we don’t even know about the types of dangerous animals we might meet.

Indeed, if anything travel requires heightened vigilance. Whenever I travel, I follow these 5 precautions.

1. Learn the laws of the land.

It’s our dangerous instinct to assume that what is allowed in our home country will also be allowed somewhere else. This simply is not the case, though. Some countries are very strict about certain infractions such as drug use and vandalism. Some prescription drugs and over the counter drugs that are legal in the US are illegal in some other counties. In some places, these activities are punished by a severe flogging or even death. Even in a European country where the punishments are not as severe, you still don’t want to ruin your vacation, and possibly the next few years of your life, by getting tangled up in an unfamiliar legal system over something as seemingly minor as an unpaid parking ticket, speeding ticket or something else.

Make sure you know what is against the law where you are traveling and what is not.

2. Thoroughly screen your travel companions.

It’s our dangerous instinct to assume that people who are similar to us don’t pose a threat to us. For instance, boomers tend to trust other boomers. People of faith tend to trust other people of faith and so on. Yet just because someone is a member of your travel club or your age doesn’t mean that someone can’t get you into trouble while you travel together. As soon as you buddy up with someone by sharing a car or a room together, that person’s problems become your problems, too. That’s why you want to take extra precautions to make sure you’ve picked travel companions who are not only in sync with your interests and personality, but who also won’t get you into legal hot water by bringing illegal drugs into a foreign country, disobeying the driving laws or something else.

3. Know the local crime problems.

We like to think that anywhere that is not home is safe and crime free, but this just isn’t true. It’s especially important to be aware of crimes that target tourists. Do people tend to get pick pocketed in a certain area? Is there a scam that uses tour guides as a ruse? Find out as much as you can about the local crime problems so you can anticipate them and avoid problems.

4. Register with the U.S. State Department.

The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a free government service that allows the Department of State to more effectively assist you in case of an emergency. For instance, let’s say you happened to be in a country when a huge earthquake or another natural disaster hit, The Department of State would know you were there and be able to respond with help. The registration is easy, just go to: https://travelregistration.state.gov/ibrs/ui/. It’s also a good idea to know where the U.S. Embassy is at your destination. Finally, it’s a good idea to purchase travelers insurance  that covers airlifting you out of a country if needed for medical reasons.

5. Stay at hotels with a track record for safety

Read all of the online reviews and do research about the best places to stay. If you are traveling to an area for the first time, it’s probably safer to stay in a brand name hotel or resort than a lesser-known hideaway that you can find no reviews on. You can always check out the hideaway while in town and stay there on your next visit if it turns out to be legit.

Thanks to Mary Ellen, Alan and I will be traveling safely on our boomer adventures. Do you have any tips to add to the list?  Post a comment to share them with us.

Mary Ellen O’Toole, PhD, is a former FBI profiler and author of Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us (Hudson Street Press, 2011). She has tracked down, interviewed or studied some of the world’s most infamous criminals including the Green River Killer (Gary Ridgway), the Serial Killer of Baton Rouge (Derrick Todd Lee) and the Unabomber (Ted Kaczynski). She also worked the Columbine, Elizabeth Smart, Polly Klaas and many other high profile cases. You can learn more about her and her book at MaryEllenOToole.com.

Disclosure: I have included an Amazon Link to Dangerous Instincts for your convenience; however, My Itchy Travel Feet does receive a small percentage for purchases made at Amazon.com.

Writing colleague and friend, Alisa Bowman is O’Toole’s co-author. She is also the author of the book and website, Project Happily Ever After, where she shares advice on how she saved her marriage.

New here? We hope you’ll come again. To keep up with us, subscribe to our posts, sign up for our monthly newsletter or keep up with baby boomer travel news and deals at the My Itchy Travel Feet page on Facebook.


A boomer travel and lifestyle authority who is exploring the world one activity at a time. Besides writing and publishing My Itchy Travel Feet, she also writes about boomer travel for My Well-Being Powered by Humana, Make It Missoula and is the author of New Mexico Backroads Weekend Adventure.

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Alexandra November 10, 2011 at 7:12 am

Lots of good tips here! When I moved to France in 1969, I registered with the State Department. Once I became a resident, I forgot this sensible suggestion and no longer do so when I travel. Thanks for the reminder.
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Donna Hull
Twitter:
November 12, 2011 at 12:25 pm

You welcome. It is a good reminder.

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wandering educators
Twitter:
November 10, 2011 at 7:41 am

fantastic tips – THANK YOU!
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Donna Hull
Twitter:
November 12, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Thanks for stopping by, Jessie. Glad you found Mary Ellen’s tips helpful.

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NoPotCooking
Twitter:
November 10, 2011 at 7:42 am

These are great tips. In deciding which Caribbean island to go to this spring, I checked the State Dept web site to read what they said about safety. This completely ruled out several places for me. My husband is going to be traveling to India on business and I am going to have him register with the safe traveler program – thanks for the tip!
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Donna Hull
Twitter:
November 12, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Brette, read the State Department web site with caution. Sometimes they go overboard, in my opinion. And then there is the matter of foreign policy politics that also affects those warnings.

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Living Large November 10, 2011 at 8:32 am

Brilliant trips, something I never even considered when traveling to Europe was registering with the State Department. If I ever do it again, I will follow this good tip.
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Donna Hull
Twitter:
November 12, 2011 at 12:23 pm

To me, registering with the State Department is one of the most important boomer travel tips in Mary Ellen’s post.

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Patty November 10, 2011 at 8:48 am

…and I thought all I had to protect myeself against was bedbugs! Lots of good information here for boomers and beyond. Thank-you. P.
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Donna Hull
Twitter:
November 12, 2011 at 12:21 pm

Glad Mary Ellen’s tips proved helpful to you Patty.

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Jane Boursaw
Twitter:
November 10, 2011 at 9:50 am

I think that’s one reason I’m iffy about traveling – you just never know what could happen. Good to plan ahead and be prepared.
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Donna Hull
Twitter:
November 12, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Jane, when I look at all of my travels, I can only think of one time where there was an issue. A ticket clerk at the South African Airways counter in Johannesburg copied our credit card for fraudulent use. Luckily, we had notified the cc company about our overseas travel. It was easily fixed. While Mary Ellen’s advice is good, please don’t let it scare you away from travel. Those same issues could happen at home.

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Mark H November 10, 2011 at 2:49 pm

Interesting tips. While sensible travel precautions are important especially in the areas of safety and health, I do think people can become overly “spooked” by travelling overseas and get to the point where everything and everyone is out to get them. While the author would liekly disagree, I do think common sense and “gut feeling” goes a long way in travelling enjoyably and safely.
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Donna Hull
Twitter:
November 12, 2011 at 12:16 pm

I hear you, Mark. My gut feeling has always guided me in the right direction. Maybe I was just lucky?

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Kerry Dexter
Twitter:
November 10, 2011 at 4:31 pm

reasonable tips, certainly. I tend to agree with Mark, above, that travelers can become too suspicious, but at times I see behavior that is too trusting, too. also, the further you get off the beaten path, the further you are from an American Embassy and brand name hotel, but the ideas of being observant, thoughtful, and gathering information still apply, and it is good to be reminded of those things.
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Donna Hull
Twitter:
November 12, 2011 at 12:16 pm

Being observant seems to be the key. I’m with you and Mark, being too suspicious is not the way I want to live my life.

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Sheryl November 10, 2011 at 6:23 pm

Fabulous list of reminders. It is so easy to become complacent, especially when you are in vacation mode. I am going to share these tips with every traveler I know!

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Donna Hull
Twitter:
November 12, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Thanks, Sheryl. These are good reminders. Mary Ellen has a point about being too relaxed when traveling, although that’s what I thought vacations were supposed to be about.

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Susan November 11, 2011 at 7:56 am

Great suggestions! Better safe than sorry. When I studied abroad in London, I did not think to register through the state department, since I was there through my university’s study abroad program and I figured they’d take care of it if anything happened. Not a bad idea to do both just in case.

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Donna Hull
Twitter:
November 12, 2011 at 12:13 pm

Susan, I think registering with the State Department is a very good idea, especially when visiting off-the-beaten-path destinations, which London is not. :-)

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merr November 11, 2011 at 8:57 am

This is advice I will retain for our next trip abroad.

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Donna Hull
Twitter:
November 12, 2011 at 12:12 pm

I especially like the tip for registering with the State Department. That’s a new one for me.

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MyKidsEatSquid November 11, 2011 at 6:04 pm

I hadn’t heard about the option to register with the state department, excellent idea. On our last trip abroad, we signed up for travel insurance, along with reimbursing us for trip expenses if we had to cancel, it also provided help if we had an issue on our trip.
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Donna Hull
Twitter:
November 12, 2011 at 12:11 pm

We always purchase travel insurance, especially when traveling on expensive trips. Alan and I also buy a yearly membership at MedJet Assist. Their evacuation program far surpasses travel insurance options. Plus, it works in the U.S. too.

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Sherry Ott
Twitter:
November 15, 2011 at 12:59 am

I don’t agree with this statement – “We like to think that anywhere that is not home is safe and crime free” – I think it’s quite the opposite – everyone is scared to travel thanks to everything they see in media. One of the biggest fears I’ve found in people not making the choice to travel is the fear of travel itself.
I do think there are some really good tips in this article – especially the STEP registration – I always use it. However – I am a bit torn as articles like these as they freak people out unnecessarily in my opinion. It’s about common sense…use it at home and abroad. Traveling is no more dangerous than living at home and commuting to work every day. At least that’s my opinion!
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Donna Hull
Twitter:
November 16, 2011 at 7:45 am

I hope this article doesn’t scare anyone away from traveling and I don’t think that’s Mary Ellen’s intention. Actually Dangerous Instincts is not so much about how to stay safe during travel. Instead, it’s an approach to living one’s life safely. I don’t agree with all of the concepts but there are some very good suggestions included. Thanks for commenting, Sherry. I always value your opinion.

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David Bennett
Twitter:
November 20, 2011 at 4:23 am

I am not quite sure what audience the article is aimed at, but I picture someone who does not trust their own judgement and who is out of their depth once they leave their own comfort zone at home.

I get a tremor of disquiet when I am about to set out on my travels, and I sometimes feel edgy when I arrive, but as with all things in life – learning to have confidence in oneself and not to let one’s imagination run away with itself is part of what travel has to offer.

Which is not to say that one should ignore safety – it is just the safety is a flexible notion.
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Donna Hull
Twitter:
November 22, 2011 at 7:26 pm

David, I agree that safety is a flexible notion. This article is aimed at a baby boomer audience – some are expert travelers while others are just starting out to explore the world. Mary Ellen O’Toole’s book, Dangerous Instincts, is based upon her experience as a top FBI profiler. Through her work, she discovered that those who rely on gut feelings to make decisions oftentimes put themselves in danger unwittingly.

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David Bennett
Twitter:
November 23, 2011 at 3:41 am

Thanks Donna,
Yes, it’s a tough one to balance – traveling for adventure versus letting fear of the unknown govern one’s actions to point of making one immobile.
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