How to: Cope with Civil Unrest Abroad

by  Teresa Bitler | Aug 14, 2014
Passport / goodmoments/iStock

You made travel plans months ago -- before your destination started making headlines for riots, bombings, and violence. What do you do now?

Most recently, civil unrest in Israel has forced many tourists to rethink their vacations, after trouble in Ukraine, Thailand, and other destinations in the past year. But does the violence you see on the news necessarily mean you have to cancel your trip?

Assess the risk.

News coverage can portray an entire country, such as Israel, as a war zone when only a portion, Gaza, is experiencing most of the violence. U.S. State Department travel advisories, blanketing an entire country, can be similarly deceiving. For a better indication of just how safe your destination is, check with the local visitors’ bureau, travel guides, social media, and other on-the-ground resources. These experts can tell you what the local conditions are like, including whether hotels are accepting guests and how public transportation is operating.

If you decide to cancel, you'll face some financial losses. 

If you decide to cancel your trip based on what you learn, be prepared to lose any deposits. Some people wrongly assume that if the U.S. State Department issues a travel warning or alert for a particular area, they'll be able to get a refund for their vacation expenditures. This isn’t the case, even if you purchase travelers insurance -- because travelers insurance doesn’t cover losses resulting from acts of war, and, believe it or not, civil unrest falls under this umbrella.

The only way you might recover your deposits is if you purchase a more extensive insurance policy with cancel-for-any-reason coverage. To be eligible for this benefit, though, you must purchase the policy within 21 days of paying your first trip deposit. Purchasing this type of coverage increases the price of the policy but reimburses up to 75 percent of your expenditures up to the cancellation.

Of course, all things considered, the money you've paid for the deposits are a relatively smaller risk compared bodily harm. It's up to you to weigh your options.

If you do travel, take precautions.

A governmental travel advisory doesn’t prohibit you from visiting a country, and in many cases it can be safe to visit countries with less stable areas, if you stay away from those. Still, if you decide to go, enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to notify the State Department of where and when you're going. That way, the U.S. government can notify you in the event of a crisis and assist you with evacuation should you need to leave in a hurry.

Usually, the embassy will contact registered citizens abroad by cell phone as well as local television and radio broadcasts, but if you find yourself in a dangerous situation and haven’t heard from the embassy -- or haven’t enrolled in Smart Traveler -- you can call the embassy directly. (It's a good idea to have that number handy.) If for some reason the embassy doesn’t answer, try +1-202-501-4444 for overseas calls and 888-407-4747 for US-based calls.

You'll also want to provide family and friends with your itinerary and contact information, so they can reach out to the State Department on your behalf if no one has heard from you.

Stay safe.

It's always a good rule of thumb to take note of your surroundings when you're traveling, either near or far. (Remember that violence can occur anywhere, even here in the States. Remember the 1992 Los Angeles riots or even the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests?) And when travel warnings encourage extra alertness, it's especially important to know where possible safe havens -- such as police stations, hospitals, and hotels -- are located in case of emergency.

If you do find yourself in a situation that seems to be escalating, stay calm. Keep your head down, avoid calling attention to yourself, and move to the edge of the growing mob. Then walk, don’t run, inside a building as quickly as possible -- riots usually happen outside -- and contact the U.S. embassy for further instruction.

Finally, don't try to be a hero. The State Department advises that if gunfire erupts, you should drop to the ground or shield yourself behind a solid object and not move until the danger has passed. If for some reason you urgently have to move, do so crawling on your stomach.

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