Gap Year Travel Safety

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Traveling safely is no joke. In all honesty, half of our lists here have been learned the hard way – so please take our word from it that if the fire is hot, there’s no need to burn yourself to be sure.

International & Domestic

Check the medical situation

Does the region you’re visiting recommend certain vaccinations or medical supplies be on hand before you arrive? Do you have any personal medical concerns that need to be addressed before you travel? Keep in mind some medications (like malaria pills) will need to be taken weeks and sometimes months in advance.

Know where you’ll be staying

Especially for the first few nights. Youth Hosteling Association (YHA), or Hosteling International (HI) are great resources to find yourself in safe living situations. They have high standards and safety is paramount for their good name.

Communication

If you’re traveling alone, get a cell phone and know your emergency phone numbers. As well, check for relevant apps such as the State Department one that lists embassy phone numbers and addresses. Have regular check-in times with family. Partially so that they can live vicariously through you and your experiences, but also as a safety measure to make sure in case something happens they’ll know ASAP.

Take care of yourself

If you’re sick, don’t waste time wondering how bad it is. For many Gap Year students health takes on a secondary-import because they’re used to having a parent there to tell them when something is bad and when it’s just healing normally. If you’re not sure, call home or go to a doctor!

Driving

If you’re going to drive, make sure you have proper insurance and know the rules of the road. Stay off of motorcycles. We know it’s tempting, but in the Peace Corps they’ll send you home even if they suspect you rode one… they’re that dangerous! Also, in EVERY case, the time you’re most at risk is in a motor vehicle. Make sure you at least have a short conversation with every driver to make sure they’re awake and sober: and wear a seat belt (if there is one).

Keep up with your street smarts

Before you go out, ask the locals what areas are safe and which aren’t. Even in New York city, there’s areas you just don’t go at night alone!

Look before you leap

If there’s a crowd of people, don’t let curiosity get the best of you . . . stay away until you REALLY understand what’s going on.

Let it go

Nothing in life is certain, but, if you’re mugged, the best thing to do is usually just give up what you have. Whether it’s drugs they’re after, cash, or your passport, all are easily enough replaced and in every case will be cheaper than a hospital bill if you resist. But, the one thing that we can assure you of is that an ounce of prevention is worth a ton in gratitude: pay attention; if you feel uncomfortable, go somewhere safe; and reserve a little skepticism about everyone and their intentions.

Prepare for everything

It never hurts to get certified in wilderness medicine through WMI, WMA, or SOLO. These are some of the most reliable ways to make sure that you can take care of yourself in an emergency.

Alcohol and drugs are dangerous

In cases of rape while traveling, there’s almost a 90% correlation with alcohol. Even marijuana, in some countries can carry a death sentence. The bottom line is that if your goal in your Gap Year is to party, then you’re not taking a “Gap Year.”

International Only

1. Know your Embassy’s phone numbers.

2. Visit the State Department website for any travel warnings, and WATCH THE NEWS.

3. Visit the State Department website to see what areas you need a visa for and which ones you can get ‘on arrival.’ Every country you travel to will have an immigration department, and without adequate preparation you may not even be able to enter the country!

4. Register with the State Department’s Smart Travelers Enrollment Program.

5. In questionable situations, if you can’t boil it, cook it, or peel it, don’t eat it.

6. Scan your passport and email a copy to yourself. This is just in case yours gets lost, stolen, or a tiger eats it… in this way you have a digital copy so that you can more easily prove you are who you say you are to the embassy when you’re trying to get a new one.

7. If you lose your passport, contact the embassy immediately – delaying this call will only mean a delay in getting a new one as they now have to check to see if your passport has been used illegally and thus taking more time for them… oh yeah, and more time for you!

Let us know if you have any other essential travel safety tips to know before you go!

“A Visitor, Not A Victim!” – Staying Safe Traveling Overseas on a Gap Year

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Before you go to college, or when you are there, are you planning to enjoy the intellectual and memorable experience of traveling abroad? Last year approximately 300,000 American students traveled overseas; the majority had a great time and returned home safely. However, a few did not! They became victims of accidents, petty or serious crime and, occasionally, terrorism. As a result, I’m sure you share our concern for your safety when you go abroad.

The majority of these problems are avoidable if you are aware of the risks when overseas. In fact, most victims of crime unwittingly put themselves into a vulnerable situation. No doubt you are already aware of some of the “do’s and don’ts” when traveling, but are you sure you have considered all the issues that could arise?

  • How should you be prepared for a traffic accident which results in your being taken to a hospital unconscious?
  • How should you evacuate from a smoke filled, burning building?
  • How can you stay out of trouble when you travel to other cities in the region beyond your initial destination?

Study Abroad Safely 101

Study Abroad Safely is a web based course designed to address these questions – and many more. It was developed to prepare you for the security challenges you will face abroad – and to reassure your parents and family that you will be thoroughly prepared to look after yourself during your trip.

This course was conceptualized and designed through the collaboration of a former British Intelligence Officer and his wife, both of whom have worked and traveled all over the world, a former executive leader of one of the largest and most respected international educational exchange programs in the U.S., and a defense contractor who is a mother of three children, all of whom have participated in study abroad programs.

In under two hours, you and your parents can consider how you should prepare for the trip, how you need to maintain situational awareness during your visit abroad and how you, and they, should respond in every imaginable emergency situation. The course addresses medical and health issues in detail, how to avoid accidents, your security when you arrive and at your accommodation, and staying out of trouble when out and about during the day – and at night. It will enable you to enjoy your trip – and stay safe.

The course is fun to watch and provides travel safety recommendations that will remain applicable for the rest of your life beyond this particular trip.

AGA Discount!

The course is available through the American Gap Association for only $49 and can be viewed repeatedly over a period of 3 days. It concludes with a list of useful websites to assist your further pre-travel research and a template for the preparation of your personal Communications and Action Plan.

Enter the discount code: AGA-2016

When you are overseas, only one person is responsible for your personal safety and that person is you!

Watch this course so you will be a “Visitor, not a Victim”!

Endorsements

“I have been organizing groups of high school students traveling to all corners of the world for years. Although designed for university age students, I believe this course contains invaluable advice for all student travelers. I strongly recommend it to students, parents and any trip supervisors.”
Melissa Brown, Director of Global Education, Holton-Arms School, Bethesda, MD

“What you have done with these videos and their message is amazing! I enjoyed every minute of the tutorials. They thoroughly covered every situation as well as various methods of preparation necessary for any study abroad opportunity. Your program is the first time I’ve really felt that every possible scenario has been discussed and I was learning something new. It actually taught me a couple of new tricks.

It was both very informative and fun to go through. I recommend it to anyone before their first trip abroad or their next study abroad experience. It was wonderful to see that this program not only presented common situations for students and parents involved in study abroad, but it also emphasized the importance of respecting foreign culture and societal customs.
This program is worth watching, and I cannot wait to tell my friends and classmates about it!”
Kali B – College student

“I would recommend this program to everyone who will be studying abroad in the future! Through the knowledge I gained from this program I felt I was well suited while traveling abroad in Europe. The lessons I learned allowed me to be the only student in my group in Barcelona to not have experiences with stolen property. I felt comfortable while traveling abroad and owe that to this program.”
Courtney E – College student

“I thoroughly enjoyed the course. I now realize the importance of preparation for my future trips abroad and how I can better look after myself while I’m away. I was also surprised to learn how the US Embassies overseas could help me in an emergency. I would recommend this course to all my friends who are traveling overseas.”
Megan S. – High school student and Summer Immersion Program participant

Health & Safety on Your Gap Year

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safetyAmidst all your day dreamings for the amazing adventures you are going to have on your gap year (picture it: breakfast picnicking in front of Angkor Wat at sunrise, making a tangible difference in a small Tanzanian community, tracking wombats and other wild animals in the Outback…) it is easy to skim over preparing your mind and heart for potential disaster, or serious safety issue.

But let’s be real. Being proactive in ensuring your safety is downright SEXY. Here are a few tips to ensure your gap year is as safe as can be:

Medical Preparations & Response

Few people like to deal with health issues in their own country, let alone when in a foreign country, completely isolated from your support network, or without a Chipotle burrito to ease the pain. Nonetheless, gap year students should be mentally prepared to handle medical emergencies as smoothly as possible while abroad.

Health

The Delhi belly, dehydration, hard-to-pronounce viruses, the common cold, strep, the flu. You’ll be exposed to a lot of new germs while traveling on your gap year, and if you can make it the whole year without getting a little bit sick, you’re basically superman. Here are some general health-related safety tips to ensure gap year success.

Before you go:

  • Find out if your travel destinations require any specific medication or immunizations prior to entering the country.
  • Get travel insurance! It does add to your overall program cost, but it can save you when you’re in a bind. Have digital and physical access to your policy.
  • Create digital copies of your medical records and share them with your immediate family. Print a copy for your pack.
  • If you have specific allergies or diet restrictions, memorize how to communicate those in the language(s) of your destination(s).
  • Save the emergency response number into your phone or commit it to memory.
  • Ask your mom and dad to help you create a credit line specifically for medical emergencies that happen as you travel.

If something happens:

Depending on the level of your illness, you may opt to visit a doctor or clinic in-country. The good news is that medical care is typically (much) more affordable in foreign countries. The bad news is you usually have to pay for your medical expenses up front (and get reimbursed later from your insurance). If you have the credit card handy, this shouldn’t be too much of an issue!

Let your program director, or coordinator, know of your illness, and ask them what the best means for letting your family know is. (Parents understandably tend to freak out when they know their precious baby is sick and they can’t do much to help them. It’s important you tell parents tactfully, otherwise they might presume you got bitten by a shark).

Medicines might look different than you’re used to – new brands, new methods of administering, weird colors, etc. Be open to using local methods of healing (it can be a really neat cultural learning experience!) but don’t rely on it if you’re not comfortable. Most places have a foreign hospital ($$$) where you can get more familiar health care.
Stay positive! This too, shall pass.

Dealing With Injury or Accidents

No matter how prepared you are, sometimes things just… happen. Much like back home, it’s important to stay alert (and try not to make dumb choices that increase your likelihood of danger) as much as possible.

Before you go:

Again, insurance is key here. Unnecessary medical expenses = the worst.
Ensure you have a chain of emergency communication in place and that it is understood. For instance, you might have to deal with the incident directly with your program provider before alerting your parents. Understand the steps.
Save the emergency response number into your phone or commit it to memory.

If something happens:

Get yourself to a doctor! Your #1 priority is your health and safety. Seek medical attention immediately. Call the emergency dial number or hop in a taxi to the Emergency Room.
Alert your program leaders or on-the-ground site staff of your situation as soon as possible.

General Safety Tips

Not all dangers are confined to what’s going on in your body.

Be Cautious When Solo Exploring.

It is perfectly fine for you to strike out on your own while doing your gap year (duh!). But keep your wits about you. Whenever possible, be sure to let someone else know when you are off to do some independent exploring. You don’t need to give them your entire itinerary or a projected play-by-play, but giving the individual a general time frame to expect your return is helpful (and can keep you safe).

For our intrepid female travelers, additional precautions are unfortunately necessary. You will want to be extra vigilant whenever you are going solo, including actively avoiding sketchy areas, dark walkways, or individuals who give you a bad vibe. Don’t tell strangers the specifics of where you are staying. You might even consider enrolling in a self-defense course prior to your gap year. Even if you don’t travel, it’s empowering!

Regardless of your gender, it is generally advisable to avoid wandering alone in unfamiliar areas at night (especially in the wee hours of morn’). Be aware of your surroundings at all times and always remain alert. Try to dress modestly to draw less attention to yourself – now’s not the time to be flashy with smart phones, fancy jewelry, or fat wallets.

A quick recipe for not losing your valuables:

Take one backpack full of valuables
Add one part padlock
Mix in two parts physical copies of your important documents (insurance, passport, address)
Sprinkle in one part digital copies of your important documents
Add 4 parts organization
Separate cash, credit cards, and ATM cards into multiple places

And voila! Your belongings are much more likely to start AND end the trip with you.

Booze Responsibly

You might end up imbibing in a little international drinky-drink while on your gap year abroad. As with any time you indulge in booze, you should be smart about it.

If you do decide to drink alcohol while on your gap year, do it only legally and with people you and trust. If possible, have one member of your group stay sober (or to drink significantly less than the others). Just don’t get too drunk. Once you’re wasted-face, you become an easy target for crimes of all kinds. You might get robbed, raped, sexually assaulted. Kidnapped. It’s not a joke, and gap year students should opt to not drink heavily while abroad.

Besides, it’s usually counter-productive to accomplishing your goals, expensive, and can leave you with a headache (and sometimes regret).

Write Your Address Down!

It’s always handy to keep the address of your hostel, project placement, or accommodations in your wallet – written in both English and the native tongue. While relying on a photo from your phone or a Maps app sounds like a good idea in theory, it can quickly become moot if your phone can’t keep its charge.

Oftentimes, it is easier to hand over a written-version of your address versus stumbling and mispronouncing it to your transit folks, anyway.

So there you have it…
Safe as safe can be.

Photo Credit: Jayakumar Ananthan

Article contributed by Megan Lee