Go Safe or Go Home: 6 Tips for Ensuring Health and Safety on a Travel Program
From the mundane (“Is it safe to drink the water?”) to the catastrophic (“What if the volcano erupts?”), it’s normal for travelers to have concerns about their health and safety while abroad, no matter the destination. As the organization representative or leader, it’s your job to help prepare your participants and set the tone for the trip. And while no environment — at home or abroad — is ever completely risk-free, with a little planning, you can alleviate your travelers’ fears and enjoy the surprises that make travel so rewarding.
1. Educate yourself about the destination. Armed with reliable information, you’ll be able to answer questions before they even arise. In addition to your travel provider, two good resources include the US Department of State, which publishes up-to-date, country-specific information about local laws, crime risks, and travel alerts and warnings, and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, which outlines the required and recommended vaccinations and other health precautions relevant to your destination. It’s also wise to consult your physician or the travel nurse at your county’s public health clinic, who can make suggestions based on your specific itinerary and your personal health history; advise your travelers to do the same.
2. Know your itinerary. Familiarize yourself not just with the country you’re visiting, but also with your itinerary and the physical requirements of each activity. Before departure, communicate to participants about special circumstances or strenuous activities that may require additional preparation or equipment, like a walking stick or hiking poles, special footwear, or medication to prevent motion sickness. There may also be times when an activity is too strenuous for a particular traveler. As the group leader, you may need to help that person decide whether they can safely participate, or find a way to modify the activity to their abilities.
3. Remind participants that preparation is key. Many risks can be reduced or eliminated with a little advance planning. In regions where malaria is present, for example, advise your group members to follow a combination of preventative drugs (if recommended by your physician), insect repellent, and long-sleeved clothing to significantly reduce your risk of contracting the disease. Another smart measure is for travelers to enroll in the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). This free service allows U.S. citizens traveling abroad to register their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate, making it easier for the U.S. Embassy and family and friends to contact you in an emergency.
4. Assume your travelers are naïve about risks. It’s easy for many participants to assume where they are going is like back home. Be sure to spell out precautions that may seem like common sense to seasoned globetrotters. Brief participants on personal security measures: don’t make yourself a target for pickpockets by wearing flashy or expensive jewelry; leave valuables at home (or in the hotel safe); always pay attention to your surroundings; watch for traffic (and know that pedestrians don’t always have the right of way in other countries); don’t walk alone at night, especially in unfamiliar areas.
5. Don’t sugarcoat it… Some destinations carry more risk, whether from political instability, a higher crime rate, or an outbreak of a serious disease. When communicating with your participants, glossing over the reality doesn’t help anybody. Be truthful, straightforward, and if a threat exists, acknowledge it without sensationalizing it. By downplaying the potential hazards, you could lose the trust of your travelers, or make it harder for them to properly prepare. Instead, provide them with accurate information so they can make informed decisions.
6. …But put dangers in context. It’s natural to hear about an event on the news – a terrorist attack, natural disaster, or political conflict – and fear for our own safety. Statistically speaking, however, the chances are relatively low of falling victim to these types of catastrophic incidents. Rather, you’re better off preparing for the risks you’re most likely to encounter. According to the U.S. Department of State, since October 2002 the most common cause of (non-health-related) death for U.S. travelers abroad was vehicular accidents. While the risk of a car accident can’t be eliminated, it can be reduced by taking precautions like buckling seatbelts, not carrying more travelers than a vehicle is designed to handle, and riding with trained, experienced drivers.
When it comes down to it, education goes a long way toward alleviating traveler fears. Knowing what to prepare for and taking reasonable precautions will help ensure everyone enjoys their experience.