How to keep a low profile when traveling abroad

Times Staff Writer

You're traveling abroad, and you've left at home the trappings that fairly shriek "rich American": the logo baseball caps and T-shirts, the expensive athletic shoes, the designer watch and flashy jewelry. That's about all you can do to keep from being targeted by a terrorist, a con artist or a thief, right?


"You can never be too careful, too prepared or too aware," says Kevin Coffey, a scam expert and longtime police detective.

Fear of crime or terrorism shouldn't stop anyone from traveling, whether in the U.S. or abroad. As Rick Steves, host of public television's "Rick Steves' Europe," reminds us: "Twelve million Americans went to Europe last year, and no one was hurt by terrorists."

Nevertheless, the bombing last fall of a Bali nightclub in which almost 200 people were killed -- mostly foreign tourists -- is a reminder that terrorism is an ongoing threat.

The State Department advises Americans traveling abroad to make themselves aware of possible problems in their destination country and to be alert when visiting sites where Westerners congregate, such as tourist restaurants and shopping malls. It may be better to stay and dine at modest establishments instead of the high-profile places that wealthy travelers frequent.

U.S. citizens abroad should also dress inconspicuously (no cowboy boots or hats) and appropriately for the situation (avoid flamboyant or extreme fashions), and avoid loud conversations or arguments. Learning a few phrases in the local language will be useful too.

Here are some tips for dealing with the sticky situations you are more likely to encounter:

• Avoid the dangers -- and inflated fares -- of rogue cabs by using only those at an official airport cab stand. Ask your hotel to call a reliable cab company when you need transportation. Even with a metered cab, be sure to confirm the rate before entering.

• Remove identifying stickers from rental cars, which can be prime targets for thieves. When you're not in the car, consider leaving a local newspaper on the seat and leaving the glove compartment open and empty. Coffey suggests stopping well before your destination to transfer your valuables to your trunk.

• If you are a woman alone registering at a hotel, use your first initial, not your first name.

• If someone offers to be your guide, negotiate the fee beforehand. Make it clear in which currency you are negotiating.

• On a subway or bus, wear your day pack in front and your purse with the strap over one shoulder and across the chest, with the flap turned toward you.

• Carry your handbag on the side farthest from the street to avoid a drive-by snatching.

• If you see a swarm of children descending, duck into the nearest store or cafe. Another strategy: Scare them off by pointing your camera at them.

• For those who travel frequently, a cell phone that is compatible with foreign systems is a good investment. (Check with your service provider to see whether your phone will work in the country you're visiting.)

• Do not leave your luggage on the shelves in a train car. If you're traveling overnight, use cable locks to secure your bags to the overhead rack. If occupying a compartment, attach bells to the door handle to alert you to anyone entering.

• Don't let your credit card out of your sight.

• If you're being followed, duck into the nearest open door or flag down a cab and just sit in it for a few minutes.

• Set your bags down in front of you, not off to one side, in public places.

• Make photocopies of your passport, credit cards and other valuable documents before leaving, and leave copies with a friend or relative.

• Be careful when using ATMs. Cup your hand over the keyboard when punching in your personal identification number. Avoid machines on corners, where a thief can more readily hide. If someone offers help, refuse it. If you suspect something, cancel your transaction and leave. Try to use indoor ATMs during banking hours.

"The bottom line is, don't be nervous," Steves says. "Just be on the ball." And remember, he adds, that travel is about "gathering experiences and memories, not showing off your fancy jewelry."

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