Omni Traveller

Budget Backpack Travel in Europe

How to Tell If a Country is Safe to Visit

Here’s the thing- with a few exceptions, foreign countries are usually very safe to visit. Even countries with a negative reputation for being dangerous are often offer more than a few quiet corners sheltered from the storm.

While I wouldn’t recommend travelling along the U.S.-Mexican border any time soon (kidnappings and daily beheadings do not make for a great vacation), a friend of mine spent half a year in Mexico in a small city on the coast south of the border and never encountered even a whiff of trouble. Another friend of mine spent quite a bit of time in Kenya and, aside from a close call with a bull shark, she never worried about her safety. She was even in Kenya during the political upheavals a couple years ago and said they were highly concentrated and didn’t cause a single problem for her or anyone she knew.

From my own experience the only times I’ve only ever felt unsafe walking around occurred in U.S. cities and the only time I’ve almost been mugged was in Albany, New York. The take away is simple- don’t assume a foreign country is going to be more dangerous than your own hometown just because it’s foreign.

That being said, there are plenty of cities, regions and corners of the world you probably don’t want to test your luck in, especially if you’re a first-time or novice traveller. Thankfully, you can take a few concrete steps to ensure your dream destination is safe to visit.


The Simplest Solution

If you want to travel abroad safely but you don’t want to spend any time digging to figure out where’s safe and where’s dangerous you can follow a simple rule of thumb- visit a country in Western Europe. This simple rule of thumb gives you access to Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Ireland, the U.K., France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, and Portugal. If you haven’t travelled before, or if you’ve travelled for a long time, or if you’re still new to travelling and skittish about where you set down, these wonderful countries will give you plenty of options as well as all the foreignness and the tang of culture shock you want without usually having to worry about anything more than petty theft.

If you’d prefer to pick your destination by simply eliminating options, think of it this way. If you avoid Africa, the Middle East, Mexico, Central America, South America, Burma (Myanmar), Pakistan, and Afghanistan then you’ll more likely to be just fine.

Following these suggestions is the simplest and most elegant way to pick a safe destination, but its over-generalization prevents you from checking out a number of perfectly safe countries that happen to be bordered by slightly more problematic locales. If you have a destination in mind you’d like to check out that doesn’t fall into the above destinations then follow the next step to take a slightly more refined approach.


Tapping the Feds

The U.S Department of State (DOS) runs one of the most useful websites for international travellers. Why is that? The DOS keeps a fully updated and publically accessible database of information on every country in the world. These breakdowns include helpful information including visa requirements as well as travel warnings and potential safety concerns you need to keep an eye out for. While remaining concise in their breakdowns the DOS is nice and thorough when discussing potential safety issues, listing everything from pick pocketing concerns to commonly run scams to recent terrorist attacks targeting U.S. citizens.

In addition to offering these country-specific breakdowns the DOS also offers their Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. Once you sign up for this program you can input trips you’re planning on taking (or are in the middle of taking) and the DOS will send you alerts, warnings and updates relevant to your itinerary. Signing up for the program also gives you a direct line to information in the case of evacuations and other forms of assistance offered to U.S. citizens travelling abroad who find themselves in the middle of a crisis.

Signing up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program is a good idea. While privacy concerns are understandable, you have to understand that simply flying to a foreign country and using your passport to cross borders leaves an easily traceable paper trail in and of itself. If the government wants to track your travel plans they can do so usually very easily without you volunteering them upfront. Don’t use paranoia as an excuse to avoid a program that can really help you out in a pinch.

If you still don’t want to sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program you don’t need to, but still consider checking the DOS’ website for information on your prospective travel destinations a mandatory step when assessing the safety of a foreign country.

The Canadian and British governments and many other Commonwealth and Western European governments also provide travel information and advisories to their citizens travelling abroad, including visits to the United States.


Should I Visit a Potentially Unsafe Country?

Morocco is a destination high on my must visit list, despite the fact a quick look at its DOS page features the following information, placed front and centre and labelled under the heading “THREATS TO SAFETY.”

On April 28, 2011, in an attack against Western tourists, a terrorist bomb detonated at the Argana Café in Marrakesh’s Djemaa el-Fnasquare, killing 17 people and seriously injuring at least 19. …it is important for U.S. citizens to be keenly aware of their surroundings and adhere to prudent security practices such as avoiding predictable travel patterns and maintaining a low profile.

How could I possibly feel visiting Morocco is a good idea? Well, for several reasons:

  • I’m not a first-time traveller and have an amount of street smarts and personal safety awareness.
  • I’ve met many, many people who have visited Morocco and have heard of no problems whatsoever.
  • There’s a big difference between sporadic terrorist attacks and constant terrorist attacks, between the potential for danger and the guarantee of danger.

While you never want to discount the potential for danger while travelling abroad, once you get a couple trips under your belt you will realize there are many, many things in life you can’t control. Taking a few precautions to avoid outright war zones is a good idea, but beyond keeping your wits about you, there’s only so much you can do to remain completely safe at all times, both abroad and at home.