The recent disappearance of Alabama teen Natalee Holloway while on a high school graduation trip in Aruba raises concerns about the safety of student tours, particularly to destinations known for having a "party" atmosphere. While the youth and inexperience of high school students may put them at higher risk than older travelers, college-age students visiting popular spring break resorts such as Cancun or Jamaica also need to be aware of the inherent risks that come with visiting foreign countries, particularly when partying is part of plan.
Unfortunately, crimes such as theft and assault are not uncommon during spring break. To reduce your risk, it's vital to be informed about your destination before you go and learn what precautions to take to avoid trouble once you arrive.
Research your tour operator
If you choose to book a trip with a tour operator rather than make your own arrangements, make sure you choose a reputable company with experience running trips to the area you wish to visit. Here are a few suggestions:
- Try booking a tour through a student travel agency such as StudentUniverse, STA, or Travel CUTS, as these companies tend to partner with well-established spring break tour operators.
- To learn about a tour operator you are unfamiliar with, contact the Student and Youth Travel Association or the Better Business Bureau.
- Look for tour operators that make a special effort to educate travelers about their destination. For instance, Melissa Cocca of StudentCity.com, says her company has mandatory destination-specific safety orientations for students upon arrival.
Research your destination
Whether you are a seasoned traveler or this is your first big trip, it's important to learn as much as you can about your destination before going. Every country's laws, customs, and standards for safety and health differ.
"My advice to any traveler is that the safest way to travel is to stay informed," says Kirsten McLellan of StudentUniverse, an online student travel agency. "The best defense against potential safety risks abroad is to be aware of the area you are traveling to and any potential risks or travel warnings you may encounter there."
Here are some tips:
- Start your research by visiting the U.S. State Department website, which has Consular Information Sheets for about 170 countries. These documents contain background information about travel and safety in each destination. The site also posts travel warnings and public announcements detailing any serious troubles involving crime, terrorism, health, natural disasters, or other dangers for certain countries. There are even travel tips written especially for students.
- Other good sources worth checking out include the website of the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate in your destination, guidebooks, material provided by your tour operator or university travel office, and online travel forums such as the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree.
- Find out if there any are particular areas you should avoid in your destination and what types of crimes and scams are common. For example, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico warns that the local police in the hotel district of Cancun have been known to extort tourists for bribes.
- Learn about the destination's laws governing alcohol consumption and other activities, as penalties for behaviors such as public drunkenness or drunk driving may be much harsher than in the U.S. Your citizenship won't save you prosecution under a foreign country's justice system.
- Learn about the local people's cultural beliefs. Women especially should be aware of cultural attitudes regarding dress and behavior to avoid harassment or worse.
- If English isn't widely spoken in the destination you're visiting, it's wise to learn at least a few words and phrases in the local language. Learning how to say things such as "Help," "Police," or "I need a doctor" may prove invaluable later on.
What you bring and what you leave behind can make a big difference:
- Make sure you bring all necessary forms of identification plus contact information for the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate and a phone number for your tour operator, school travel office, or travel agent.
- Don't bring expensive (or expensive-looking) jewelry or wads of cash that could make you an attractive target for thieves. Don't bring any other unnecessary items you'd regret losing such as iPods or DVD players.
- Leave your parents or another trusted adult with a way to get to get in touch with you, a copy of your itinerary, and copies of important documents such as your passport.
Stay safe during your trip
Specific safety tips vary from one destination to another, but some general precautions apply for trips anywhere:
- Never go out alone or leave a safe place with strangers, local people and fellow travelers included: Stick with friends you know and trust. Even if you meet people on your trip and they seem friendly, they might not have the best intentions. While indoors, also be careful of going into closed spaces such as elevators and stairwells by yourself.
- Don't give out personal information or tell strangers what hotel you're staying in or where you're going.
- If you consume alcohol, make sure you get your drinks directly from the bartender or a person you know and trust. Don't leave your drinks unattended.
- Be aware of your surroundings and trust your instincts if you feel that something is amiss. If you are being followed, a document prepared by the Office of International Education at the University of Richmond suggests you, "step into a store or other safe place and wait to see if the person you think is following has passed. Do not be afraid or embarrassed to ask for someone to double check for you to see if all is safe. Display confidence. By looking and acting as if you know where you're going, you may be able to ward off some potential danger."
- When going to the beach or pool, leave important valuables and documents in your hotel's safe deposit box, not in your room.
- To keep safe in your hotel room, a spring break safety tip sheet put out by Longwood University recommends the following: "Ensure there is a peep hole in the door and that the dead bolt and other locks are in good working order. Never open your door to anyone you do not know (if the person states they work for the hotel, call the front desk and confirm this before allowing them entry)."
- Use recommended shuttle services or buses to get around. Only use reputable, licensed taxi services.
While traveling anywhere involves some elements of risk, don't let fear ruin your trip or keep you from going. Use your concern as an impetus to learn about your destination and what precautions to take. With the help of this knowledge, you'll have more confidence while traveling and, like the vast majority of student travelers, you'll return home more relaxed after a trouble-free vacation.