September 11, 2001, was my first day at my new office in the Washington, DC area. I had transferred in from Seattle and had spent the weekend unpacking and settling in. That Tuesday morning, I was driving down the highway on the east side of the Pentagon when I saw an explosion on the west side. And as we know, that day changed everything.
I’d traveled a lot by that point. At 17, I went to the UK with a friend who’d never left the country. My parents, who the month before couldn’t relax and go to bed until I returned from my prom, had no issue with me traveling without them to another country. At that point in my life, I was cautious but rarely scared. I thought turbulence was fun in the same way riding a roller coaster is a good kind of scary. But, more than ten years later and post-9/11, I found that flying at all made me nervous. Travel was still a wonderful thing and my favorite hobby, but the more adult considerations were making me wary.
In 2004, I started a job as a counterintelligence analyst for NASA, and the following year, the federal government mandated safety training for any federal employee who spent more than 30 days per year outside the US. I had the opportunity to develop and then present this training, which was approved by the US State Department. It turned out that I was right to give some thought to all the things I didn’t know, because while I might have felt safe (and generally was) on my many trips abroad, there were plenty of situations that would have stumped me. How to call for emergency services? Which hotel floor to ask for? What type of clothing to wear while in transit? What telephone numbers to take with me? Who to call for help if I needed it (and what could they do and not do to assist me)?
I also didn’t know how best to research a trip ahead of time, to learn about current events and potential cultural considerations in the country I was visiting. All of these things (and much more) I researched and were included in the course I assembled for NASA, and it was very clear how much information I’d been missing out on. That information gave me confidence and made me a much more aware and well-prepared traveler.
Thousands of students do study abroad programs each year, and most receive very little pre-departure training before they travel. From a pragmatic standpoint, this puts their sponsoring schools at risk of liability, but everyone, especially parents, wants these kids to be as safe as they can be. The most common issues are not life-threatening (typically non-violent crime), but even a mugging can be prevented with the right background information and awareness. Students, business travelers, and your everyday tourists should be seeking out practical information at the same time they’re buying airline tickets and choosing a good beach. This information is inexpensive and more accessible than ever at Depart Smart. Take the time to ensure you come home safely with nothing but good memories from your trip abroad.
Aimee Fluitt spent 15 years working in national security at the FBI and with NASA, where she designed and taught a course on safety for international travelers. She currently works as a trainer and consultant and can be reached at FluittConsulting@gmail.com.