Safety tips for travelers navigating civil unrest abroad

Protests and strikes are a fact of life around the world. From peaceful marches to more disruptive demonstrations, they’re a way for residents to affect change when other means don’t work, or to voice their discontent with the local government, businesses, or other authorities.

Unfortunately, these events can severely disrupt your travel plans or put your safety at risk. If you’re in or traveling to an area where protests or other civil unrest is happening, here are some tips for staying safe and making the most of your trip (or knowing when it’s time to cancel or go home).

Protestors with umbrellas gather on a street between high buildings at night
The Hong Kong protests began in March 2019 © Photolibrary / Getty Images Plus

Weigh the risk vs cost

When it comes to deciding whether or not to continue with a trip to a place in the midst of unrest, sometimes the decision is clear. The airport may be shut down, flights may be canceled, or, the US State Department may issue its highest level of Travel Advisory for that country, which is Level 4: Do Not Travel.

In other cases, it’s less cut and dry. For example, Spain, Ecuador, and Hong Kong – three places that have seen extensive disruption from protests recently – are all listed at Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution. In these cases, it can be harder to decide whether to proceed with your travel plans.

Some things to consider:

  • Is the entire country or city affected or only select areas, and how easy would it be to avoid trouble spots?
  • Are the airlines offering refunds or free changes?
  • How much money would you lose by canceling?
  • What are the locals or travelers there right now recommending?
  • Is the issue a threat to your safety or more of an inconvenience to your plans?
  • How likely is it that the situation will escalate?
  • What are the odds that you could end up stranded and unable to reach the airport or unable to leave the city or country?
  • Am I contributing to the problem?
Rings of barbed wire next to men in military fatigues
The protests in Quito, Ecuador, led to violent clashes between protestors and police © LUIS ROBAYO / Contributor / Getty

Know what's covered by insurance

Most travel insurance doesn't include coverage for civil unrest, along with terrorism or acts or war. Generally the only way you’ll be covered by insurance if is you purchased “Cancel for Any Reason” coverage, which comes at a premium price and much be purchased within 30 days of your first deposit payment and typically at least two or three days before your trip begins. Even then, you likely won’t get all your money back.

Another option is to turn to your credit card. Certain credit cards from Chase or American Express (such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve or the American Express Platinum card, which come with higher annual fees) include travel protections that can help you recoup some of the money.

Register with your embassy

US citizens can register with STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program), which sends email and text alerts about protests and other disruptions in the area you’re traveling. However, as explained below, it’s sometimes not as fast or detailed as local news in distributing important info. For example, during my recent trip to Quito during the country’s protests against rising gas prices and austerity measures, the President announced a curfew. I heard about it via local sources hours before receiving an alert from the embassy.

It’s also a good idea to let your family know your itinerary and give them the embassy information so they can reach out on your behalf if you’re unable to do so. However, don’t count on the embassy for a rescue unless you’re in imminent danger.

In most cases, the embassy will tell you to shelter in place until the disruptions have passed. If your flight is canceled and you cannot afford to buy a new one, or you get stuck for longer than anticipated and can’t afford a hotel, they will loan you the money, but they generally aren’t going to charter a flight or put you up inside the embassy.

That was American traveler Kyle Ellison’s experience when he was in Ecuador during the country's 2010 attempted coup. "The road to our hotel was blocked by burning cars and helicopters landing in the street next to it,” he said. “We had just fled from live gunfire in the streets when a local family yelled at us to get in their car. I asked them to take us to the US embassy. They said they'd do it but it was pointless because they wouldn't do anything; turns out they were right. The embassy staff told us it wasn't a hotel and there was nothing they could do for us."

Sweedish, UK and American flags hanging in front of buildings
Register with your embassy if you visit any high-risk destinations © Bruno Guerreiro / Getty

Follow local news and expats for the most up-to-date on-the-ground info

News published by foreign publications is often not as detailed or current as that published by local news outlets that know the area and have more staff on the ground. Oftentimes stories from global press paint the whole country as a no-go zone, even when the unrest is limited to a small area.

To get the real scoop and find more detailed info, look to local publications. Search your location’s hashtag on Twitter; for tweets in another language, Twitter has a handy “translate tweet” option. Google Translate also has a function that translates words on images which can be handy for reading screenshots. To find expat groups or other local groups for citizens on Facebook, search the name of the city or country along with keywords like “news” or “expats.”

However, when talking with expats consider where they live, as expats tend to live around one another and may not know as much about what’s happening outside of their neighborhood. American Eileen Smith, who has been living in Santiago, Chile for 15 years, explains, “I lived at more or less ground-zero for the student protests in Santiago for eight years, and was often more aware of what was going on than many other expats, the majority of whom live in other parts of the city.”

Be flexible, as things can change minute to minute

Protests can move around to different areas of the city, roads that were open can suddenly close, and even peaceful protests can become dangerous quickly. As much as possible, book refundable accommodations, tours, and transport so you can make adjustments as the situation changes.

I saw this firsthand in Quito. Knowing that access to the airport could be cut off, I booked one hotel close to the airport and an Airbnb in Cumbayá, a small town halfway between the airport and Quito. Previous to my arrival, Cumbayá had been quiet, with no protests in the area. That changed the morning I arrived, and the road to Cumbayá became impassable. But because I had the backup hotel near the airport, I wasn’t stranded without a place to sleep.

Most hotels offer free cancellation up to 24 hours, but policies can vary. Sometimes a non refundable hotel is a few dollars cheaper, but in this case it’s worth paying a little extra for the flexibility.

Bring cash and stock up on supplies

During unrest, banks may close, ATMs may run out of money, and stores may have limited goods. Bring cash, and if things get dicey, make sure you have access to basics like water and food. An extra battery pack for your phone is also a good idea in case of power outages.

Suitcases on a conveyor belt in an airport
Keep your luggage to a minimum if you're heading to a destination where civil unrest might disrupt travel plans © Mongkol Chuewong / Getty

Pack light

In the event that you do need to make a quick getaway or walk a long distance due to transport strikes, you don’t want to be bogged down with multiple large suitcases. Additionally, when flights are disrupted for days, when they resume, airport lines can be long and slow. If you don’t have to check luggage you’ll save yourself some time.

Avoid active protests

If you run into a protest or large gathering of people, stay on the edges of the crowd (towards the back, if the group is marching) and don't draw attention to yourself. Walk – don't run – away from the crowd or go into a building.

If there's a protest around your accommodation, stay inside away from windows and shelter in place (having extra supplies, as mentioned above, comes in handy here). And obey any curfews the government institutes restricting the hours citizens can be on the street. Violating the curfew can not only put you in danger, it could get you arrested.

If you need to travel across the city or move between cities, do so in daylight. Early morning is often best as people who were protesting late into the night are still sleeping.

Know how to get help

Find out the local numbers for emergency services and check to see where the nearest hospitals and police stations are located. Know the nearest embassy location and keep their phone number handy.

In these situations, staying at a hotel offers some built in security and onsite help. If you’re opting for an Airbnb or other apartment rental, choose a place with a responsive host – preferably one located onsite or nearby.

Finally, prioritize your safety, but try to keep a good attitude. Panicking helps no one. So long as you’re safe, make the most of your trip. It may not be the one you planned, but it will be memorable.

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