Things you should know before traveling
By David Beaumont, United Kingdom
"Protect us all as we travel through this world on our pilgrimage."
Christopher, Martyr c.250AD. Patron Saint of Travellers
As the nights draw in and our thermostats start to turn anti-clockwise, thoughts turn to summer and the holiday season. Tour Operator brochures adorn the kitchen table as the innumerate choice of holidays are deliberately whittled down to the final destination.
How did you arrive there?
Budget is usually number one on the list of priorities; no point looking at exotic long-haul destinations if the bank balance won't stretch that far. Having endured months of winter darkness, cold and rain, the certainty of sunshine, warm waters and cool cocktails is right up there too. The reputation of the tour operator should also influence your choice.
But how many holidaymakers bother to examine the risks taken when travelling to a particular destination? Crime, disease, poor hygiene, extreme weather conditions, unsafe and unaudited transportation and hotels are just a few of the pitfalls rarely taken into account during the elimination process.
Is it not of paramount importance that you and your fellow family and friends return healthy, in one piece and brimming with happy memories and unforgettable experiences?
You clearly cannot expect to cover every aspect of your trip yourself but some elements are key. Think of it as being something like testing the waters of your destination prior to travel.
So how can one go about obtaining information and reassurance relatively easily?
If you will be travelling by air, how do you know your designated airline is recognised as safe? IATA and ICAO regulate and check the safety of airlines. If your airline is not a member, simply don't fly with them. The EU publish a list of airlines banned from their airspace on www.ec.europa.eu/transport/air-ban/list_en.htm. If it's on that list, don't use it. That being said, unless you are travelling in Africa, South-East Asia or on the Indian sub-continent, this is highly unlikely.
It is not unusual for some passengers to be nervous fliers. If you want to reassure yourself about the safety either of the aircraft type, the airline or both, airsafe.com is informative. Dr David Perl, founder and CEO of Docleaf, a company specialising in Crisis Management told me, "statistically, the safest seats are over the wing. "Statistics don't lie; air travel is dead safe.
Railways are often nationalised and safety is normally audited to standards set by the state. Generally it's fair to say that the more "politically stable" and advanced the economy, the better quality product you will reap in all respects including safety. Seat61.com is the award-winning site which tells you what to expect on railways just about anywhere in the world. The safest seats are in the rear coaches.
Coach travel is a tricky subject. In some countries, a small minority of coach operators may take a rather relaxed view to the local regulations on servicing, standard of drivers and hours of driving. A member of the Guild of British Coach Operators told me, " Past experience shows the most dangerous seats on a coach are the drivers' and his jump seat, the front row of passenger seats and the central rear seat. Most modern coaches come equipped with seat belts nowadays."
Contact your tour operator and ask whether the company has been audited and if so whether they have met requirements.
If you rent a car, using a tried and tested company will ensure well maintained modern vehicles and good cover in the event of break-downs and accidents. Use the fco.gov.uk website to check up on driving habits and rules, which can be very different to what you are used to. As an example, be prepared to 'turn right on red' in the US or use a '4-way stop' in South Africa. Drink driving rules vary enormously; the mantra is "just don't."
Use only licensed taxi cabs, or those provided by your hotel.
If travelling within the EU, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, you should make sure you carry a European Health Insurance card (EHIC) with you. These are obtainable from the Department of Health. In the event of accident or ill-health, this will entitle you to health care provided to nationals of that country either free or at affordable costs. It does not mean you are insured.
Travelling without adequate travel health insurance is inadvisable. Make sure you are covered for repatriation.
If you are travelling further afield, there is excellent guidance on preventative health on www.fitfortravel.scot.nhs.uk. Do not underestimate the need for these precautions and factor their costs into your holiday along with your travel insurance. Mosquitoes don't just bite those who are taking precautions! Like your fond holiday memories, some of these diseases can stay with you for the rest of your life.
British and European tour operators are now legally obliged to carry out health and safety audits on your accommodation. They will check things like fire certification, safety in the lifts, pool area, health in the kitchen amongst others, as well as appliances in self-catering accommodation. Hotels and self-catering organisations failing this certification should not be used and directors of the travel company are legally liable if an incident does occur. This is however at the discretion of the operator so you may want to check with them.
Becky Shaftoe is in charge of Health and Safety at specialist Tour Operator ACFEA Tour Consultants.
"We have been through a rigorous process of training and implementation to ensure that all the hotels and home-stays we use for our groups respond to our requests for information. They are sent a form, normally in their mother tongue with simple 'yes' or 'no' answers and are given a reasonable deadline for completion. If they provide answers which are a cause for concern, we give them ample opportunity to fix the problem. Only once we are fully satisified will we confirm the booking."
Balconies, glass doors, large window panes and swimming pools are accident black spot areas, especially with exuberant children. Be vigilant in these areas.
You may wish to request rooms which are not on the ground floor as they are easier targets for thieves, but conversely avoid higher floors, 7th and above, which may be out of reach of the fire ladders.
Tour operators will often be able to offer holidays at bargain prices when there is a significantly higher risk of extreme weather conditions. During the hurricane season in the Caribbean (June to November) for example, you will save up to a third on peak season rates. If you book and are subsequently not affected, you'll have had a bargain holiday.
If you are unlucky however, your experience will be unforgettable for all the wrong reasons. So if your holiday cost looks a bit too good to be true, that may be the reason why. Again, you can check on the web or with your travel agent or tour operator.
Before you go
Inexplicably, while we spend hours mulling over what we should take with us on our trip, very often one thing we leave behind is common sense. A few minor tips:
- Take a copy of the picture page of your passport and keep it separate from your original. If it is lost or stolen, it makes the whole rigmarole of repatriation and replacement so much simpler.
- Find out the national emergency services' telephone number, similar to our 999. Memorise it on your mobile phone or on paper in your wallet or purse. You never know.
- Do the same for the local British Consulate. If you have any difficulties whilst away, they will be a tremendous help as they have dealt with just about every type of problem and emergency.
- ATM's are the most convenient way to get your hands on local currency. Take out little and often and do not allow yourself to be distracted by anyone during the transaction. If in doubt, cancel it and try again later.
- If in doubt, buy bottled water making sure the seal is intact.
- Do not go out at night adorned with designer watches or dripping with jewelry. It might make you feel like a million dollars but that's also what it says to thieves.
- Make sure friends or family have details of your itinerary in case they need to get hold of you in an emergency.
Rather than thinking of all these issues as a chore, why not just think of them as an addition to your existing indispensible equipment. An old travel adage goes "time spent in research is seldom wasted."
The equipment might not have a designer label but will ensure you are prepared if and, more to the point, when, the chips are down.