What to Do if War or a Terrorist Attack Happens While You’re Traveling Abroad

Here's what I've learned about handling myself and my family in a volatile situation overseas should unrest arise during our travels.
Crowd of anonymous people on street in city center (Photo: Shutterstock)
Photo: Shutterstock

Before the recent violence in the Middle East, I’d been planning a family vacation to Egypt and Jordan. This has long been one of my bucket list family vacation ideas, and if I were traveling without my kids I probably would not think twice about going even now. But like many parents, my tolerance for risk is much lower when my children’s safety is involved. 

Being prepared, and knowing how to respond in a way that will keep you safe, is essential any time you travel, but it’s even more important when you’re responsible for kids. Tourists often get caught up in conflicts far from home without a local support network, in many cases unable to speak the local language. I don’t want this reality to stop me from showing my children the world, though, and I know that exposing them to other cultures is the best way for them to create understanding and empathy for people who are different from themselves.

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With my upcoming trip to the Middle East at the top of my mind, I sought out the advice of Philip Ballard, a former Anti-Terrorism/Force Protection Officer in the Navy. Ballard spent several years between various defense agencies in Washington, D.C., training people on how to be safe when traveling overseas. He now provides advice for the website HotelPlanner

While I’ve also traveled to more than 50 countries, I’ve come to realize I’ve been lucky more than well-prepared, and there are a number of common-sense precautions I should have been taking any time I left the country for work or vacation. I’m not going to let the risk of unrest stop me from traveling, but I am going to start being a lot smarter about how I prepare. Here’s what I’ve learned about handling myself and my family in a volatile situation overseas should unrest arise during our travels.

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Precautionary Measures 

1. Register your upcoming travel with the U.S. Department of State

Alerting the State Department to your overseas travel plans is always a good idea. “Should something happen to you, from losing your passport to being kidnapped, that will expedite their response,” Ballard told me. This is especially important if you’re heading into an area where conflict is likely. If you haven’t previously registered, it’s never too late to do so—even if you’re already abroad when unrest breaks out. 

You can enroll in the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment (SMART) program online to notify the local U.S. Embassy or Consulate about your trip. Registering also allows the State Department to send you travel alerts for your destination and contact you in an emergency. 

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Although I’ve traveled far and wide, it has honestly never occurred to me to register my trip with the State Department. I plan to do it for all of my trips from now on, though. I once panicked in El Salvador when I thought I’d lost my passport, and though I eventually found it I now know that even something as mundane as proving your identity can be a lot easier just by taking this simple step. And if something bigger goes wrong, it could be critical. 

2. Share your full itinerary with family or friends

It’s always a good idea to let someone close to you know your plans and to keep them posted about any changes, but it could become even more important to your safety if war breaks out. Authorities can use your itinerary to retrace your steps to find your last known location. If a situation is unfolding, keep your loved ones updated as often as possible. 

I’ve been very lax about sharing my itinerary with anyone, in part because I often play things by ear and in part because I’ve always assumed I could get in touch with people if something were to  go wrong. I now know the importance of making sure someone knows where I am at all times. I’ve started asking my parents to use WhatsApp when I travel abroad since it’s been a reliable way to stay in touch, especially when traveling to countries where my American cell phone number doesn’t work. 

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For future trips, I may create a small WhatsApp group for family and a couple of close friends I can rely on for help if needed. That way, the group will be ready to go if I need to communicate quickly with people at home. 

3. Make multiple copies of your passport

If a war or civil unrest breaks out when you’re traveling, you may need to evacuate or head to your country’s embassy at a moment’s notice. It’s a good idea to keep your passport and other important documents on you at all times—you may need it to identify yourself, get help from your embassy, or cross the border into a safer country—and you should always keep one or two photocopies of it in different locations such as your daypack, suitcase. It’s also key to have a digital copy of your passport saved on your phone. That way, if you lose your passport, have to flee, or are robbed, you will still have some form of identification. 

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When I’ve traveled in the past, I’ve typically stored my passport in my hotel room and walked around with a copy in my pocket or daypack. From now on, I’m going to stash another copy of my passport in my suitcase and make sure I have a copy uploaded to the cloud as well as a photo on my phone. I sometimes travel with my children alone and I’m going to do the same with their birth certificates in case I need to prove they’re mine. When I travel to riskier areas, I will probably carry my passport on me at all times in case something unexpected happens and I need quick access to an embassy. 

4. Learn the location of the closest embassy and hospital. 

If unrest breaks out while you’re traveling, you might need help quickly. Your embassy or consulate may be able to provide help or even a safe haven—once you’re inside the gates, you are officially on U.S. soil. Not every city you visit will have an embassy or consulate office, but it’s still smart to look up their locations when you’re traveling abroad. Many countries will only have one consulate in the capital, but some may have multiple locations that won’t require traveling as far for assistance. 

When traveling with children, it’s also helpful to know not just how to reach the nearest hospital but specifically which hospitals treat children and where they can be found. The chance of being injured also increases if there’s a conflict, so it’s essential to know where you and your family can get medical assistance quickly. 

5. Discuss safety and security plans with everyone on your trip

Whether you’re traveling with family or friends, make sure you’re all on the same page about what to do in an emergency. This includes having a safe location where you can meet in case you get separated and having a list of emergency contact numbers. Everyone should carry the phone numbers of any local friends, the hospital, police, and embassy, as well as friends in neighboring cities or countries you can stay with if you need to evacuate. 

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This is a common-sense recommendation that I haven’t always stuck to in the past. When I travel, I sometimes get a SIM card with a local number, but I’ve never bothered to share these temporary numbers with my traveling companions (usually my children) or anyone at home. From now on I’m going to do both. I’m also going to make sure my children and I always have a place to meet. Normally our hotel will make the most sense, but if there’s local unrest I may suggest a U.S. embassy if there’s one nearby. 

What to Do if Unrest Breaks Out While You’re Traveling Abroad

1. Gather all the information

If any type of unrest breaks out while traveling, the first thing you should do is assess the gravity of the situation. You may have to decide quickly if you should run or hide. You might need more information to make a good decision, so seeking out local information from those on the ground will be key, says Ballard. 

This may be difficult if you don’t speak the local language, but I’ve found that joining local Facebook groups for expats can be very helpful. I also sometimes follow expats living in places I am visiting on other social media platforms. Assuming your phone still works in a crisis, these can be good ways of getting information quickly in English and could allow you to connect with those who know the area well if you need guidance. 

2. Determine the nature of the threat

Once you’ve determined a threat is real, your immediate response should depend on the nature of the situation. If there’s a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or high-explosive attack, Ballard recommends sheltering in place, similar to the way you would if a tornado or hurricane were to hit. 

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If it’s a dynamic active shooter or armed ambush situation, Ballard explains that you have three choices: fight, run, or hide, but it might not be clear what the right choice is at the moment. Ballard described to me an armed ambush situation at a music festival: Most of the people who ran survived, while others who tried to flee by car were easily found and killed. During the same incident, those who hid under dead bodies or vegetation and those who played dead were able to survive. However, many times you’re probably better off getting away from the situation instead of hiding. 

It’s impossible to plan for this type of situation, but I find it very helpful to know that I should try to run if at all possible. And while I can’t imagine myself using any weapons, I believe I could if I needed to defend my children, at least buy them some time. In that situation, Ballard recommends getting some type of weapon if unrest breaks out, such as a pocket knife or pepper spray. 

3. Follow local news and pay attention to travel advisories

If unrest breaks out, events will unfold quickly and the situation could change hour-to-hour. If local authorities are advising people to evacuate or shelter in place, that’s the kind of information you’ll need to know in real time. Again, finding reliable English-language sources can help. If you’ve registered with the State Department, they may also be able to communicate vital information. 

4. Keep a low profile

When things turn violent, the safest thing to do is keep a low profile. To the extent possible, avoid crowds or drawing attention to yourself. Although it may be tempting to join in a protest for a cause you support or rush into a crowd to help, it’s too easy to get caught up in violence. 

5. Maintain 360-degree situational awareness at all times

In any public place, take note of the exits. Anywhere there’s a large crowd, look for alternate exits because there may be a stampede for the main exit. This could delay your exit, lead to additional injuries, and increase the risk of being separated from your family. I’m used to always looking for exits in the United States due to the ever-present threat of gun violence, but I usually find that I let my guard down while traveling abroad. Now I realize it’s a habit I should maintain everywhere I go, especially when there’s unrest. 

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Jamie Davis Smith
Jamie is a mother of four and a freelance writer. She lives in Washington, DC, but can more often be found wandering with her family and writing about their adventures near and far. Her work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, Fodors' Travel, FamilyVacationist, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Yahoo, and many others. She is a USA Today "Top 10" travel expert.