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Staying Safe in Canada and the United States
Techniques for maximizing travel safety


Knowing how to be safe — introduction

Travelling in the United States, which has a violent crime rate some ten times the Canadian rate, requires caution. And, travel in Canada has become more dangerous in recent years.

This page gives specific, easy-to-follow tips to help you stay safe.

New York City, long one of the more dangerous environments, has become safer due to innovative police techniques and other factors. However, you still must practise proper care, even in New York.

For an international visitor of colour or anyone whose accent or mannerisms were different, the South used to offer the greatest threat. This is no longer true.

Today, portions of large cities everywhere in the United States threaten anyone who ventures near. However, these same urban areas are often among the most interesting places to visit.

You just have to know how to act.


Behave based on your feelings, but base your feelings on reality

You should visit large cities, but please behave their based on your feelings—based on your intuition.

If you feel uncomfortable in a certain place or situation, you may have good reason.

Leave the area. Or, do not venture into obviously marginal neighbourhoods in the first place.

However, your feelings should be based on reality, not bigotry.

Although the preponderance of violent crime in the U.S. is done by and to Americans of African descent, generally there are three black Americas.

One includes the dwellers of the abject slums of the large cities, where great care should be taken, and the second includes the growing middle class and professional class of Americans of African descent who are succeeding in American society.

The third is composed of rural southern blacks, who neither participate in great wealth nor contribute in great numbers to crime.

Studying a crime map of the Washington, DC, area is instructive.

Crime there is a function of poverty and access.

In commercial areas, where most people go home in the evening, crime can be high.

In the black slums, where many people are strangers, crime is high.

But, in predominately black areas where home ownership is high, crime is low.

In some areas of black Washington, DC, the crime rate is as low as any place in the surrounding predominately white suburbs.

You are safer in areas where people know and care about each other.


Beware of bad zoning, which makes you unsafe

Misguided zoning laws have done much to contribute to crime in the U.S. Large areas have been reserved for single use.

Once the commercial area of downtown Los Angeles closes in the late afternoon and early evening, people stepping out of their hotels have to be careful.

Moreover, the greatly increased number of both parents working with their children placed either in schools or in day care centres has created a similar situation in some suburbs.

Almost no one is around during the day to monitor what is going on. This is bad news for personal safety.

A much needed movement toward mixed use zoning (or perhaps more accurately lack of zoning) is taking place, where different legitimate activities take place in an area around the clock, with the opportunity for crime muted.

The Wall Street area in New York City is an example of this mixed use developing.

Residential dwellings are being constructed (or more likely being remodeled from other uses), so that people can live near their work.

As a result, the neighbourhood will remain lively and therefore safer throughout the day and evening.


Avoid project areas

Avoid neighbourhoods where stunningly ill-conceived public housing projects have cut off parents from their children.

Instead of traditional low-rise slum housing, where parents easily watch their children playing on the streets, you now find huge high-rise housing blocks and vandalized outdoor areas.

In many of these projects, people live as strangers, and the negative influences spill over into adjoining areas.

Moreover, in large U.S. cities such as New York, you often see the degree to which people feel a caring part of a community shattered by large interstate and other highway projects that have been rammed through poorer neighbourhoods.


Avoid quiet areas in cities

A key safety technique is to avoid quiet areas in cities, where no one is watching.

This is the most important thing you can do to promote your personal safety.

If a street or park is deserted, let it remain deserted.

This seems to be such a common sense rule, but ignoring this may be the single most common catalyst for violent crime in U.S. cities.

You are generally quite safe in an area being used by families or business people.

Attending an evening symphonic concert in New York City's Central Park with thousands of other people is generally safe, except perhaps for pickpockets.

Walking in much of that same park later that night is madness.

Parking to nap at a deserted rest stop along a highway at night is not advisable; parking at a busy rest stop along an Interstate highway generally is.

Using a public washroom in an isolated area of an urban park or quiet subway station is foolhardy; using a washroom at a busy McDonald's outlet is usually safe. In cities, you are generally better off using washrooms in businesses such as fast food chains and department stores than in government provided ones. In Canada and the U.S., washrooms usually lack attendants to monitor activity.

An extra benefit is that commercial washrooms tend to be cleaner. At McDonald's and similar places, you need not buy anything in order to utilize free washrooms.

By the way, American males generally do not talk to strangers in washrooms. Usually, the male etiquette is not to use an urinal adjacent to one in use. If the only urinal left is one between two in use, many males will opt to use a regular toilet in a stall to urinate.


Avoid crime in airline, coach, and train terminals

While we are talking about safety and washrooms, airport, coach, and rail terminals are often targeted for crime.

Women may place their purses or travel bags on the high hooks of toilet stall doors, where someone may easily reach over and grab their valuables from the outside.

And, men may place their luggage on the floor in front of them while their trousers are down in a toilet stall, which allows a crook to reach under the space at the bottom of the door and grab the bags.

Here, the criminal depends on men taking the time to pull up and fasten their trousers to preserve their dignity before giving chase.

Keep luggage and other valuables out of easy reach while using washrooms. And, keep an eye on bags at all other times.


Safety problems in airports

Thievery focuses on security check in points.

At busy times, your laptops and small bags go through the x-ray machines faster than the passenger queue moves. People are always delaying the queue by forgetting keys and other metal objects in their pockets—which could be deliberate if a team of thieves is working.

As a consequence, thieves can grab your possessions without you noticing them before you reach the end of the luggage belt.

You can minimize this sort of problem by travelling with nondescript luggage. For example, your laptop does not need to be packed in a new laptop bag. You can outfit an old worn briefcase for it or buy a day pack carried on your back with a padded compartment that does not reveal that it contains a laptop.

In addition, you can wait until the last moment before putting your small luggage on the conveyer belt to minimize the time that you will not be in possession of it. Please it behind your other items.

Another problem with some Canadian and U.S. airports is the gross lack of security in luggage claim areas. Often no responsible person compares luggage tags to claim tags. .

The best solution? Do as many professional travellers do and not check luggage. Dr. Voyageur nearly never does.


Maintain restful alertness

Achieve a state of restful alertness.

This means enjoy your time spent in large cities, but pay attention to the safety aspects of your environment.

Visit a new dance club in an isolated warehouse district, but know that you are safer to use a taxi than to walk back to a hotel at night through an empty neighbourhood.

When visiting New York or other cities, get to know the look of licenced taxi cabs.

Be suspicious. Really notice your surroundings.

Does someone seem to be following you? Do you feel uncomfortable with some of the people in the area?

Stay among others in these situations. Do not—do not—become isolated.

And, be careful when people offer to help.

Sad to say, but it is better to be rude to someone than to put yourself in danger.

"Ma'am, don't go that way—that's dangerous! Follow me in this direction!"

No, thank you.

Beware if someone claims to be a police officer (by showing a badge), but does not have a uniform or a police vehicle.

If this "officer" orders you to do something that makes you feel very uncomfortable, politely insist that a uniformed officer be called in before complying.

When walking, keep to busy, well-lit streets.

You should walk facing the traffic.

And, you should not walk too near doorways or spaces between buildings, where someone may come out to attack you or snatch your valuables. Nor should you walk too close to the street, where someone may grab your purse or bags from a car or otherwise harass you.

Of course, you should carry only the minimum number of valuables necessary for your trip. If you must carry them, keep bags or purses tucked under your arms.

Moreover, do not follow the example of most American men who keep wallets filled with cash and credit cards in back trouser pockets.

Use your front pockets or a traveller's pack hung around your neck.


Deal with isolated areas

If you return to your car and find that the earlier activity around it has ceased and almost no one seems to be in its marginal neighbourhood, glance into and under the car before getting too near.

As mentioned above, really notice your surroundings.

Also, take out your key and hold it tight in your fist with the tip sticking out, so that it can be used as a weapon in case of attack, if you absolutely must walk through a deserted parking lot or along a street or hallway.

Of course, the sharpness of the key will not kill or even maim, but it may repulse a robber who expected no resistance. Do not initiate physical contact, however. If they want something you are carrying, give it to them without complaint.

It is far better to avoid the above situation by parking in an attended paid lot or in a commercial area that remains busy all day and evening.


Keep control in crime situations

When dealing with dysfunctional people—and many serious criminals are deeply dysfunctional—it is difficult to predict their behaviour.

However, in general, we can say that persons out to steal usually do not move their victims, whereas people out to rape and maim, for example, attempt to move their intended victims as far from observation as possible.

Therefore, as an example, if you enter your car and start to drive away and then find two persons have hidden on the floor of the back seat who now order you drive in a certain direction, you may be better off to crash the car (at low speed, of course) as soon as you pass an area with people who can help.

Waiting until you are completely isolated leaves you helpless.

In much the same way, going for the eyes of the attacker and screaming as loud as possible, as he or she attempts to push you off a walkway into a dark lane between two buildings may get results.

Waiting until you are out of sight narrows your chances for survival.

These examples are extreme, but they give you a direction to take in these type of situations, with the caveat that criminal behaviour cannot be predicted with perfection.


Calm the criminal

Now, this is very, very important.

The aggressive responses outlined in the above may be appropriate if you are in immediate and very extreme danger.

In most situations, though, you are far better off being passive and cooperative, when someone demands money or other valuables. Bring out your best manners.

You want to calm your robber—bond with your robber, you might say—in part, by remaining calm yourself.

You keep your voice low. You volunteer to help.

For example, when asked for your money, you might say, "It's in my bag. Do you want me to hand you the money, or would you rather reach in and get it yourself?"

Once you gain trust, you can ask for favours.

For instance, "Here's the money. May I keep my driver's licence, so that I can drive home?"

Of course, you can drive home without the licence (illegally), but keeping it is just one less thing to have to replace.

Once again, Dr. Voyageur must caution that criminal behaviour cannot be predicted for certain. Your intuition in a specific situation may be all that you have.


Drive intelligently in urban areas

If you become lost driving and end up in an uncomfortable neighbourhood, do not stop to look at a map or to ask directions.

Wait until you have reached a well-lighted, busy store parking area, which does not show signs of unsavoury activity (for example, lots of gang graffiti on the adjoining walls).

Just keep driving on well-lighted and wide streets and you will eventually come to a safer neighbourhood.

Keep sufficient gasoline in your vehicle at all times, including in rural areas where gas bars (service stations) may be infrequent.

Always, when driving in urban areas, plan your route ahead of time. You should know not only where you will turn but also know the major streets prior to your turn to help you to notice your exit.

Examine a map prior to visiting a city to get to know its major streets and landmarks.

Thus, you will feel less vulnerable if you take a wrong turn. You will also be able to keep more attention on safe driving.

Various trip planners are available on the Internet. Free Goggle or Yahoo maps and detailed directions can be printed prior to travelling.

When driving at night in urban areas keep your doors locked and your windows rolled up.

Are you paranoid yet?

Dr. Voyageur apologizes, but crime is a great concern of visitors to the United States.

Young or young at heart budget travellers open themselves as a target group by wanting to experience the places they visit.
They do not want to spend their time in fear huddled behind multiple locks and window bars, as sadly do some Americans.

We are just being proactive here.


Use care with money and credit cards

In cities, Dr. Voyageur always keeps at least $25 - $30 in cash (which may be far too little) on him to pacify a robber, who may be crazed by some chemical need.

Walking in marginal neighbourhoods,he avoids staring at anyone.

Even more importantly, he does not to show large sums of money or multiple credit cards when purchasing anything.

The recreational equipment cooperative, REI, offers various inexpensive hidden money belts and pouches that can be used for your protection. Safety pouches around necks are more convenient, but more noticeable with certain types of clothing.

Take out what money you will need in private, instead of doing so from your money belt, purse, or wallet in public.

Keep unneeded credit cards hidden.

You may be proud of your gold credit cards, but showing them too often invites danger.

Pay for small purchases with cash (while not showing that you have a lot of money of credit cards).

The less you hand your credit cards to people while travelling, the less you need worry about your credit card numbers being used without your knowledge.

Making purchases at places where people run your cards through machines that automatically print receipts is safer than where cashiers manually fill out receipts. If you shop at the latter, ask for the carbons along with your receipts.

Carrying travellers cheques in $20 and $50 denominations is an excellent idea.

Dr. Voyageur recommends American Express ones, as they are so well known in both Canada and the States.

Remember that you will not be reimbursed for lost or stolen travellers cheques unless you cared for them like cash.

Leaving cheques on a bureau in your hotel room while away does not count as proper care. Your claim will be denied.


Dress to blend in

Dr. Voyageur never goes into marginal neighbourhoods with clothes that stand out.

When travelling in the U.S., his clothes are from the mass merchandisers, the J.C. Penney's, the Levi and Dockers outlets, etc. Younger visitors though should follow the less conventional styles of local younger people.

The fancy outfits featured in Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Details, Gentlemen's Quarterly, and other such magazines are not the clothes worn by most Americans or Canadians.

The streets of urban and rural America—at least in those in most areas—should not be considered fashion runways.

In Canada, you need not be so concerned with this issue.

Only if travelling to a fancy resort or deluxe hotel or business appointment does Dr. Voyageur wear upscale clothing.

He like you is safer when his clothes do not attract attention.

Simply put, in the U.S., you should dress according to your age in clothes that do not stand out. You want to blend into the crowd.

In any case, avoid the most noticeable clothing. Again, you want to blend in.

Older travellers should study the Lands' End on-line catalogue, a window to how most Americans dress, especially outside of large cities.

If travelling extensively, buy at least some items away from the perhaps too trendy New York, Toronto, and similar cities, whose avant garde (and perhaps too skimpy in the summer) fashions may make you look out of place in much of Canada and the U.S.

Also, avoid wearing a combination of leisure and business clothing (e.g., jeans with business shoes or black formal socks with your Nikes).

Avoid bright colours and extreme patterns, unless they become the fashion.

As mentioned, dress in items favoured by your age group, when travelling in U.S. cities and even in rural areas.

And for your comfort, favour natural fibres, as discussed in the traveller's Health lesson.

You blend in, as you were taught in the movie series Back to the Future. This helps keep you safe.


Travel with proper luggage

This has been discussed but is worth repeating. Dr. Voyageur never uses luggage that stands out.

His plain-looking luggage, while not cheap looking, does not carry a Gucci or other fancy label.

In fact, it carries no label at all (except for an inexpensive Adidas gym bag he sometimes uses), and he even removes airline, coach, and rail tags once he reaches his destinations in order to not look so much like a tourist.

His main bag, which can be used either as a backpack (for short distances only due to lack of proper weight distribution) or suitcase (which when not over packed can fit under most airline seats to avoid checking), has zippers tucked under flaps, so that it is not easy for someone to reach in.

The material is sturdy enough that it does not rip open easily.

The doctor's luggage has never been torn open by someone in the bowels of an airport, unlike the all-too-common experience of persons with designer luggage.

Dr. Voyageur does not post a national flag on his luggage. Canadians are notorious for doing that because they dislike being mistaken for Americans.

Except when checked at an airport, coach, or train station, no identification label is attached to the outside of the bag.

Identification is always readily available inside.


Find safety as a slob

While on a automobile trip, Dr. Voyageur does not keep neatly packed backpacks or suitcases and bags visible and convenient to grab after smashing a window.

The trunk (boot), too, is usually kept empty of valuables, as this is the obvious place for burglars to break into.

Instead, he has a jumble of a half packed backpack or suitcase and boxes (with items spilling out), camping items in disarray, and empty juice and water containers and other junk items visible in his vehicle.

This mess does not attract any self respecting burglar.

It also makes it harder to grab quickly the more valuable assets.

And, Dr. Voyageur's hotel rooms are not kept tidy either, with everything easy to grab.

Dr. Voyageur finds very easy to follow this safety tip!


Handling valuables on trips

Very few valuable items are carried on trips, and Dr. Voyageur divides up the valuables he must take.

For example, he never carries all of his credit cards, telephone calling cards, passport or other identification, travellers cheques, etc. in one place. All not needed at the moment go into his money belt.

He may use a hotel safe in his room or the main hotel safe if planning to spend time at a beach or pool

Keep in mind though that hotel room safes are far too easy to break into. Too many hotel employees know the master password. Some hotels do not change the default passwords that come with safes, such as "0000" and "1234." Crooks know this.

When opening his wallet, as mentioned, Dr. Voyageur is careful not to show too much money or credit cards.

Furthermore, Dr. Voyageur's rented vehicles are never ostentatious.

He feels comfortable that his parked vehicles will not attract undue attention even in isolated areas, when he stops to go hiking or swimming.

You can learn from the Cold War spy-era Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C., which used to be near the White House. Dr. Voyageur passed this many days.

Nearly all of its many vehicles were the most common models found in suburban shopping centre parking lots, in the most common muted colours. Spy on!

When visiting large cities, DrV makes sure that his physiology is not overshadowed by alcohol and other drugs. For maximum safety, he like you must be able to properly evaluate his environment and take appropriate actions.


Summary

Go with your feelings.

If you do not feel comfortable in a certain situation, you may have good reason.

Stay among other people conducting legitimate activities.

Do not make it easy to steal from you or to harm you.

And, do not give the appearance of Mr. or Ms. Foreign Tourist, especially Mr. or Ms. Wealthy Foreign Tourist.

You blend in. Blend in. Blend in to not attract the attention of criminals.

Following this advice will help protect you and your possessions and let you have a totally positive experience while visiting Canada and the United States.

Good luck ! And, remember luck is to a large degree self made.

For more health and safety tips

Go to >> Driving safely in Canada and the U.S.

Go to >> Staying healthy

Go to >> Staying healthy outdoors

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