Travel News

Using Your Smart Phone Internationally

Using Your Smart Phone Internationally 675 405 Greg Ellifritz

This is a great website to bookmark if you are interested in communications issues.  It’s the best site  on the internet for comparing international SIM cards and data plans.  Read this article in particular:

International SIM Card Comparison: Which Is Best?

 

For those of you who have never used your phone in another country, there are basically three ways to do it.  You can use your own phone/data plan, but it’s often absurdly expensive.  You could also buy a local SIM card.  You get a local phone number and it’s really cheaply.  The downside is that it’s a pain in the ass to buy a SIM card and get it recharged in some countries.

 

A third option is to buy an international SIM card.  These are more expensive than the local options but work in multiple countries.  This article compares the features of the best international SIM cards available.  Recognize that your phone needs to be unlocked to use this strategy.  If you are on a contract with many US cell companies and haven’t paid off your phone, it is likely still locked.

 

ATM Card “Skimmers” in Foreign Countries

ATM Card “Skimmers” in Foreign Countries 580 487 Greg Ellifritz

As far as travel questions go, one of the most common inquiries I get is regarding how to safely make currency withdrawals from the bank and how to convert American dollars into the local currency.  I wrote an entire chapter on this topic in my book.

Needing local currency is not as important as it was 20 years ago.  Even in the developing world, grocery stores and restaurants almost always accept credit cards.

To summarize, I recommend that if the traveler needs local currency that he or she should simply withdraw local currency from a nearby bank ATM machine.  Exchange rates will be better than you get at the border money changers and ATMs are common in most cities.

The one thing you have to be aware of is the installation of a card “skimmer” on the ATM machine.  The articles below detail how card skimmers work and how they are used in Mexico.  The author’s advice holds true in most of the other world as well.  Read these three articles to get a comprehensive understanding of the issues involved:

Tracking a Bluetooth Skimmer Gang in Mexico

Tracking Bluetooth Skimmers in Mexico, Part II

Who’s Behind Bluetooth Skimming in Mexico?

 

ATM skimmers used to be pretty rare.  They were large contraptions that fit over the outside of the card reader on the ATM.  They were most commonly seen in tourist areas on “stand alone” ATMs that weren’t regularly serviced.

Now it seems that the ATM technicians are installing small bluetooth compatible skimmers to steal your data inside the machines themselves, at least in Mexico.  My best advice is to avoid ATMs in obvious tourist areas and to use the ATMs that are inside a bank.  Although not a foolproof strategy, doing this will at least limit your chances of having your card data stolen.

 

One other thing.  For foreign travel, you want a traditional ATM card, NOT an ATM debit card.  The traditional cards have daily withdrawal limits so the crooks can’t clean you out.  With the debit card, they can take out more money and charge things to your account.  The traditional ATM card will help limit the damages if your data or card is stolen.

 

 

Drinking Alcohol Safely in Foreign Countries

Drinking Alcohol Safely in Foreign Countries 540 720 Greg Ellifritz

Have you heard news reports about tourists being served tainted, poisoned, or adulterated alcohol in foreign countries?

It’s relatively rare, but it certainly happens.  There have been a couple recent articles written that provide tips to avoid being poisoned.  If you want some background info, check out:

How to Drink Safely On Vacation

Know the Risks When Drinking Spirit-Based Alcohol Away From Home

 

All of that is great advice, but I’ll share some additional experiences from nearly two decades of consuming homemade and locally made alcohol in third world countries.  To establish my drunken bona fides, here is some photographic evidence of my taste for third world hooch.

 

Roadside moonshine in El Salvador

 

Local rum with a friend in Cartegena, Colombia

 

I have no idea what the bartender is pouring down my throat. Bogota, Colombia

 

After the shots in Bogota, we set the bar and ceiling on fire with local moonshine.

 

Guifitty, a local rum/herb mixture in Honduras.

 

Home made rice wine on the street in Saigon, Vietnam.

 

With my bartender in Tanzania drinking banana beer

 

Mixing moonshine and Tang to create a beverage that tasted OK despite no refrigeration on an un-named island off the coast of Panama.

 

Buying moonshine straight from the still (in an old Jagermeister bottle) in rural Costa Rica.

 

Despite all of these insane adventures, I’m still here.  And I’m not even blind.  Here’s my personal strategy when evaluating the local stuff.

 

As a person who has enjoyed local brews on five different continents, I can tell you there is a safe way.  You don’t buy this stuff at your resort or at a tourist liquor store.  You ask a local to take you to the person who makes it.  Taxi drivers, hotel concierge staff, and tour guides know where to get the local homemade brew.

 

When you arrive you ask to sample a shot.  Of course, you are polite and offer to buy the seller a shot as well so that he drinks with you.  If he won’t drink his own brew, run away.  If he drinks with you (out of the same bottle) you are probably pretty safe.   I’ve done this a lot of places and I’m not blind yet.

 

It’s safest to buy your own alcohol at the duty free shop in the airport, but where’s the fun in that?  If you want to try something a bit more adventurous, remember my strategy.

Escaping Criminal Restraints

Escaping Criminal Restraints 620 974 Greg Ellifritz

Are you worried about being taken hostage in a foreign country?  You might like to read the article below.  It is a reasonably comprehensive primer on escaping criminal restraints that would be useful to all my friends who travel internationally.

 

How to Escape Handcuffs, Zipties, and Duct Tape

 

One additional escape tool that I have found exceptionally useful is the Advanced Personal Escape Kit from OscarDelta.  This piece of gear masquerades as a necklace that you can wear under your shirt.  It’s barely noticeable when worn.  The “necklace” is really an exceptionally tough cord that can be used as a garrote or as a friction saw for cutting through flex cuffs.  Attached to the cord is a handcuff key, a handcuff shim, a mini glowing light stick, and an exceptionally hard striking disc that will break window and automotive glass.

Having all these items on a cord around your neck in one place is handy, but I would still suggest having a few smaller keys or shims stashed in other locations as well.  You don’t know how thoroughly you will be searched after you are kidnapped.  Losing all of your tools at the same time when your captors find your necklace won’t help your long term survival.  The more items you have, the more likely one or more will be missed on a hurried search of your clothes and body.  That makes your escape chances significantly greater.

Tools are important, but skills and mindset are even more valuable.  Consider purchasing some of these escape tools and carrying them with you.  But like most defensive tools, they require practice to master.  Merely having the tool isn’t enough.  Practice until you can use the tool to quickly escape restraints under any and all possible conditions.  Only then will you truly have options.

 

Anthony Bourdain’s International Dining Tips

Anthony Bourdain’s International Dining Tips 700 350 Greg Ellifritz

Many of my friends who haven’t traveled much are scared to death to eat the local food in another country.  When they travel. they only eat at American-owned restaurants like Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and McDonalds in the misguided attempt to avoid food-borne illness.

Not only are those folks missing out on some amazing local food, they are actually more likely to get sick.

Foreign versions of American chain restaurants catering to tourists have some of the worst food handling practices on the planet. Stay away from them!

In the article below, Anthony Bourdain explains how to find a good local restaurant in another country.

Anthony Bourdain’s Tips For Eating Great When Traveling Abroad

 

 

 

You can read more food safety tips in my book’s chapterEating and Drinking Without Dying.”

 

 

 

 

Some of the above links (from Amazon.com) are affiliate links.   As an Amazon associate I earn a small percentage of the sale price from qualifying purchases.

If you would like to further support my work, head over to my Patreon page.

Top Digital Backup and Security Tips for Travelers

Top Digital Backup and Security Tips for Travelers 150 150 Greg Ellifritz

I’m honestly somewhat lax about my digital security when traveling.  In speaking with a few friends who are experts in the issue, I realize I need to up my game in the future.

Read the article below from The Broke Backpacker.  I think it provides sound security advice for travelers or anyone who uses digital technology outside of the confines of their own home.

 

Working online as you travel? Protect your shit!

Surviving Riots and Political Demonstrations

Surviving Riots and Political Demonstrations 217 346 Greg Ellifritz

*This is an excerpt from the chapter “Surviving Third World Riots and Political Demonstrations” from my book Choose Adventure.  With the riots we’ve seen over the last couple weeks, the information will be useful for you.  As our country descends into chaos, the advice from a third-world safety book might become necessary to survive our daily activities.

-Greg

 

 

Riot police in Santa Cruz, Bolivia just waiting for trouble to break out.

 

“For people who study the universe of disorder, automatic Kalashnikovs serve as reliable units of measure…Anywhere large numbers of young men in civilian clothes or mismatched uniforms are carrying Kalashnikovs is a very good place not to go; when Kalashnikovs turn up in the hands of mobs, it is time to leave.”- CJ Chivers

 

In addition to having dealt with some pretty unruly crowds in my work as a cop, I’ve been caught up in a few riots during my third world travels.  In Brazil, I was tear gassed by the police because I was in the middle of a riot that broke out during a 600,000-person free concert on the beach.  In Peru, I was even stuck in a riot where one of the rioters (a striking transportation worker) was shot by the military.  There were others as well.  I’ve seen some insane crowds.

 

In each of the bad spots I encountered, it was relatively easy to get out without having to resort to violence.  If someone uses common sense and keeps up good situational awareness, he or she can usually get away before things get too bad.

 

If the country you are visiting begins experiencing some political instability, protests, or violence, it would be prudent to get out of the region.  Often these events are localized and simply getting out of the involved city will reduce your danger.

 

If you can’t get out, do as much as possible to blend in with the locals. You don’t want to stand out in a situation like this.  Call your embassy for advice.  If you are an American, be cautious about physically going to your embassy during political unrest.  US Embassies are often targeted for protests, vandalism, and violence.  The American embassy may not be the safest place to go.  If you are in serious danger, consider going to the Canadian, British, or Australian embassy instead.  No guarantees, but those friendly embassies may be able to help.

 

If you are holed up in your hotel room and can’t escape, call the US Office of Overseas Citizens Services in Washington D.C.  They will be able to place you in contact with local embassy or consular officials.  The phone number is +1 888 407 4747 (during business hours) or +1 202 647 5225 (after hours).

 

I prefer to be as far away from any civil insurrection as possible, but I realize that some circumstances make that impossible.  The riot may be completely surrounding you or exits may be blocked.  If you find yourself in a situation like this, get inside a building.  A lockable location would be best, but just getting inside is better than nothing.  Most riots occur outdoors and on the street.  Getting inside will often keep you away from the majority of the violence.

 

The more dangerous situations are the riots or mob violence situations that seem to pop up without warning.  The best advice I can give you is to pay attention to your surroundings and have an escape plan for every location you visit.  When you see things starting to go bad (massing police, masked looters, people setting fires), GET OUT!  Implement your escape plan.  Don’t stick around and become a target for police batons, gangs of teen looters, or panicked crowds.  Usually the people who get hurt or killed in these events are the people who aren’t paying attention or who want to stand around and be a spectator.

 

If you accidentally happen upon looters, rioters, or large political demonstrations, walk away by the most direct route possible that allows you to avoid the unpredictable crowd.  Don’t run; that only draws unwanted attention from the rioting crowd.  Just walk quickly, avoiding eye contact or any interaction with the rioters.  As you walk, keep an eye out for places of sanctuary you may be able to use to escape the violence for a short period of time until the crowd passes.  Fighting against the crowd will be difficult.  Think of crossing a river, it’s easier if you don’t fight the current.  It’s the same way with crowds.  If you get surrounded by a group, move with the group as you work your way to the edge of the crowd or to your pre-planned escape route or sanctuary location.

 

If, despite your best efforts to avoid problem areas, you find yourself surrounded by a mob or overtaken by a riot, quickly get your back to a wall.  That way you won’t be surrounded and will only have to deal with a few people at a time.  I’ve found this tactic works very well.  If you fade back to a wall and stop moving, often the crowd will ignore you and pass right by.

 

Once you get your back to a wall, organize yourself and plan your escape.  If you are wearing a backpack, bag, or purse, swing it around to the front side of your body where it can serve as a shield (a panel from an old ballistic vest carried in the back pocket of your backpack will give you even more comfort).  This also prevents thieves and looters from trying to take it from you.  Take a look at the crowd.  Look for gaps.  Your goal is to look far enough ahead to move from gap to gap, exploiting the openings in the crowd.  Holding both arms in front of you with your hands together in a wedge shape will help get you through the crowd.  Move along walls if you can with your “wedge” out in front of you, deflecting people off to the side.  Turning your shoulders to make your body narrower as you squeeze through the crowd will also help.

 

Having some sort of less lethal weaponry is useful.  Many of the criminals who are caught up in the spirit of the riot are not very dedicated or motivated.  A quick blast of pepper spray will usually make them look for easier targets.

 

If you are attacked and you don’t have any spray (or the spray doesn’t work), you must act decisively.  Don’t get caught in the middle of two or more attackers.  If possible, keep moving to the outside of the group of attackers to “stack” them, or line them up so you only have to fight one at a time.  If you do get surrounded, violently attack one of the gang members and either use him as a temporary shield or blast through him to make your escape.  Don’t just blindly run away; you may be running into an area where there are more problems.  Instead of running AWAY from the criminals, run TOWARDS safety.  And remember that “safety” in this case may not be the band of police in their riot gear with batons out and ready.

 

In addition to your everyday carry items, there are a few other easily-carried items that may help you if you find yourself in a riot or mob:

A bandanna or triangular bandage– Besides its obvious use as a piece of multipurpose medical equipment, a wet bandanna can be tied or held over your nose or mouth to temporarily protect you from tear gas.  I prefer holding the bandanna rather than tying it over my mouth and nose.  A bandanna tied over one’s face screams “criminal” to the police.  I would rather not be a target for baton blows or rubber bullets if I am mistaken for a criminal

– Spare contact lenses if you wear them– Tear gas will destroy your soft contacts.  You will never want to put them back in again if they get exposed.  If you need your lenses to see, carry a spare pair.

– Protective glasses or sunglasses– When the police start firing beanbag rounds, Stingball grenades, and rubber bullets, you will want your eyes protected.  Those rounds hurt if they hit skin. If they hit your eyes, you can be seriously injured.

– Sturdy running shoes or boots– People who walk around in large crowds while wearing flip flops amaze me.  If bad stuff happens they aren’t able to run and their feet will likely be trampled by those who were smart enough to wear real shoes.  Be smart.  Save the flip flops for the beach.

A flashlight- if you are out at night in a crowd, you should have a light.  Besides its regular uses, a stout flashlight can be an improvised impact weapon.  If the riot occurs at night, you will want the light to check out any unlit alleys or other areas you might be considering for escape or refuge.

 

Pepper Spray/Tear Gas Exposure

If you get exposed to tear gas or pepper spray, don’t panic.  All the effects will diminish on their own without treatment in less than an hour.  The definitive treatment for the spray exposure is fresh air and cold running water.  Find a garden hose, shower, or sink. Flush your eyes and skin for 5-10 minutes.  After that, most of the effects will be gone.

 

If you don’t have access to running water, take a plastic water bottle and poke a small hole in the lid by using something like a safety pin.  Squeeze the sides of the bottle to create a stream of water coming out the hole.  Direct the stream into the affected eye or eyes.  If there is an open store, purchase a cheap bottle of contact lens saline solution to do the same thing.  If no water is available, open and close your eyes as hard and fast as possible to get the tears flowing.  This will hurt initially, but will speed up the decontamination process.

 

You will need to take a few more precautions if significant quantities of tear gas are in the air.  First, remove your contact lenses.  The gas will get trapped under your lenses and you won’t be able to open your eyes because of the intense pain.  It’s better to have some vision (even if uncorrected) than to be blinded when your contacts soak up a dose of pepper spray.  Then wash off any sunscreen, oil-based makeup, or skin lotions you’ve applied.  These will also bond with the tear gas and make it difficult to wash away from your skin.

 

 Additional Riot Self-Protection Advice

If you are able to find shelter inside a building as you make your escape, lock the door you used to enter and move to the rear of the building away from the direction of the crowd.  Try to find a rear-facing exit.  If the building is large enough, going out the back door might put you far enough away from the hostile crowd that you can walk or catch a taxi to get out of the area.  If escape is not an option, lock all the doors and stay away from the windows nearest the crowd.  You’ll have to wait out the rioters until it is safe to leave.  It could be minutes or days.  That’s why I advocate always carrying some emergency supplies on your person when you travel through developing countries.

 

In the event that your sanctuary location becomes untenable or you have to leave it for any reason, it’s a good idea to wear as much protective clothing as possible.  You want protection from impacts (rocks, bottles, etc.), fire, and police chemical weapons.  You should wear long sleeves, long pants, and closed toe, sturdy footwear.  Attempting to make your escape in shorts and flip flops may get you seriously injured or killed.

 

Think about wearing natural fiber clothes like wool or cotton.  Those are least likely to stick to your skin or melt when exposed to flame.  The only downsides of these materials is the fact that they wick tear gas and pepper spray, soaking up the chemicals and keeping them next to your skin.  To avoid problems with tear gas, carry a raincoat and put it on over your natural fiber clothing if you are in an area where chemical weapons are present.  The raincoat (ideally with hood) will keep most of the chemicals off your skin.

 

 

There is a lot more riot-oriented material in the remainder of this chapter.  If you would like to read about how to keep your family and children safe in a riot and information about dealing with rioters on foot when you are driving, check out Choose Adventure- Safe Travel in Dangerous Places.

 

Ghost Flights?

Ghost Flights? 720 360 Greg Ellifritz

In the age of the COVID-19 Pandemic, it might be best for you to familiarize yourself with the term “Ghost Flight” and actively seek to avoid booking one of them.

 

How to Avoid Booking a Seat on a “Ghost Flight” That Won’t Fly

TSA Changes

TSA Changes 670 300 Greg Ellifritz

Read

TSA Will Start Taking Your Photo At Security Checkpoints

 

More security theater from our TSA.  Be prepared to be photographed the next time you go through airport security.

 

Report: Air Travel During a Pandemic

Report: Air Travel During a Pandemic 482 871 Greg Ellifritz

A report from the front lines.

The current state of flying in the pandemic. I appreciate Paul’s insight and the thoughtful way he plans for emergencies when in a different location.