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The Tech That Is Making Travel Safer

Source: Mark Ellwood.

This article originally appeared on Conde Naste.

What technology can help us better protect ourselves in the next year, decade, or generation?

Today’s world can feel like a tinderbox, just one strike away from flaring up again. Where war-torn hot zones once seemed isolated, danger now exists almost anywhere. It might come via attacks on airports, like June’s bombing in Istanbul or the attacks in Belgium. It could take the form of mass shooting sprees, like last winter’s Bataclan tragedy in Paris or a lone wolf, intent on causing maximum casualties—see this summer’s Bastille Day in Nice, where a parade ended with more than 80 people dead.

Traveling in 2016 seems more fraught with risks than ever—and Condé Nast Traveler isn’t immune. One colleague’s concerned fiancé pressed her to consider canceling a long-planned three-week world trip next month. "Why?" she asked. His answer was heartbreakingly simple: "We’ll be targeted as Americans, won’t we?" The sense of unease, of unknown and unknowable dangers, isn’t confined to traveling overseas, either: Consider websites like Why We’re Afraid, which spotlights acts of violence here at home.

Pause for a moment, though. In 2015, the U.S. State Department logged more than 28,000 deaths as a result of terror attacks worldwide. It’s tragic, but the stark figures can be misleading: Almost three quarters of those deaths took place in five troubled countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Syria). What’s more, political extremism, not Islamic fundamentalism, drives most lone wolf attacks in the West—between 2008 and 2014, 67 percent of deaths resulting from such atrocities were caused by the likes of Norway’s neo-fascist Anders Behring Breivik. In other words, the threat from evildoers acting alone does not correlate with the current geo-political climate; it’s also not greater or lesser than decades earlier. It just is.

And yet, somehow, we still feel a little bit more afraid today, especially when we travel. The solution, of course, isn’t to hide out or hole up: Terrorism’s purpose lies in using fear as a cudgel to forcibly change others’ actions. So how can we counter that instinct, fight the nervousness that political uncertainties have birthed? When we travel, what makes us feel safe? What technology is out there that can help us better protect ourselves in the next year, decade, or generation?

Fly via Britain or Holland

In the 1970s and 1980s, there were sporadic incidents of bombs on airliners—some causing tragic deaths but ending heroically, as pilots on Pan Am Flight 830 and TWA Flight 840 managed to land their stricken planes. The Lockerbie bombing in 1988 was very different. Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over a small Scottish town, killing 270 people (including 11 on the ground). The catastrophe prompted headlines around the world, but in Britain, it jolted the authorities into making prescient changes to airport security. After investigations showed the bomb was smuggled aboard at London Heathrow, the U.K. government reacted instantly and instituted a new blanket screening of airport workers. No matter how many times staffers crossed to and from the airside area of an airport, they would be X-rayed and scanned in the same way as passengers (the EU would follow suit almost 15 years later). The U.K. government invested in cutting-edge X-ray scanners for its airports that outperformed any elsewhere in the world; the staff was also subjected to criminal background checks. Today, airports in the U.K. remain among the world’s most secure, as does Amsterdam Schipol, where CT scanning of carry-ons is not only thorough, but allows passengers to keep liquids and laptops in their bags. Both pale in comparison, of course, to Tel Aviv: Fly through here, and you’ll be transiting what’s frequently dubbed "the world’s most secure airport."

Focus on communication

Smartphone tech has transformed the humble phrasebook—the TripLingo app doesn’t just provide a series of emergency phrases in the local language of your choice, but offers games and quizzes so you can practice, and a voice translator function. All of which—bar the voice translator—operate offline to minimize roaming charges. Alternatively, there’s always Google Translate, which also recently began offering offline functionality.

Buy an Apple Watch

Apple recently announced a canny tweak to its watch software, where the new OS includes an SOS function. Here’s how it works: Just hold down the side button to call 911—or whatever the local emergency services number is where you are. It will share the watch’s location, and basic medical info of its owner (age, existing conditions per the Medical ID profile in Apple’s Health app) with first responders, as well as alerting designated next of kin. (Note that the SOS function only works when the Apple Watch is either connected to a phone or Wi-Fi.) If you’re not an iDevice owner, consider Allianz’s TravelSmart app, which allows you to locate the nearest hospital during an emergency and lists the appropriate numbers to dial.

Download a tracking app

The free-to-download Companion was invented by a team of undergrads at the University of Michigan as a virtual way of walking friends home at the end of a night out. Its features are also tailor-made for trips abroad. Imagine you’re exploring a new city, and want to feel reassured: Activate the app and designate one of your contacts as your ‘companion’ who will receive a message that allows him or her to follow your route live on a web browser, whether or not they have the app. The app will then ask you from time to time whether you’re okay, requiring you to tap a button to dismiss the prompt. If you don’t respond within 15 seconds, it will alert that designated ‘companion.’ It’s also motion sensitive—perhaps you also want an alert sent if you start running rather than walking—and if your headphones are yanked from their socket, it triggers that 15-second countdown before sending an alert to your companion if it isn’t dismissed.

Leverage a greeter program

Nothing demystifies a locale better than a local, and many destinations now offer gratis greeter programs that allow visitors to be squired around a city by a friendly resident. Take Icelandair’s Stopover Buddy Program, which relies on its affable staff to show travelers around Reykjavik during a layover, or Chicago’s Greeter program, where Windy City volunteers offer their enthusiasm and expertise gratis to curious visitors. For female travelers who often face additional layers of concern, there are parallel networks such as She’s Wanderful and The Travelettes. Look for a similar program in whatever destination you’re considering.

Keep it in the Cloud

When it comes to passport safety, the U.S. lags behind some forward-thinking countries like Australia, which is testing a cloud-based passport that short-circuits pickpockets. However, you can home-hack a version for now: Take photographs of any important documents—passports, hotel reservations, emergency contacts, or insurance forms—before leaving home and then upload them to a service like Dropbox. This will act as a virtual safety deposit box you can access from anywhere, as needed. Don’t forget Global Entry,either—do your part and join this program, as it’s a win-win. Not only will you speed through immigration and customs any time you arrive stateside, but the more folks pre-vetted by programs like this (you earn a Known Traveler ID), the easier it is for the TSA to focus on travelers with potentially murkier intentions.

Take an Uber (or a 99) everywhere

When I was traveling to Rio this summer to cover the Olympics, I was concerned how best to get around safely in a city with a reputation for danger—notably, the anecdotal evidence of muggings on buses, while in transit. Turns out, the answer was a rideshare program—in this case, Uber. Not only was it affordable but also convenient. I could summon a car, to the door of a restaurant if need be, any time I wanted it. Language was no barrier, as my destination was automatically input. There was no risk of a driver going rogue, either, as our entire journey was satellite-mapped and recorded. It enabled me to explore Rio in-depth without worrying—even edgier neighborhoods like Santa Teresa, site of my favorite restaurant discovery, Aprazivel. Don’t forget, too, that many cities have local counterparts to Uber or Lyft, which often have larger fleets (in Rio, there’s 99, with English-language support).

Carry a local newspaper

Self-defense doesn’t always need to be high tech. In any country or city where you feel uncomfortable, buy a local language newspaper, tuck it under your arm, and continue walking. Sure, you might not understand a word of it, but it telegraphs you as local—or at least, locally savvy—and acts as a force-field against petty crime. I’ve used this countless times across the world, and felt first-hand the impact of the gesture.

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