When I was providing training for contractors and NGO staff working in high-risk locations, I generally emphasized that they were at the greatest risk when traveling. The same holds true for any of us traveling here in the United States.
That’s when you are most exposed. You are in unfamiliar locations where it is easier to get into the wrong neighborhood. You are getting in and out of vehicles at gas stations, stores, rest stops, and lodgings. You are staying in motels and hotels where it is easy to fall victim to crime.
For the most part, the same situational awareness and preparation skills you use in familiar territory will serve you well while traveling. However, because you are in unfamiliar territory and situations that are outside the norm for your everyday life, you must take some extra precautions and turn up your ‘Spidey-Sense’ for things that don’t feel right.
Where Do Violent Crimes Occur?
According to the FBI’s data for 2020, the greatest number of violent crimes occurred in the home. This makes sense since that’s where people spend the most time, and it includes incidents of domestic violence. On the street or highway is number two.
But after that come parking lots, convenience stores, hotels/motels, gas stations, and restaurants, in that order. All places you are likely to find yourself when traveling. We should be situationally aware and spend our time in Jeff Cooper’s Condition Yellow no matter where we are. But it is more complicated when we travel because we may not know what is normal or unusual in an unfamiliar place.
Traveling by Car
The majority of travel in the U.S. is by private owner vehicle, so that is what this article will focus on. Travel by air or rail has different safety and security concerns that warrant their own articles.
You are exposed 100% of the time when traveling by vehicle. While you shouldn’t be paranoid, you should take extra precautions wherever you are and whatever you are doing. Planning ahead is key to staying safe and secure.
Plan your route in advance; don’t just rely on GPS or your phone to tell you where to go. Have a basic understanding of the places your route will take you through. If you don’t like a certain area, plan a different way around it. Let a reliable person know when you are leaving and when you should arrive. Check in with them regularly along the way.
Check the route daily to look for problems and slowdowns due to traffic or construction. There are multiple apps that provide real-time alerts and information. Plan fuel stops to avoid stopping near big cities with higher potential for crime.
Ensure you have emergency supplies in your vehicle. At a minimum, these should include a first aid kit, a couple of good flashlights, a wire to charge your phone, snacks, and water. I also carry a portable power source with enough juice to jump my engine if need be and a tire pump.
Hotels and Motels
In 2020, there were 16,588 violent crimes reported at hotels and motels. No doubt there were others that never made it into the FBI’s data list. There are numerous reasons why lodgings are dangerous. It’s a transient population. There is a high degree of anonymity among guests, people come and go on a random basis, easy access, and plenty of valuables are left unattended in cars and rooms.
If it is a cheap motel, all those problems are intensified. Cheap motels are well known for disturbances, drug dealing, prostitution, and as places where people hide out when on the run from the law or violent exes.
Plan your overnight stop away from large cities if at all possible and get the best hotel your budget can stand. If the hotel is multistory, try to get a room on the third floor or above. Even in a smaller motel, avoid rooms on the ground floor. Criminals like to burglarize rooms they can get in and out of quickly. Check doors and windows to ensure they can be locked securely. Don’t rely on the door locks alone. Bring a rubber doorstop to place under the door before you go to sleep.
Do not leave any valuables in your car and park where it is well-lit, even if that means you must carry your bags a little further to get to your room. Do not answer an unexpected knock on the door. Door peepholes are fine, but they don’t reveal someone hiding around the side of the doorway.
Going out of your room
Try to have everything you need in your room before dark so you aren’t making late-night trips to the ice or vending machine. If you leave your room to go eat, close the curtains over the windows and leave some lights and the TV on so it sounds like someone is in the room. If you hear a disturbance, do not investigate it. Call the front desk or the police, whichever seems best. Always ensure you have at least one powerful flashlight in your room with you.
It is impossible for police to patrol rest stops adequately. Incidents involving robbery, vandalism, child abduction, and panhandling are not unheard of. Rest stops are at their most dangerous after the sun goes down, so use common sense when deciding to stop at one. Criminals see rest areas as an opportunity to surprise tired, unwary travelers. Unless a rest stop is well-lighted and busy, it’s best to look for a truck stop, convenience store, or fast food restaurant to take your break.
Still, when nature calls, you must answer, but take precautions. When going to the restroom or vending machine, use the buddy system. Never send children anywhere in a rest stop on their own. When you leave your vehicle, take your phone and lock the doors. Use your key fob so that the horn sounds to let a would-be thief know the doors are locked, and they should look elsewhere for an easy entrance.
Never sleep in your car at a rest stop. The risk is too great. It’s better to spend some money on a motel. Even stopping at a well-lit and busy truck stop would be better.
Gas stations have become notorious for carjacking. What better place? The victim is out of their car, and the car is stationary, frequently with the keys still in the ignition or handy in the owner’s pocket for electronic start vehicles. Just wait for the owner to finish filling the tank and be preoccupied with hanging up the nozzle, then go for it.
As part of your travel planning, designate locations outside of large cities as your fill-up points. Also, plan to fill your tank during the day, not after dark. Opinions vary, but in my experience, a busy gas station is safer than a quiet one. There are more witnesses, and the congestion makes a fast getaway difficult. Both are things bad guys try to avoid.
When you get out of the car, take your keys and lock the doors to prevent someone from jumping in the other side. Stand between the open front door and the gas hose while you fill the tank. That puts something between you and anyone coming around the front or rear of the car. If you are carrying, and you should be, be prepared to draw if the need arises.
We’re often in a hurry when we are traveling. That makes drive-up ATMs and drive-through fast food attractive. But both can present opportunities to criminals.
Refrain from using drive-up ATMs or outdoor ATMs you walk up to. Both present an excellent opportunity for an attentive criminal who is watching for a victim. Instead, use indoor ATMs at truck stops and convenience stores. Don’t stand there counting your money. Put it in your pocket and count it later in a safe place. You can call your bank later and get it straightened out if there’s an error. Employ good situational awareness getting back to your car.
Fast food is almost a staple when traveling. It’s cheaper and quicker than going into a restaurant, and you always know what it’s going to look and taste like. Plan food breaks to be outside of large cities. Choose a drive-through that doesn’t box you in so you can pull out of the drive if anything happens. And as always, pay attention to what is going on around you.
Getting lost is a common hazard when traveling, even if you are using a GPS or phone to guide you. This is especially true in cities where lane restrictions or traffic might prevent you from making a necessary turn. The main thing in this case is to recognize when you are getting into a bad neighborhood and crank up your trouble radar accordingly. Ensure everyone’s windows are up and all doors are locked. Turn off the car stereo so you are better able to hear what’s going on around you.
Road trips can be fun, and millions of Americans take to the highways all year long. By using some common sense and keeping your wits about you, you can travel while still keeping yourself and your family safe.