I worked as a Federal Marshal for close to nineteen years. Although I can’t disclose details about our missions or the flights I covered, I can say that over the course of my domestic and international deployments, I logged a total of 2.4 million aviation miles. Despite the hardships we endured and the unforeseen changes to come, I still take great pride in the work we did. I jokingly told people that I was in the air more than most birds, but that was the job, and I loved it.

In the early months of 2020, news outlets started reporting on a new virus called COVID-19 and how it could possibly impact air travel. No big deal, right? I had flown through viral outbreaks before: West Nile, SARS, H1N1, and Zika, to name a few. Like most Americans, I assumed we’d get the standard safety warnings, news bulletins, and constant reminders to wash our hands. But this time, things went a little further than that.

On March 10th, 2020, I stepped off a flight from Amsterdam, Netherlands. The next day, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a highly contagious and deadly global pandemic. International travel came to a halt, and citizens around the world were urged to stay indoors. Because I had just come from a city where COVID-19 cases were on the rise, I was removed from the flight schedule and placed in quarantine for fourteen days. “Fine, I’ll sit at home for a couple of weeks and catch up on some yard work while this whole thing blows over.” Although I didn’t know it at the time, I had just taken my last international flight as a federal air marshal. By October of that same year, I had retired from service and moved back to my hometown in Virginia. There, I waited along with the rest of the world for COVID to run its course.

COVID Impact on Travel

According to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), there was a 72-percent drop in international arrivals worldwide between January and October of 2020.1 That number represents 900 million fewer international travelers than the year before and a loss of over 935 billion dollars in revenue from tourism. Those numbers have had a devastating effect on the global economy. On an individual level, many people found it hard to cope with the feelings of isolation and hopelessness created by mandated stay-at-home orders. According to a December 2020 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, medical professionals started to see a global “surge” in reported cases of anxiety and depression. Forty-two percent of people in the United States reported symptoms of depressive disorders in that month alone, a 31-percent increase over the previous year. On top of that, the closing of businesses deemed to be nonessential created a significant financial hardship for families all over the world.

In all of the chaos created by COVID-19, the vast majority of people simply kept their heads down and did whatever they could to get through this pandemic with minimal impact on their health and well-being. It’s been a long and difficult road since the onset of the pandemic, but the good news is that things are finally starting to turn around. As I write these words, the majority of COVID restrictions have been lifted, and things are starting to get back to normal. Businesses have reopened, children have returned to school, and thank God, travel is now back on the table. Whether it’s for a business trip, a long weekend, or a full-blown family vacation, we’re all feeling the need to break away from our pandemic-mandated constraints and strike out in search of a little adventure.

It’s been a very long wait, but it’s time to lace up those traveling shoes and hit the road again. Vacations, weekend getaways, and even business trips can offer experiences that are exciting, educational, and sometimes even awe-inspiring, but they can also be dangerous. It’s not my intention to put a damper on your post-pandemic excitement, but leaving home to travel through unfamiliar territory does come with some level of risk, and you need to be prepared for that.

In the year prior to COVID-19, we saw a significant increase in crimes targeting tourists; those included street scams, robberies, kidnappings, and even murder, but the commission of those crimes dropped dramatically during the lockdown period. It’s safe to say that even criminals decided to take those stay-at-home orders seriously. Although the more violent crimes against vacationers are less common, there has always been a need to exercise sound judgment and good situational awareness, even when you’re supposed to be relaxing. That’s especially important now that families are starting to vacation again.

As domestic and international destinations begin to loosen their travel restrictions, there’s the potential that crimes targeting tourists will rebound to at least their previous levels, if not higher. For that reason, it’s imperative that we reassess our individual levels of security and beef up our situational awareness before we start planning our next big getaway.
In my first book, Spotting Danger Before It Spots You, Build Situational Awareness to Stay Safe, I covered the basic concepts of situational awareness and how your body language can signal weakness to predatory criminals. You learned that by simply lifting your head up and looking around you change the way you are perceived by others and can significantly increase your levels of awareness and safety.

Avoiding Violent Situations

Those same concepts apply even when you’re on vacation. Regardless of your location, criminals tend to stick to specific patterns of behavior; we call those patterns “pre-incident indicators.” The ability to accurately predict the actions of others based on the early recognition of those indicators can help you avoid violent situations before they have a chance to manifest. It is crucial to know how predators choose their victims and to be able to establish behavioral baselines, identify baseline anomalies, and harden your personal defenses, but to make such knowledge and skills part of your routine, especially while traveling, takes practice and willpower.

In this fourth book in the Spotting Danger series, I break travel safety down into three phases:

1. The first phase, PRE-DEPARTURE, covers preparations such as researching your destination, home security, and establishing a support system while you’re away. Relaxing and minimizing distractions on vacation will be a lot easier if you’re confident in the fact that everything is safe and secure back home.

2. The second phase, TRAVEL, will cover travel safety on the road and in the air. The scenery may constantly be changing, but keeping your guard up, even while in transit, is a crucial element of personal safety.

3. Finally, phase three, ARRIVAL, will cover the things that need to happen once you’ve made it to your destination. Knowing what to look out for when you’re on the ground, how to react when things go wrong, and how to maintain communications with your family and friends are critical security considerations and can mean the difference between a fun-filled adventure and a traumatic experience.

Crime Facts and Statistics

Before we begin, I think it’s important to look at some facts and statistics that tie into the motivating factors behind the commission of crime. The four elements that most often motivate criminal actions are money, territory, ego, and emotion. Although each of these factors can come into play during a vacation, money tops the list when it comes to targeting tourists. According to the U.S. Travel Association, domestic and international vacationers spend nearly 1.1 trillion dollars annually in the U.S. alone. The average American couple will spend $581 on a single domestic weekend trip. In comparison, international travelers will spend up to three thousand five hundred dollars during a twelve-day vacation.2 Those numbers exclude travel costs such as fuel and airfare and increase significantly depending on the number of family members you have with you. That’s a lot of money, and any time there’s that much cash involved, you can guarantee there will be someone nearby looking to take advantage of an unsuspecting tourist.

Aside from the money factor, territory can also play a significant role in the targeting of tourists. That’s why planning and area familiarization are so essential when it comes to maintaining your safety. During my career as a federal air marshal, one of my favorite things to do was to lace up my shoes and head out on a long walk through a new city. Europe, especially, is filled with museums, mountains, beaches, massive cathedrals, and castles; I wanted to see it all. While traveling, I quickly learned that my safety depended upon more than just my wits and training; it was imperative that I thoroughly familiarize myself with my surroundings to avoid ending up in areas where my presence may be unwelcome. There are hundreds of resources for travelers that can help with this part of your trip planning. In this book, I’ve included a “travel resources” section in the appendix to help you with your research.

After money and territory, there’s ego and emotion. These two factors are ever present regardless of where you may find yourself. On vacation, both can be amplified and become liabilities to your safety, especially when you mix alcohol into the equation. I can’t even begin to list the number of fights I’ve seen erupt between locals and tourists just because of ego and emotion. A good friend and coworker of mine had his leg completely shattered during a fight that broke out over a World Cup soccer match. He was on a mission with his team overseas, and they decided to grab a bite to eat at a local pub where the match was being aired. Soccer fans from all over the world had made their way to the pub, and it was so crowded my friend had to take up a position on the patio just outside the entrance. During the match, words were exchanged between some English and South American soccer fans, egos were bruised, and emotions got out of control. My friend wasn’t directly involved in the fight. He was positioned just outside the entrance with his back to the door. His thought was, “I’d rather see who was coming in as opposed to who was leaving.” When the fight spilled outside, he was taken by surprise. He was able to fight off the first person who rushed him from the door but the crowd that quickly followed crushed him against the patio railing. Luckily, his teammates were able to pull him to safety. They were also familiar enough with the area to get him out of harm’s way and seek proper medical attention. Now, nineteen years later, my friend still walks with a slight limp, but things could have been much worse. All because some people in a crowd couldn’t control their egos or emotions.

Crime is Always There

I don’t tell these stories to strike fear into the hearts of travelers; I tell them to help raise awareness. Although most vacationers can travel freely without ever falling victim to crime, there is always the potential for danger, especially in a post-pandemic world. I started writing the Spotting Danger series so everyone can develop a solid foundation of situational awareness and give themselves the advantage of being able to preemptively spot danger, quickly implement escape plans, and take control of their own safety. So, stay safe wherever your travels may take you.

1. UNWTO “Impact Assessment of the COVID-19 Outbreak on International Travel,” https://www.unwto.org/impact-assessment-of-the- covid-19-outbreak-on-international-tourism.

2. https://www.ustravel.org/system/files/media_root/document/Research_ Fact-Sheet_US-Travel-and-Tourism-Overview.pdf.

The above is an excerpt from Spotting Danger for Travelers: Build Situational Awareness to Keep Safe While Traveling by Gary Quesenberry, Federal Air Marshal (Ret.), Publication Date April 2023, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 9781594399305.