Terrorism Watch: Where Not to Go in 2015

Spain is as dangerous as Tunisia, where some 38 tourists recently were killed in a beach massacre.

Chew on that and know this is according to the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office which recently issued a global map of terror hotspots along with pointers to destinations that are more tranquil.

Here’s the map and it is mindblowing.  The FCO said that low threat destinations include Iceland, Bolivia, Ecuador, Poland, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Hungary, Vietnam and Japan. That list is short.  And that because much of the rest of the world is a vastly more dangerous place, per the FCO.

France is no go. So is Australia.

Will I use the map to chart my 2015 travels?

Understand, I spent many nights in Northern Ireland in the height of “The Troubles” – everywhere from Belfast to Derry and even small towns like Omagh. I never felt unsafe. (Perhaps I should have. In 1998, long after the IRA-British ceasefire, a rogue group set off bombs in wee Omagh, killing 29, mainly Spanish school children. It blew up a hotel where I in fact had stayed maybe eight years earlier.)

Even so, here’s my credo: Keep your eyes open, trust nobody, and you very probably will keep yourself safe even in fraught surroundings.

And then there is the terrorist impulse which is to cause consternation by striking in the unexpected place.

That is what makes the world a scarier place and, very probably, rationality alone won’t keep you safe in it. You need luck. And quite possibly the FCO map.

The FCO divides the world into four areas: places where the threat of terrorism is high, where it is general, where it is underlying, and where it is low.

Many, many places win FCO’s highest threat label, including the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, Russia, France, Spain, Turkey, India, just about all of North Africa (Morocco wins a “general threat” label), Australia, Indonesia, Pakistan.

The US and Canada are in the “general threat” bucket.

You are right, the list is so exhaustive the obvious options are to ignore it or to crawl back under one’s covers.

A third way may be to use one’s head.

When I stayed in Belfast, in the bad years, I never stayed at the Europa, a four-star hotel in the city center but it also was one that had won notoriety as “the most bombed hotel in Europe.” It was bombed 28 times during the Troubles.  I usually stayed at tiny guest houses near Queens University, an area that the terrorists on all sides had decreed a DMZ.  Never had a problem, tho I did stay in odd accommodations with tiny beds, often a shared bath, and sometimes feeble heat. But better a little uncomfortable than blown up.

The unsettling suggestion found in the FCO map is that tourist hotspots may become terror hotspots.  Terrorists know the handful of must see spots in Paris, for instance, and so are you at risk at, say, the Eiffel Tower?

The FCO implication is, yep.

In Manhattan I often saw heavily armed NYPD in and around Times Square.  Can’t say I ever saw them in Washington Sq Park, the East Village, or East Harlem.  Presumably they were where their intel told them to be.

So what is a tourist to do in these times of global tension where terror is seen by many as the answer and that means they are willing to sacrifice – indeed want to sacrifice – large numbers of civilians.

I will not tell you what to do, that’s your call.

But I can say that, for me, there are places I deem too high risk, low reward to warrant visiting such as Tunisia to pick on an easy target.

Would I go to Turkey, also on the FCO most dangerous list? Yes, but I have been there and I was dazzled by Ephesus and Istanbul, straddling east and west, is as alluring a city as I can conjure.

I would also go to France, Spain (still want to walk the 500 mile Camino), the United Kingdom, and Northern Ireland, all high risk per FCO.  I very much like them all and that is good enough for me.

Would I go to Russia? No, but my problem is more with the state than its enemies.  There just is not enough to compel me to want to go there.
In other words: go where you want to go. Don’t let terrorists bully you.  Don’t be ignorant, either. Know the risks. But very definitely go exactly where you please. That’s the only way we don’t lose.

What Hotels Still Don’t Get About Mobile

June 2007 – eight years ago Apple introduced the iPhone and thus begat a revolution that still is transforming our lives and especially how we travel.

The puzzlement to me is how slow many hotels have been to react.

A new study by Ipsos, via TripAdvisor, throws a klieg light on the mammoth disconnect between what connected travelers want and what hotels are delivering.  For instance: “34% of the smartphone-loving Connected Travelers audience wants a mobile check-in option. Yet only 11% of lodgings offer this option that saves time for both guests and front desk staff,” says the study.

Fact: cellphone usage keeps ticking higher. According to the survey, 4% of us booked accommodations via mobile in 2014. The number now is 8% and for so-called Connected Travelers the number is 11%.

Where the numbers get genuinely interesting is in looking at how we use mobile devices when traveling.  And we use them a lot.

That makes sense.  A cellphone is our ever available answer machine. Where’s the nearest pizza shop? What’s the top rated sushi counter nearby? How do I get to Carnegie Hall?

At home we know the answers to such basic questions. In a strange town, or a foreign land, we don’t. And so we find ourselves reaching for our cellphones a lot – at least I reach for mine.

The survey says many of us do likewise.  Here is how TripAdvisor says we are using our phones:

Getting directions/using maps

  • Connected Travelers: 81%

Looking for restaurants

  • Connected Travelers: 72%

Looking for activities

  • Connected Travelers: 67%

Reading reviews

  • Connected Travelers: 64%

You are at a resort, you are hungry, do you eat there, knowing that most hotel restaurants are blah at best and more often overpriced culinary wastelands?  You pop open TripAdvisor, maybe Yelp, and you read what other diners have had to say about the food and value in the eateries near you.  And probably you do this on your phone, at least I do.

You want to go out on a hike, what trail is best? You look on your phone before you lace up. Naturally.

That is why for me, increasingly, the idea of travel without a working cellphone just is unacceptable.

Final word: know that growing numbers of travelers just won’t stay at hotels without cellular.  Sure, who doesn’t understand that maybe there will be a problem in a remote Alaskan hunting camp or a beach bungalow on a tiny Pacific island. Go to such and, please, don’t kvetch about no cellular.

Where the wounds are real and deep is when there isn’t cellular at hotels within an hour or two of major metros and, bottomline, the operator/owner just is too cheap to invest in technology that would bring cellular in.

Where? Huge swaths of Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas are without reliable cellular — a topic I have written about before.

Of course most phones on T-Mobile and Sprint can be toggled to use WiFi calling, a cool feature that lets the user make and receive calls using the customary cellular phone number.  But the hotel needs robust WiFi to support that and many are lacking.  It also leaves out the 900 pound gorillas – AT&T and Verizon, neither of which has evidenced any interest in WiFi calling. For those subscribers, it’s use Skype or Google Voice or get reacquainted with the in-room hotel phones which most of us have not touched in a decade. (And, yes, many still have usurious rates.)

Look, it is fine by me if ownership is too cheap to put in cellular (tho I wonder if they still have tube TVs and electricity that runs only as the guest feeds the meter with nickels).  But at least tell people – in big fonts – as they book that there is no cellular on the property, that the nearest, reliable cellular connection is X miles away.

Certainly it is also fine by me if the hotel sells itself as an unplugged getaway.  That’s honest marketing. I don’t want to stay there but, for those who do, have at it.
My advice: if there is not full disclosure in the booking process, check out as soon as you realize you cannot make calls and trust your credit card company to guard your back in this tussle for a full refund from a hotel that just is not fulfilling its end of the 21st century digital user contract.