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No-Nonsense Traveler: Is Mexico Safe?

This week, I found a question in my in-box that was relevant to a topic I wanted to address at more length, so I’m going to use it as a jumping-off point to talk about travel safety. It’s a question that’s been on a lot of travelers’ minds lately, and it comes to us from Georgia.

Do you have your own burning question about travel? Need some advice on your next vacation? Email us for the chance to have your own question answered here in the coming weeks.

Is Mexico Safe?

My husband and I have been traveling to Mexico for years, both before our two children, (ages 9 and 11), and with them. We drove many times, as far as Acapulco from Columbus, Georgia. I’ve always felt very comfortable, even when we were forced to give a large bribe in Mexico City, at a “routine” traffic stop. But now, with the reported rash of kidnappings all across Mexico, I am afraid to be there. Is there a safe place to visit, other than a large all-inclusive? Any advice? We miss our favorite vacation destination! –Mamie.

This is a particularly timely question given all the rash reports of crime-run-rampant we’ve been hearing about lately in the news. Let’s throw a cold pitcher of reality on these wild rantings: For the average traveler, Mexico is just as safe today as it was a year ago. I will never try to tell you to go someplace with your children if you don’t feel comfortable (and no one should), but I don’t think you need to abandon Mexico as a travel destination because of this growing crime problem in Mexico’s border cities. Ciudad Juarez, for example, is 2,200 miles from Cancún; would you avoid Chicago because there’s a dramatic increase in crime in El Paso?

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That’s not to say you should all start walking around Mexico City with your children trying to hail taxis at 2 AM. But let’s get a little perspective on this situation. You don’t have to secure yourself behind the heavily armed gates of an all-inclusive resort—unless that’s what you want to do. Given the amount of border-area crime, I’m not so sure I’d drive to Mexico City right now, as I did in the late 1980s. The U.S. Department of State makes a similar point in its most recent travel alert on Mexico. But you can certainly go to Playa del Carmen or some other tourist hotspot, rent a car, and explore on your own if that’s what you like to do. Almost all the crime happening right now is drug-related, and almost all the victims have been drug dealers and their associates. True, people are kidnapped for ransom, but almost all of them are Mexican citizens, who are targeted after some research by the criminals. While I can’t tell you that a vacation in Mexico will be crime-free, I can tell you that I actually believe Mexican authorities who tell us that the crime is not a pervasive, all-encompassing problem throughout the country; rather, it’s isolated and limited in scope. And even though crime is on the rise, people do travel every day even to Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez without incident.

Five Simple Rules for Travel Safety

By exercising the slightest amount of common sense, you can greatly reduce the chance that you will experience any serious incident, whether at home or abroad.

1. Don’t drink to excess. Most vacation incidents involve alcohol abuse. Drunk travelers fall off cruise ships. They get mugged on dark streets. They crash their car. They decide to jump off their hotel balcony. Whether it’s crime or accidents, drinking too much is very likely a contributing factor, if not the root cause.

2. Don’t try to buy drugs. Drug dealers are by their very definition criminals. Are you surprised if bad things befall you when you buy drugs in an unfamiliar place (or even a familiar place)? And don’t forget that laws abroad can be significantly more stringent than they are in the U.S.

3. Don’t carry all your money and your passport on your person. In general, you should carry only 5 things on your person: money for the day, an ATM card, a credit card, your driver’s license, and a color photocopy of your passport. Leave everything else back in your hotel room safe; if there’s no safe, lock it in your hotel’s safe or simply in your luggage. If someone really wants to rob your hotel room, they will, but if you take even the slightest precaution you will decrease the chance of that expoenentially. Most thieves are looking to pluck the low-hanging fruit.

4. Always try to look like you know what you’re doing. As silly as this sounds, walking with a sense of purpose will place you among those people who are less likely to become the victims of street crime. Criminals prefer to prey on the weak and distracted; they like bickering couples and families with crying 2-year-olds. The more you can seem in control, the more you will be in control. You can’t help but look like a tourist (even if you don’t think you do), but you can certainly look like a tourist who knows what he or she is doing.

5. Don’t be stupid. Whenever you are in an unfamiliar place, it’s important not to leave your wits back at home. Don’t take chances by doing things on vacation that you wouldn’t do at home. Ask the front desk clerk about the safety of the area immediately around your hotel; then follow that advice. If you find yourself in an unfamiliar city and don’t feel comfortable walking around at night, then don’t. Don’t leave all your money and valuables on the beach; thieves know the most likely hiding places.

There’s so much about life that’s not in our control. We can’t control whether terrorists are going to mount an unexpected attack. We can’t know if a mugger is going to try to rob us as we walk back from the theater. We can’t know if the money-changer is going to short-change us. And it’s not as if we shouldn’t worry about those problems. You need to do your research when you’re traveling to find out about specific dangers and annoyances in the place you’re going. But that doesn’t mean you should stay at home or even avoid a place because crime has been known to happen there. News flash: crime can happen anywhere, from the parking lot at Disney’s Magic Kingdom to the gritty streets of Buenos Aires. But for the most part, if you exercise the slightest amount of common sense, you will be able to avoid 99% of all the problems you are likely to encounter.

Do you have your own burning question about travel? Need some advice on your next vacation? Email us for the chance to have your own question answered here in the coming weeks.

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