Your new travel ‘to-do’ list

Boy Scouts are taught to be prepared. What about business travelers? They must learn about safety and survival on their own – today, more so than ever.

But many haven’t. About 70% of travelers are not insured for medical or safety problems that may stop a trip, according to industry estimates. And only a fraction of road warriors subscribe to services that keep them posted on security developments, or carry a device that improves their safety on the road.

As a Boy Scout, I remember learning how to tie knots, make campfires and pitch a tent. What’s the equivalent skill set for the jet set?

Here are five things you should do to prepare for your next business trip.

1. Go shopping. Don’t leave home without taking a few simple items with you that can increase your security on the road. These include (but aren’t limited to) a key chain that doubles as an audible alarm, a portable lock for a hotel door and a hood that protects you from inhaling smoke and other biohazards. I’m thinking of the EXITAIR-Bio Emergency Breathing Hood, which filters toxic fumes in event of fire or biological emergency and protects your face, hair and eyes. At $44.95, it isn’t cheap, and it can be used only once. But if you’re ever in a dangerous situation, it could save your life.

A good place to buy these items is The Counter Spy Shops’ Web page, which offers everything from bulletproof vests to body-heat detection devices. Security expert Terry Riley of Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Applied Psychology says, however, that while the gadgets can prevent you from becoming a victim while you’re traveling, he warns against relying on them too much. “If you do, you can get a false sense of security,” he says. “There’s no substitute for researching your destination.”

2. Hire someone to keep you posted. Before security consulting became a big business, your travel agent doubled as your safety adviser. He or she would watch your back while you were away, alerting you to hotspots when wars or natural disasters struck. A good agent will still do that, to a certain extent. But now there are companies such as iJET Travel Intelligence that use techniques developed by government intelligence agencies to monitor your itinerary for you. (Disclaimer: I have been an unpaid consultant to iJET in the past.) Another service, IntelliGuide, offers daily security updates and destination-related briefings that feature advice on how to avoid trouble while you’re traveling. Although I like the products that are available to travelers, I also think it’s important to do your own homework before you leave. Let the experts help you, but call ahead and read the local papers online before you go.

3. Buy trip cancellation insurance. A travel cancellation policy, which typically costs from 4.5% to 7% of the price of a trip, helps you get your money back if you have to call off your trip. Most policies cover you up to $50,000 per person. The number of travelers buying trip insurance has doubled since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It remains high today in part because of sustained terrorism fears and in part because of new airline rules that limit changes made to nonrefundable tickets. The new policies, dubbed “use it or lose it,” have left many business travelers feeling as if their trips are more at risk than ever. Alicia Nieva-Woodgate, a sportswriter based in San Francisco, bought a $199 policy that covers a cancellation for an upcoming trip to Cambodia, Vietnam, India, Thailand and Burma. Among other things, it covers the cost of returning to the United States if there’s a terrorist attack. “I just want to be prepared for the worst,” she says.

4. Get health coverage. If you’re traveling overseas and something happens to you, will your health-insurance policy cover your medical bills and an evacuation, if needed? Maybe – and maybe not. Medical insurance policies, which cost anywhere from $25 for a few days of coverage to more than $2,000 for an annual policy, help pay your medical bills that aren’t included in your regular medical insurance. The amount of coverage starts at about $50,000 for short trips, up to $1 million for a year. One of the best-known policies is sold by MEDJET Assistance, an annual membership plan that offers prepaid air ambulance transportation, including domestic U.S. hospital-to-hospital air ambulance transportation services and worldwide evacuation. But shop for your medical policy carefully. Some insurance companies are slow to pay, as Sherry Mattson, a computer programmer in Belvidere, Ill., discovered when she tried to make a medical-related claim on behalf of her husband. “In order to process the claim, they wanted my husband’s entire medical history,” she recalls.

5. Get synched. Common sense? Come on. I’m constantly forgetting to synch my PDA and PC before I hit the road, and you probably are too. But there’s more to prepping for a trip than making sure the cell phone or PDA you’re traveling with is updated with the latest version of your schedule and contacts. Make sure your data is properly backed up, especially if you’re working from a home office. You never know what will happen while you’re gone. I’ve been taking a look at NTI Backup NOW!, a program that allows you to back up your data to almost any medium. I’ll be the first to admit that this application isn’t cheap, but when you’re facing the loss of all of your data, what’s $79.95?

Here’s something else to ponder: At a time when sensitive computer hardware is being run through airport X-ray machines, dropped and mishandled more often, hitting the “delete” button is frequently the first choice for troubleshooting. Complete disk re-formattings are up between 5% and 10% from a year ago, says Rebecca Patrascu, a technician for the Novato, Calif., data-recovery company DriveSavers. “It’s unfortunate,” she says, “because very frequently there are less radical alternatives, like data recovery. Or just updating the software drivers.”

I’m not just telling you how it ought to be. I’ve really started taking these precautions since 9/11. I’m vigilant about making sure my data is backed up to a portable hard drive and synched to my laptop. I’ve updated my health-insurance coverage and, on longer trips, I don’t hesitate to carry cancellation insurance. I also research my destinations carefully before leaving – and yes, I also carry a few safety devices.

I considered many of these measures optional for travel. But in this world of sniper attacks, shoe bombs and bio-terrorism, you can’t be too safe. Or too prepared.

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