Being prepared is the best way to ensure your safety if a country implodes while you're on vacation.
After Kenya's opposition leader lost a disputed presidential election in December, the country descended into chaos. Tribal mobs attacked each other with machetes and clubs in the countryside, while in Nairobi, residents burned tires in the streets. Although none of the thousands of foreign tourists in the country at the time were attacked, many travelers were unprepared to deal with the crisis, as Kenya had been long regarded as one of the safest and most stable countries in Africa.
Australian photographer Paul Allen, his wife, and his sister were driving through the Rift Valley at the time and were told by locals that they'd be able to make it to the border. Over the next day, however, they crashed their Land Rover through several roadblocks manned by armed thugs. "If we knew what we know now, we would have done things differently," Allen says. "Given the advice we had at the time, we did what we could."
Do your homework
Educate yourself about where you'll be going. The State Department's website has information on the security situation in every country, including specific regions to avoid, the dangers you might encounter, and how you will be viewed as an American (travel.state.gov/travel). In addition, read up on the latest news about the country, as this will give you a more comprehensive picture of the place. If you're going on a tour, make sure your operator has an emergency contingency plan and find out what the company will do to protect you. Some operators hired armed guards to take tourists to the airport during the turmoil in Kenya, and others changed itineraries, at no extra cost, to avoid trouble spots. "Any reputable tour company will go above and beyond to make sure that its travelers are taken care of," says Sarah Fazendin, head of the Fazendin Portfolio, which represents African tour operators in the U.S.
Consider getting insurance
When traveling to a country where political disturbances are possible, look into buying travel insurance. Companies like AIG Travel Guard (travelguard.com) and Travelex Insurance Services (travelexinsurance.com) have policies that offer partial or full reimbursement of your trip if it's interrupted or canceled—just make sure that terrorism and political unrest are covered. Both companies will also change your flights for you and arrange to have you transported to the airport in case of an emergency. You can buy insurance directly from the agencies or through a brokerage firm such as Travel Insurance Center, which will help you select a plan from 14 companies—and it doesn't charge a fee (travelinsurancecenter.com).
Keep your distance
Even if a demonstration looks peaceful, stay far away. In some countries, the police respond to protesters with water cannons, tear gas, and violence. And there's always the chance that an angry crowd could turn on you simply because you're a foreigner. The last thing you want to do if dramatic events are unfolding around you is to snap a few photos with your camera. During the clashes between soldiers and Buddhist monks in Myanmar last year, a Japanese journalist who was filming the action with his video camera was shot and killed by police in Yangon.
Don't bet on an evacuation
U.S. embassies will evacuate tourists only if commercial flights have stopped running, and that usually takes a war or a major terrorist attack. (Tourists were not evacuated during the worst of the strife in Kenya, for instance.) And even if an evacuation is ordered, you shouldn't expect to leave the country right away. When war between Hezbollah guerrillas and Israel broke out in Lebanon in 2006, the U.S. government didn't evacuate the first large group of Americans until a full week after the conflict started. "The biggest mistake people make is thinking that the embassy will get them out of the country immediately," says Robert Young Pelton, author of The World's Most Dangerous Places. "But the embassy works on its own schedule." The flight will also cost you—the government bases the amount on the going rate for a commercial plane ticket. Most travel insurance policies cover evacuation flights, but some companies, such as Travelex, will not reimburse you if there was a State Department travel warning for the country when you booked your ticket.
Find a spot to wait
"My advice is just to stay put—it usually takes about a week for these things to blow over," says Pelton. The best hotel in town is often the safest place to be in a crisis. Major hotels have ample supplies of food and water, and generators in case the power fails. American-brand hotels will also likely be in constant contact with the U.S. Embassy, so you'll be quickly apprised of changes in the country's security situation, and you'll be in a good location if there's an evacuation. During the Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon, the airport was shut down after it was bombed, and many tourists holed up at their hotels in Beirut. "Most of them were just sitting on the hotel balcony with a drink," says Pelton.