Planning for Travel to Higher-Risk Destinations

Why planning is an essential activity, even for experienced travellers.

6 min read · Written by Grant Rayner on 10 Jul 2023

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This essay was originally published in Dangerous Travels on 10 Jul 2023 and was updated on 29 Jan 2024

Planning for travel to higher-risk destinations is one of those activities that is seemingly simple but also highly valuable. Because planning seems like such a basic thing to do, there’s a risk that it may be seen as trivial. It’s also easy to see planning as a discretionary activity more suited for less experienced travellers.

This leads us to two questions:

  1. If you’re an inexperienced traveller, do you have the level of competence necessary to be able to plan a trip to a higher-risk location?
  2. If you’re an experienced traveller, do you need to bother taking the time to plan?

Of course, the answer to both questions is “yes”.

Planning is an essential aspect of managing risk. If you don’t plan, you are denying yourself the opportunity to mitigate risk in meaningful ways that will help you to stay safe while travelling.

In this article, I’ll share some thoughts on the value of planning for travel to higher-risk destinations.

Let’s start by looking at the two extremes of travel planning.

Just do it (tm)

One school of thought is just go. Don’t bother planning, just turn up and work things out as you go. Exciting stuff.

I’ve been forced to do this on more than one occasion when responding to client requests for support. In a few cases, I haven’t even had time to book accommodation–I’ve just thrown a few things into a bag and raced to the airport. Given I’m still here to tell the tale, I guess this approach works just fine. Right?


The truth is, even if you do not plan at all, there’s a good chance that nothing untoward will happen during your trip. Even in the most dangerous places, there aren’t people standing on every corner waiting to kill you (unless there are, of course).

If you don’t plan and nothing happens, is it because the travel advisories or threat assessments are overblown? Or were you just very lucky? You may never know. And because of that, it’s possible you’ll draw the wrong lessons.

There’s also a real risk of the Dunning-Kruger effect here. You may think you have the necessary skills to safely operate in these environments, when in fact you don’t (when I say ‘operate’, I mean leave the relative safety of the executive lounge of your five-star business hotel and move outside on the streets). How effective are you at maintaining a low profile? How good are you at identifying and avoiding hostile surveillance?

Staying safe on the ground in a higher-risk location relies on skills and instincts that many of you reading this simply won’t have. Furthermore, you will have no appreciation of what it’s like to have these skills or instincts. That’s not your fault, but you will need to be honest with yourself regarding your capabilities and compensate in other areas.

There’s another factor to consider here. If something does happen, chances are your response is likely to make your situation immeasurably worse. If you don’t plan, you’re effectively saying that you have the necessary skills and capabilities to negotiate these problems successfully. I’d suggest that’s not the case, regardless of your level of travel experience. So, a key reason why we plan is because we want to avoid getting into problems in the first place.

In my own case, I’m relying on many years of travel experience in a diverse range of countries and contexts. This experience hasn’t taught me that planning is less important. In fact, it’s taught me that planning is essential. Where I don’t have time to plan, as described above, my experience helps me to appreciate the need to be additionally conservative with my activities until I’ve had time to orientate to my operating environment and appreciate the threats and risks.

Overall, one of the key benefits of effective planning for travel to higher-risk locations is that it enables you to pare away at known risks and help avoid Darwinist mistakes.

Safety is not the default condition in higher-risk locations. You can’t do nothing and also expect to stay safe.

Let’s look at the other extreme: over planning.

Over planning

At the opposite end of the planning spectrum, you might over plan. You’ll agonise over every small detail. You’ll worry and fret. You might end up amplifying some threats in your mind (terrorists), while ignoring others (polluted tap water).

There’s actually a finite amount of information you will need to plan effectively. Additionally, trying to over analyse risk probably won’t make you safer. In fact, it’s more likely to make you paranoid and push you towards a state of over-vigilance, which isn’t sustainable (and won’t necessarily keep you safe).

Of course, there’s a happy medium between these two approaches where you do just the right amount of planning to ensure your safety. Your objective is to carefully calibrate your approach to risk mitigation with the risks you’re likely to face once on the ground.

The Outputs of Planning

One way to better understand the value of effective planning is to understand the outputs of the process. Let’s explore some of the outputs of good planning for travel to higher-risk locations.

Here’s just a few:

-Supporting the travel decision. Effective planning will provide justification for a go / no-go decision, based on an objective analysis of the risks. -Getting your timing right. Some dates can be objectively more dangerous, due to a range of factors. Effective planning will enable you to book your travel at an appropriate time, avoiding dates that may present higher risks due to the possibility of civil unrest or natural disasters, for example. -Packing appropriate clothing. Effective planning ensures that you pack clothes that are appropriate for the culture, and provide protection against the weather and any prevailing diseases. Planning also helps you select styles and colours of clothing that will make it easier for you to blend in and avoid unwanted attention. -Packing and configuring the right communications gear. Effective planning will help you select the right communications equipment, which may include satellite devices and specially configured mobile phones. Planning will also shape the applications you install on your devices and how you configure these applications. The planning process should also surface details about potential communications disruptions, and about laws and regulations that will dictate what devices and apps you’re able to use. -Selecting appropriate accommodation. Different types of properties are exposed to different types of risks. Planning will help you to select an appropriate type of accommodation given the risks at your destination. Planning will also help ensure you select a property in a safer part of town that’s away from known trouble areas, helping you avoid easily avoidable risks. -Selecting appropriate transport. Vehicle accidents are always a major risk. Effective planning will help you select an appropriate method of transport (taxis, hire cars etc). Planning will also help you select appropriate vehicles (common makes, models, and colours), and will determine the requirement for armoured vehicles. Lastly, planning will help determine whether it’s safe to use different types of public transport. -Guiding your activities. Effective planning will determine how you get around. Is it safe to walk around outside, or is it better to drive? Should certain districts or streets be avoided? Are some areas less safe at night? Is it safe to eat in local restaurants or sit in local cafes? -Packing the right security equipment. Planning will help you determine what protective equipment is required. For example, is body armour required? Should it be visible or under the clothes? Is a helmet required? What about a respirator? -Coordinate the right personal security. Is a security driver required? Should you coordinate a personal security detail?

This is just a snapshot of the major outputs of the planning process. There are several other outputs that will help shape your response to different types of threats. For example, planning will also help you identify requirements for logistics and for local networks.

Hopefully this list of planning outputs demonstrates the value of planning. By planning, you’ve avoided some easily avoidable risks. Things like selecting the right type of accommodation in the right area, and selecting the right type of transport, are relatively simple activities that can make your trip significantly safer. As such, they’re high payoff activities.

Wrap up

Effective planning is essential for travel to higher-risk locations, regardless of your level of experience.

The key is not to take any location or any risk for granted. Apply an appropriate level of diligence for each trip. Pay particular attention to high payoff activities, such as where you stay and how you get around. By doing so, you can mitigate a significant amount of risk.

To help you plan effectively, I’ve published The Quick Reference Guide to Planning for Higher-Risk Destinations. If you travel to dangerous places, you’ll find this guide useful. You can also consider reading The Field Guide to Deployment Planning.

Thanks for reading, and safe travels!

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