Pack common sense along with your passport
Staying safe while exploring the world
(CNN) -- In February, an American tourist was fatally shot at a Mexico City market. Last summer, robbers clubbed to death two Spanish mountain climbers in India. Just a few months earlier, several tourists were taken hostage at a Malaysian island resort.
Frightening attacks on travelers are enough to make anyone think twice about venturing far from home, particularly to destinations with dangerous reputations.
But while a certain amount of risk is inherent in travel, experts say it's no reason to stifle that wanderlust.
"If you're not willing to take chances, then you better stay home or go to safe places with hand rails and training wheels," said Suzanne Swedo, author of the recently published "Adventure Travel Trips" guide.
For one thing, the odds of something happening probably aren't any greater than, say, a car accident back home or even a slip in the bathtub.
"People are terrified about a lot of things that will never happen to them," said Robert Young Pelton, author of "The World's Most Dangerous Places" and "Come Back Alive."
And there's plenty that travelers can do to stay out of trouble, beyond avoiding dark streets and narrow alleys.
"The more control you can exert, the safer you will be. That comes down to your own experience, your ability to handle situations, and -- crucially -- people," said Jonathan Lorie, editor of "The Traveler's Handbook."
Prepare before you go
Planning ahead is key to staying safe when you're traveling, experts agree. That means reading travel guides, roaming the Internet, poring over local newspapers online and simply learning the lay of the land.
A key stop on your Web journey is the U.S. State Department site, which includes travel warnings for trouble spots and consular information for countries around the globe. It also offers tips on safe travel abroad, including advice about coping with everything from public transportation to terrorism.
Another valuable piece of advice for when you reach your destination: Listen to the locals.
"If you ask me why I'm still alive, it's because I talk to people," said Pelton, who has seen his share of potentially dangerous locales.
Ignoring local advice is one of the biggest mistakes travelers can make, Lorie said.
"It's fresh, it's in touch, it's inside information," he said. "If you're traveling in any kind of danger zone, the situation is likely to be changing all the time, and local people may know best what is going on."
Blend with the locals
If you want to stay out of trouble, avoid acting or looking like a tourist. Criminals prey on easy targets, and a tourist is just that, said Melissa Klurman, an editor at Fodor's Travel Guides.
"I think that when you stand on a street corner with a big map and a camera around your neck, maybe people will be nice and try to help you, but you've also sort of lost the edge that might help you not attract negative attention," she said.
Klurman recommends trying to fit in with the locals.
"If you're in Italy, that means not wearing jeans and sneakers every day," she said.
In addition to dressing conservatively, the State Department recommends that travelers avoid looking too affluent. In other words, skip the Rent-a-Mercedes, and leave the Rolex at home.
While you're at it, you might want to just steer clear of other travelers. In his book, Pelton notes that youth hostels, tourist attractions, red light districts and other places where travelers congregate also draw their share of crooks.
And, like a defensive driver, pay attention to what's going on around you.
"Don't let a false sense of security lead you to behave foolishly just because you're on vacation," Klurman said.
Let others know where you are
Travelers always should let someone know where they're going to be and where they can be reached. Leave an itinerary for your entire trip back home, and if you're going to be leaving the hotel for more than 24 hours, let the concierge know when you plan to return.
If you're in a place that's experiencing civil disturbances or you're headed to a remote area, the State Department recommends registering with the closest embassy or consulate.
It's also good to make several copies of your passport -- and leave one of them with someone back home -- to make it a lot easier to replace if it's stolen.
'Inspiring as well as troubling'
Just because a place has a reputation for danger is not necessarily a reason to ignore it.
For one thing, some destinations aren't nearly as dangerous as they may seem, said Swedo, who leads tours and operates a small adventure travel company.
While she says some people are fearful of heading out into the countryside, it's the cities where you're more likely to encounter political unrest, terrorism or street crime.
"Given that you act with some common sense, I'm always safer out in the wild than I am in the city, and I think that goes with foreign countries, too," she said.
And even if there are some risks, trips to so-called "trouble spots" can reap big rewards.
"That's where the 'real' travel is," Lorie said. "They're where you see people and places in the raw. It can be inspiring as well as troubling, and it is always a big experience. And sometimes you can do some good by going there."
Of course, there are some places even Lorie would advise against visiting, including Chechnya or Congo.
As for Fodor's, it draws the line at truly dangerous locales.
"We're not anxious to have readers go off to the most dangerous places in the world," Klurman said. "There are places you don't belong right now, and if you go, you've put yourself in that situation. There's not a lot a professional can do to help you then."
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