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Traveling abroad? Here's some advice after Arizona mom jailed in Mexico

By Michael Martinez, CNN
updated 6:16 PM EDT, Fri May 31, 2013
Freelance American journalist <strong>Steven Sotloff</strong>, seen here in a photo from Facebook, disappeared during a reporting trip to Syria in August 2013. His family <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/21/us/iraq-steven-sotloff/index.html'>kept the news a secret</a> until he was seen at the end of a video from the Islamic extremist group ISIS that shows the beheading of another journalist, James Foley. Freelance American journalist Steven Sotloff, seen here in a photo from Facebook, disappeared during a reporting trip to Syria in August 2013. His family kept the news a secret until he was seen at the end of a video from the Islamic extremist group ISIS that shows the beheading of another journalist, James Foley.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Check travel advisories on the State Department website, or UK website
  • Don't make yourself a target by sticking out as a tourist
  • More than 2,500 Americans are arrested abroad every year
  • If you're detained, you have a right to a visit with an official from U.S. consulate, expert says

(CNN) -- Going to travel abroad? Here's a tip: Blend.

Don't stick out as a tourist because it's like wearing a "Mug me!" sign, travel experts say.

The harrowing experience of an Arizona mother ending up in a Mexican border jail has prompted travel experts to renew some do's and don't's for traveling.

Every year, more than 2,500 Americans are arrested abroad, with 30% of those cases related to illegal drugs, the U.S. State Department says.

Yadira Maldonado libre
Arizona mom released from prison

The experience of Yanira Maldonado of Arizona -- freed from jail Friday after being accused of drug possession -- seems a case of a person "being in the wrong place at the wrong time," said travel expert Pauline Frommer, publisher of Frommers.com. A Mexican court determined that prosecutors did not provide evidence.

Still, the incident calls for globe trotters to be reminded of a few basics, experts say.

Do a little homework

The U.S. State Department publishes travel advisories online.

So does the U.K. version of that agency, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

In fact, Frommer likes the U.K. government's travel advisories better because they are time-stamped and more detailed, such as giving the number of pickpockets over what period of time in a country.

"The State Department has very good announcements about what areas are safe and what aren't," Frommer said. "There are certain parts of Mexico that aren't safe: there are border regions you don't want to be a tourist in, and Acapulco -- that's a problem."

Still, many parts of Mexico remain enjoyable destinations for tourism, Frommer said. In fact, she's visited the country three times in the past few years: Cancun, Cozumel and Mexico City.

If a U.S. citizen is arrested abroad, he or she is subject to that country's laws and may not enjoy the same protections as provided in the United States. The State Department stands "ready to assist incarcerated citizens and their families within the limits of our authority in accordance with international law," the agency says.

If you are detained abroad and there is U.S. consular representation in that country, you have a right to a visit from a U.S. government official, said Alex Puig, regional security director of Americas for International SOS, a medical and security services firm operating in 70 countries.

Be the gray man

This is a simple one: blend in.

Don't look like a tourist.

It may make you an easy mark for muggers or thieves, Puig said.

"Most travelers the last thing they worry about is keeping a low profile," Puig said. "The last thing you really think about is that I should dress in to fit in their local environment. Americans are quite casual in their dress. I land at a foreign airport, and I go into the immigration line and I can easily pick out the Americans by their dress. They like to wear jeans and white tennis shoes and they like to wear college shirts like Georgia Tech.

"You don't want to raise your profile by the way you dress," he added.

Think as if it's going to be stolen

Don't carry a lot of money.

There's no reason to in this age of connectivity.

And leave the good jewelry at home. Take credit cards.

"The truth is that in all tourist destinations nowadays there are ATMs aplenty," Frommer said. "You want to rely on your plastic because it can be replaced."

And make sure you have a credit card with a sufficient cash advance in case you need to post bond to get out of jail, said Texas attorney Louis Lopez, who represented a man framed by drug cartels.

Be aware of your surroundings

You can bet that Americans traveling in Mexico are now looking under their seat -- especially on buses -- before they sit down, Puig said. That's because the Arizona mother was jailed after the Mexican military allegedly found marijuana under her bus seat.

"Out of this bad situation comes good learning," Puig said. "You can't take anything for granted when you are outside of your normal environment."

The Internet readily offers local news on the country you'll be visiting. The U.S.-Mexico border, for example, is renowned for drug smuggling -- all heading into the United States.

The bus carrying Maldonado and her husband was traveling to Arizona from Mexico.

"Just be aware of drugs going from south to north, and drug traffickers are going to use every means available to move their drugs," Puig said. "So you have to be alert."

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