Travelling against Foreign Office Advice (aka bullets on the train & other stories)
Before we go anywhere and I do mean anywhere (see what I did there), we need to establish some facts.
1 – Neither I nor this blog, is your Mum or Dad.
2 – The decisions you make, are yours alone, so make them good!
Great! Ok, so Foreign Office Travel Advice, what is it?
Over protective "you will do as I say" blustering, bureaucratic claptrap, or should we all be paying attention?
Depends on where you're from. If you are American and you make the mistake of reading their Foreign Office Travel Advice, there's a good chance you'll never leave the US, which is probably why so many Americans don't have passports. If on the other hand, you live in the UK, then it's a sombre section of the internet that you need to see.
The UK's Foreign Office Travel Advice could probably do with a few cute dog pictures and some videos of dancing babies. Reading it is not the most fun way to spend an afternoon, but there's stuff you have to, and need to know.
For example, what do Thailand and Turkey have in common?
White sands, arts and crafts, reggae bars? It's true that both countries are epic destinations for travellers and tourists alike, but there is another factor which links them. There are parts of both countries where the current Foreign Office Travel Advice, advises against 'all but essential travel'. This is important for a couple of reasons.
1. They don't make these announcements for fun.
2. Everything changes when you see that all important line 'all but essential travel'.
Is it still safe to go? Allow me to refer you back to our opening paragraph; before you decide though, there are a couple things to consider.
Firstly, if you choose to travel against foreign office travel advice, it's likely that your insurance will not cover you or, at the very least, you will have minimal cover. Think carefully about that, if you have an accident or are the victim of a crime or you're taken ill, then only you, your parents, or a particularity well written Gofundme page is going to be able to help.
Secondly, people travel against foreign office advice all the time. Sometimes they're not even aware that there is any advice. The area of Thailand covered by the current Foreign Office advice, for example, is the overland route to Malaysia and backpackers use it every day, and I was one of them. I didn't have a clue. There are also areas which, if you want to see them at all, there's no way around travelling against F.O. Advice.
Here's a true story about travelling against Foreign Office Advice which highlights how easy it is to accidentally do, what's at stake and why it matters. It's a true story and it belongs to a fellow traveller, and travel writer.
I'll tell it how I heard it...
It was 1995 and we were Eu-railing it around the Med in search of culture, cheap wine and anecdotes. After a particularity fraught weekend in Italy we had arrived in the relatively sedate city of Trieste. We were headed for Eastern Europe and our route was obvious. The next step was easy. A quick jaunt around the shadow of the Alps and an overnight in the recently declared safe Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia. We knew about the Yugoslavian War which was tearing through Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia, but we were miles from any of it. What could possibly go wrong? Well since you asked...
The first part of the journey was a breeze and we had a walk around Ljubljana and drank cold beers on the famous Dragon Bridge and all was good. It wasn't until we left when things went to hell and back.
As we waited for our train from Ljubljana to Budapest I remember feeling a little apprehensive, but I put it down to the beers on the bridge.
In hindsight, the bullet holes in the train windows as it pulled slowly into the station was something we should have paid more attention to. But the train was late and we were anxious to get this final leg of the journey out of the way. After all, Slovenia and Hungary shared a border right? We'd be there in time for more beers on another bridge.
Looking back now, I realise we had assumed a number of things and these assumptions were going to bite us on the ass.
In no particular order, here are the take-aways from this story.
1. Not all trains go the same way.
2. Countries have more than one border
3. Check where your train/bus/ride is going, before you get on it.
4. Trains can still run in war zones.
5. Being shot at is scary as hell
6. Being interrogated by armed soldiers because you don't have permission/a visa to be in a given country is also scary as hell.
Skipping to the end, we'd incorrectly assumed that just because Hungary and Slovenia shared a border, our train would circumvent war torn Croatia. It did not, in fact it went right through it, which was unfortunate since we didn't have visas for said war torn country, on account of the fact that they were nearly impossible to obtain and because it was a bloody war-zone.
Still I saw Zagreb, well the station anyway...
As you can see it's possible to fall foul of F.O.T.A. without even meaning to, but the point I’m trying to make is simple. People live, work and travel in areas where the F.O. advises against travel and they do it every day, but a little knowledge goes a long way. Here is our guide to travelling against Foreign Office Travel Advice.
1 - Take heed of the Foreign Office Travel Advice, but if you need to travel don't take risks.
2 - Make sure others know where you are at all times.
3 - Make a special effort to respect local traditions and culture. Often if there is a terror threat it will be nothing to do with tourists and you will not be the target.
4 - Don't linger, and understand your rights. People have to live in and around hot spots because they have no choice... you have a choice, don't disrespect it.
5 – Maintain communication. If you go off the radar in a hotspot there's always a danger your family could contact an embassy and spark an international incident.
6 – Do your research, you're likely to be closer to any potential news sources than anyone else. So ask around, speak to your fellow travellers, local tourist guides and travel agents. They are more likely to know if the advice is worth taking or worth taking with a pinch of salt.
And last but not least, be safe, be streetwise and have a strong head on your shoulders. After all when you travel looking after yourself is the most important aspect of creating those life changing memories on the road.