Risks and dangers in the USA

Posted Date: 23 February 2017
Staying safe in the USA

The USA is a unique country that truly has it all, with an extremely diverse landscape and population. No matter what you’re after, the USA will have something for you – from big cities to small towns, beautiful snowy mountains to tropical beaches, New Orleans jazz festivals to baseball games at Yankee Stadium. However, this incredible variety also means there are a wide range of risks and dangers to watch out for.

Key safety considerations for the USA

Natural disasters

The beautiful and diverse landscape of the States provides endless opportunities for travellers, but also poses risks for various natural disasters. Although certain areas do carry known dangers, which we’ve listed here, it’s still important to research the area you’re visiting before you go.

Texas and California are the two most disaster-prone states, with a range of natural disasters striking each. Heatwaves are common in the lower states, while snow storms occur on both the West and East coasts, as well as Alaska.

Hurricanes and floods tend to occur around the lower states, especially coastal states such as Florida, Louisiana and Alabama. The infamous ‘Tornado Alley’ stretches through the centre of the country and includes Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and South Dakota.

If a natural disaster occurs in the area you’re visiting, your accommodation provider should have information about natural disasters and the procedures in place for such events. It’s a good idea to keep up with weather warnings and advisories during your stay. Sites like ‘Ready’ can provide information about natural disasters and what to do if one occurs.

Always check the government’s international travel advisory before booking any travel plans. You can prepare for any unexpected events before you travel by purchasing a Single Trip policy as soon as you book your flights and accommodation. Or if you’re buying an Annual Multi-Trip policy, set the start date of your insurance to the day you make any travel bookings.

Animals and insects

There is a huge variety of wildlife in the USA, with some incredible creatures to be found. Not only does the USA boast some of the world’s best zoos and wildlife parks, with over 2,000 to choose from, it also has many amazing wild animals in its various reserves, lakes, parks and oceans. As majestic as many of these creatures are, they are also wild and therefore potentially dangerous.

Bears are one of the most common animals to watch out for, with 40 out of 50 states having resident populations. They are even on the Californian state flag! Bears are commonly seen in wooded areas during summer and often come into nearby towns in search of something to eat. As a result, it’s important to be careful with food.

If you’re camping or staying in an RV, keep all food in sealed containers or your car if you have one, and don’t leave any food or scraps around your tent or accommodation. If you do see a bear, make sure you give it a very wide berth and do not approach it. If you’re travelling to an area where you’re likely to encounter bears, check out the guide on the Bear Smart Society website so you know what to do.

There are snakes in every state of the USA except Alaska and Hawaii, many of which are poisonous. Bites can happen easily if you accidentally step on one, so always wear covered shoes in areas where snakes are common, especially in the wilderness. If you see a snake, keep your distance. Avoid areas with tall grass or chopped wood piles and don’t put your hands into crevasses in rocks. At night, wear closed in shoes and carry a torch so you can see where you’re stepping. If you’re unlucky enough to receive a snake bite, it’s important to seek medical help immediately.

Alligators are found in the southeast states, especially Florida and Louisiana, in freshwater environments such as ponds, marshes, wetlands, rivers and swamps. There are over 1.5 million alligators in Florida and they’re even the official state reptile! As with other dangerous creatures, keep your eyes peeled when you’re in an environment where they are found and if you see one, stay well away. Avoid marshy areas and keep an eye out for signage warning of alligators. Don’t swim in any fresh water areas that aren’t designated as safe.

There are plenty of other creatures to watch out for in the USA, including scorpions, cougars, wolves and even killer bees. It’s always best to research the area you’re visiting before you go and find out what dangerous animals live there. If you’re unsure, ask a local or, if you’re heading to a national park, check at the ranger’s office for animals to watch out for.

Crime

With a country so large and diverse, it’s unsurprising that certain areas are safer than others and crime can be common. Depending on the area, petty crime and pick pocketing are usually things to keep an eye out for. Various states have different crime rates and different things to watch out for.

Although the USA is generally safe, some cities are considered to be more dangerous than others, with some areas that you should avoid. Detroit, St Louis, Chicago, Baltimore and Memphis all have some very dangerous neighbourhoods that should be avoided, but the city centres and tourist areas are generally safe. We recommend a few simple precautions to keep you out of danger:

  • Do your research before you go. Find out if there are any neighbourhoods to avoid and where they are. Ask someone you trust, like the hotel concierge, if there are any dangerous areas near your accommodation.
  • Always be aware of your surroundings and if you feel uncomfortable, relocate. Trust your instincts.
  • Avoid emotionally charged environments like political rallies or protests and always follow police instructions if you find yourself in a situation where police are involved.
  • There have been cases of bag snatching so remember to keep your valuables out of sight, close to you and zipped up.
  • Don’t carry a lot of cash on you at one time. Distribute it between the hotel safe, your wallet and a pocket so that you won’t lose it all if your bag is taken or you are pickpocketed.

Going out at night

Despite being the home to cities famous for nightlife like Las Vegas, New York and Los Angeles, going out at night is a mixed bag in the USA. While certain areas offer incredible restaurants and famous bars, other areas frown upon parties and it’s important to check the drinking laws in the area you’re visiting.

If nightlife is what you’re into, there are a few things you should keep in mind to stay safe:

  • Avoid going out at night to secluded or unlit areas, especially if you’re not familiar with your surroundings. If you’re in a group, stick together and try not to become isolated.
  • Know how to get back to your accommodation at the end of your night out. If you’re in a group, take turns at staying alert and sober.
  • Always leave valuables locked in your hotel safe.
  • Never leave your drink unattended and don’t accept food or drinks from strangers unless you can see them being poured.
  • Avoid letting people know where you’re staying and be cautious of anyone who asks about your accommodation without good reason.
  • American culture is more conservative than our own, so keep this in mind when choosing your outfit and avoid anything too revealing or provocative.
  • Try not to talk too loudly about your plans or where you’re staying when you’re out in public. You never know who could be listening!

Dry areas

A ‘dry’ area is one where alcohol laws are very strict and often drinking is not permitted, either in public or at all in some cases. In the USA there are three dry states: Kansas, Mississippi and Tennessee, plus multiple dry counties within almost all states.

The rules vary drastically, with some states allowing alcohol sales but not individual drink sales in bars, some forbidding alcohol sales and consumption on Sundays, and others forbidding possession of alcohol! To avoid breaking any laws, do your research before you travel and ensure you’re up-to-date with the alcohol laws at your destination.

Local laws

Like the dry areas, there are some surprising laws and customs in the USA that some visitors might not be aware of. Here are a few basic rules to follow to avoid landing yourself on the wrong side of the law:

  • The legal drinking age in the USA is 21.
  • It is illegal to drink and drive in any state of the USA.
  • Many states also have open container laws, whereby if there is an open container of alcohol (i.e. A beer can or wine bottle) in the passenger area of the vehicle, the driver can be penalized.
  • Gambling is illegal in any form in Hawaii, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah, but gambling laws also vary from state to state. Commercial gambling is illegal in 34 states, so check the local laws first if you’re interested in visiting a casino.
  • 31 states in the USA still use capital punishment as a maximum criminal sentence.
  • Some prescriptions drugs you can buy at home are illegal in the USA.
  • American culture is more conservative and traditional than our own in some ways and many states are strongly religious. Be aware of the traditions and religions of the area you’re visiting and always show respect.

Common claims

Extreme weather

Hurricanes around the Gulf of Mexico have caused many major delays and even trip cancellations for travellers. In winter, we’ve also seen claims as a result of major airports like Chicago and New York closing due to snow.

You can prepare for this type of disaster by purchasing a Single Trip policy as soon as you book your flights and accommodation. Or if you’re buying an Annual Multi-Trip policy, set the start date of your insurance to the day you make any travel bookings. 

Skiing injuries

We often see claims for travellers who have had to seek medical care as a result of a skiing or snow accident. As well as medical costs or delays due to being unable to fly, there may be the costs of cutting the trip short to return home early for treatment. Avoid adding any stress to a situation like this by getting travel insurance cover so you don’t have to fork out thousands of dollars for expensive medical care.

Remember some travel insurers do not cover you for skiing and snowboarding. Or you may need to add optional cover to your policy, so check your policy, and terms and conditions before you hit the slopes.

USA travel guide checklist

The content of this article is general and provided for information purposes only. Southern Cross Travel Insurance (SCTI) doesn’t guarantee or warrant the accuracy, completeness or currency of the articles.

This article may contain hyperlinks to other websites owned or operated by third parties, or references to third party products or services. SCTI isn’t responsible for, and makes no recommendation about, the content or accuracy of any third party website, or for the suitability or performance of any product or service. The inclusion of a link in this article doesn’t imply that SCTI endorses the website or third party product/service.

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