Advice from Toronto Star journalists

So, you’ve been handed a dream trip or assignment into a potentially dangerous zone. What to do? Here are some basics for a trip of any sort.

Advice from Toronto Star journalists Jim Rankin, Michelle Shephard, Mitch Potter, Sandro Contenta and Rick Madonik. This was written for their colleagues and has been edited for a wider audience.

Pre-trip checklist

Do you have one? Is it valid? Many countries require passports to have at least six months left until expiry at date of entry.

Is it required? If so, can it be done upon arrival at the airport? If the answers to those questions are yes and no, take a breath. You’re not leaving immediately. Check in with the local consulate or embassy in Ottawa. Some countries require journalists to get special journalist visas. It is not advisable to use a tourist visa to get into a country.

Logistics are critical and time consuming. If you don’t know where to start, ask for help or call a travel agent. Sandro Contenta recommends Pablo:

Carlson Wagonlit/Clarke-Way Travel Ltd.
36 Toronto St   (lower level)
Toronto, Ontario M5C 2C5
416-507-4230-direct line

Dangerous location: Find out which hotels are secure by talking to other journalists who have been there, or local reporters and diplomats. While major chains will have the best security, they are also targets. Sometimes it’s better to stay somewhere more low-key or local.

Carry two credit cards. Make sure one has a very high limit and has basic travel insurance built into it. If you are about to leave and your cards are maxed out and you can’t pay them down, call your bank to get a higher limit and/or, if you are working for a news organization, ask them to advance you and pay them down.

Dangerous location: Cash is king. You may have to assume bank cards, visa and travellers cheques are no good. Make sure to get U.S. bills, mostly $50s and $100, that were issued in 2006 or more recent. Some countries won’t cash earlier dates because of fraud issues. Keep money in different locations (not checked bags) but most of it in a money belt.

If you have weeks before your trip, do a special visit to see if you need anything specific for the region you are travelling. If dodgy water and food are part of the equation, ask for Dukoral oral vaccine. It prevents the trots and really, really works. The doctor will issue you a yellow vaccination booklet. Always travel with this. In the event of epidemics, proof of vaccination may be required upon entry and exit.

If you don’t have much time, get prescription antibiotics and advice about when to take them. Cipro is good for almost everything, including anthrax. (Rick Madonik says also ask for Metronizadole (FlagylÖ). A few sleeping pills are not a bad idea either for long flights or jet lag. Be careful though to use sparingly. Better yet, get all this stuff now just to be prepared.

More medical
If you are not working for an organization that covers medical expenses abroad, buy private travel insurance.

From the OHIP website:

  • The amount that OHIP pays is set by regulation. The amount paid for out-of-country health services is very limited and usually will not be sufficient to cover the full cost of the services rendered.  OHIP covers only very limited amounts for hospital, health facility and physician services. You are strongly advised to purchase additional health insurance every time you leave Canada to cover any expenses in excess of the limited funding provided by OHIP. You should also ensure that you understand the amount of protection provided by your supplementary health insurance provider because the amount of coverage may vary significantly from one insurance carrier to another.  You should also check with your supplementary health insurance provider to determine if there are restrictions relating to pre-existing health conditions if these health conditions were not disclosed at the time your policy was purchased.
  • Note:   OHIP does not pay for ambulance services, transportation costs, or out-of-hospital food/accommodation/drugs or prescriptions.

Should I obtain additional insurance coverage for my absence from Canada?

  • Yes.  The ministry strongly recommends that you do, whether you are absent from Canada for a few minutes or for an extended time.  OHIP does not insure or pay for all out-of-country medical services.  Also, the amount of funding provided by OHIP will not usually cover the full cost of any health services that you do obtain outside of Canada.  You should therefore, obtain supplementary health insurance from a private insurance company to provide you with additional coverage during your absence.  To obtain private insurance contact a private insurance company of your choice.

Dangerous location: Prepare a small but comprehensive first-aid kit (see factbox for list) that you can carry with you at all times.

You’re no good if you can’t get the words/pix/video out. Satellite modems are often the only way. See factbox below for more details. If not using a work laptop that is yours alone or one you yourself own, make sure the one you are borrowing works. Other good ideas are USB memory stick and a point and shoot in addition to bigger cameras. Batteries and chargers. Electrical outlet adapter travel kit ( sells a compact all-in-one kit). Test all of your equipment. Repeat: Test all of your equipment. See factbox below for more camera equipment provisions.

More equipment
Purchase a data and voice roaming package for your phone. It will work in most countries. That said, bring a cheap mobile phone or buy one when you land that can take a local SIM card. You can buy SIM cards in-country. This gives you a local telephone number, which is essential. Use this phone as the contact number with people you meet/interview/etc. Saves money for you and them. You can buy a phone in the country as well.

More stuff
Bring extra passport-sized photos with you. If you work for a news organization bring letterhead, envelopes and lots of business cards.  Multiple hard copies of airline e-ticket.  Pack Power Bars (edible kind).

Dangerous location: Pack heavy if you have to (helmet? Kevlar vest?) but place everything you need to do your job in carry-on luggage. Throw in a flashlight, first aid kit (see below), and door wedge (to put on the inside of room as added protection).

If language and driving will be an issue, try to look into local fixers ahead of time and have them meet you at the airport. How to find one? Try established in-country bureaus (AP, Reuters, NYT, AFP). Local media. U.S. Embassies. Universities are also good.

Dangerous locationSecure a fixer before you leave. Make sure you know the name and cellphone number of your driver at the airport. Ask them to not bring a sign that identifies you by name or hotel. If you cannot arrange a driver before you leave have the hotel send someone (again, no sign and get their name and number).

Check it. Pack appropriately and don’t forget sunscreen/hat/sunglasses for hot spots. Make sure to bring clothes that are culturally sensitive.

If your news organization has a library, ask for a country profile and latest news package and have it emailed to you. If not, do this yourself. Have some time? Read CIA World Factbook, Council on Foreign Relations (, Human Rights Watch, U.S. Secretary of State reports. Grab a guide book. Lonely Planet series is excellent. Some countries are available in eBook form.

Dangerous locationIf you have the time, get a briefing from diplomats or security organizations (RCMP and CSIS will sometimes offer these off-the-record).

Good idea to have your passport scanned and then email it to yourself. First few pages will do. Do the same with your vaccination record. Some countries need proof of yellow fever shot and will not let you arrive/leave if you lose it during your stay.

Trip checklist

Phone home
Have a plan. Arrange to check in with a colleague, friend or family member daily and make sure they know your daily itinerary and contact information for the hotel/fixer and the people you are interviewing. An email or call at the end of each day that says all is good, is a good idea.

Take care
It’s easy to work 18-hour days on the road. Make sure to eat and stay hydrated. If you’re somewhere physically taxing, things like keeping your feet blister-free can save you.

Keep it close
What you need — ie. passport, at least one credit card, cash. Do not trust hotels. If you have sensitive information on sources/contacts, make sure to protect that from prying eyes. Put money in two or three places (shoes, belts, etc.)

Be safe
In dangerous locations, safety in numbers is good. Hook up with other journalists. If an area is considered unsafe or you’re worried about your subject, have them come to you for interviews.

Know your exit points ahead of time. If you feel you’re in an area that has become too dangerous, get out. Keep track of where you are and what potential flashpoints are. When in doubt, go high and get a sense of the area.

Detailed lists

Medical Kit

  • Syringe kit
  • Medical exam gloves
  • Bandages: pressure; commercial bandages of various sizes; rolls; gauze pads; tape; steri-strips (butterfly stitches); triangular bandages (they have multiple uses including as a sling)
  • Burn pads
  • Wound dressings (including DUODERMs Extra Thin if possible)
  • Medical safety scissors, tweezers (for debris removal) and nail clippers
  • Digital thermometer
  • Alcohol pads OR iodine prep pads
  • Polysporin cream
  • Polysporin EYE/EAR drops
  • Benzoin (puncture) swabsticks
  • Rehydration solution (ideally Nuun tablets
  • Water purification tablets
  • Safety pins
  • Immodium
  • Mirror (for self-surgery)

Camera and computer equipment

  • Waterproof camera bag (with carabiners)
  • 2 or 3 Camera Bodies
  • charger
  • Lenses: 70-200mm, 17-35mm, 14 mm, and 1.4X or 1.7X telephoto converter lens
  • Flashes
  • Compact Flash (CF) Cards
  • Extra batteries: AA, AAA, watch, laptop, camera
  • Power bar (the nonedible kind)
  • Small extension cord
  • Extra caps for lens and camera bodies
  • Chamois
  • CCD cleaner
  • Audio recorder
  • Laptop
  • Long AND short Ethernet cable
  • AC plug adapters
  • Power Inverter (for car travel)
  • Blank DVDs
  • External Hard Drive (back up, BOOTABLE)
  • CF Card Adapter and backup Card Reader
  • iPod
  • Cords: laptop power cord, hard drive cord, iPod cord

Communication gear

  • BGAN  (with extra battery and power adapter)
  • Satellite phone (either Iridium or Thurya) — with roof antenna; roof antenna essential for communication in moving vehicles

Note: Iridium is worldwide, smaller, lighter but more flimsy, Thurya’s coverage is limited.

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