Read the State Department warnings and alerts. And don't be lulled into complacency just because your destination isn't on the list; the State Department Web site has an invaluable index of country-specific information that provides tourists with all sorts of data, including laws on crime and punishment, especially when they differ from U.S. laws.
For example: a couple of folks recently ran afoul of authorities in Dubai for reportedly sending sexually explicit text messages. Had they looked up Dubai (under United Arab Emirates) on the State Department Web site, they would have seen this: "[Visitors] have been arrested in the past for obscene hand gestures, using inappropriate (foul) language with a police official, and for public displays of affection, such as kissing."
Presumably, the alleged "sexters" didn't know any of this, and as a result -- they're going to jail.
You won't see warnings like that for European nations, but the State Department wants you to know about all dangers, large and small. In Paris, for example, they alert tourists about the Pigalle district, noting that "Many entertainment establishments in this area engage in aggressive marketing and charge well beyond the normal rate for drinks." Good heavens -- overpriced booze!
Before we go any further, let me just say that any country can be dangerous, including the U.S. There are places in America I wouldn't venture into, especially at night, but that's because I use my common sense. So in addition to educating yourself, use normal precautions, anywhere you go.
And be prepared. Every one of the countries listed in the country-specific index has useful contact information for embassies and consulates in case you do get into trouble. And you can register with the State Department to receive e-mails about any special alerts or notices about your destination.
Don't forget to keep a close watch on your important documents while traveling, and have photocopies of your passport with you, as well as with a trusted friend back home.
So should you go? Only you can answer that question. Just make sure you have all the information you need and want to make an educated and intelligent decision. In certain parts of some countries, that information might save you a world of trouble.
Countries included on the U.S. State Department travel warning list (as of this writing) include: Kenya; Haiti; Mexico; Colombia; Eritrea; Central African Republic; Yemen; Iraq; Saudi Arabia; Pakistan; Sudan; Somalia; Mauritania; Chad; Mali; Sri Lanka; Nepal; Algeria; Guinea; Lebanon; Cote d'Ivoire; Philippines; Democratic Republic of Congo; Israel, the West Bank and Gaza; Afghanistan; Burundi; Nigeria; Iran; Uzbekistan; and Georgia. See Travel.State.Gov for more information.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.
Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations including ABC News, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.