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How to Not Accidentally Become an International Drug Mule

Yes, it actually happens. Here’s how to avoid the travel nightmare you didn’t even know you had.

It’s a scenario few expect to encounter outside of the movies. When Renee Zellweger’s on-screen character in Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason found herself in a Thai prison after unknowingly transporting a new travel companion’s cocaine-filled souvenir, viewers laughed.

But accidental drug smuggling is apparently a reality. This week, a 91-year-old man returning to Australia from India was arrested on serious drug importing charges, the Associated Press reported, after he agreed to help his new travel buddies by transporting a “gift”: many bars of soap.

The soap instead turned out to be—you guessed it—cocaine. Police told the AP that they had reason to believe the man was “scammed” by a group he met online before the trip—the same people he had been traveling with.

How could this happen? It’s impossible to know for sure the inner thinking that allowed it to, but it’s clear this has occurred before. An American actress and producer named Meili Cady recently wrote a tell-all book about finding out she was unknowingly co-running a drug ring after her best friend hired her as a personal assistant. In 2013, NPR’s All Things Considered featured a ‘Vacation Horror Story‘ told by a woman who discovered her travel buddy had stashed his marijuana in her suitcase during their trip to Southeast Asia.

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International tourists are vulnerable and often targeted by scams, but they don’t need to turn your life into a chapter of Orange is the New Black. Here’s how to avoid experiencing a similar debacle.

Consider whom you’re with: Traveling is a realm of exploration that often causes people to do things they normally wouldn’t. That includes pairing up with an unlikely companion. Avoid befriending people without meeting them in person first, and set clear boundaries with anyone you’re sharing a space with — especially if you don’t know them well. After all, drug offenses can result in the death penalty in some parts of the world.

Avoid adventures that border on felonious: Sure, it’s legal to frequent the coffee shops in Amsterdam. But opting for certain souvenirs could end up costing more than what you pay at the counter. Be adventurous by all means, but know where to draw the line.

Pack light: In addition to general convenience, having a small suitcase or no carry-on luggage could be a helpful excuse should you feel uneasy about helping an acquaintance transport anything they can’t fit in theirs. It’s also not a bad idea to invest in a small lock to avoid anyone from accessing your bag while you’re not around.

Trust your gut: Investigators and law enforcement officers often speak about trusting a sixth sense. If something feels off, err on the side of caution. If a little voice in your head is questioning someone’s motives, you should probably listen. Also remember that there’s no harm in raising questions to avoid becoming a target. If a local is asking you, a tourist, for directions, something might be off. Being helpful unfortunately isn’t always a virtue.

A former news reporter, Associate Editor Shannon McMahon has visited most of Western Europe, lived in Spain, and now writes about travel news, trends, and advice. Follow her on Twitter @shanmcmahon_.

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By Shannon McMahon

Editor Shannon McMahon is always planning her next trip and often writing in her travel journal. Follow her on Twitter @shanmcmahon_ and on Instagram @shanmcmahon.

Shannon joined SmarterTravel in 2015. A former news reporter, she's lived in the south of Spain, spotted elephants in Sri Lanka, gone spelunking in the Caribbean, hiked Jordan's Petra Basin, interviewed Sao Paulo's Michelin-Star chefs, and explored China via bullet train. Travel trends, news oddities, and her visits to up-and-coming destinations are some of her favorite things to write about.

Her stories have also appeared online on USA Today, The Sun, Huffington Post, Business Insider,,, and more. Her educational background is in journalism, art history, gender studies, Spanish, and film. She's been quoted as an expert travel source by CNBC,, MarketWatch, The Washington Post, USA Today, and more.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: "Plenty of extra thick hair elastics. They tame my frizzy curls and come in handy in a surprising number of packing and hotel dilemmas."

Ultimate Bucket List Experience: "Climbing (yes, climbing, it's steep!) the Great Wall of China before it's gone."

Travel Motto: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." - Mark Twain

Aisle, Window, or Middle Seat: "Window, of course."

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