Lessons From Brokedown Palace: How NOT to End up in Jail While Traveling


I was only 15 when I watched Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale in Brokedown Palace suffer one of the biggest nightmares that can befall a traveler: getting thrown into a foreign jail for a crime they didn’t commit. 

It was a terrifying movie for me to watch at the time. Mostly because as a world traveler, it could happen to me, too. 

With shows like “Locked Up Abroad” on my DVR lately, I frequently think of the worst-case scenario. Unfortunately, this sort of stuff can happen when traveling.

Sarah Shourd and Laura Ling (both past speakers at our annual Women’s Travel Fest) are two recent examples of travelers jailed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

While Brokedown Palace may be a sensationalized Hollywood movie, there are some things we can learn from watching it.

Don’t let your trip become another Hollywood movie! Here are some tips on how to avoid getting into trouble with the law while traveling. 

brokedown palace how to avoid jail while traveling

Tell Someone Where You Are Going

This should be obvious but please: tell someone where you are going.

If you’re traveling solo through Southeast Asia (or anywhere, really), then do your due diligence to make sure someone knows where you are and where you are heading next. 

These days cell phone tours are almost everywhere. If you have T-mobile, then you’ll have free international data and texting. 

Share your location services with your best friends, and your family, so they can always see where in the world you are, too. 

Be Cautious When It Comes to Men 

In Brokedown Palace, Claire + Kate meet a hunky Australian who seems too good to be true. In reality: a dog is a DOG. If he hits on you and your best friend, dump him. Even in a foreign country: a player is a player.

Men are the biggest threat to women worldwide. Don’t let your emotions blind you from making sound judgement calls. If he seems too good to be true, he probably is. 

Unfortunately, it’s not just men who prey on women while traveling. In human trafficking rings, women are often used to lure in unsuspecting travelers. Always be cautious of who you’re talking to.

Never get into a car blindly or without verifying that the cab is legit or that the Uber driver is indeed your driver. And don’t trust strangers who seem to be too sweet to you, too quickly. 

brokedown palace how to avoid jail while traveling

Leave the Illegal Stuff Behind

Also known as, “don’t do drugs while traveling.”

In Brokedown Palace, while boarding a flight to Hong Kong their carry-on bags are seized and searched by angry customs officials. Unbeknownst to the girls, one of the bags is stuffed with an insane amount of heroin. Uh-oh.

It’s easy to become accustomed to a country’s lax drug laws when traveling, but think twice before attempting to bring a stash of narcotics back home as a “souvenir.”

The Bang Kwang Jail in Bangkok is unfortunately frequently referred to as the “Bangkok Hilton” because of the number of foreigners who are jailed here for drug-related offenses.

Police in Thailand are often looking for foreigners who break their strict drug laws. DO NOT mess around with anything illegal on your travels. 

We’ve also heard stories of police coming to night clubs and collecting urine samples from all inside to do on the spot drug tests. 

Keep your wits about you, drink but don’t get drunk, and avoid all illegal drugs while in Thailand or elsewhere in the world. 

brokedown palace how to avoid jail

Don’t Sign Anything You Don’t Understand

Movie: Darlene is tricked into signing a confession written in Thai. They are sentenced to 33 years in a Thai women’s prison. Alice, on the other hand, had the right idea when she refused to say anything.

Lesson learned: When arrested abroad, be careful of signing or admitting to anything, especially if you don’t understand.

Do as the Locals Do, Even in Jail

When waiting in line for a bowl of cockroach soup, the girls see baskets filled with fresh fruit that no one is eating. Thinking it is okay to have some fruit, Alice tries to grab some but ends up beaten by a prison warden instead.

It was pretty obvious since no one was eating the fruit, it was off-limits. This is a good example of: do as the locals do, even in jail.

Know Where Your Home Country’s Embassy is Located

And, don’t expect that they’ll immediately come to your rescue. In the movie, the American Embassy tries to get the girls released but alas, they cannot help.

One of the best travel tips I ever received was to always know where your home country’s closest embassy is located. You might not need it, but you should at least know if there is an embassy located in the country where you are traveling.

Americans tend to have a sense of privilege associated to them. In general, we believe that if something terrible were to happen, our government would come stomping in to save the day. 

Unfortunately, this is the stuff of movies. If something happens to you and you find yourself in jail in a foreign country, the reality is you might have to stay there for quite some time. 

That being said: If you are arrested abroad, you are legally entitled to call your embassy. 

Be Cautious, Not Paranoid

The world is mostly safe, and people are mostly good. But things can and do happen. Keep your wits about you when you’re traveling, don’t trust anyone too much or too quickly, and constantly update your family about your whereabouts. 

99% of the time, you’re going to be totally fine. 

We’ve traveled the world over and have never had a problem larger than petty theft. But it helps to be prepared, just in case! 

Have you ever faced a serious problem while abroad? What did you do? And can we talk about how good Claire Danes performance is in Brokedown Palace?


About Author

Sarah Walker is a writer, actress, and international superstar. She is also the President/CEO of the www.sarahwalkerfanclub.com. Some of her favorite travel adventures have taken place in Edinburgh, Barcelona and the Peruvian jungle. She likes cupcakes and kittens.


  1. I haven’t had such a problem personally, but I remember that while in Naples (Italy) a few years ago I ran into this poor young British girl who seemed, at the very least, cracked out. She was apparently not just confused, but flat broke, plus she was in dire need of a shower. I felt bad about leaving her alone in the streets of Naples, so I googled the closest British Consulate and led her there. They didn’t seem too happy to have to deal with her, but I think they are legally entitled to do that. I learned that while some Embassies might even loan you money if you get robbed -for obvious reasons in this case they didn’t want to do that- and even take care of your repatriation in extreme situations. It’s good to know, as a citizen, which are your rights abroad. Advice: find out before you leave home.

    And… I don’t know what ever happened to this girl. I escorted her there, sat with here for a couple of hours, but the staff told me it was OK to leave after a while. I just hope she made it home fine.

  2. I am sad to admit that I have yet to see that film, but I get your warning loud and clear. The movies that I remember with a similar theme are Midnight Express with Brad Davis and Return to Paradise with Joaquin Phoenix. Both were excellent and haunting portrayals of how Americans (in these cases) can face bitter justice in a foreign land.

  3. There’s an old Australian miniseries starring Nicole Kidman (before she was Hollywood-famous) called the Bangkok Hilton that had the baddie-stashes-drugs-in-good-girl’s-bag plot.
    I think it’s important to check the contents your bag regularly, especially on extended trips where you don’t really remember what’s jammed into the bottom of your backpack.

  4. For some it seems to be an unnecessary step but I always email my mother the night before I move onto another place just to let her know what city I’m going to and the hostel I’m staying in. If something happened at least they could narrow it down to where I should be.

  5. I generally try to update family when we’re changing cities. Mostly so that when something happens in the general geographic region I don’t get 1000 emails about if I’m ok, despite that I’m three countries away. haha! Anyway, it’s a good idea for both personal safety and to limit the annoying family emails.

    I think travelers should follow the same advice as Girl Scouts: Be prepared. Whatever that means to you, but at the very least take responsibility for yourself (your things, your body and your actions!) and have a backup plan (and dear lord don’t let it be just your embassy, there is A LOT they cannot do!).

    • Agreed! I remember having to visit the American Embassy in Prague, due to some weird bank/money issues and discovered they were closed…. for president’s day. Luckily, the British embassy managed to help me out (it’s a long story) but Embassy visits should really be for emergencies.

  6. I always let people know when I am going to a new city, even if it’s just for a day or two. It’s so important to make sure someone knows where to look for you!

    I have never seen this movie. I want to now. Also, have you seen “taken”? It’s along the same lines, but scarier because it deals with kidnapping and sex slavery. I saw it on a bus in South America. AWESOME MOVIE CHOICE GUYS!

  7. I just watched Brokedown Palace last week (I know I’m over 10 years behind the times on this one) but it was pretty scary. At the moment there’s a plethora of travel bloggers kicking it in Thailand so, as much as I don’t think something so extreme is likely, it is scary to think of the reality of corruption.

    I realize that what’s going on in Italy with the Amanda Knox case is very debatable and a completely different story but it is a case full of corruption as well. It’s true that things can get messed up really fast and to a point that evidence is swayed and no one knows the truth anymore.

    Always be careful, and be wary of strangers! Many backpackers are like-minded and will look out for each other but that doesn’t mean that creeps don’t exist!

  8. Just wanted to add that, for all the Americans out there, you can easily register at any country’s Embassy through their new comprehensive website. You can just type in the countries which you will be travelling through, the approximate dates, and it will automatically register you at each Embassy, so at least they know you’re around if anything happens.
    As for the rest, yes, be careful and “prepared”. Letting someone know exactly where you are is always a good idea. You could always link your smart phones to a GPS system that lets your family track you down to the exact location at any time (there’s an app for that!). And… always be aware of what the law is in each country, and your rights as a foreigner.
    But, above all, ENJOY! 😀

  9. Bertha crabtrees on

    I’m so ashamed! Long story short, my mom told me if I don’t have anything nice to say, not to say anything, so, I’m sorry I read this! :((((

  10. Pingback: Thailand’s New Approach to Ya Ba

  11. this movie has made me freak to go travel to Thailand. But when i push away my fear and keep going to traveling to Thailand, that country has many friendly local people. Put your attitude in each country you visit, you’ll never know what will happen while you traveling.

  12. this movie has made me freak to go travel to Thailand. But when i push away my fear and keep going to traveling to Thailand, that country has many friendly local people. Put your attitude in each country you visit, you’ll never know what will happen while you’re traveling.

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