Safety is an important topic amongst travellers. Nothing ruins a trip faster than getting sick, having an important piece of luggage stolen or outright robbed with violence. The misfortunates that can befall an intrepid traveller are many and even the most experienced of travellers can make some avoidable pitfalls.
Having cumulatively spent 2 years of my life on the road, I’ve learned a few hard-earned lessons and gained some savvy along the way. Some I’ve read online, others heard from veteran travellers and a few painfully through first-hand experiences. Like Charlie Munger once said, “It’s great to learn from your own mistakes, but a whole lot more pleasant to learn from the mistakes of others.”
From navigating the sometimes-dangerous city of Rio De Janeiro during its most turbulent period, to wandering through Cairo during a politically unstable time, to treading through the pick-pocket filled capitals of Europe, here are my 15 Tips on How to Stay Safe During Your Travels:
Learn the LanguageThe ability to communicate with locals will not only help to keep you safe but enhance your overall travel experience. It will allow you to develop more rapport, impress the locals and connect more deeply with them.
Language is a gateway to culture. When you take the time to learn the language of the land, it separates you from other travellers because you took the time to understand and appreciate the language of the land. You’ve made an effort to engage their world beyond a superficial level.
When I was in South America, I found myself in some smaller towns and cities where almost nobody spoke English. Being able to speak conversational Spanish allowed me to ask for directions, restaurant / lodging recommendations, haggle and even ask for help when I needed assistance. Being able to describe to a local doctor what your symptoms are if you’re feeling unwell or strike up a casual chat with the local law enforcement is a huge asset.
Ask the LocalsIf you’ve spent the time studying the native language or is lucky enough to find an English speaker around, then you’re in luck. The native residents of a town or city will know things about their turf that aren’t found in guide books or travel blogs.
Whether it’s trouble neighbourhoods to avoid, what restaurants were shut down last week because of unsanitary conditions, to whether it’s a good idea to walk around after dark, you will be able to gather some valuable information by striking up a conversation with the locals.
I always make an effort to engage seemingly friendly locals in conversation, whether it’s just out of curiosity, connection or a need to gather some solid intel. After all, it never hurts to ask, right?
Lock Up Your StuffThis is a common mistake that I often seen younger and more inexperienced travellers make. If they are staying in hostels, they will leave laptops, cell phones, tablets and wallets lying around. Don’t do this! Thieves aren’t just out on the streets; they could be lurking amongst other travellers as well.
In many parts, thieves will also specifically target hostels and sneak into the common areas or dormitories without the staff noticing. The easiest way to prevent this is to make use of lockers and it’s often not a bad idea to carry a padlock in your main backpack to secure your valuables once you’ve checked in.
Even in seemingly safe accommodations like hotels or all-inclusive resorts in Mexico, it’s a good idea to get into this habit and make use of the room safe. Although 99% of the service staff are good people, you don’t want to find the 1% maid with sticky fingers the hard way because it’s happened before.
Prepare Your HealthDepending on which part of the world you’re visiting, you will have to be pack some essential health items, medications and first aid supplies. This can include: bug spray, sun screen, pain killers like Tylenol, OTC medications like diarrhea pills, alcohol wipes and bandages. Although most places will have pharmacies selling this stuff, it’s good practice to carry a small supply of this on your own.
You should also always do research into where you’re going and see whether vaccines are necessary. When I was visiting Brazil as a Canadian, it was a visa requirement to provide proof of the Yellow Fever vaccine due to an ongoing outbreak in certain parts of the country.
This was no small thing, as it cost almost $50 to get the prescription from a travel clinic and then another $150 to get the shot due to a global shortage. Get one step away of the game and prepare your body for where you’ll be going.
Mexico, it’s probably OK to skip on it.
However, if you’re taking a 3-month or longer jaunt through South America, Europe or Southeast Asia, it’s definitely wise to plan for the worst-case scenarios. After all, accidents and misfortunes are unpredictable. It’s best to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.
Examples of bad things happening on the road are only limited only by your imagination: you could fall off a scooter in Thailand and need to visit the hospital, a loved one can suddenly pass away back home and you need to cancel your trip, or you could have your entire backpack stolen by an evil taxi driver in the Middle East like I did! In all these cases, you’d want to be protected against loss and a hefty bill and have peace of mind knowing you’re covered.
Through all my research and speaking with other nomads, I’ve found that World Nomads is the best travel insurance company out there. When my belongings were stolen in the Middle East, they had no issues paying out and reimbursing me for my losses. Their rates are fair, the claim process is straight forward and support staff are easy to deal with. I highly recommend them to get your travel insurance!
Make Copies of Important DocumentsThis one is pretty straight forward. Prior to leaving home, photocopy important IDs such as your passport, driver’s license, medical cards and documents like travel insurance, proof-of-vaccination and flight confirmations. Consider using a passport holder with ample pockets and compartments to keep them safe and organized. You could even email digital copies to yourself in case the hard copies are lost; just make sure your email accounts are secure!
Let Others Know Your Travel ItinerarySimilarly, you can print off your travel itinerary as well and keep a copy on hand, just in case you have trouble accessing the Internet. When I spent a year travelling the world, I made it a habit to notify my family or a friend a general plan of where I was going and what city I would be in that week or month.
It’s also a good idea to check-in with someone when you arrive at a new city. A simple text or voice message letting someone know you’ve safely arrived at a destination takes 20-seconds and lets someone else know everything is fine. I usually did this via WeChat with my mom! Even if there wasn’t a specific address yet, this gives them a general idea of where you are and which local police to contact if you get into trouble or go MIA.
Register with Your EmbassyFor Americans, the US State Department maintains an up-to-date website of travel advisors and travel warnings for countries. Whether it’s political instability, risk of terrorism or serious health concerns, you would be able to find it there. That said, these advisories tend to be on the super-cautious side so take them with a grain of salt. Just because one country has problem areas such as Turkey or Thailand, doesn’t mean that the most-visited places are unsafe.
For Canadians, the federal government also maintain a Registration of Canadians Abroad registry. This gives your notifications on natural disasters, civil unrest and other emergencies abroad while you’re in a given country. They also maintain an up to date travel advisory for many countries. When I was roaming through Egypt, Israel and Jordan, I used this service and registered myself in case there was trouble.
Use the resources above more as a heads-up and evaluate once you’ve got boots on the ground. If you are going to a city with a higher risk for these dangers, print out the address of your embassy or make a note of it on your phone just in case of an emergency.
Beware of Local ScamsEverywhere in the world, there will be con artists, fraudsters and scammers looking to part you with your hard-earned cash or worse. The amateurs and well-known scams will be easy to spot, but others will be more sneaky and complicated. In all cases, exercise common sense and trust your gut; if something or someone seems too good to be true or is out of place, it probably is.
From more benign scams such as a taxi driver taking you through the scenic route to run up the meter, to “this restaurant / hotel / hostel is closed, let me take you to another one” scam, to more malicious shakedowns such as fake cops and overly friendly local women who happens to “know a good bar around the corner,” you would be wise to educate yourself to the different cons out there to safeguard yourself.
Dress to Blend InSome of the best travellers are those that blend in and look like they could be a local. For men, avoid the “typical tourist” look of sandals, knee high socks, big cargo pants or shorts, a polo shirt and a travel wallet or big DLSR camera around your neck. This paints a giant target on your back and might as well announce to criminals that you’re not from around here and could make for an easy mark. Also, minimize wearing flashy jewelry or big fancy watches for the same reason.
When I was in Rio de Janeiro, where robberies, purse snatchings and pick-pockets were all too common, I wore a simple $20 watch, shorts and t-shirt like the locals, carried my house keys and only as much cash as I needed for that day. I even left my smart phone at home. Some travellers even went so far as making a diversionary wallet to throw away in the event that they got robbed. Luckily, it never happened to me.
For women, this could mean avoiding showing too much skin from short shorts, shorty dresses or revealing tops. In many countries with a more macho culture where cat-calling is all-too common, dressing provocatively could result in some unwanted male attention and harassment. In conservative, Muslim countries or religious sites like mosques and temples, it also shows disrespect and may draw ire from anger from locals.
While you may never 100% blend in due to differences in ethnicity or language, you can minimize the risk of being perceived as an easy target by the way you choose to present yourself to the world.
Protect Your Privacy and Hide Your CashWhen you’re withdrawing cash from an ATM, choose the location wisely. Look for well-lit, high visibility ATM vestibules such as those of reputable local banks, rather than those located on a secluded street corner or shady shop. Examine the keypad for signs of tampering and cover the keypad when entering your PIN.
To protect your personal data in credit cards and passports in crowded public places, I recommend using an RFID blocking wallet to shield your data from being swiped by tech savvy thieves with scanners.
Avoid flaunting large amounts of cash or walking around with large wads of cash in a public place like you’re ready to make it rain. The back-pant pocket is a well-known and vulnerable area for seasoned pick-pockets to steal from without your noticing.
If possible, wear a travel waist belt to hide bigger bills if you must walk around with more cash, and keeper smaller denominations in your front side pockets for smaller purchases.
Be Aware of Your SurroundingsSome scientific studies have concluded that body language makes up as much as 55% of all human communication. That means how you carry yourself will also affect how likely you are to become victimized. Interviews with criminals have shown that they will size up their victims before and avoid preying on those who look like tough targets.
Walk with a purpose and direction, even if you’re unsure of where you’re going). Stand up tall with your back straight, shoulders back, head up and eyes constantly scanning the environment. Sit facing the door at restaurants and develop a situational awareness of what’s going on around you. Project confidence in your eye contact. This will prevent 90% of problems before they even occur.
Stay (Relatively) SoberGoing out, checking out the local night life and drinking with friends is a big part of a travel experience. However, be mindful of how much you are consuming, especially if you are by yourself! Eat a meal beforehand and drink water throughout the night to avoid becoming a cheap drunk. This also will help with any potential hangovers the next day.
Keep an eye on your drink and never leave it unattended. While a few beers or cocktails will help you enjoy the moment and dance the night away, going overboard in a new city or foreign country can put yourself at serious risk of making a bad decision or signal to bad people to take advantage of you.
It is best to make a plan on how you will get home in advance after a night of drinking, whether it’s walking in a group of friends or ordering an Uber. Many seemingly tourist-safe places during the day can become more dangerous and shady after dark, with criminals lurking and waiting to prey on drunk tourists. Don’t make yourself into an easy victim!
Beware of Public WiFiMany airports, parks and coffee shops offer “free” public WiFi. The problem with these hot spots is that the connection is often insecure and encryption sorely lacking. A hacker can easily hijack the connection to steal your personal information and passwords which would really be a nightmare and ruin a trip.
If you must use these free hot spots to go online, avoid logging into websites which contain sensitive personal information as online banking, personal emails and company data.
A better way to protect yourself is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) software, purchase your own data plan (many countries sell sim cards and traveller data plans for cheap) and turn off data sharing on your devices. Better safe than sorry!
Live to Travel Another DayAt the end of the day, getting home safe and sound should be a priority for any successful trip. In the worst-case scenario where you do get robbed or confronted with violence, don’t be a hero! Your life is not worth any amount of money or valuables in the world. If running away isn’t an option, then comply with the bad guy’s demands and give up your belongings. The majority of the time, this will ensure you leave unharmed and you’ll have a wild travel story to tell!
Although some parts of the world are “more dangerous” than others, crime can happen anywhere at any time. The vast majority of locals and travellers you meet along the way are good intentioned, normal people but it’s always a good idea to always be heads up.
The point isn’t to make you paranoid and be hypervigilant all the time – it’s to help you become aware of the dangers and to have a reasonable level of guard up. By all means, enjoy the journey and unforgettable moments as they unfold, but don’t become careless and take unnecessary risks.
The world is a lot safer and it’s a lot easier to travel than it was decades ago, despite what the sensationalist media would have you believe. As you add more countries to your list and become a more seasoned road warrior, the confidence and savviness to be safe will soon become second nature.Until next time,