In a previous Steal Just One Day post I reflected on whether the world is really as dangerous for travel as the media, your cousin, or my dentist would have you believe. Hint: it’s not. As a woman who takes travel seriously and has spent months, even years, on the road (and the sea), I have rarely been robbed, threatened, hurt, or scammed. Why? Because I use my own set of safety tips for travelers.
Bad times make for good stories though, and bad times traveling make for some especially exciting yarns, so you are bound to hear more about the time your cousin had his wallet stolen in Rome and less about his moonlit stroll through the tiny piazza where he heard Puccini’s Un bel di vedremo spilling down from a wrought iron balcony. Or maybe that’s my cousin.
Well anyway, there’s no guarantee of staying one hundred percent safe while traveling, but here are 10 uncommonly common sense safety tips for travelers to keep the lousy stuff to a minimum. Tips that work from Paris to Pocatello.
1. Keep your eyes and ears open.
Simply being aware of your surroundings is key to travel safety.
Travel is a fascinating change from everyday life. All those unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells divert your attention. Make a habit of bringing your awareness back to the space you occupy now and then.
You might be tired from a long flight or bus ride. Be aware of that, too, and know when to rest.
2. Suddenly find yourself in a crowd?
Public transport stations, museums and popular sites mean crowds. Take precautions like holding on to your bag. I carry a cross-body messenger bag and can swing it to my front for a quick grip on it if needed.
3.Where’s your stuff?
Every single time I get ready to move on from a site, or stand up from a café chair, airplane or bus seat, I silently repeat this mantra: Look around, look up, look under. This simple mental checklist prevents me from leaving belongings behind.
Take half a minute to actually look. Under your seat, overhead in the luggage rack. Do a quick pat down of your pockets, and be sure to check behind you, so you don’t leave that bag hanging from the back of your chair. In fact, don’t ever hang your bag on the back of your chair! You might as well be saying, “Hey, look at me! I leave my stuff unattended! Thieves welcome!”
You’re more likely to leave stuff behind when you get distracted. Using the Look mantra forces you to refocus before you walk off. Practice doing it at home before you leave on a trip. Make it automatic.
If you have a vehicle, park in a well-trafficked area and give the interior a once-over to be sure you have left nothing of value in sight.
The only time we had a vehicle broken into was in Sevilla, Spain where we’d parked our VW camper van in an isolated spot along the Guadalquivir River to camp. We’d left nothing of value inside while we wandered the Old Town area, so no real harm was done, except the expense and bother to replace a broken window. Plus, while searching our food bin, the bandit clearly didn’t believe that a plastic zip bag could be stuffed solely with oats, so he stabbed it open with a knife, hoping to find the family jewels, spilling the contents onto the van’s floor. Also, he stole our knife. I still hate that guy.
4. Confident people make lousy victims.
Stealing from a savvy traveler isn’t worth the effort.
Don’t assume everyone you see is out to rob you. You aren’t a field mouse paralyzed by fright as a hungry hawk swoops down to steal your bag. If you aren’t already a smart, self-assured traveler, fake it. You’ll soon gain confidence.
5. On the other hand, don’t assume everyone you meet is waiting to invite you home to join them for breakfast, either. Scams happen.
After several months in Morocco, my husband and I were nearly victims of a typical, choreographed pickpocket scam by three Moroccan men. It went like this: two guys bumped Brian simultaneously. Thief number 1 loudly complained that Brian had stepped on his shoes. Thief number 2 pretended to ‘help’ the first guy, further distracting Brian. In the large plaza, these guys could have easily avoided running into my husband. This caught my attention, and I thought, Who makes such a big deal about having his shoes stepped on in Morocco? Especially with a foreigner? Nobody. Marketplaces in Morocco are jammed with people and stepped-on toes are common. While Brian was apologizing and attempting to extricate himself from those two, I saw thief number 3 walk swiftly across the plaza, making a beeline for us. I knew straightaway he was the pickpocket, so I made my own beeline and caught his hand just as it was reaching into Brian’s breast pocket, digging my fingernails hard into his hand and shouting, Hey, stop! All three men abruptly let us be, though one kept mimicking my Hey stop! command. I can deal with a pickpocket ridiculing me, but the incident shook us. It was a learning experience and makes a good cautionary travel tale to pass on to you.
Understand that scams happen everywhere. Don’t panic, just be informed. If someone you just met offers you an open drink and they aren’t drinking, be cautious about accepting. That spectacular currency exchange deal a guy is offering? Sounds too good to be true; think: scam. If a woman (or a man, or couple) is suddenly way too friendly or helpful, be wary but not hostile. You may need to back off a few feet, focus your attention on what’s happening, and make a clear-eyed decision.
Then again, sometimes strangers really do want to feed you breakfast. Early one cloudless June morning I was driving solo along the northern coastal road of Ireland’s Beara Peninsula from Kenmare to Lambs Head, stopping occasionally to take photographs. The village of Eyeries has colorful homes, winding lanes, and, in the slant of morning light, is a perfect spot to snap some photos. While tying my shoe, I met Noel, a local retired Merchant Naval officer carrying an armful of rhubarb along an otherwise deserted lane. Noel stopped to chat and within a couple of minutes, invited me home to meet his wife, Mairin, and have breakfast with them. As a woman traveling alone, I automatically weighed the risks (abduction, assault, fried food) against the possible benefits (sharing a meal and conversation with an Irish couple on a beautiful morning) and accepted Noel’s offer. That remains one of my favorite days in Ireland. Sometimes it pays to say, Yes, I’d love to.
6. Refrain from being an obnoxious nincompoop.
You already know this, but I’ll say it anyway. If you are overly annoying (drunk, loud, a colossal jerk) it draws negative attention, and folks nearby are unlikely to warn you of danger or offer help. Instead, they’ll likely think you’re asking to be robbed or hurt, so shake their heads in dismay and either leave you to your own devices or snap photos to post on social media. Have fun with that.
7. Money, credit cards, documents.
Make copies of documents like passports, itineraries, and credit cards. I put electronic versions of these in Dropbox and in Notes on my iPhone, but you can use Evernote or whichever app you like. If you’re traveling in a place where internet is iffy or non-existent, bring hard copies.
My husband and I carry color duplicates of each other’s passport (the page with our information: passport number, name, etc.). Ours are laminated because Brian made them and he isn’t as lazy as I am. If a hotel requests you leave your passport at the desk during your stay, leave your official-looking copy with them instead.
Separate money, credit cards and documents so all of your precious eggs aren’t in a single, easy to lose place. Secret money-belts are more comfortable to wear these days than years ago. I chose mine by trying it on at REI, where I wandered the store wearing it for an hour while shopping to make sure it worked for me.
If there is a family member or friend at home who is capable of helping you without panicking should you get into a jam, email them a copy of your documents before you leave.
A note on pockets: if you’re a thief or pickpocket looking for an easy target, you’re going to go for the back trouser pocket or left breast pocket of a victim’s shirt or jacket. That’s just playing the odds. Most people are right handed, and (guys particularly) are likely to put their money in those pockets. Beat the odds. Keep your walking-about money and credit cards in a pocket on your trouser’s front or in one that fastens securely.
8. Jewels, electronics, cameras, clothing.
Here’s my simple advice about displaying your wealth: Don’t. Save your fabulous jewelry and designer clothes to wear back home. You might consider yourself of average economic means, but if you can afford to get on a plane and travel abroad, you’ll be rich to most local people.
Expensive cameras and electronics are prime targets for thieves. Secure them in a bag when they aren’t in use, and never leave them setting on a table at the bar or restaurant. Apple picking is a term for snatching that iPhone right out of your hand. Remember what I said about being distracted while traveling? There’s not much more distracting than being absorbed in a tiny electronic screen while a bicycling burglar is bearing down on you. Focus. Be aware. Reread tip #1.
9. Health woes are hilarious when you’re traveling.
Okay, they’re not at all. Even minor ailments or injuries are a big scary deal when you’re away from home. Bring medications you may need (and a copy of your prescription if required). I always carry a course of antibiotics, because urinary tract infections often occur while traveling. I don’t carry a large first aid kit, but I pack tweezers, a few bandages, and a small tube of antibiotic ointment, plus diarrheal, constipation, and headache remedies,. My wee bundle of first aid gear takes up a 3 inch by 3 inch by 1 inch space in my pack.
Here’s a novel idea: do the preventative stuff. Make sure you’re healthy before leaving home. Need vaccinations? Plan for that; some of them require multiple shots over a period of months.
Check your health insurance for coverage in the area you’re traveling. Outside your own country you’re probably not covered. Look into traveler’s insurance. We have used World Nomads several times (see this and other helpful links below the article.) Some countries may require you to purchase health insurance at point of entry. Do a bit of research to save yourself some hassle.
10. Make fact-finding part your trip planning.
Check travel forums online before heading out if you have safety concerns. This a good way to find out about current scams in advance of your trip. Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree is a decent travel forum. But before you do, reread the second paragraph of this article. Bad times make for good stories… Take these tales with a substantial dose of salt.
Once you’ve arrived at your destination, ask local people about areas to avoid, especially at night.
Don’t let fear stop you from seeing your world. Go travel. Steal just one day or a week or month for yourself and carry on having new experiences. Be confident, use common sense plus my 10 safety tips for travelers, and stay safe. When you return home, be sure to tell me about your moonlit stroll in Rome.
Helpful Links with information about Safety Tips for Travelers:
The CDC has an excellent travel health section on their website. You can enter the name of the country you will be traveling to and find out what precautions to take. If you become ill while traveling, the site can help you find a clinic. (There’s also a disease directory, but if you read all of that, you’d probably be too scared to leave home. You’ve been warned.) http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/list
- World Nomads travel insurance http://www.worldnomads.com/travel-insurance/
- Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree travel forum: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree
- Money belts. There are several options. Here’s mine: http://www.rei.com/product/819720/eagle-creek-silk-undercover-money-belt
- Pregnant and considering air travel? The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has a handy pdf with relevant information for you: https://www.rcog.org.uk/en/patients/patient-leaflets/air-travel-pregnancy