Travelling the world is a wonderful experience. But like most experiences, it has its drawbacks, and one is the possibility that you’ll be unsafe. In fact, it’s the fear of danger in foreign places that keeps some people from travelling at all. The truth is, most travel is safe — I’ve criss-crossed the globe for decades without a major incident. But it’s safer if you take some wise precautions.
Stories of tourists being injured or even killed in places like Mexico and the Middle East make good headlines. But these incidents are the exception to the rule: millions of people travel each year and return safe and sound. And as I wrote here, nowhere in the world is completely danger-free. Even in your own town or city, it’s wise to follow some basic rules to stay out of trouble, like not walking down dark streets in bad neighbourhoods after midnight.
That said, travel does have its own hazards. So I thought I’d pass on some of my own strategies for staying safe on the road, as well as some wisdom from the folks at Lonely Planet. Here are my 12 smart tips for travel safety:
Do your research
Always be prepared — that’s the Boy Scout motto, and it works for travellers, too. Before you travel, spend a few minutes finding out what kind of threats exist where you’re going. Many travel guidebooks have a section for this, with valuable information such as which areas have a high crime rate, what are the most common scams, and what other dangers might exist.
Another source of information is your government’s travel advisories: they’re here for Canadians, here for U.S. citizens and here for those in the U.K. In my experience, these tend to be overly cautious, but they can be useful in identifying things like disease outbreaks and civil unrest in some areas of the country.
When you’re booking a hotel or resort, check what part of town it’s in. You don’t want to be in an area where you’re scared to go out the front door, and that can be the case in places like the Caribbean. The user reviews on sites like Tripadvisor are a good source for this: look for phrases like “sketchy neighbourhood” and “felt unsafe”.
Also, watch for reports that the hotel has tried some common scam tactics, such as adding fictitious charges to the bill, or that things have gone missing from a guest’s room. One report might be a misunderstanding, but if you see several, stay away.
Check the room
When you check into the hotel, do a quick safety inspection to make sure the room is secure. See if the door and windows lock tightly: if not, ask for another room, or make sure the hotel takes action to fix the problems. A last resort is to prop a chair or your suitcase against the door while you’re sleeping, so anyone trying to enter will make noise — that’s usually enough to scare off an intruder.
As well, I always look for a hotel room with a safe so I can leave my cameras and other valuables in it when I’m not using them. Whenever you take your valuables out of the room, there’s some danger you’ll lose them. What’s more, they can make you a target in less savoury neighbourhoods.
Travel in groups
Especially for women, being alone on a trip to an unknown destination can be a bit scary. The best way to deal with this is to attach yourself to a group. There are tour companies in almost every place where tourists gather, and even if you’ve arrived alone or in a couple, you can usually arrange to tour the local attraction with a group.
A second alternative for solo travellers is to team up with someone. There are places like the Connecting solo travel network that can help you find a like-minded companion for a trip you’re not comfortable making on your own. If you’re already on the road, have a drink with the folks at your hotel or the local pub and you may find someone heading to the same place you’re going. (You can find more tips for solo travellers here.
If those options don’t appeal to you, splash out and hire a private guide for the day. I’ve done this on birding trips, in places where wandering the backwoods alone might not have been a great idea. And it was always a good deal: I got safety and expertise for one price. It’s a good idea to have your hotel recommend a guide, so you have some accountability.
Be aware of your surroundings
Most of us wouldn’t walk down dark alleys in our own home town, so it goes without saying that you shouldn’t do it when you travel. If you find yourself on a street that’s getting darker and more deserted the farther you walk, turn around and go back, or catch a cab to your destination.
More generally, keep your eyes open when you’re in places you don’t know. Crooks spot tourists because they wander around gawking at things instead watching the street like everyone else. Notice if anyone is paying too much attention to you, or if there’s a bunch of guys who look like a street gang on the next corner. If so, change your route, or just get out of there.
Don’t flash your cash
Some parts of the world are known for pickpockets and snatch-and-grab thieves. In those places, the less you show them, the better. Don’t wear flashy jewellery or hang an expensive camera over your shoulder on the street (I was admonished twice for that one in South America).
Second, don’t count your cash on the street: wait till you get inside, or duck into the washroom. I also advise people to forget about carrying a wallet when they travel: it’s just a target for thieves. Carry enough money for the day, divided between two pockets. That way, a pickpocket may get a few dollars from you, but he won’t be getting your credit cards and other vital papers — those should be in a hidden pocket, money belt, or back in the hotel safe.
Don’t give to beggars
It sounds cruel, but in some places beggars work with thieves to rip you off. Their accomplices watch to see where you keep your money, then slide in to relieve you of it. If you can’t resist donating, keep a small amount of money in one pocket and use it for that kind of expense. Don’t pull out your wallet or dig into your purse on the street.
Be careful with cabs
A lot of cities have “freelance” cabbies who will offer to take you where you’re going for less money than an authorized cab. As a rule, don’t take them: I’ve seen stories of people who were robbed, or worse, once they got inside. Look for a real cab, with a sign on top and a meter on the dashboard — and ideally, a photo of the driver. (There are exceptions to this rule: in some parts of New York, unmarked cabs are allowed to operate, and I’ve used them without incident.)
This brings up the topic of Uber and its “Uber X” service, which allows regular Joes to offer their services as cabbies. If you’re in a major city and headed for somewhere that’s well populated, I guess it’s safe, and Uber does keep a good record of who’s driving. But use it at your own risk.
Where possible, the safest choice is to get your hotel to book the cab. It will use a taxi service it knows and trusts, and it has a record of who picked you up. The cabbie knows that too, and is less likely to do anything that will lose him the hotel’s business. (Another plus: the hotel knows what the ride should cost, and can negotiate the price for you.)
Before you travel, make copies of your travel documents, then keep the the originals in the hotel safe so you don’t have to carry them with you during the day. I’ve always printed the copies from my computer, but these days it’s better to scan them and e-mail them to yourself, so you can’t lose them. Keeping a digital copy in your phone or computer is a great idea — that goes for things like plane and hotel reservations too.
While you’re at it, use your camera or phone to take photos of your belongings, so if they’re stolen you can identify them when you report it to the police. It’s also a good idea to take a picture of the licence plate of your cab if you suspect foul play, or to photograph your guide if you suspect he’s taking you for a ride. These photos are great evidence if something goes wrong.
Just say no
It’s great to get to know the locals, but don’t get carried away — literally. Be very wary if people you don’t know well want to take you to a club somewhere across town, and even more wary if they insist on buying you a drink. The stories of travellers being drugged and then robbed or assaulted are legendary — so know when it’s best just to go to bed.
Watch your stuff
One of the most common ways of losing your valuables is by just not keeping an eye on them. If you leave your bag on the floor or hang it on the chair while you’re having lunch or sitting in the park, it’s an invitation for a thief to stroll by and snag it. To stop him, keep your bag in contact with you — either in your lap, right beside you or between your feet, with the strap around your leg. And take a look back when you’re leaving, to make sure you didn’t leave anything behind.
Don’t be a daredevil
Touring a tropical island on a motor scooter may seem like a great day out, but if you’re not an experienced rider, better stick to a bicycle or take a taxi. According to Lonely Planet, 38 people die every day in scooter accidents in Thailand: you don’t want to be one of them. The same caution goes for any kind of sport that can put you in a body cast if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Those are my 12 tips for travel safety — but here’s a bonus tip:
Get health insurance
I’m always amazed at how many veteran travellers don’t get health insurance. I have to admit, I’ve never had to use mine. But if anything drastic does happen, you can end up with a huge medical bill, especially in expensive places like the U.S. and Europe. And as you get older, the chances of an injury or an illness get greater — even more reason to get covered.
I hope those tips help you travel without fear of something nasty happening. For me, the most important one is just being aware: the more you travel, the more you’re able to sense potential problems and steer clear of them. As always, if you have any smart tips of your own, leave a comment and let us know. When travellers help each other, we’re all a bit safer.