Before I launch into advice on general safety tips for travelers, here’s a major disclaimer. For all the hesitant parents and anxious first-timers, allow me to reassure you: Travel is not some inherently dangerous act. It is, actually, one of the most life-affirming, worldview-expanding, creativity-enhancing and purposeful steps you can take in life. When a single individual chooses to travel with an open mind, the world at large benefits, even if in small, seemingly imperceptible ways. Travel will open your mind in ways you previously could not even anticipate, making way for new paths in your life that you couldn’t see before. This is why travel is one of the major sources of passion in my life and a pillar upon which I hang my overall sense of purpose as a writer, traveler and creative person.
With that out of the way, it’s worth noting that many parts of the world — including a lot of popular tourist destinations — are less dangerous than the United States. Some people have a perception that the life they know in America is quite safe, but the rate of violent crime in the U.S. is high for a developed country. In any given situation in life — getting in your car to drive to school or work every day or just crossing the street — there is a certain risk involved. Before you consider the danger of visiting a foreign country, do not discount the danger you face and mitigate successfully everyday. I like to frame it like this: Imagine you’re a parent or teacher, and think about the advice you might give a born-and-raised, sheltered suburban kid about staying safe on a trip to New York City. This is, in essence, good and solid advice for any person about to travel to most major tourist destinations around the world.
Clearly, you should do your own individual research based on where you’re traveling. However, there are some general tips and advice I’d give anyone planning a trip abroad, particularly to major metropolitan areas.
In public, present yourself with an air of confidence. Another way of phrasing this is to ensure you move with a sense of purpose. Look like you know where you’re going. Stopping to look at a map or otherwise appearing hesitant about where you should go makes you a potential target for theft. It’s happened to me many times — someone approaches you to help, but he either wants to pick your pocket while making conversation, lure you to his shop or somehow scam your or ask for money, which can often be a cover act to find out where you keep your money (and how much of it you have on you). If this does happen to you, politely but firmly decline, and start walking toward an area with a lot of people.
If you really need to look at a map, try to do it discretely before hitting the pavement. Download the offline maps app CityMaps2Go to your smartphone, and use that at restaurants before paying the bill, for example, to map your route to your next destination. If you’re already on the street, duck into cafés or shops if you need to, rather than flashing valuable smartphones in public.
This also means not getting crazy drunk or wearing shoes that cause you pain (it’ll show, and you’ll look like a clueless tourist or at least like someone not inclined to give chase). And if you need to walk at night, make sure you’re not doing it alone.
There is safety in numbers. The more people around you, the safer you are likely to be. It’s better to take main roads than side streets if you’re going through a dangerous area, especially at night. If you’re traveling solo, there are special considerations to keep in mind about safety. My article The Independent Ladies’ Guide to Solo Travel has more advice about this (much of which is applicable to men as well).
Know how to protect your valuables. Stay in hotels that offer a safe in each room for which only you have the key or combination, and leave valuables in it while you’re out. If your hotel doesn’t have a safe, consider wearing a money belt to keep your passport safe — but never allow yourself to be seen reaching into it in public.
Ladies should consider wearing a cross-body bag, which are physically harder to snatch off of you. Put your hand on it at all times, and turn it so it’s not facing the street (thieves on motorbikes can easily race by and snatch it from you). I’ve traveled extensively for years and have not yet had my bag stolen or picked (knock on wood!), and I believe the No 1. reason for this is I try to never look like an easy target. My bag is always on me, my hand is almost always on it and I work hard to always appear alert and aware of my surroundings. It’s much easier for thieves to target someone less vigilant instead.
If you’re a male or otherwise not into purses, consider keeping a dummy wallet. This is essentially an old wallet you keep in your back pocket filled with expired, useless credit cards and the equivalent of about $50 cash. If you’re mugged or your pocket is picked, it will be enough to satisfy your thief (sending him on his way) without totally putting yourself out. Keep your real wallet or money clip in your front pocket, and keep it as thin and non-bulky as possible. This is especially useful for major cities where pickpocketing is more common, like Barcelona, Rome, and Rio de Janeiro (which happen to be some of my most favorite cities in the world).
I also recommend getting travel insurance, as many plans will cover you in case of theft (if your renter’s or homeowner’s insurance doesn’t already).
Finally, trust your gut instincts. If something tells you to get out of a situation or away from a person or place, don’t ignore it. Your instincts are usually right and should be taken very seriously.
Obviously, the risks of travel will vary greatly depending on where you go and how much (or little) you blend in, but it’s worth remembering that the risks involved in traveling internationally are usually not much different from travel within the U.S. While mainstream media would have us believe otherwise, the world overall isn’t such a scary place — and while there are certainly bad people out there, it’s by and large full of everyday people just living their lives with a sense of goodwill toward others. Smart travelers know and regularly remind themselves of this while planning for the worst-case scenarios, just in case.
Photo credits: Megan Van Groll