I’ve been to nineteen countries since leaving Ireland two years ago, and along the way I’ve picked up quite a bit of knowledge about how to stay safe on the road. I’ve never been mugged, never been in a fight, never fallen victim to any serious scams, and I’ve stayed pretty healthy.
That said, I don’t know it all, and there are still a lot of places I haven’t been to. So I decided to recruit four nomadic friends to help with this post. They are:
Catherine Howard, who is spending the year living with 13 collectives of artists in 13 different locations across the globe. She’s already been to such far flung places as the Dominican Republic, Zimbabwe, and China.
Graham Hughes, who is the only person to have ever visited every single country in the world without flying. (Yes, you read that right.)
María Ortega Garcia, who has spent the last couple of years traveling and living solo in such places as India and Southeast Asia, while tutoring Spanish online.
And finally the infamous Turner Barr who, not content with visiting dozens of countries, tries to find a random job everywhere he goes. He’s been a bartender on the Greek islands, worked on a reality TV show in Bangkok, and as a pizza maker in Italy, just to name a few.
Before we dive in…
Let me take a minute to emphasize how SAFE world travel is, because if you just read down through the tips below you’re likely to come away thinking that the world is a big, bad and scary place. For the most part though, it’s very safe. There’s a wealth of travel experience between myself, Catherine, Graham, María and Turner, yet none of us have any horror stories to tell you.
“I have yet to run into any serious disasters. The worst experience was my computer charger snapping in half, leaving me without connectivity for several days. The biggest mistake is that I have watched people miss out on a cultural experience — such as eating new foods or going swimming — because they are afraid of getting sick. I’ve only gotten sick once, and that was eating a seemingly harmless fried food. Being willing to dive in and experience new things is completely worth the occasional day or two of intestinal discomfort.”
“You’d be surprised, a lot of locals won’t let you walk into danger. There will be a guard or someone to stop you because they do not want tourists stumbling into a minefield or a into a town that’s overrun by rebels. These countries, they don’t want you getting into trouble, they really don’t. They like having tourists, and even if they don’t like having tourists they don’t want the bad publicity that comes with something happening to someone.”
“Luckily, I haven’t had any real disasters.”
“To be honest, I have never had anything bad happen to me on the road. I am one of these people who tend to believe that certain people in general are ‘unluckier’ than others when they travel because they tend to do stupid shit to begin with.”
So, with that in mind, here are 11 essential tips for staying safe when you travel…
1. Do your research
When I arrived in Iran last year I found that none of the cash machines would accept my debit or credit cards. I had to go to great lengths and trust a lot of strangers to get me through the next ten days. It turned out fine, but it was a stressful situation that could have easily been avoided with some simple research ahead of time.
Graham recommends keeping an eye on the news before you set off some place:
“Things change very fast. I was in Syria a couple of years ago and it was fine, but now it’s in a full-blown civil war and you wouldn’t want to go anywhere near there. Somewhere like Mali, you wouldn’t want to go to Timbuktu six months ago but now it seems to be okay again. You’ve got to keep an eye on these things.”
A handy resource is the Foreign & Commonwealth Office website. Just choose whichever country you’re interested in and they’ll tell you what the situation is there, info updated regularly.
Another good research tool is a Lonely Planet guidebook. Check the dangers and annoyances section. They also give safety tips for female and LGBT travelers, since some countries can be quite dangerous for single women or gay couples.
2. Know where you’ll be staying and how to get there
Last year I got off an overnight bus from Romania in an unknown part of Istanbul at four o’clock in the morning and had to wander around in the dark for an hour trying to figure out where my hostel was. Not smart.
Catherine does it better:
“I heavily research the transportation system in the place I will be going before I even arrive, so that the moment I step off the plane I know exactly where I’m going, how to get there, and the exact person I will be meeting when I arrive.”
One trick is to look up the hostel or wherever you’ll be staying at on Google Maps in advance, and snap a few pics of the route from the bus/train station or airport to there. Literally take pictures of the screen. Such pics have saved my ass numerous times.
Or you could just print or buy a map, if you want to be all old-school about it 😛
Further advice from Turner:
“I try look up the address and of 1-2 guest houses ahead of time so if I meet locals or a taxi driver, if they don’t know the name of the place, they may know the cross streets. When you get to a hostel or hotel, grab their business card if they have one and keep it on you to show to taxi drivers when you need to get back.”
I’d add that you should book your accommodation in advance if possible. You don’t want to go halfway across town to reach a certain guesthouse and then find that they’re full up. I use and like Agoda for booking accommodation.
3. Befriend and hang out with locals
One of Graham’s top tips is to arrange a Couchsurfing host in advance, so you’ll have someone there waiting for you to arrive and who can sound the alarm if you don’t show up. You can call them up when you get into town and hand your phone to a taxi driver to receive directions.
Some people are wary of Couchsurfing, but it’s pretty damn safe, as Graham can attest:
“A lot of people seem to think that it’s inherently unsafe to stay with a stranger, but because on Couchsurfing everyone has such a detailed profile you can usually gauge whether they’re genuine or a weirdo by comments they’ve left and how many people have vouched for them. And with Couchsurfing you don’t even have to stay with someone, just meet up for a coffee or something, just so someone knows that you got there safely. Another benefit of Couchsurfing is that it helps you meet and hang out with local people, who can advise you of specific ways to stay safe in their area. If you’re walking down the street with another backpacker, it’s much more likely that someone is going to mug you than if you were with a local.”
Catherine advises similar:
“Find a friend of a friend or a family to stay with so that you know someone will be watching out for you. Staying with families – even ones I only met through a single email – has helped me feel much safer than I felt staying in backpacker lodges or hostels.”
4. Don’t do stupid things
Avoid getting very drunk. Don’t go buying drugs. Refrain from hanging around with shady characters or frequenting dodgy night spots. Walk (or run) away from fights or anyone being aggressive.
As Graham says…
“Every time I hear about some backpacker who lost their wallet and their passport and everything they own in South America, the story always begins with the prelude, ‘Well I was buying these drugs…'”
Also learn a bit about the culture and traditions of a place before you go so you’re not walking around offending people accidentally. In Thailand for example it’s not cool to touch someone’s head or have the soles of your feet pointed at them. In Dubai you can be jailed and fined for being drunk on the street.
5. Learn about local scams so you can recognize and avoid them
Forewarned is forearmed. Here are a few examples of scams that you could easily fall for if you weren’t on the lookout for them:
- The Agra restaurant scam, where they’ll put something in your food to make you ill, then bring you upstairs all concerned and call a “doctor”. The doctor will give you “medicine” which will just make you more sick. The plan is to keep you there for a few days and then try claim off your insurance. Best thing to do if you find yourself feeling ill in a restaurant is to insist on going to the hospital.
- The La Paz taxi scam, where a plain-clothes “police officer” will get in your taxi and ask to see your money and passport under the guise of a drugs investigation. Often a couple of locals will have gotten in the taxi with you and will be happily showing this guy their money and ID, trying to convince you that it’s all standard procedure. Tell them you don’t have any money or ID on you and insist on going to the police station if they want to take the matter further.
- Gambling scams. Avoid gambling anywhere that’s not a big casino with lots of security cameras. Poker rooms will often set you up to think you have the game in the bag, get you to throw all your money in, then rig it so you lose everything. You’ll be hesitant cry foul when you’re sat there with a table full of tough guys.
- The Delhi train station scam, where a man in an official looking uniform will approach you on the way to the tourist office and claim that it has closed and moved to a different location across town. He’ll then helpfully escort you to a taxi and his buddy will drop you in some random location across town for a hefty fee. Insist on checking yourself whether the office is really closed. Don’t just believe what a random dude tells you, uniform or not.
- Buying discount electronics. Always make sure to test the gadget and see if it works. Watch out for them switching the item when bagging it up. You don’t want to end up with the shell of camera with a weight inside.
6. Stand up for yourself and don’t be a pushover
I personally think this is the most important tip on the list. Don’t feel pressured into doing anything you’re uncomfortable with. Be skeptical and think for yourself. Don’t be afraid to be rude if someone is getting really pushy and insistent with you.
The La Paz taxi scam I mentioned before? Graham actually experienced that first-hand, but because he held his ground and insisted on going to the police station if they wanted to search him, the scammers gave up and the taxi dropped him on the side of a ring road. He had to walk for an hour to get to his hotel, but he had all his money and passport safe.
“Always try to keep your valuables in a smaller bag but keep it on you (on your lap, not by your legs) at all times, especially on a bus. Don’t just put it up because some random person tells you too. I see newbie travelers do a lot of dumb stuff just because they see locals doing it (i.e. jumping into dark water). Just because locals do it, doesn’t mean it’s safe.”
Once in Chennai in India a taxi driver offered to take me back to my hotel for what seemed like a ridiculously low sum. I kept asking him if he’d be taking me directly back to the hotel for that price. The first couple of times he said yes, but when I kept pushing he admitted that we’d have to stop off at his friend’s shop so I might consider buying some items. I insisted that I didn’t have time for shopping and in the end he agreed to take me straight to the hotel for a standard fare. I had to get very loud with the guy before I got what I wanted.
I’ve also had people approach me while waiting in line at border checkpoints in Southeast Asia and ask to see my passport and forms. I’ve learned not to hand over anything just because I’m asked. My default response nowadays in situations like that is, “I’m sorry, but who are you? Do you work here?” Often times they’ll just lie in response to that, but I always trust my gut and tell them I’ll happily wait to talk with the person behind the window at the checkpoint. I’ve probably been over-cautious and turned away some genuinely helpful people doing this, but that’s a trade-off I’m willing to make to reduce the risk of getting scammed.
(You might also recall my story about Kostas the Greek in Istanbul. Same idea. I could have gotten myself in a lot of trouble that night had I not stood up to him.)
7. Smile and be friendly
Don’t lose your cool, even if you’re being searched unnecessarily by police for the tenth time that day. Cops in many countries are on the lookout for tourists carrying drugs or doing anything illegal so they can make nice bribe money. It will all go a lot smoother if you smile and act friendly towards them.
And, you know, if you’re not carrying any drugs.
It’s also good to have a bit of charm and know how to talk your way out of trouble. If someone ever threatens you or looks likely to start a fight, try to deescalate as quickly as possible. Set your ego aside, apologize (even if you have nothing to apologize for), assume a non-threatening posture and try get out of there as fast as possible. Even if you’re clearly not the instigator and believe you can take the other guy down, the local authorities may not be on your side.
8. Be smart and discreet with your money
“I tend to always travel with two wallets. In my main wallet I’ll have local currency and an ID of some sort. In the other wallet I keep at least $100-200 in USD one, five, ten and twenty notes that are clean and not ripped. When in Europe I do the same with Euros as well. I try to have at least 2/3 different ATM accounts and keep half the cards in one place, and the other half in a different bag in case one gets stolen. It’s also smart to carry with you a photocopy of your passport and leave the real deal in a safe place like a locker.”
The two-wallets tip is also great for countries where the police are likely to solicit bribes from you for even the most minor offenses. Have a simple money clip at the ready with just a couple of old cards and a few notes in it, rather than pulling out your main wallet with a big chunk of cash.
“I no longer worry about being pick-pocketed. Everything of value is at the very bottom of the biggest pocket of my zippered bag, and I carry no cash or fancy gadgets anywhere on my person.”
9. Get insured, and know what you’re covered for
Travel insurance can be had pretty cheap from World Nomads. I’ve used them myself for a couple of years, and while they’re pretty useless for small claims, they’ll have your ass well covered if any big medical expenses come your way. Just make sure you get coverage for everything you need. Their standard policy doesn’t include coverage for adventure sports, for example.
Also check if you’re entitled to free travel insurance from your home country, and if that covers you everywhere. María found out the hard way that her health insurance was of no use to her in Australia:
“I learned the importance of knowing about the health system of the country you are in. Coming from a country where there is a universal health care, completely free, I had never had a concern about getting an insurance; besides being a healthy person and not a big risk taker, I had never had a mayor health problems or accidents in my travels, until this year, where I suffered from a severe infection in my last days in Bali and first weeks in Australia. If I had had more information about the agreements between countries, I would have known that Spain doesn’t have any agreement with Australia and therefore I would have got an insurance in advance, and so going to the doctor wouldn’t have been such an unexpected costly experience.”
10. Don’t be a woman
Just kidding with that title 🙂
If you’re a woman though, you do need to be a bit more careful.
Maria had this to say:
“I think that the rules / tricks / behavior to stay safe for solo female travelers are the same for all females in general. Common sense and having in mind that although people are wonderful in general, there are isolated individuals than can cause a lot of damage, so be aware of the risks.
I haven’t traveled that much, but in my limited experience, India has been the only country where I felt vulnerable and unsafe, and I really appreciated the company of a male friend. So, in countries like this one, I find it really useful to be part of female traveler groups to learn about potential risks, what to do and what not to do.”
More from Catherine:
“The other big thing is that many woman traveler’s I know carry themselves with fear on their faces. That fear can be a target of weakness. In general, strangers are incredibly helpful and generous. Trusting the world leads to a much more pleasant travel experience because you release anxiety and are open for more positive people to approach you.
Zimbabwe, for example, is a fabulous country to travel and overall very safe, but be sure to have a companion unless you are already very familiar with the location you are going to. Women traveling alone are uncommon, which would cause you to stand out as an easy target. With a companion, though, the country is amazing!”
Catherine also has lots more great advice for female travelers over at her blog: 7 Tips for How to be a Fearless Solo Female Traveler
11. Your top tip for safe travel
Got anything to add? Let’s hear you in the comments.
Travel Ninjas, Unite!
Lastly, if you’re interested in getting more travel-related posts from me, sign up to my new Travel Ninja email list.