With every trip I go on, my mother’s blood pressure climbs exponentially. If it were up to her, I’d be sitting at home, which would preferably be walking distance from her place, but not if said walking were to be done at night. Whenever I leave the country I promise her I’ll be safe and keep my wits about me. Here are just a few of the ways you can do the same, and remember that ensuring your safety starts before you even leave home.
Before you go:
– Check the U.S. State Department’s website
Current events are always changing around the globe. Just recently I had a friend tell me she felt perfectly safe in Tanzania, but as I found out from the State Department, the country has rapidly changed in the three years since she was there. State Department travel warnings can be found here.
– Learn about the culture, customs and religion
Any book on any country in Southeast Asia for example will list the very basics as far as what not to do when entering a Buddhist temple (not that it’s a safety issue, since you probably won’t get clubbed by a monk, but still…), or how much skin you can respectfully show in what parts of the Middle East. Some countries are more easy-going about this than others. If all else fails, observe. Check out the locals once you arrive and see how they dress and act, then go one step slightly more conservative.
– If you have a smartphone, download maps of the city, area and/or transportation system onto it
These can usually be accessed even when you’re offline, and won’t put a target on your forehead quite like pulling out a giant map might do.
– Buy travel insurance
Thankfully I’ve never had to file a claim on my travel insurance, so I can’t really say which ones are good and which aren’t. But any policy should include basics like medical benefit, emergency evacuation, repatriation of remains and assistance while abroad.
– Research the local scams
Different locations feature different scams. Luckily most of these entail simply separating you from your money, but some can get into dangerous territory if you’re not careful. Research what the common scams are for an area and how you can avoid them. Guys – be wary of beautiful women asking you to buy them drinks! Many of these are scammers and can sometimes be backed up by really big, scary dudes.
– Get immunizations where needed
These may be expensive and not always covered by insurance, but I’ve been to countries where I can only imagine the dread of ending up in one of their hospitals. If there are certain diseases you can avoid by getting vaccinated, do.
– Share your itinerary with a loved one back home
And be sure to check in with them when you can.
Once you arrive:
– Trust your instincts
If there’s an alleyway, street, car or person that seems a bit off, don’t chance it. Get away. I once found myself being observed from a creepy driver in Rio de Janeiro while walking on my own at night, so I promptly found a crowded bar and ducked into it. After a few minutes the driver had gone and I was able to continue on my route. I also made sure to never walk out of sight of other people and continued to watch my back until I was safely in my hotel room.
– Even if you can’t blend in physically, go for more of an expat look than a tourist one
I’m 5’11”, blond and female, so I don’t blend in too well anywhere outside of the US, Scandinavia and parts of Western Europe. Yet I’ve never felt like a target, mainly because I always try to avoid coming across as a clueless tourist. Ways you can do this are to dress like locals, leave the fanny pack/bum bag at home (seems logical in 2013 but trust me, there are still plenty of people who use them), and get the camera out of your face long enough every few seconds to glance around you.
– Be aware of your surroundings
This includes planning a route before you leave your hotel. One of my favorite parts of traveling is just getting lost and wandering around aimlessly, but even then I’m not completely aimless. I learn beforehand what areas or neighborhoods should be avoided and I use common sense – if an area looks sketchy, it very well might be. Don’t be afraid of looking like a paranoid idiot by taking off running down the street. I’ve been there, done that, and didn’t regret doing so.
– Don’t drink in excess or engage in drugs
But what?? How can I enjoy my vacation without getting loaded? If you find yourself saying this, don’t bother leaving home. You’re on a trip to soak in your surroundings, and doing otherwise is not only a waste of time and money, but will make you a target as well. If you are drinking in a bar, don’t let your drink out of your sight.
– If out after dark and in doubt, take a taxi
It may be more expensive, but you should always prioritize safety over money. Be aware of taxi scams and only go with legitimate, marked taxis with valid license plates and driver information. NEVER get into a car with someone who summons or solicits you. You do the summoning.
– If you’re somewhere where you don’t think you can trust the police, go to your country’s embassy or consulate