Safety is always a big issue when traveling. How to stay safe, how to recognize unsafe situations, and how to avoid or diffuse situations that are escalating are important skills you need to learn quickly. Thieves are found in every country you go to, and you need to be extra aware of your surroundings and your belongings. The majority of people around the world are friendly and helpful, but just like in any city you might be in, you need to keep your eyes out for those wanting to take advantage of “rich” tourists. Here are some of the best tips I can offer on staying safe while traveling.
1. Research and plan appropriately.
Know where your going. Research the country and customs in advance before you arrive so you are carrying everything you need in case of an emergency. This includes appropriate clothing and dress, drugs for malaria or illness, vaccinations before you go, health insurance, embassy contact information, copies of passports and credit cards, as well as a way to keep in touch with people back at home.
2. Watch your bag and always keep your hands on it.
On buses, in cafes, even at airports, do not let your bag go out of site unless in an official area. If you set your bag down, wrap a strap around your leg. This might sound paranoid but it only takes a matter of seconds to steal something from you while you’re distracted. Keep your hands on your bags at all times, and cover your hand over the zipper where your money might be stored. Thieves are impressively subtle and quick, so make it hard for them to get anything from you.
3. Know where you’re going and where it is unsafe to go.
One wrong turn and you could end up in a bad neighborhood. Know where you are in a city and where the limits are of where you can walk safely. In Johannesburg I had a two block radius where I was safe to walk and as soon as I ventured outside of this, men reached out to touch me and I got a lot of leers from the locals. Definitely not a friendly vibe. Know the area you’re in and stick with it unless you’re with a local or know it’s safe to go.
4. Don’t let people carry your bag.
If you get off at a bus station or even at the airport in certain countries, immediately you’ll be descended upon by taxi drivers wanting your business (especially because you’re probably paying more than the locals). They’ll even go as far as ‘helping’ you carry your bag to their taxi, regardless of if you agreed. No need to be rude, but be very firm and abrupt and don’t let them touch you or grab your bag. They can be aggressive, so be assertive back. Tell them no and stand back, even put your arm out for personal space. Do not let them carry your bag; carry your stuff on your own (sometimes they even ask for a tip for carrying your bag). Once they’ve backed off, then you can choose who you want to speak to about a taxi.
5. Ask if it’s safe.
An easy way to get information is to talk to reception at your hotel, other travellers or the locals. Even if you’re shy, when you ask for help or information people quite often respond and are very helpful. Ask if it’s safe both during the day and at night. Choose who you ask wisely; security guards with guns are always a safe bet for help, oddly enough. As a woman, I find it easy to ask other women or young people.
6. Find a travel buddy if you’re traveling solo.
If you’re traveling on your own, meet up with other travelers in your hotel or hostel and travel together. Two sets of eyes are better than one, and this way you can leave your bag with them while you use the restroom. Much easier than trying to cram all your stuff into the tiny square of an unclean squat toilet.
7. On buses, never put your carry-on up on the luggage rack inside the bus.
I have heard so many accounts of people who get their bags lifted on a bus. They put their bag up top on the storage rack for five minutes, and next thing they know, it’s gone. Sometimes getting robbed on a bus isn’t your fault, but if you want to keep your important stuff with you, keep it on your person with the zippers shut and buttoned together.
8. Don’t flash your gadgets.
Sometimes I really want to take a photo, but the area I’m in is too risky, or I stand out too much and everyone is staring at me because I’m a foreigner. In these cases I choose to keep my tech gadgets tucked away instead of risking the loss of them for a photo.
9. Keep your passport in your hotel, except in certain circumstances.
I only carry my passport on my person or in my bag when it’s necessary, like when I’m riding a scooter or driving a car, or when I’m sitting on a bus with the risk of my bag being stolen. Keeping your passport, a credit card, and some spare cash directly on your body prevents you from being stuck somewhere with no identification and no money. But you don’t need to carry it all the time. Don’t carry it with you for daily tours or when you’re out epxloring.
10. Keep your cash spread around.
I keep different denominations of cash in different areas. I keep small change in my pocket or easily accessible to buy bus fares or food and drink on the street, and bigger bills tucked away. No need to pull out a huge wad of money and flash it around when an item is only a dollar or two. I also split my money up so if I do get robbed, they won’t take everything I have on me. Hopefully.
11. Take a taxi at night.
It might only be a few blocks, but after the sun sets, neighborhoods that are safe in the daylight can swiftly become unsafe at night. If you’re out late at night and are not sure how safe it is, just take a taxi. It’s better than needing to take that taxi to a police station for a police report if you get robbed.
12. Don’t drink too much.
Travelers often get robbed when they’re out late at night and have been drinking. This isn’t always true, but being intoxicated or on other drugs does not help you stay safe. Watch your alcohol limits and take a taxi home – even if it is just a few blocks.
13. Respect local laws and customs.
If you want to stay discreet, find out about and respect the local laws and customs. Nothing can get you in trouble quicker than being disrespectful, wearing inappropriate clothes, or acting in a way that is taboo in the country. Learn to act and dress like a local.
14. Watch your wallet.
This one is usually for men but also applies to women. Watch your wallets in your back pocket – please don’t put them there. Keep them in a front pocket or don’t carry them at all. Ladies watch your purses. Keep an eye out on the straps as they might get cut and make sure you keep the zippers closed and close to your body so no one can open it.
15. Fake it if you’re lost.
If you’re lost, just fake it and pretend that you know where you’re going. You become a big target once you start wandering around, wide-eyed, with a map straight out in front of you. It makes you a big target, so be confident until you can find a person or store to ask for directions from. If you do need to look at a map, step back out of the way of foot traffic and check your map discreetly or ask a taxi to take you to your destination.