Welcome to the conclusion of my three part series on staying healthy, fit, and safe while traveling! Thanks for making it to the final post. If you haven't yet, be sure to check out my previous posts on staying healthy and fit! Disclaimer: I am not a trained medical or law enforcement professional. These tips are from my own personal experience and you should always exercise caution and good judgment, regardless of where you are in the world.
As two females who have traveled to a wide variety of countries on five continents (so far!), I’m sure you can guess how often we get well-intentioned questions regarding safety. While our family members and friends certainly are only concerned for us, it does get old fairly fast. What I’ve found is that the more you travel and expose yourself to different cultures, the safer you feel anywhere in the world. However, there are risks associated with travel (mostly the same risks that you face in your everyday life at home) and it’s important to minimize these risks to keep yourself and your belongings safe. While there are entire books written about staying safe while traveling, I thought I’d give you my shortened version of my favorite tips on keeping yourself safe. Do it for your mom!
Before you go...
Register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program for U.S. citizens. You’ll receive information about any potential emergencies and if anything goes wrong, such as a lost passport or emergency evacuation, the U.S. government will be better able to assist you. It also acts as a type of registry so that you are always accounted for while traveling.
Make copies and scans of your passport. Keep at least one copy of your passport with you and leave one with a friend or family member back home. You should also either scan or take a photo of your passport and email it to yourself and a friend or family member, just in case you lose both your real passport and the copy. I always keep a photo of my passport on my phone and a scanned copy in my email, just in case.
Bite the bullet and buy travel insurance. I will admit that for a long time I avoided buying travel insurance because I’m just, frankly, a cheapskate. However, now that I’m what society calls an adult, I decided it was time to travel smarter. Travel insurance is pretty affordable when you think about the problems you can run into while traveling and how costly they can be. Make sure you read the terms and conditions of your travel insurance thoroughly before buying it, however, as not all policies are created equal. Many policies will cover emergency medical issues, evacuations, trip cancellation, or even lost baggage fees. As I said, always read through the policy wording thoroughly and choose a coverage plan based on what you plan to do while traveling.
Talk to a friend/family member. Even if you don’t have completely set plans, send your rough itinerary to a close friend before you leave. Knowing that someone back home has your hotel information and basic plans will give both you and those at home peace of mind, especially if anything were to go wrong.
Do your research and plan accordingly. Always be informed about your destinations. Are there certain neighborhoods you should avoid? Can you walk around by yourself? Are there certain cultural restrictions on behavior that you should know, like covering up in religious establishments? This also extends to making an effort to learn at least a small bit of the local language. You’ll be less of a target and it’s just good manners! Another piece of intel that I make sure to research before I leave on a trip is the relative safety of public transportation and taxi services. In many cities, you’ll find that certain taxi companies are more reputable than others. Knowing ahead of time which types of cabs you should avoid is really important. You can prevent being ripped off or putting yourself into an even more dangerous situation. When planning a flight to an unfamiliar place, I try to schedule it so that I land during the day. For me, landing during daylight hours diminishes some anxiety, not only because it’s just generally safer, but also because it’s much easier to navigate to my accommodations. Make sure you also put in the time to identify the most trustworthy tours and experiences before booking. Look for online reviews that have detailed information about safety and reliability.
Contact your bank and credit card companies. This is pretty obvious, but many people forget to do it. Let your bank and credit card companies know when and where you are traveling to avoid having your accounts frozen. Depending on where you are, it may be difficult or pricey to place a phone call to reverse the freezes. You don’t want to be without access to your money! Make sure to also continually check your accounts to ensure that no one has stolen your information, as this can happen frequently at ATMs and other establishments in touristy areas.
Figure out and plan for any and all medical issues. I touched on this in part one, but double check that you have had all your vaccines. I like to carry one of the yellow booklets from the CDC that lists all of my vaccines and boosters just to be sure that I have documentation. Don’t forget medication that you take on a regular basis or may need at some point, like pain relievers or anti-bacterial ointment for any scrapes. If you have medical or food allergies, it is also a good idea to carry a note with you (written in both English and the language of the place you’re visiting) detailing said allergy. I have a slip of paper with me that indicates the medications I’m allergic to and I know that many of my friends carry papers with them that have been translated into local languages that specify food allergies, such as peanuts or shellfish. For obvious reasons, this step is probably best taken before you leave. You can always have a local you trust look over your note to ensure that it’s accurately written.
Don’t make yourself a target. I could write an entire article just about this tip. Avoid behaving like a tourist. Don’t stand in a crowded area with a giant map or act like an obnoxious American in a bar or wear flashy jewelry. You’ll be immediately labeled an easy target to pickpockets or more nefarious types. Follow the cultural cues and fashion of your destination as much as possible. If you make an effort to behave like a local, thieves will be dissuaded from taking a chance on mugging you. In addition, never leave a drink unattended, accept a drink from a stranger, or get involved in any way with drugs. Many countries have strict laws regarding drugs and you could find yourself dropped in a foreign prison if you decide to “experiment.” Just say no to drugs, especially while traveling--it’s not worth it. Be wary of people who are overly friendly, as they may be trying to rip you off in some way. However, don’t let caution prevent you from creating meaningful connections with locals. And in all cases, trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, chances are it isn’t.
Protect your things by being aware. It’s also important to be conscious of where you keep your valuables at all times. If you carry a wallet, never use your back pocket (this goes for phones, too!), and if you carry a purse, ensure that it can be fully zipped or fastened. I prefer to carry a small cross-body style bag and always walk with it in front of me (versus on my hip or behind me), keeping my hand on top of the zipper in crowded areas. Backpacks are handy, but they don’t always lend themselves to being particularly safe. Buy some small locks that can be used to lock the zippers on your backpack. Although most bags are still vulnerable to slashing (when someone subtly cuts open a bag so that the contents fall to the ground), by being smart and aware of your surroundings you can drastically reduce the risk of being targeted. If you’re in a chaotic space, like public transit or a crowded square, the chances of getting targeted increase. Act like you know what you’re doing and where you’re going, and always keep your eyes peeled.
Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. You should spread out cash, credit cards, and forms of identification between different areas. Obviously, always carry what you absolutely need with you at all times, but don’t put it all in your purse or wallet. Leave some cash, a copy of your passport, and a credit card behind in a safe or in your bag in a secure locker. When you’re out and about, consider stashing some cash and an extra credit or debit card in your shoe, your jacket, or a handy, albeit somewhat dorky, hidden money belt if you're nervous. In taking this step, you’re ensuring that your trip wouldn't be completely ruined if someone swiped your wallet.
Don’t slack on backing up your data. If you travel with nice camera equipment or a laptop, always backup your data with an external hard drive prior to leaving. While you’re traveling, upload your photos and other files to a cloud service, like Google photos or Dropbox, as well as saving them to your computer. If anything happens to your computer or camera while you’re gone, at home you’ll have an external drive with all of your previous data and will also still have your photos backed up online.
Protect yourself first and your belongings second. This tip also seems super obvious, but sometimes common sense is rare! As I mentioned before, always be aware of your surroundings and avoid walking anywhere at night alone. However, if something were to potentially happen, never gamble with your safety. Some people advocate for carrying a fake wallet or phone to give to muggers just in case. But if someone demands your bag, or phone, or whatever else, don’t fight it, especially if you’re alone. No amount of money in your wallet is worth your life.
I’m only scratching the surface with this list, but it’s a good place to start. The most important parts of staying safe while traveling involve exercising common sense and trusting your instincts. As women we unfortunately have more to worry about while traveling. Being culturally aware of your environment could be the difference between being a victim and having the time of your life. In many cultures, saying no to men trying to make advances is considered flirting and catcalls are seen as “polite” ways to show interest. Follow the cues of locals in dealing with issues like these and if you ever feel uncomfortable, remove yourself from the situation (in a safe way, of course!). It’s important to know that the vast majority of issues that you’ll face abroad could happen at home, as well. Depending on where you live, your destination may even be a safer place. Don’t let fear dictate how you live your life; set yourself up for success before you leave and while traveling. For most of us, small mishaps will occasionally occur. And as long you’re safe, those mishaps make the best travel stories.
Carry the beautiful and stay safe!