Staying Safe When Traveling Somewhere that May Not Be
I love to travel and I don’t want safety concerns to keep me from going to the places I want to go, but the truth of the matter is that safety should always be a main concern when going to any new place. On a recent trip to Mexico City, I realized very quickly that I stood out like an American sore thumb and didn’t always feel very safe as this draws a lot of harassment. I realized that many people don’t know what precautions to take when traveling, especially if they’re traveling alone, so I wanted to share some of my safe solo travel tips that I use when on any trip. I am a strong proponent of solo travel and with so many creative ways to make money to travel and to make money while you travel, why not go out and see the world? The key is to be a smart traveler when you do so.
Planning and Research
When traveling to any new place, you should always research and plan at least a few basic things. I always make a point to know a few key phrases in the local language, to know the emergency number in the country (it’s not going to be 9-1-1 like it is in the U.S.), to know the safe and unsafe neighborhoods, and to have a general idea of my way around. I find travel more stressful if it’s not carefully researched and planned but even if that’s not your style, as far as safety concerns go, your best defense is knowledge. You can often avoid something horrible from occurring and if something horrible happens it will only be escalated by not being prepared to react.
When researching a place beforehand, it is important to know the possible diseases and vaccinations that could affect your travels. For example, when traveling to South Africa a few years back, I was required to get a whole series of shots to prepare my immune system. I was also traveling during the height of the Ebola scare and made myself well aware of the areas the disease was affecting and the precautions I could take to limit any risks.
Keep an emergency kit handy, fill it with things like bandaids and antiseptic, so that you will be prepared in case anything should happen. I have always been a bit of a mom-type, especially when I travel, so I tend to be incredibly over prepared. Need a bandaid, an aspirin, a motion-sickness pill, some antiseptic, lotion, a snack, a paperclip? Chances are it’s in my tote bag. Even when I’m carrying a smaller crossbody bag, I keep bandaids at the ready just in case.
Taxis and Ubers can be expensive but in an unfamiliar city it is often better safe than sorry. Only when I have read or heard positive accounts of the public transport will I take a bus or subway, but even in the safest cities I am always on high alert for pickpockets. Recently in Barcelona, for example, I was not confident to take the Metro system because I’d heard several accounts of crime. Soon after leaving the city, I was writing another traveler that I’d met while there and he told me that unfortunately he and his wife had been robbed in Barcelona for his phone, wallet, and other such valuables. It is an unfortunate fact but if I’m unfamiliar with the system, I’d rather not take it if I have a choice.
Keep in contact with those back home
Give an itinerary to a trusted emergency contact back home and keep them updated regularly on your whereabouts. When I’m not traveling with my mom, I’m constantly texting her and sending her photos about what I am doing and if I don’t respond promptly she will sometimes call to make sure I’m doing fine. It’s just a best practice that if anything were to happen someone would know where you were and would notice if you stopped responding.
I always keep a copy or two of my passport with me at all times and if there is a safe in the hotel room, I will lock my actual passport in the safe along with all of my other valuables. Even within your hotel room, you are not safe, and I rarely let the housekeeper into the room (I keep the do not disturb sign on throughout my entire stay) unless there is a particular reason she/he needs to clean. I always lock my belongings in the safe regardless and if there is no safe, I lock them in my suitcase. While on my most recent trip to Spain, I made the unfortunate mistake of forgetting to lock up my belongings and lo and behold I had thousands of dollars worth of my belongings stolen from me by the housekeeping.
You should be sure to only take essentials when you travel, as hard as that may be, and be prepared for literally almost anything. A first aid kit is a smart addition to any bag, even if it’s just some bandaids and antiseptic; important medications should be kept with you at all times; and it may be useful to bring some pepper spray or other defense item that is TSA approved for your checked luggage. You can check out some more of my travel packing advice here.
It is important to be aware that what may seem commonplace to one person, like shaking hands as a greeting, may seem strange or even offensive to another person of a different culture. A quick Google search and a little bit of research can teach you the local dos and don’ts of any given place. I remember on a school trip to France when I was in high school, after a few days I was getting really fed up with people rudely staring at me and my friends, but our guide explained that staring is not considered rude in France the way that it is in the U.S. Little things like this, further than making you seem like a silly or rude tourist, can set you apart as a target in much the same way that holding a map in front of your face and wearing a tshirt boasting the name of the city you are in, purchased a nearby souvenir shop, will.
The best advice I can offer when traveling is common sense. While it seems like fun to be spontaneous, your instincts are hopefully astute enough to recognize an unsafe scenario. If for any reason you do not feel safe, why risk it? Remove yourself from danger before it happens. Remain alert and cautious and you will likely be fine. When I was studying abroad in Florence, for example, a friend of mine was taking the public bus to campus the same way that we all did every day. He noticed a suspicious woman standing nearby amongst the crowded bus and next thing he knew, when he turned to talk to his friends, he turned back to see her hand reaching down into his bag and pulling out his laptop. He hadn’t felt anything but because he’d already been suspicious, he had been keeping an eye out and was able to stop her from robbing him. Unfortunately she ran and jumped off the bus before he could react further and she probably robbed many other unsuspecting victims, but because my friend had stayed vigilant, he was spared.