One of the greatest things about travel is getting yourself into unfamiliar and new situations and the thrill you feel when you overcome challenges and discover new experiences. Getting out there, pushing yourself, and going beyond your comfort zone can be a fantastic experience, but it’s not without risks.
Novice international travellers often ask me the same questions when I’m going somewhere they’ve heard about on the news: “aren’t you afraid to go there?” or maybe “I heard they don’t like us there.” Sometimes it’s “I would never go there, it’s too dangerous.” – Statements often based on little more than what they’ve seen on the tv.
Those of us who’ve visited places known/thought to be a bit less safe and secure know they can often be some of the most rewarding travel experiences, but only if you’ve done your proper research! That isn’t to say that you should be afraid and not go to these places, but to do so without being properly prepared would be foolish.
I made it to every country without having a single major security incident (well, except the local “bad guys” who torched a bunch of police cars in Pakistan to block the highway…) but a few incidents have happened in the last year which highlighted to me that maybe I’ve let my guard down a little too much, and not followed my own advice.
This, combined with a friend recently going missing in a country with serious security concerns made me think this would be a good time to remind readers of some good tips you should always keep in mind when traveling, especially to less safe and secure places.
Tip 1: Always tell someone where you’re going
I mean this seems obvious, right? Even when you run to the store to pick up some milk you usually tell your partner, kids, etc. that you’re going to the store. But it’s surprising how easily we forget this one when we’re traveling.
Especially those of us who are single and not always great at “planning” our trips forget to let someone know where exactly we’re going. Maybe it’s because we think they’ll think we’re bragging, or maybe we think they won’t know where it is so won’t be interested anyways, or maybe we just don’t stop to think.
Simply letting someone know where you’ll be going (country, cities, hotels, sites, etc.) can come in really handy if you go missing and need to be tracked down. Knowing is half the battle…
Tip 2: Make sure your contact knows when to expect you back
Sort of the obvious follow up to the first tip, but it’s important that your contact person know not only where you’re going, but when they can expect you back. Nobody wants to be alerting the police, government, family and friends until they’re relatively certain that something is up.
This applies not to just the trip (“I’m going to Afghanistan for a week”) but also to riskier parts of the trip. Maybe the capital is secure, but you’re taking a trip out to the countryside to see something? Tell someone what time you expect to be back – make sure to account for inevitable delays in some countries when doing this. “Should be back in 4-6 hours, but could be 12 with traffic so wouldn’t worry until then.”
It would also be helpful to tell them who to call and when. This is something I should have done recently traveling in a border region where I was detained for nearly 12 hours. Fortunately, they let me keep my phone and I did send messages to people….but had they taken my phone…
Tip 3: Travel with a trusted guide
I’ve lost count how many times I’ve showed up somewhere, unable to find a guide in advance, and trusted who the hotel found for me. High-end hotels with international clientel are usually pretty good sources for trustworthy guides, but there’s no guarantee.
Better still, talk to your friends who’ve been where you’re considering going. Ask who they used for a guide. Did they trust them? Did they feel the person was safe and had a good understanding of the local situation? If they were driving, how was the driving? It’s a luxury, but was the car in good repair? (Or reasonable repair depending on destination…)
…and when you get back, share! There’s nothing like first-hand experience to know who you should trust in less secure places, and we owe it to each other to share our experiences. One small caveat: many of these guides are barely eking out a living in these places. Make sure to step back and look at the situation rationally before trashing a guide online.
Tip 4: Leave contact information – hotels, cell, etc
So, let’s assume something does go wrong. You don’t come back when you said you would. Nobody could get ahold of you. You’re not responding on social media. What now?
In the case of my friend who recently went missing, the biggest challenge has been not knowing who to contact. If we had the phone number of their guide or driver, that would be an amazing place to start. Not using a guide or driver? Share the phone number for the hotels where you plan to be.
Maybe you’ve booked a tour? Share the phone number for the tour company with someone back home. The point is pretty simple: in the off chance that something does go wrong, knowing not just where and when you were but also how to get in touch with someone who may be able to help you is priceless.
Also: it doesn’t hurt to register in advance with your country’s Foreign Office / State Department / etc. Letting them know where you are is important if things go south fast: these are the people you’ll likely rely on for evacuation if things get bad quickly, so make sure they can reach you!
Tip 5: Split up your finances
Somehow, I made it to every country without a financial incident worse than getting cheated out of $5 or so by a taxi driver in the days before Uber seemed to be everywhere. 196 countries, and never had any money lost or stolen.
That all changed in an instant last year when I went out for a run in Stockholm, stopped for coffee afterwards, and somewhere between the coffeeshop and hotel I lost my wallet.
The streets were pretty empty, so I’m pretty positive it fell out of my running shorts (maybe at the coffeeshop, maybe walking) as opposed to being pickpocketed, but the end result was the same: I had no money, no credit cards, no anything.
Fortunately, I was at a big work conference, and coworkers were able to spot me cash for a few days, and AmEx was then able to wire me lots of cash to pay my bills before leaving. Had I been traveling alone, who knows what I would have done? I guess I could still have hunkered down hungry until AmEx got me some cash, but it would have been much less comfortable.
So, do yourself a favour: leave some cash and a couple of credit cards in your hotel safe. That way, if things do go missing, you at least have some backup. This is especially important if you’re going to be going to busy or crowded places like a market or public transit where pickpockets like to operate.
This is also helpful if you’re crossing rural areas where opportunistic “checkpoints” operate and try and shake you down. They may find some of your cash and cards, but if you split it up your chances of leaving with at least some of it are much better.
Tip 6: Check your social media
This is one I never really thought much about until recently, and I suspect you’ve probably not thought too much about it either unless it’s happened to you.
However, now that the US and some other countries have begun requiring visa applicants to list their social media accounts on visa applications you should probably have a look at your social media and see what’s on there that might get you declined. You don’t even have to have “done” something wrong to run afoul of this one – it’s all about perception.
In my case, I was entering a sensitive region and when the authorities stopped us at the border they asked us to have a seat for a while. Turns out, what was going on out of sight was a combing of my social media accounts and what they found they didn’t like. No, I’m not a journalist, spy, or other sort of troublemaker, but when they find out you’ve done graduate research in “sanctions theory” …well…if you’re a country under sanctions you might decide you don’t want this person visiting! Makes no difference I’ve never worked in this area professionally, it’s all about perception.
So, do yourself a favour if you travel a lot: have a look at your social media and have a good think how it might appear to others. This will also be helpful advice if you’re applying for jobs…
Tip 7: The women, children, and old people rule
I’ve heard this one quite a lot, but whenever I share it with even well-traveled friends I’m amazed how many of them haven’t heard it.
The reason it’s called the “woman, children, and old people rule” is really quite simple. If you’re in a location known to have security issues, and something doesn’t feel quite right, have a look around.
Do you see women in the streets? Children? How about old people and senior citizens? They’re usually the first to disappear from the streets when security goes south: partly because they’ve seen enough to know when to get out of the way, and partly because these are populations who know well enough to shelter when there’s possible violence brewing.
The opposite, however, does not hold true. Just because you see women, children, and old people in the street is no guarantee of safety. However, if you don’t see them, but you see plenty of what are known as “fighting-aged males” – getting the hell out of there is often good advice.
Tip 8: Take primary responsibility for your own safety and security
Fortunately, this might be the only one that gets easier the longer you’ve been traveling, but you have primary responsibility for your own safety and security: don’t assume it’s someone else’s job to take care of you!
The reason I say this is the one that might get easier is that one of the biggest mistakes people make in this regard is getting intoxicated and having a little too much fun. Sure, this is a great way to let you relax and meet new people, but it’s also a way to lower inhibitions and make you much more inclined to taking risks…or in an extreme case, end up unconscious and the victim of crime or violence.
This also goes hand in hand with taking responsibility for your physical safety when it comes to health. Are you entering a malaria zone? Make sure you’re taking prophylactics if your doctor recommends it. Make sure you get all your jabs or vaccinations in advance to protect yourself from everything from Yellow Fever to Typhoid…nobody wants to catch these nasty diseases.
This also includes sexual health. If you’re putting yourself in intimate situations with other people (who, let’s face it, you’ll likely never see again) it’s your responsibility to look out for yourself. Knowledge is power, and an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure…if there even is a cure. In this vein, if you’re not familiar with it, make sure to educate yourself on Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) if you’re the type who likes to get extra friendly with locals or other travellers. HIV is highly preventable now if you’re informed and prepared.
Tip 9: Do your research
One of the greatest things about the internet is the amount of information that is out there that you can use to inform your travels. Just be careful, however, that you vet your sources. Don’t just go running into the middle of a war zone because one fringe blogger told you that it was safe and ok to do that. Use a bit of common sense!
There are so many good sources of safety and security information out there. Start with your government’s foreign office / state department site. These tend to be extremely on the conservative side, but they do a good job of laying out all the risks of traveling to a given location. I personally use these as a starting point, and then supplement with additional more nuanced information.
One of my favourite sites for places that are in a state of conflict is Live Map. It does a great job of aggregating news sources and showing you all the safety incidents in a country over the previous weeks – all displayed nicely on a map. It’s also great for countries with active conflicts where the “safety line” might change dramatically from day to day. They have especially awesome maps of Ukraine, Syria, Libya…and even Washington, D.C.
Tip 10: Travel during the day, be awake and alert
This one is pretty easy to follow, but we’re all guilty of breaking it. Maybe you’re behind schedule and trying to make up time. Maybe you found a bus/train/flight in the middle of the night that was super cheap, or maybe you’re just a night owl.
The end result is the same: crime tends to occur much more regularly at night when the criminals have the element of surprise and a much higher prospect of escape. No matter how vigilant you are, it’s always riskier being out on the roads at night.
Another downside of travel at night is drivers who are often not alert – both your own and the other guy on the road. That’s not to mention drunk drivers. I’ve had several situations lately with a driver late at night who was practically falling asleep at the wheel and I definitely shouldn’t have been in their car.
So, those are ten tips you can use on all of your travels to increase your chances of returning home safely in one piece with all your belongings! My goal with this post is definitely not to scare you away from traveling – get out there and enjoy these amazing and vibrant places. Equipped with this knowledge you’ll not only enjoy your trip more, you’ll be safer while doing it!
What did I miss? Other great advice for fellow travelers?
I’m really sorry to hear about your friend. What’s been the latest update of their last known whereabouts? And did they travel to this conflict zone alone? Or did they go with someone else? Because I imagine extreme travelers who have the goal of visiting every country will most likely meet and network with other extreme travelers beforehand so they can go to some of these places together as an extra precautionary measure.
Generally, yes. Unfortunately, they still haven’t been found, and didn’t follow several of these rules. I guess we all cut corners sometimes when we feel invincible. I know I have.
I may add a few things I do myself
1. Since I’m a runner I sometimes go for a combined exercise and check-out run (eg in Bujumbura) to get an idea of how the city feels. In this case I’m out and about without any valuables (except my life) and am moving fast, getting a picture of places, distances, potential dangers (bunches of aggressive male youth and so on) etc.
2. I have secret elastic pockets for cash and credit cards that I attach to my calf, upper arm and inside my leather belt. If robbers strip me totally I’m lost but I also keep a wallet with some loose change handy ready to hand over.
3. In the hotel room I hide valuables in strange places (but I always leave a note to myself – in Swedish – where I put them).
4. I’m allegic to peanuts, I try and learn the local word for peanuts and somtimes even carry a note in the local language. Always try to carry the antidote along, as well.
All very good tips, Bengt. Thanks for sharing!
5. I learn the local word for “thief” which can come in handy especially in Africa where the public may intervene because in spite of all poverty (or because of) people really don’t like thieves and will give them a good beating if they can. In a pick-pocketing incident in Sar es Salaam I was surrounded by three young males and using the swahili word for “thief” made them abolish their attempt at theft and leave
6. When you are lost, you are better off asking women or old people for directions than young males. Police officers (especially female) are usually helpful as well but in some corrupt countries can be a bad choice to turn to for help.
7. Dont’ touch animals no matter how cute they are. Dogs can be aggressive but throwing a stone their direction will inmost cases help. Usually even bending forward to pick up (or pretend to) pick up a stone will set the dog off running
Very good points. I also will take screenshots of the address and map of the hotels or places I am going so if you do get lost or need to get a taxi back (although Uber is better in this regard) that you have a visual to show. It so helpful also bin case you have a low battery and don’t want to waste it.
Thanks a really good tip – we rely on technology so much these days we don’t often think what we’ll do if it fails and we get in trouble!
Fantastic tip. I was recently in Costa Rica, staying at a San Jose residential property. While I had an address, the taxi at the airport had to call the property owner 3 times as the address did not populate in the GPS. I learned to pay attention, because later in the evening, I needed to return to the property, the property owner was traveling, and the address would not populate in the Uber app. Eventually it worked out with help from at least 4 people. After that, I know to make sure that the address populates in Uber before leaving a property!
All very good tips on how to be safe when one travels. I am especially appreciative for this post as it highlights some very important points to consider when travelling, especially as a solo traveller. I have been reading your blog or quite some time now, and enjoy your content very much, and think this is very important for people to know when they want to venture out to the world unknown. Thank you once again.
May i also add, the need for a power bank/power reserve for our mobile devices…having no battery on our electronic gadget in difficult time,isn’t fun! we rely so much on technology, but what happens, when its not readily available because we ran out of battery? Those things are essential!
Absolutely – great tip! I never go anywhere without a fully-charged powerbank!