How to Stay Safe While Travelling

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Travelling is fun! But sometimes bad things can and do happen. Although I have travelled quite a bit, I’ve never encountered any scary situations. Some may say I’m inexperienced when it comes to handling unpleasant circumstances, but I say I’m experienced at avoiding them. That could have something to do with my upbringing. The city I grew up in dealt with very frequent petty crimes like wallet thefts. Therefore I learnt from a young age to be aware of my surroundings and protect my valuables. I have since lived and travelled to major cities and never encountered any issues. Here are my best tips to stay safe while travelling:

1. Plan appropriately

This goes without saying, but the most important thing to keep yourself safe while travelling is to avoid going to unsafe places. Sure, travelling is what you make of it and there are nice, helpful people everywhere. However, the same cannot be said about governments. If the government of where you have citizenship gets into conflict with the government of another country, you could be at risk. You could be framed for bribery or drug trafficking and arrested. You don’t even have to live in the country of your citizenship for this to happen. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at what has happened to the two Michaels from Canada.

I would also recommend you avoid going to places with high levels of corruption. I grew up in a country with (at the time) a lot of corruption and it was a nightmare. Everyone was very unhelpful unless you paid a bribe. And if you are a foreign tourist, they’ll think you’re very rich and ask you for an astronomical bribe. And to make matters worse, bribery was illegal so you’d never know whether it was safe to pay the bribe or whether you’d be framed and charged. Best thing you can do is to just avoid all places where bribes are common.

On the topic of planning, I would also recommend to schedule your travels so you can arrive during daylight. Make sure to plan in advance at LEAST two options for getting to your accommodation. After a long day of travelling, when you are extremely tired (possibly also annoyed, angry, and hungry), not only will you lack the mental capacity to think clearly, but you will also be a very easy target for anyone who wants to take advantage of you.

2. Get vaccinated

If you visit a country where certain vaccinations are required or recommended, make sure to get vaccinated. Bring official records and copies of your vaccination reports with you. This will make your entry into the country smoother, and keep you safe from potentially getting sick. From my observation, in most countries where additional vaccinations are required or recommended, the healthcare isn’t the best. You may want to take all precautions to avoid getting sick there.

3. Purchase insurance

I’d like to start off this point by mentioning an advantage that EU citizens have. If you have EU citizenship and are travelling to another EU country you are entitled to urgent health care at the same rate as the citizens of that country. Make sure to have your European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) for that. If it wasn’t already issued with your national health card, you need to apply for it before leaving on the trip. The EHIC doesn’t cover you if you need medical transport back home, or if you want private health care. However, even if you think you’re covered, it is a good idea to get travel insurance.

Travel insurance goes beyond healthcare. There are multiple types of travel insurance that will/ may cover health expenses, lost and stolen items, cancelled or delayed flights, cost of replacing documents, or emergency repatriation home. The more coverage you want, the more you’ll likely have to pay. Make sure the countries you’re visiting do not have a “do not travel” advisory, otherwise your insurance might be invalid there.

Consider buying your insurance as soon as you have purchased your flights and booked your accommodation. If something unexpected happens and you need to cancel your trip, your insurance will cover lost money/ fees. In Canada, many people have booked trips in advance for early spring 2020 only for the government to ban international travelling. The airlines gave them vouchers for future use instead of reimbursing them. To make matters worse, some of those people have also lost their jobs and could have really put their refunds to good use.

4. Scan your documents

Always travel with copies of your documents. And if you don’t have a scanner, you can just take pictures of them with your phone. I would recommend saving them in a cloud (such as Google Drive) so you can still access them if you lose your phone. If your bag/ wallet gets stolen and you lose all your documents, it will be so much easier to prove your identity and obtain new IDs if you have copies of the originals.

5. Research

Before you reach your destination, do some research on the different areas and neighbourhoods. Are there certain parts with high rates of crime? Are there any no-go zones? Use a forum such as Reddit or Quora to ask the locals these questions. This will save your from accidentally placing yourself in danger by walking into the wrong zone.

Inquire into the local currency and how much things should cost. This is a particularly important step if you plan on taking taxis. Also ask about the local customs and respect them while you’re there. If you are required to wear certain types of clothing to enter a temple, make sure to do so. Not following the rules could land you in jail.

Find and write down the emergency number(s) in the country you are going to. Some countries have the same number for police, ambulance, and firefighters. In Canada and the US the number is 911, in the European Union, the number is 112. In other countries there are separate numbers for police, ambulance, and firefighters.

Also take some time to research what types of clothes the locals wear and how they act in public. Making yourself look like a local as much as possible will make you less likely to be targeted by petty criminals.

6. Clothing and accessories

On the topic of blending in with the locals, I would recommend you download maps on your phone for offline use. Walking around with a paper map will scream “I”M A TOURIST” and put you at risk in countries with higher levels of poverty. I wouldn’t be too worried about being seen with a smartphone because nowadays everyone has one. Even in the poorest countries many people have smartphones.

However, DO NOT wear expensive brand-name clothing with large visible tags. There are many fakes (especially in poorer countries) and you could get away with it, but I wouldn’t risk it. Also avoid wearing a lot of jewelry. If you have expensive watches, including an Apple watch, it’s best you leave them at home. If you get targeted by thieves, not only you risk losing your valuables, but you also risk getting injured (i.e. your hand might get cut by someone trying to cut your watch off your wrist).

When it comes to bags, always wear a cross-body bag or backpack with chest straps. If you wear a shoulder bag, thieves can ride past you on a motorcycle or even bicycle, pull your bag off your shoulder and ride away with it. They can’t do that with a strapped backpack or a cross-body bag. As a result, you’ll be less likely to be targeted by those kinds of thieves.

When choosing a bag, make sure it has inner pockets with zippers where you can place your passport, money, cellphone, and other small valuables. Consider getting a slash-proof bag so that no one can cut through the material and steal your valuables. I would also recommend if you have an old smartphone to clean it up, download maps, and use it for navigating the city while keeping your newer phone safely hidden. Not many thieves want to steal a 5 year old iPhone.

7. Don’t keep all your money in one place

After hearing of many people (including close friends) who have had their wallets stolen, I came up with a great strategy to protect mine. This is something I ALWAYS do every time I travel or live in a place with a high population density. Not only is it safer for me, but it also allows me to move faster when it comes to paying for things. Here’s what I do:

I keep my main wallet with the bulk of my cards, money and IDs safely hidden in a zipped compartment inside my bag. In a smaller, easy to reach compartment I keep a little wallet (you can also use a card case or coin purse) with some cash and one card. I don’t keep any IDs in this little wallet. Whenever I’m an a safe space (my apartment or the hotel room), I transfer more cash from the main wallet to the smaller one if needed. A lot of thefts happen when you reach for your wallet to pay for things. If something goes wrong, you only lose a little cash and maybe one card. However, no one is going to target you if they see you only have a little money.

On that note, don’t keep all your money linked to one card. In case thieves get a hold of it and they drain all your accounts, you’ll be left with nothing. And to be extra safe, keep your debit card as secure as possible and pay with a credit card (or cash) as much as you can. Should that one get stolen, the credit card companies will reimburse you.

If you plan to use an ATM, I would suggest you find a bank and use the ATM INSIDE the bank. That way you know the ATM hasn’t been tampered with.

8. Pay attention

Be aware of your surroundings and pay attention to where you’re going. Don’t walk around with headphones listening to loud music. Pay attention to the people around you when you’re taking public transit. If there is plenty of space but someone is sitting too close to you, something may be up. Same thing applies when you’re waiting in a line. If you’re going to pay and someone is too close to you trying to read the pin of your card, that’s probably because they plan on stealing your card soon and withdrawing all your money. Ask them to move back; don’t be afraid to raise your voice and/ or sound rude. Then hover over the machine as you’re paying so they can’t read the pin. Be very vigilant when you’re placing the card back in your wallet/ bag. After paying, I would step aside and wait for that person to leave the store first just to make sure they don’t follow you.

9. Share your itinerary

Stay in touch with friends and family and tell them in advance where you plan on going. Should you go missing, they can quickly contact the embassy with an accurate location of your whereabouts. However, do not share your most current location publicly on social media. Use private messaging and/ or video chat to contact important people.

10. Be smart with social media

This applies to anyone (especially women travelling alone) regardless of your social media following. Social media (especially Instagram) can offer inspiration and, for some, another source of income. But you never know who is secretly following you; and I mean literally following you. I’d suggest you only share the location of a place (say restaurant) after you have left. And if you are travelling somewhere with a lot of poverty, I’d go the extra mile and not share anything on social media until after leaving the country.

On that note I would also like to point out that it’s a good idea to avoid sharing anything too personal. If you used the name of your cat as an answer to a banking security question, either share a fake name on social media or don’t share any name at all.

11. Lying and pretending to be married

If you’re a woman and constantly get hit on by random guys, consider wearing a fake wedding ring. Don’t be afraid to lie if they ask you too many questions. If they keep persuading you, they probably have a secret motive.

Regardless of your gender, if anyone (including people you are travelling with) on the trip is too insistent on getting certain answers out of you, be wary. If you’re uncomfortable sharing certain things, decent people will understand that. Those who don’t respect your boundaries won’t respect what you tell them. If you don’t want to make a scene, just lie. Tell them things that aren’t true and can’t be used against you.

12. Be cautious of the wifi

In many countries you can safely use wifi in restaurants and cafés without a worry. However, in some rare cases (typically in poorer countries) you may end up getting hacked or getting a virus. Things are much safer now with encryption, but there are still a few dangers to keep in mind.

Encryption is denoted with https (instead of http) and a padlock logo on desktop. But if you are on mobile, it isn’t as easy to determine whether your connection is encrypted or not. If you absolutely need to use mobile apps (especially for banking purposes) it is safer to rely on data vs public wifi. When choosing a public network, go for known ones such as Starbuck or the mall’s wifi. They are operated by large companies that want your money so their wifi is likely safer. It is also a smart idea to secure your accounts with strong passwords and two factor authentication. You may also consider using a VPN and encrypting your devices.

Personally, I never do anything banking related in public. And if I only travel for a week or so, I don’t do any banking at all for the duration of the trip. I organize my funds and pay everything in advance. I also don’t do any online shopping in public. If you absolutely have to buy something online while in public and need to input your credit card info, go somewhere private. I’d recommend sitting in a corner, somewhere away from people and security cameras so that no one sees your credit card info.

Practical Tips

  • If you need medications, always fill your prescription before leaving. Also have copies of your prescription (both paper and scanned) in case you lose your medications.
  • On that note, even if you don’t take prescription medications, always bring with you: pain killers, some cold/ flu drops, bandages, antibacterial ointments for cuts and scrapes.
  • Bring hand sanitizer to disinfect your hands. It is useful on planes, but also when you sit down at a restaurant, before touching the bread and other food items.

These have been my best tips for staying safe while travelling. Do you have anything to add? Let me know in the comments bellow.

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