Traveler Safety | Master-Post

"But, isn't that dangerous?"

How many times has a backpacker heard this; whether it's from family, or friends, or strangely concerned strangers. When people hear of certain places -- such as "Africa" or "Colombia" or just a reference to "the Middle East" -- peoples' red flags go up. Especially in this day-and-age where social media and news alerts are almost constantly reminding us that the world is big and bad and scary. This constant connectivity to tragedy and danger can make it hard to keep in perspective the pretty minuscule likelihood of finding ourselves in real imminent danger. And the honest truth is that I have felt safer on the streets of Kathmandu or Arusha or Quito than I have in some areas of New York or San Francisco. The fact of the matter is this: danger is everywhere, kidnappings are everywhere, car crashes are everywhere, weird viruses and infections pop up everywhere, and if you are going to live your life based off the idea that something bad may happen in the general vicinity of a place you want to travel to, then you’re better off staying behind your closed door.

However, what's beautiful is that where there's one bad person, there are plenty of good people. Keep in mind all of the glorious, kind, peaceful, selfless acts that happen every moment of every day around the world; acts that are never reported on, and never pop up as news alerts on our phones. I know how when it seems like the world is going to hell in a hand basket, it can be hard to rationalize  travel. The idea of making yourself even more vulnerable by going out in the world (especially on your own) can seem scary to many. Actually, it does seem scary to many, but the fact that you're reading this already shows that you are brave. Your dreams of exploring the world are just on the other side of that nagging fear in the back of your mind. 

This doesn’t mean that I’m condoning an impromptu solo trip to Libya, or that I’m implying that navigating Cairo is as safe and simple as navigating Seattle. It’s about doing your absolute best to present yourself as a strong, confident traveler. It’s about strengthening your common sense, street smarts, and self defense so that you can adjust and react to different situations, places, and people appropriately. It's about believing in the kindness and beauty and depth of so many people in this world, and that the good outweighs the evil. And as for staying safe, it’s about confidence, bravery, and humility, and knowing when each of those must come into play. 

So that's what this post is for.

  A typical road scene in Tanzania when our bus slid off the road

A typical road scene in Tanzania when our bus slid off the road

General Safety
(Airports, Terminals, Buses, Trains, Hitch Hiking, Taxis)

1.   Perhaps the most important piece of advice every traveler should bide by is this: make copies of your documents. Copies of your credit/debit cards, passport, visa, required vaccines, and medical prescriptions you need. Keep them in separate places, such as in your daypack, your luggage pack, your boot, your socks. With these copies hidden everywhere, keep the actual tangible documents with you at all times, especially when in transit. Some travelers prefer to wear money belts, which are subtle fabric belts you can wear under your pants or shirt that have pockets for documents such as a passport, credit cards, and money. These usually keep documents well hidden, and they keep them especially safe if your backpack is ever stolen. 

2.   Before arriving at your destination city, you should have considered how you will get from the airport to where you’re planning on spending that first night (whether it be hostel, hotel, guesthouse, campsite, so on). Unless you’re totally winging it, be sure to do research beforehand on how to get to your destination. Most hostels will offer directions (either on their website, or through directly communicating with them via email or phone) from major bus terminals, airports, ferry ports, etc, to the hostel. If you feel confident, follow these directions, as it will save you money and will also give you a taste for the area you’re in and how to navigate it (plus it will usually be cheaper than taking a taxi). However, some instances call for taxis as some cities and towns will not have solid public transit — such as arriving at Kathmandu at midnight after an exhausting 19 hours of travel. If you take a taxi, it is extremely important that you only take cabs that are driven by licensed drivers, are registered, and are metered. You may feel overwhelmed at busy transit areas because everyone will be encouraging you (sometimes by physically pulling you) to take their taxi. Only go with a driver who is reputable, and have the address, phone number, and name of your destination written down to give the driver so they know exactly where to go.

3.  If you decide to take public transit as opposed to taxis, it’s important to recognize that you will be more susceptible to petty theft, especially on buses or trains that are overcrowded. Keep your daypack on the front of your chest and in your line of sight at all times, don't let your luggage stray, and try to avoid flashing around pricey objects. For example, on a long bus haul where you want to read a book, it’s recommended to have a physical paperback copy you can pull out as opposed to a flashy iPad or eReader. On another note, pay attention to how much you should be paying for public transport- some people will try to rip tourists off. And if you can help it, avoid public transport at night, especially in countries with notoriously terrible roads and road accidents. Traveling during the day is almost always the better decision.

4.  As for hitchhiking, the rule of thumb is: don’t. Although in places such as Iceland (with some of the lowest crime rates in the world) you may get along just fine by traveling with your thumb upturned, it’s generally not a safe or wise decision, regardless of if you’re a man or woman, solo or with a group. If you absolutely must hitch a ride, do so with extreme care and caution. It’s okay to turn down an offer if the driver gives you a bad feeling, keep your valuables extremely well hidden, take off any jewelry, don’t give away too much personal information (if any), and keep a small can of mace hidden on you, yet within reach. If something starts to get funky — such as you find yourself suddenly on backroads or the drive is taking longer than you were anticipating — don’t be afraid to bail. Your safety becomes before all else, so when it doubt, get out.

 

Accommodation Safety
(Hostels, CoushSurfing, Home Invites, Camping, Hospitals)

1.   The word “hostel” and term “couch surfing” can sometimes paint a not-so-pretty picture in somebody’s mind — that is, until they actually experience a hostel or couch surfing themselves. Despite the negative reputation hostels may have contrived in the 70’s, today they are generally the safest place a traveler can stay. However, diligence is still key to safety in a hostel. While some hostels will offer lockers where you can keep your valuables safe, it’s generally a good idea to keep your most important belongings (such as expensive tablets and your passport) on you at all times; especially if you’re staying in a shared dorm.

2.   The same applies for CouchSurfing (www.couchsurfing.com). Sometimes considered trendier than hostels and offering a more "authentic" experience, many travelers now opt for CouchSurfing because of the connection that can be made with the host, the cultural closeness that most tourists and travelers are hidden from, as well as the benefit of having a free place to sleep. While the benefits are high, the level of your vulnerability raises as well. It’s absolutely key to listen to your gut, and to leave a situation the moment it begins to feel iffy. You should only stay with hosts who have a plethora of positive reviews, as well as photographs of both them and their residence. Every CouchSurfing host is vetted and reviewed, and while most people have extremely positive experiences with their hosts and CouchSurfing endeavors, you are absolutely expected to only stay where you are comfortable. And you do not have to have a reason for your discomfort; if you arrive and something feels funky, your safety and intuition are reasons enough to bail if you think that you’re in a potentially uncomfortable or even dangerous situation. 

3.   If you decide to go camping on your trip, be sure that the campsite(s) you stay at are reputable and legitimate. If you show up and it's deserted or lacking serious infrastructure, it's best to keep moving on. Pick a spot that isn't completely void of light, and be sure to keep all your valuables (boots, backpack, hiking poles) in your tent with you at night. If you plan to do remote camping in areas where there are no designated campsites, try to pick a spot that's not obviously in the open (go for the forest instead of the meadow clearing), and be sure that you know all the animal safety protocols; such as how to hang food if you're in bear territory, or what to do if you hear lions or elephants nearby.

4.   If you find yourself in a homestay position, fantastic! It's a pretty incredible opportunity to get to know a family over a (typically) extended period of time. Most homestay situations arise in two ways: 1. through an organization (such as a volunteer company) that puts its travelers with local families because of the affordability and authentic experience, or 2. a random invite to stay at a local's home. While in the first situation the families are usually vetted or at least interviewed, in the second situation, it's entirely up to the traveler to decide how the situation feels. There is an extraordinary amount of cultures around the world that revolve around wonderful, genuine hospitality that can be startling for the Westerner; so don't immediately raise your red flags if someone invites you to their home for a meal or a place to spend the night. Most of the time, they purely want to give and make you comfortable, which is one of the joys of travel. But -- like any other situation I mentioned earlier -- you must be aware of what's going on. What feeling are you getting? What does your gut tell you? Are they being aggressive about you coming to their house? Do their intentions seem even slightly malicious? If you want to avoid the situation, claim that you're about to meet someone and can't be late, and leave. It's as simple as that. Sample applies for pre-arranged homestays; even if a company you're traveling with assigns you to a family, if you're uncomfortable, you can request a different arrangement. Remember. Your safety and comfort is the priority. 

5.   Hospitals. If you need a doctor, go to the tourist hospital or the urgent care clinic. Look for basic sanitary signs: are the doctors/nurses wearing gloves? Are the needles coming out of packaged bags? Is it organized? Do the nurses and doctors have shoes on? (Yes, I've been in a hospital where my nurse wasn't wearing shoes). In developing nations, the tourist hospital should be your first priority destination when you need to be treated for something. If you really have no idea where to go, get in touch with your Embassy and ask them.

 

Traveling as a Solo Woman

I cannot find enough words in the English language to convey just how hugely wonderful, important, and exciting it is to be a solo woman traveling the globe, and I encourage all of my fellow ladies to independently take on the world at least once in their lives. En yet, it’s obvious that the importance of safety can be even more significant in this case, and I know the thought of being alone in the world as a woman can be daunting. Trust me, I know. However, most of the time, solo women simply have to exercise the same caution they would if they were a man or traveling with someone else, such as:

  • Be vague about where you’re staying, your name, or how long you’re going to be in town when talking to strangers or people you don’t know well
  • Do not take unmarked/unregistered taxis
  • Do not leave any drinks unattended
  • Only drink with people you can trust
  • If you’re on a road trip and a “police” car pulls you over, always wait until you can pull over somewhere well-lit, such as a market or gas station or busy intersection with street lights and other people. 
  • Keep valuables (money, camera, wallet, passport) well hidden on you, and know which situations you should avoid taking your camera to (such as out to a bar)
  • Be vague about how much expensive equipment you have with you. This applies for photographers for people traveling with laptops, iPads, etc.
  • Avoid areas of cities or countries that may be tense, such as where riots, fights, high ethnic tensions, or protests may be happening. This is super precautionary, but it's good to be aware. This can easily be read up on the US Travel Advisory website.
  • Generally avoid dark streets, unlit parks, and back alleyways.
  • Always let someone know what your plans are; whether it’s someone at home or staff at a hostel (such as: if you’re going for a hike or trek and what time you’re expecting to be back, what hostel you’re staying at, what the address is of the CouchSurfing location you may be using and the name of your host)

However, for a woman in particular, these tips should also be considered:

  • Walk with confidence, as cliche as it sounds. Keep your head up, shoulders back, and take confident strides. Take up space when you move, instead of appearing sheepish, shy, or vulnerable.
  • Before you head out, consider where you’re going beforehand so you don’t end up fumbling with a map or guidebook. Not only does this distract you from what’s going on around you, but it makes you appear distracted, which is what thieves or attackers generally look for in victims.
  • Don’t walk around with headphones in.
  • Feel free to lie about traveling solo. “Oh, my tour group is around the corner!” “My boyfriend is getting us breakfast.” “I’m here working, and I’m meeting my boss any minute now.”
  • Keep eye contact with people who may be acting aggressive towards you. If you feel like you’re being followed or taunted in a busy marketplace, for instance, turn around, stand up tall (refer to the first bullet-point about confidence), stare them straight in the eye, and tell them directly and clearly to stop following you or harassing you. This also tells the other person that you are not easy to take advantage of, and that you clearly see who they are (AKA, you’d be able to identify them later if need be).
  • Before setting out, learn basic self-defense. Even one or two classes is a smart idea. You will probably never in your life ever have to utilize these skills, but the boost of confidence and knowledge can make all the difference.
  • Although it’s unfortunate, we do live in a world where men are often respected more than women, and so mentioning that a woman is married will usually deter a flirtatious man more so than simply saying that she’s not interested. A common trick to get obnoxious or unwelcome flirtatious men to leave you alone is by mentioning that you are traveling with a husband. Usually this will be followed up with the man asking where your husband is, in which you can reply something along the lines of, “He’s at the market getting food but will be back in a moment,” or “He’s parking our car,” or “He’s in the bathroom, I’m waiting for him here.” In certain situations, I’ve even ended up walking around with a ring on my left hand, and noticed a surprising drop in the number of men who approached me to inquire about my love life.
  • Although it may sound temping, do not carry a knife on you unless you know how to use it. (Not to mention there are a bunch of gray areas in the legality of that, depending on where in the world you are). But I do recommend keeping mace on you or in your car if you're road tripping.
  • If you feel like you’re being followed, jump into any well-lit restaurant, cafe, market, police station, disco, gas station; anywhere that has people that can help defend you or at least allow you to hang out until the follower is gone.
  • Know the country's police phone number by heart.
  • Don’t be afraid to be loud. If someone is encroaching on your personal space and won’t back off, by all means be loud! Demand boldly and boisterously that they leave you alone. Draw attention to yourself. Get others on the street to notice what’s going on if the situation is escalating. And of course, in the worst case scenario:
  • Scream. If you feel that you are seriously being threatened, draw as much attention to yourself as possible.

This isn’t meant to scare. The likelihood of a situation rising to anything more aggressive than mere inquiries about your husband (“Where is he? You’re so beautiful!”) or tugging on your arm in a tourist market to pull you into their shop so you can buy their crafts, is likely to not happen to you. However, being prepared for an array of situations and taking certain precautions helps boost your chances of safety, so they’re good to take note of.

If I missed any crucial points, feel free to leave them in the comments, we can continue to keep each other safe out there in the world.