As I’ve said before, if you are traveling and putting yourself out into the world, there is a chance that bad and nasty things may occur. The world can be a very dangerous, complicated, and challenging place…. especially if you are a stranger in some of these places. Moreover, there are people in this world who wake up every morning with the sole purpose of fucking the life of tourists or travelers (pardon the vulgarity, but found nothing more suitable to use).
So, my idea here is to give tips on how to avoid these mishaps to the best of your ability when you travel.
Unfortunately, you can be sure, if you adventure off into this big world, sooner or later something bad (whether serious or not) will happen. After all, that’s just one of the risks you take with traveling and putting yourself in unfamiliar places. While I promise you that the good experiences that you have while traveling will far far far outweigh any bad that you might have, it never hurts to be prepared by reading the tips below and taking precautions against the worst-case scenarios.
After all, if you really want to avoid 100% anything bad happening to you, you can’t do much besides sit at home watching TV. Well, in my case, since I grew up in Sao Paulo, Brazil, I’m not sure if that’s even safe to do that nowadays.
Also, keep in mind that the sort of threats you might encounter will depend on where you are going. After all, you are much more likely to be held up with a weapon in South America than you are in Western Europe. Similarly, a solo woman traveler might feel more threatened in the Middle East than in Canada.
What sort of trip-related things should I be worried about when it comes to safety??
There are several areas and parts of a journey that demand attention and preparation. I will explain them one-by-one in the following bullet points:
Insurance or travel assistance is a mandatory item for any trip. I wouldn’t travel without one. I talk more in depth about this subject and also give the 3 best and most affordable travel insurances in the world in this page: how to acquire travel insurance.
No money, no trip. So, it’s best not to lose it. Here are some basic tips that can be used even if you aren’t traveling, but just live in a big city (like my hometown, for example):
1. Do not put your wallet in your back pockets or in loose front pockets because then pickpockets will have easy access to them;
2 . If you don’t bring a backpack or a purse with you, use a money belt. I talk about that on my page about how to pack your backpack. To buy one, you can get at Amazon using this link. Or via Ebay here or buy at REI here.
4 . If you read my article on how to deal with money abroad and decided to use either a debit card or a credit card (or both), make sure you write down the phone numbers on the back of your cards in case your cards are stolen or lost and you need to call your bank to cancel them. Before you leave, make sure you have a friend or a family member that would be willing to receive the new cards and send them to you via courier (and still locked!!), just in case;
5 . Beware of fake bills. Check if this is common in the country you are visiting. If so, go to a bank and ask them to teach you how to tell if a note is genuine or not. I’ve done this several times and they are always very helpful;
6 . Refuse bills that are ripped or taped. In some place, like Peru, stores won’t accept damaged notes. Likewise, stores might also try to pass these type of bills onto tourists as they know they are unusable. Plus, it can be a major headache to have to try to exchange them at the bank later…;
7. Watch out for those who try to give you the wrong currency. Ok, I have to confess that I fell for this one once. I was in Dubrovnik, Croatia, bought a drink from the barman in a nightclub, and received change back. The next day, when I went to use one of the notes that he had given me, they told me that note was actually from Serbia. It was the same numerical value and color as the Croatian note except that the Croatian one was worth about US$ 5.00 and the Serbian one worth about 15 cents. Small loss for the lesson I learned.
Bag, Backpack, Suitcase
On my page, how to prepare your bags or backpack, I give some of the same advice that I’m going to give here, but it never hurts to repeat:
- Never leave anything in your large suitcase or backpack that is essential for the continuation of your trip. This bag will be away from you several times during your trip so, if you lose it or it gets stolen, you must have the essentials with you that will allow you to continue your trip. However, if your money, passport, credit cards, and shiny new computer are in there, your trip will become a nightmare!!;
- If you are going to be flying and want to lock your bags, use a TSA-approved lock (otherwise they will break your lock and you will be left lock-less). I talk about that on my page about how to pack your backpack. To buy one, you can get at Amazon using this link. Ebay this link or with REI here.
- If you want to wrap it with plastic at the airport, go for it. It’s extra safety. I have never done this but I know that once someone tried to put drugs in my grandfather’s luggage!! Wrapping would certainly avoid this kind of problem….;
- If you are backpacking and have one of those larger backpacks, usually, it won’t have any kind of lock system. However, I’ve never had any problems with this. If you are still worried, as I mention on my page about how to prepare your bags or backpack, you can purchase a padlock-able wire mesh that’ll cover your entire backpack. The link and image are here;
- Always keep an eye on your bags, especially at train or bus stations or ports as they tend to be less secure than airports (but keep an eye on them at airports, too). I once heard of a group in a bus station in Italy that went off to buy something and left one person to take care of 10 or so bags. A gang of pickpockets came along and, while some attacked the guy, others stole the bags. In this case, it would have been much easier if he just had one bag to watch;
- Also keep an eye on your bags during transit, especially if it’s overnight. There are reports of people who had their belongings stolen during overnight train trips. They fell asleep, didn’t notice others entering or leaving the cabin, and when they woke up their bags were either open or gone. It is a good tactic to sleep while spooning with your suitcase or with your head or foot on it. If traveling by bus, keep an eye on bags that go into the trunk. Buses usually stop in several cities and the trunk is opened and closed many times so it can be hard to keep track of them. Some travelers even buy two seats on the bus so they can leave the bag on the other seat by their side. Although I’ve never done this, it’s a good tip if you’re paranoid!!;
- Pay extra attention to your small everyday backpack (the one that contains your wallet, computer, etc.) and, unlike with your big bag, do NOT let this one go in the trunk of the bus or even in an overhead compartment (unless you are positive that you will be awake the whole time to watch it) . Besides, there is one other thing that drives me insane when I see others doing it. When you close the zippers of your bag, do not close both to the top of the backpack. Instead, close it and put the zippers to either the right or the left side. Otherwise, with the two zippers at the top, the backpack may open by itself simply with the movement of the person walking. Or worse, if the bag is on your back, the thief can open it with the little finger and you will not even notice it’s open until you realize your stuff is gone. If the two zippers are closed off to the side, it is much more difficult for them to do this. This tactic is even more important for backpacks with old zippers;
Even with this tip about the zipper, if you are in crowds, public transportation, or any other place where others might have contact with your bag, take your bag off your bag and put it in front of you like a koala with her baby clinging to her belly. I also knew of a friend who, after getting lost in a bad area in Puno, Peru, had her bag cut with a knife and things stolen from it while it was on her back. So, don’t worry about looking like a tourist while doing this… safety is much more important.
In particular, I want to highlight how to keep your belongings safe when you are staying in places like hostel dorms or someone from Couchsurfing.
I’m knocking on wood as I write this, but I can say with relief that even after having already stayed in over 300 hostels worldwide, I’ve never had anything stolen. Sure, I’ve lost a lot of socks and forgotten a lot of towels in the shower room, but I’ve never lost anything important like a camera, wallet, or computer…. and I pretty much just stay in dorms!! To accomplish this feat, I always do the following:
1. Bring a padlock with a code. I always travel with a padlock because almost all the hostels I’ve ever been to have some kind of locker which you can lock with your own padlock and leave inside your backpack (depending on how large it is) and other valuables such as cameras, phone, ipod, laptop, passports, money, cards etc… So, always bring a padlock. One with a code is best so you don’t have to worry about losing that little key;
2 . If this locker does not exist, which is rare, I bring all of my valuables with me and stay in safe areas. Or, I put everything deep inside my large backpack in the room (just try to make sure no one sees you doing this, if you can). If someone will try to still your things(s), he or she will have to dig through your bag for a while and run the risk of being caught, which minimizes the possibility of theft. Plus, if they don’t see you put things there, they will have no idea that’s where your valuables are. At bedtime, I put a small backpack with my valuables under the sheet and I sleep spooning with my backpack ;
3 . Very few hostels will give you a locker big enough to put your big backpack in. If you’re worried about this, you can purchase that metallic mesh cover that I mentioned above;
4 . Do not neglect your stuff for a minute. If you are using your computer and need to go to the computer, don’t just leave it. Either take it with you or lock it in the locker before you go. Better be safe than sorry…;
5 . If you are Couchsurfing, the risk of theft is lower because the person knows that you will mention the incident on his or her page. Just remember that there are many fake profiles. The risk can be reversed, too. You can be hosting and have someone on your couch who can steal things inside your home as well. I’ve heard of a case of a douchebag who stole a piggy bank full of coins from the couple was hosting him for free…. stealing coins….what an asshole!!;
6 . In hotels, even the most luxurious ones (not that I think that backpackers stay in these…but who knows!), theft by the hotel staff is not uncommon. To prevent theft, I know of people who avoid housekeeping. When they go out, they leave the television on and put “do not disturb” sign on the door so it seems that there is always someone in the room. Moreover, almost every hotel room has a mini safe for most valuable belongings.
Hahaha, don’t even get me stated. Anyone who has read all the way to the end of my page how to save on transportation knows how I feel about taxis, so I’m not going to repeat it here. CAUTION!!!!
Besides being a good idea to travel with hand sanitizer, I give more tips about food and how to avoid food poisoning on my page how to save on food and drinks while traveling.
There is no secret about the large number of cases involving tourists in Egypt after the revolution or in India. But sexual violence, especially against women, can happen almost anywhere in the world. This isn’t to say that women shouldn’t travel alone but, as they are more likely to be targets than men are, certain actions can be taken to minimize this risk:
- If you are female, avoid traveling alone in areas that are known to be dangerous for females. I know this might sound ridiculous because I have already met a lot of women traveling alone in regions that many grown up men would avoid and had no problems. However, you’ll always be safer (true with men, too) with a companion (even if it was someone that you met in the hostel that day) than you are alone;
- Avoid walking at night alone in areas with few people (this is also a good way to avoid be robbed or mugged);
- In different countries, a woman’s attitude can be interpreted in various ways. If you accept a drink from a man in some countries, while this might welcome nothing more than conversation in your own country, he may think that this is a “yes” to a sexual relation. If you smile when someone whistles at you on the street in some countries, the men might think they have the right to grab you. The clothing you wear is also interpreted differently in different region. For example, what you might wear while in Australia would be seen very differently in Saudi Arabia. Check online, read guidebooks, or ask around to find out about these sort of customs;
- CAUTION with spiked drinks like the famous “Goodnight Cinderella” (actually, it’s Snow White and Sleeping Beauty who sleeps…tsc, tsc). For those not familiar with this scam, it works like this: someone (often the bartender after someone pays him off) put drugs in your drink so you eventually pass out. The person will then take you either to a home or a motel… and you’ll be lucky if all you lose is your wallet. The next day, you wake up in a strange place without remembering anything. Goes for both men and women. There are even places where attractive women are used to lure men to fall into this trap. To avoid this, don’t accept drinks from strangers in clubs or at the bar. Ask to open your own drink and keep an eye while they prepare your drink. Solo women tourists are the usual victims so it’s best if you can go out with a group of trustworthy friends who you know will look out for you;
- Pay extra attention with overnight trips by train or bus in countries with questionable safety. If you get an option for seats, try not to stay in a compartment all alone…. try to find one with families or elderly. I recently met a girl who was traveling alone and told me that, after seeing that there was just one other, kinda creepy guy in her compartment, she opted to sleep on the floor of the bike car instead of in a situation that made her feel uncomfortable. You can never be too safe;
- Depending on where you go (and on whether or not your appearance will cause you to stand out), be prepared for whistling and catcalls. In general, they are harmless but it’s best to just ignore them. You probably won’t encounter this in Scandinavia, but Latin America is another story….
- Perhaps most importantly (at least, according to women I’ve talked to), go with your gut. If something about the situation doesn’t feel right to you (whether it be the person or the place), get out. And fast. Don’t be afraid of seeming rude by saying “no,” just ignoring people, or, as my girlfriend puts it, putting on your best “bitch face” so people leave you alone.
Corrupt Police/other officials (including immigration, etc)
Unfortunately, this is something that is very common in my beautiful Brazil. However, you can also find it also “almost” everywhere in the world, although most abundantly in developing countries. To try to minimize the damage they can do, here’s some advice:
- Don’t go and start offering bribes all over the place to the police to save your skin during your trip. This is illegal and you can get jail time in most countries (this is interesting because the ones that can put you in jail are the ones that you are bribing)!! Make sure that is what they really want before you start shoving money in their face…. usually, they will say something that makes it clear that this is what they want. Although, sometimes, they aren’t too clear so you might just have to feel out the situation. The mother of one of my friends told me once, when she was somewhere in South America, a customs official kept telling her that there was some issue with her passport and “oh, he’d really like some chocolate” and “I need some chocolate right now” and chocolate this and chocolate that. She was horribly confused until he, appearing frustrated, called another official to bring her into a room and have her interrogated for more than an hour. She later realized later that he was using the word “chocolate” as something of a code word for money…in other words, he was asking for a bribe. However, although in situations like this you might not have a choice, try to avoid them if at all possible… bribes should be the last resort in places where it is the law of the jungle;
- Avoid giving reason to the corrupt cop. If you are not doing ANYTHING wrong he will hardly bother you. He prefers the other tourist who stepped on the grass, had a joint, drank on the street, was above the speed limit, didn’t stop for pedestrians, threw paper on the floor, or did any other thing that the cop thinks he might be able to make some easy cash off of;
- If contact with the corrupt police occurs, assess the situation. If you are in Canada and you threaten the cop with a formal complaint, he will probably retreat. If you’re on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, just do what the police officer asks or things can get ugly. I have a friend who is some big judge in São Paulo and, while traveling in Ukraine, was targeted for the police by drinking on the street (although everyone else was doing it) because he was a tourist. Even though he had some authority in Brazil, it was better not to argue with Ukrainian police, so he had to leave a “small coffee,” or rather vodka, to alleviate his situation. Personally, I was caught in Mexico by corrupt police. The “officer” said I was too fast with a scooter, although I knew I wasn’t. Since I had to be back on the cruise ship in a few hours and didn’t have enough time to go to the police station, he told me I could pay him in cash right then and there;
- Separate your money. Put just some change in your wallet and the rest in your or backpack. Try not to carry too much cash with you at once. The corrupt cop will try to empty your wallet. The less money available, the better. This worked for me in the Mexico situation above because, while he initially asked for about US$50, I only had US$10 with me so that was all that he made me pay;
- Rely more on the tourist police than the normal police. In many countries (especially ones where tourism is big) there is a special police specifically to protect tourist and prevent them from getting taking advantage of by corrupt local police. If stopped by a normal police, try to demand the tourist police.
There are numerous street scams that sometimes deceive even the locals. Some of these are very well organized, like the game where you have to guess under which of the three shells the marble is, where many of the people who play are in cahoots with the game “presenter”. Others are a bit simpler in places like Italy, where they show you a bracelet and put it on your wrist for you to try. The problem is that the only way for them to remove it afterwards is by cutting it, which they will demand money for.
As a general rule, pay attention to people who come to talk to you on the street asking for money. I do not know how many times in how many places around the world people have asked me for some money for a little girl who has cancer. The idea, the story, and the signature sheet are all so alike, ranging from Lima, Peru, to Bucharest, Romania, that is simply cannot be true.
There are people that, while they might seem to be helping you from the goodness of their hearts, will afterwards demand money for doing things that you didn’t ask for like giving directions or flagging down a taxi.
Others will tell you a horrific story about how they were mugged and need money to call home. Unfortunately, the sad thing is that these days, you might not help a stranger who really needs it because you can’t tell if it’s a scam or not. And probably, someday, we will need help and no one will help us because they will think we are scamming them. It will come to your judgment to evaluate the person and the situation and if you trust her or not. But do not be naïve and innocent. Maybe in your country everyone is good and nice, but the world is full of malicious people.
Obviously, there are many NGOs like Greenpeace or Doctors Without Borders, who have volunteers asking for donations on the street. Then it’s up to you. Just remember that these people can be impersonating these companies to make money as well, so be careful.
Too good to be true
As they say, if a deal is too good to be true, it’s probably because it’s not true. Beware of tours, tickets, hotels, etc. via internet and any “promotion” where the price is well below the average of pretty much everything else you were seeing.
In the travel market, the existence of false travel vouchers and tour/attraction tickets are pretty common. I recently met someone who, while in London, found someone on the street selling tickets for the National Gallery to try to “reduce the line” inside. The individual purchased the ticket and then showed up at the National Gallery only to find out that it was free… and that they had been scammed.
If you are looking to buy tickets for tours or excursions, try to buy them from a physical store so you have somewhere to come back to if there is any sort of problem with the tickets. This is untrue of tickets you might buy off a person on the street.
If you are purchasing online, google the name of the site operator with the word “review” so you can analyze if the comments are generally positive or negative. Because the prices for tours can vary wildly, as I’ve seen people pay double or even half of what I have for the same activity, it can be hard to tell if it is legit or not. But if the handout just seems too much, suspect!!
I don’t know how else to describe them, but I have seen them several times in hostels. They are guys who speak very well, charm everyone with their stories, and, in one case I saw, seem to have a lot of money. As time went by, they gain the trust of a lot of people only to eventually steal bank passwords, borrow money, and then disappear. In one of these cases that I saw, the guy disappeared leaving a mega luxury hotel bill for some other people to deal with and in another case the guy fled with money borrowed from a lot of travelers, although he was fortunately caught later on by the police. If you experience this, I would recommend what I did; enjoy the moment and what the guy has to offer, but limit yourself there and don’t give him a dime. Never trust your most valuable things to someone you just met on the road. It’s sad, but that’s how the world is. If with time you build a relationship with the person, then the situation is different. As I’ve reiterated above, just be aware.
Scams and many robberies I have witnessed in my travels through this world
Not mentioning the above situations…
– A friend had his wallet stolen from him purse on the subway in Madrid and didn’t realize it until afterwards;
– A girl had her purse robbed right in front of the subway in Barcelona;
– A friend had his wallet stolen in Paris and, after reporting it to the police, realized the police were friends with the criminal and just laughed at him;
– A friend was kissing a guy in a club in Bali, Indonesia and was carrying her bag on her shoulder. During the kiss, another guy opened her purse and stole her camera;
– A friend in Peru was wearing a drawstring bag on her back and someone cut it open with a knife and took her Kindle;
– A friend was in the common room of the hostel using the laptop on his lap, fell asleep, and woke up without the computer;
– A friend had money stolen from her bags at a luxury resort in Cancun, Mexico;
– They put drugs in the drink of a friend in the club in La Paz, Bolivia and he woke up without his iPhone;
– Personally, in Santiago de Chile, I gave the money to a taxi driver and, as I was waiting for change, he sped off with the door open;
– Some friends also took a taxi in Santiago and the driver drove around forever and their bill was a fortune;
– While I was waiting for someone in Milan, Italy, I saw a bunch of people falling for the bracelet scam;
– A friend wanted to get into the Vatican in Italy, but the line was so long that she knew she wasn’t going to get in before it closed. She purchased a ticket from a street stand saying that they would be able to cut to the front of the line and enter right away. The “guide” brought the group to about mid-way through the line, put them in front of a bunch of others waiting, then ran away.
Well, that’s all, folks. Do you have any other travel safety tips?? Have you had similar problems during your travels around the world?? Give your testimony in the comments area below or write me if you have any other questions.
Happy and safe travels!!
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