After traveling the world for the past 10 years, I’ve learned a lot about staying safe – sometimes the hard way. Here are my best travel safety tips for avoiding trouble on your trip.
Nothing ruins an adventure quicker than getting scammed or robbed!
One time in Panama, women distracted me while stealing my laptop from a backpack. I thought it was gone, until this happened 3 months later. I got lucky.
In Mexico, a pickpocket once grabbed my iPhone on the street. I managed to get that back too, chasing the thief down the road screaming like a maniac and brandishing a bottle of tequila! LOL.
You don’t even need to travel internationally to have bad stuff happen. In Miami Beach, my camera was stolen when I wasn’t paying attention.
After years traveling the world, I’ve grown accustomed to deceitful taxi drivers, two-faced tour guides, insincere offers of help, and an occasional theft or scam.
For the most part, the world is a pretty safe place for travelers. I don’t want to scare you too much! However, it’s wise to be prepared.
With that in mind, here are my best travel safety tips to help minimize your chances of something bad happening to you during your travels.
Top Travel Safety Tips For 2020
1. Learn Common Travel Scams
Wherever you go in the world, you’ll always find people ready to trick you out of your hard-earned cash. If you’re lucky, they’ll be kinda obvious – but there are plenty of craftier, professional con-artists out there too.
Everyone thinks they’re too smart to be scammed — but it happens.
Here are some of the most common travel scams I’ve come across. I recommend you learn them all – then fire up the Google and do even more in-depth research into the worst scams happening at your specific destination.
For example, the milk scam in Cuba. “Broken” taxi meters in Costa Rica. Or the famous ring scam in Paris. Every country has its own special scams to watch out for!
Forewarned is forearmed, and this research can help defend you from being tricked out of hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars (while suffering the kind of frustration and misery that ruins a dream trip).
2. Write Down Emergency Info
If disaster strikes, you might not have time to search for numbers for local police or ambulance services, or directions to the nearest embassy for your country. You may also be too stressed and panicky to think straight.
Don’t put yourself in that position. Instead, record that information in advance, and create an “Emergency Plan” for you to follow if things go badly. Save it on your phone somewhere (I use the Evernote App).
I also recommend you write it down on a small card or sheet of paper, get it laminated (easily done at your local office supply store) to protect it from moisture, and keep it in your wallet/purse.
That way, if something goes wrong out there, you’ll always know exactly who to call and where to go for help.
3. Check The State Department Website
The U.S. Department of State has a page for every country in the world, where it lists all known difficulties and current threats to the safety of visitors.
However, a big caveat for this one: it’s the State Department’s job to warn you about everything that could go wrong, which is sometimes different to what is likely to go wrong.
This means their advice is generally on the hyper-cautious side. Factor that in, while you dig up more on-the-ground information.
But researching travel warnings will give you a general idea of what’s going on in the country you’re visiting, and specific problem areas you may want to avoid.
For example, just because certain parts of Thailand or Mexico have problems, doesn’t mean you should completely avoid those countries.
4: Lock Up Your Valuables
Putting aside the fact that traveling with anything super valuable is usually a bad idea, there will always be something you absolutely cannot afford to have stolen. I travel with a lot of expensive camera gear for example.
Your job is to minimize the easy opportunities for theft.
Firstly, know that most travel backpacks aren’t very secure. It’s easy to feel that a zipped, even locked bag is a sufficient deterrent to any thief, and doze off next to it. Waking up to find someone’s slashed a hole in the side!
Unless it’s a slash-proof backpack, the material can be cut or torn by anyone determined enough. Many zippers can be forced open with sharp objects like a writing pen.
Always be aware of your valuables, and try to keep an eye on them in such a way that it would be impossible for someone to steal without you knowing. I’ll use my backpack as a pillow on train/bus routes that have a reputation for theft, and will sometimes lock it to a seat using a thin cable like this.
Secondly, call your accommodation to ask about secure storage options like a room safe, lockers, or a locked storage area. Carry your own locker padlock when staying at backpacking hostels.
5: Get Travel Insurance
You never think you need it, until you do. If you’re really worried about the safety of yourself and your gear while you travel, you can almost completely relax if you have some good insurance.
People ask me all the time if I’m worried about traveling with an expensive computer and camera. I was, when I didn’t have insurance for them. Now that I do, I’m not worried. If stuff gets stolen, it will get replaced.
Everyone should carry some kind of health and property insurance when traveling. Why? Because shit happens. Whether you think it will or not. It doesn’t matter how careful you think you are.
My recommendation is World Nomads for short-term travel insurance (less than 6 months). They make it super easy to buy online. Just be aware that they have “per item” limits on coverage of $500. So it’s not going to cover a whole $3000 camera.
If you’re going to be traveling for a long time, there are good long-term options like a mixture of expat health insurance from IMG Global and photography/computer insurance from TCP Photography Insurance.
READ MORE: Is Travel Insurance Worth It?
6: Ask Locals For Advice
If you really want to know which neighborhoods are safe and which might be sketchy, ask a local resident of the area.
Most locals are friendly, and will warn you about straying into dangerous areas. On the other hand, if a stranger offers up advice, it’s also wise to get a second opinion – just in case they don’t really know what they’re talking about but simply wanted to help (or worse, are trying to scam you).
Taxi drivers can be hit or miss in this regard. Some can be excellent sources for good information, others are miserable assholes who might actually lead you into trouble.
I’ve found that hostel or hotel front desk workers are generally pretty good sources for local advice.
Don’t be afraid to ask them which parts of the city to avoid, how much taxi fares should cost, and where to find a great place to eat!
7: Register With Your Embassy
The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, from the U.S. Department of State, is designed to make a destination’s local embassy aware of your arrival and keep you constantly updated with the latest safety information.
It’s free, it’s available for all U.S. citizens and nationals living abroad, and it’s a great way to get reliable, up to date safety information as you travel, along with an extra level of security in case of emergencies.
Canada has it’s own version, called Registration Of Canadians Abroad.
That way if an emergency happens, like a natural disaster or terrorist attack, the local embassy can get a hold of you quickly to share important information or help with evacuation.
8: Email Your Itinerary To Friends/Family
Once you’ve worked out where you’re going and when, make sure someone else knows too.
The best way is to email the full itinerary to a few family members (and double-check with them that they received it – don’t just assume it landed in their Inbox, make sure it did). Then, if you can, check in from time to time.
Before I travel anywhere, I make sure my parents know where I’m going, what my general plans are, and when I should be back.
That way, if they don’t hear from me for a few days after I’m supposed to return, they can help notify the proper local authorities, the embassy, etc.
9: Don’t Share Too Much With Strangers
If you’re ever tempted to make your itinerary more public, say in a Facebook post, just remember it can be a roadmap of your movements – just the sort of thing someone with ill-intentions would love to know.
I also don’t recommend sharing too many details about your travel plans or accommodation details with people you’ve just met. For example, don’t tell a local shop owner or street tout where you’re staying when asked.
If someone does ask, rather than be rude, you can be vague about an area of town rather than the name of your hotel. Or lie and name a hotel you’re not actually staying at.
Sometimes people will ask if it’s your first time visiting their country or city. If you don’t trust them yet, you can pretend it isn’t your first trip. Because sharing that you’re new might also signal you’re a good target for scams.
When feeling vulnerable in a strange place, little white lies won’t hurt.
10: Be Aware Of Your Clothing
When it comes to travel, the wrong clothes scream “TOURIST” and make you a target for scammers, thieves and worse. The less obviously a visitor you look, the less attention you’ll get from the wrong kind of people.
Wearing the right clothes is a sign of respect. Many Islamic countries have specific dress code guidelines that are often strictly enforced – and other destinations have laws that may catch you out (for example, walking topless through the streets of Barcelona is illegal for both sexes).
However, it’s possible to stay within the law and still offend locals with what you’re wearing – generating a lot of hostility towards you in the process. Ignoring local customs can come across as both arrogant and ignorant.
In conservative countries, it’s just safer to dress more conservatively yourself. Obviously as a foreigner you’re still going to stand out a bit, but much less than those who ignore the local customs.
Start by checking out Wikipedia’s general advice on clothing laws by country – and then narrow down your research until you find someone giving advice you can trust, ideally a resident or expat turned local.
11: Splurge On Extra Safety
If you’re traveling as a budget backpacker, like I was, it can be tempting to save as much money as possible with the cheapest accommodation, the cheapest flights, the cheapest activities.
But it’s important to know that this isn’t always the safest way to travel.
Ultra cheap backpacker hostels aren’t always the safest places. I’ve stayed in some without locks on the doors, that felt like make-shift homeless shelters for drug addicts and other seedy people.
Budget flights can often arrive in the middle of the night — usually not the best time to be hailing down a cab in a dangerous city and hoping the driver doesn’t abduct you.
Sometimes it’s worth the extra few bucks to splurge on a slightly better hostel, a more convenient flight, a taxi home from the bar, or a tour operator with a strong safety record.