One of the things that can hold people back from travelling is the thought of being unsafe. We’ve all heard horror stories of travellers being targeted by pickpockets, having their stuff stolen out of their luggage or worse. Personally, I believe some travel horror stories and ‘unsafe’ destinations are made out to be a lot worse than they are. The world is not a scary place. It is beautiful and wonderful and we should all see as much of it as we can.
While it is possible for bad things to happen when you travel a lot of them can be prevented by being informed, aware and using your common sense and intuition to guide you. Here are a few top tips and hacks to help keep you and your stuff safe when you travel.
1. Research the top scams before you go
A quick google search will help you out with this one, just type in your destination and ask what the top scams are. In some cities, these can be simple set-ups, like a scammer posing as a friendly local to befriend you then invite you to a restaurant or bar where you’re presented with an obscene bill, sometimes in the thousands, at the end of the night and forced to pay. If you know this type of thing happens at your chosen destination, you can avoid the situation altogether by being able to spot it a mile off and not be duped by that seemingly friendly local.
This actually happened to me, or at least they tried. A young woman approached me while I was getting a foot massage and asked me some seemingly harmless, friendly questions. Two days later, on a boat in the middle of Halong Bay, my tour guides phone rang and it was her. She had tracked me down and was inviting me over for dinner. It felt wrong and I asked my tour guide, who vigorously shook his head, “No. Absolutely not. It’s not part of our culture to do that. That is weird. Don’t go.”
2. Practice safe browsing
If you’re using your laptop, tablet or smartphone to access your internet banking while you travel, you could be opening yourself up for a good old fashioned hacking. To stay safe, you can buy and install a Virtual Private Network (VPN) on your device. It adds security and privacy to public networks and is even used by big companies to protect data.
3. Keep your cash and travel documents in different places
Always keep extra stashes of cash in places, like your luggage, an empty cosmetics container or the bottom of your shoe. On the off chance you’re mugged and lose your bank cards, you’ll have some cash to help you get by until your bank can help you sort it out. Also, take photos of your key travel documents (like your passport) and upload it to something like DropBox. That way you can access that folder anywhere in the world at any time if your stuff is stolen.
4. Don’t leave your stuff near an open window
For you, your hotel is completely new. For a crafty thief, your hotel is their playground and they know it like the back of their hand. Don’t leave your open handbag resting under a hotel window, it’s all too easy for a slinky arm to come around reach inside, nicking off with your wallet or passport. If you’re particularly crafty, you could stick one of those tracking devices inside your luggage, day bag and to important items like your laptop. That way the police can use it to track it and hopefully find the culprit and your gear.
Note: don’t be a vigilante. You are not Liam Neeson and this is not ‘Taken’, the major Hollywood movie production. This is real life.
5. Keep your valuables close
If you find yourself in a hotel dorm room, or if you just have the heebie-jeebies and want to keep your stuff close, sleep with your valuables inside your pillowcase. Put your passport, cash and wallet in the pillowcase, on the mattress-facing side. The chances of someone knowing they are there and being able to get to them without waking you up are pretty slim. If you’re worried about theft while you’re travelling, Pac Safe do a range of products specifically designed as ‘theft-proof’. You can check them out here.
6. Always double check
Being in a new city is exciting and it’s easy to get distracted. Before you get up from a cafe, leave a hotel room or go out to explore, do a double check. Have you picked everything up from the cafe table? Do you have your wallet and passport? Is your bag firmly zipped shut? Did you put all your valuables inside the hotel safe and lock it?
7. Blend in, don’t be flashy
Getting really drunk and loud, taking selfies on your expensive gold-plated smartphone, keeping your wallet in a back pocket and routinely pulling it out, showing off your cash and bank cards in the process, can attract unwanted attention from crafty criminals. All of that can be avoided, so think before you drink.
Also, don’t accept drinks from strangers and don’t leave your drink unattended and then come back to it. That’s crazy.
8. Follow your instincts
Your gut instinct is usually always right and you should definitely listen to it when you travel. If walking down that street doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. If that person you were talking to at the art gallery gave you a weird vibe, avoid them. Don’t ever let a fear of being impolite put your personal safety in jeopardy. Haven’t you seen the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo?! Daniel Craig learns a valuable lesson in this.
It’s also worthwhile making a mental note of your surrounding area. That 24-hour corner shop could be a good place for you to duck into if you ever feel uncomfortable walking home by yourself and need to hide out for a few minutes until that shifty character disappears from the street. If they won’t buzz off, tell the store owner very loudly that someone is following you and you need help.
9. Stay strapped
If you feel better with a weapon at your disposal, you can pick up something called the Safety Cat. It’s a discreet keychain that can double as a shiv if you need to throw down then haul ass outta there. Find the Safety Cat here. If shanking someone seems too dramatic, you can get yourself some mace or a whistle. I always worry that any weapon I have could incite more violence or be used against me if I stuff up, so am always on the fence about staying strapped.
10. Get travel insurance
It may be hard to believe, but there are still some people out there who are travelling sans insurance. That is pure madness. Madness! As soon as you book your trip, get travel insurance and make sure your policy covers you for where you’re going and what you’re doing while there. In the unlikely event, you’re robbed on your holiday, your insurer will be able to help you.
11. Get a door alarm
If you’re travelling or staying somewhere particularly sketchy or just feel the need for extra safety, you can get a very noisy alarm that can be fitted to any door. Once you armed, the alarm will make a horribly loud noise when separated from its sensor. I.e. when a would-be thief or unsuspecting housekeeper opens your door. It isn’t guaranteed to prevent someone from entering, but they might clear off when greeted with the high-pitch shrill of a thousand angry birds. Check out the Belle Hop Travel Door Alarm here. This is just an example, there are loads of others on the market so do your research before buying.
12. Don’t let people distract you
Typically when you’re being targeted by pickpockets, their aim is to distract you. This can mean being swarmed by 10 very cute little kids with very nimble little fingers, distracting you with their cuteness while rummaging through your bag. While it’s not okay to be outright cruel to these lil cuties, it is definitely okay to look out for yourself in this or any other similar situation. Do not feel too embarrassed to grab your bag, wrap it up in your arms and cling to it like a life-raft while pushing through the crowd. Never be embarrassed to look after yourself.
13. Try not to look like a lost tourist
Standing in the middle of the street with your camera hanging off your neck, money-belt on and your map out, scratching your head and saying, “Where the heck am I?” puts a big, fat target on your big, lost butt. If you do need to check the map, do it somewhere private (like a toilet cubicle) and do it discreetly. Same goes for getting cash or cards out of your wallet. Be discreet. Also, don’t walk around with your headphones on and your music blasting. That just makes you target numero uno.
14. Ask for help!
If I ever feel unsafe by myself I’ll ask the hotel security guard for help. It is quite literally their job to keep the hotel guests safe and secure. This can be anything from calling a cab to walking you to your hire car if you need them to. Trust me, I once asked the Queensland State Premier’s security guard to walk me to my car, parked a block away, after a late-night event. He was really happy to do it and waited until I was safely locked inside, driving away before he left me.
If you are travelling as part of a group or tour, walk home in groups. Ladies, don’t be afraid to ask one of those boys in your tour group if he would mind walking you home. I’ve never had a guy say no to this request, not once ever in my life.
15. Let people know where you are and check-in regularly
Do up a detailed itinerary before you go, make sure you include the name and contact number of each place you’ll be staying at and include a rough outline of what you’re planning on doing and when. Give copies of this to your parents, your best friend and anyone else who you think needs it. Check-in regularly with these people, tell them before you go you’ll be doing so. They will not mind, trust me.
Be really friendly and chatty with your hotel staff and the housekeepers, smile and say hello. Be memorable and noticeable, you want them to care about you and be happy to see you each day. That way they’ll notice if you go missing (not to freak you out, guys, sorry). Also, ask female hotel employees if there are any ‘unsafe’ areas you should avoid.
16. Emergency ‘phone a friend’ option
You can keep an international calling card, or two stashed inside your luggage or on your body. If you get mugged it’s unlikely the mugger will find it or want a ‘used calling card’. If they take everything else, you’ve still got a way to call someone for help.
17. Be safe on your taxi ride
Take a photo of the taxi’s licence plate before you get in and private message or text it to a friend. If you can’t do that, just hold onto it for safe keeping. When you get into the cab, check the driver matches the photo of his ID on the dashboard, if he doesn’t, get out of there. The person driving you doesn’t have a taxi licence. You can also use google maps on your smartphone to track where you’re going and make sure you’re going the right way.
Remember, if you pre-load google maps while you have internet access, it will still work when you don’t! Another thing you can do is get the driver to drop you somewhere nearby to your hotel that doesn’t scream tourist quite like a hotel does, i.e. a well-known restaurant or department store. Casually mentioning you’re meeting friends for dinner is also a good idea.
Phoebe is a travel writer and photographer with a love for storytelling and making people laugh. Matt is a videographer and photographer with a passion for the great outdoors and big adventures. Together we inspire big adventures through our guides, videos, vlogs and photographs. Find out more about us here.