The world can be a scary place.
From natural disasters to political upheaval and car crashes to shark attacks, some days the news makes us all want to stay in bed and hide under the covers.
But that would be a shame.
If we let fear guide us, then we won’t see the great museums of the world, experience endangered animals in the wild, sample cuisines directly from other cultures and simply expand our horizons.
So how do we balance the desire to be safe with a passion to see the world? We take precautions.
Jason and I want to be safe when we travel. After all the planning and expense that goes into travel it would be a shame to be the victim of a crime or to experience an injury--especially when it’s preventable. And while there are no guarantees that everything will go as planned, we certainly can take steps before and during a trip to protect ourselves and our loved ones.
In fact this is such an important topic that we are dedicating two articles to it. Each will offer 8 tips--for a total of 16--that we hope will better prepare travelers for their next epic adventure. (Read Travel Saftey Part Two now!)
So let’s review what you can do to increase the prospects of safe travels.
Research Common Travel Scams
Jason and I had been warned about pickpockets in Barcelona, but we felt prepared as we made our way through the city by always keeping a tight grip on our wallets and phones. So imagine our surprise while we were on a walking tour, and witnessed a nicely dressed, older woman attempt to take a wallet out of the satchel of the man standing in front of us. Jason saw the attempted theft and yelled, “Stop!” Pickpockets are so common in some parts of the city that the thieves have become quite bold, barely trying to conceal their efforts.
It’s exactly this type of situation that can be avoided when travelers take some time before a trip to research common scams. In parts of the world, it’s typical for young girls to be used as pickpockets since they are less likely to cause suspicion. In other parts of the world, very young children are taught how to distract tourists while an adult takes a wallet or valuables from the target. Some countries are famous for very elaborate scams while others are straight forward, but wherever you plan to travel, do your research and stay vigilant.
Protect Your Personal And Financial Data
Earlier this year I was surprised to learn that Katherine Hamm, longtime editor of the Los Angeles Times Travel Section, had her bank account hacked after using unsecured WiFi at an airport. If a travel pro such as Ms. Hamm could be impacted, imagine how many other unsuspecting travelers are out there.
Jason and I rely heavily on our phones while traveling to stay in touch with family back home, get work done, and handle small tasks while waiting in line (it seems that traveling includes lots of lines!). Sometimes these tasks include checking on bank or credit card accounts which makes all of our financial data vulnerable.
After Ms. Hamm’s experience we signed up for a VPN service. This is a Virtual Private Network that adds an extra level of encryption to your device. Most VPN services will protect several devices like mobile phones, laptops and tablets--things we all commonly use while traveling--for one low price.
We opted to use ExpressVPN and have been very happy with it. Once purchased and downloaded onto each device, you can turn it on and off as needed.
Learn more about Express VPN start protecting your personal and financial data today!
Purchase Travel Insurance
No one wants to get sick or injured when they travel, but the reality is this can happen at any time. Whether its a case of severe food poisoning or a bicycle accident, travelers sometimes need medical services. There are times when the cost of this care will be expensive, and having a travel insurance policy will allow the sick or injured party to be reimbursed for these services. In the event of a particularly serious situation, a hospital may require proof of insurance before treating.
We currently use World Nomads Travel Insurance. I appreciate their clear explanation of coverage as well as their two options of Standard or Explorer Plan. For travelers attracted to adventure activities, World Nomads is especially helpful. To get a quote, just enter your information in the box above.
Travel insurance offers more than just medical coverage. To learn more about it read, Do I need Travel Insurance?
Protect Your Health
All packing lists should include prescription and commonly used over the counter medications. If you regularly use ibuprofen, then pack it. It can be tough to find local versions of your favorite over the counter meds in foreign countries. While traveling in South Korea with a cold I had to carefully ration my decongestant since I could not find a similar product in local stores.
Be sure there is plenty of prescription medication for the duration of the trip, and even allow for a few extra days in the event of a delay. Finally, pack prescription medication in your carry-on just in case checked luggage is lost or delayed.
Since Jason and I often hike on trips, we started regularly carrying a small first aid kit on our travels. Typically this is filled with bandages, sterile gauze, antibiotic cream, tweezers and small scissors. While this wouldn’t be helpful in a life threatening emergency, it can provide relief and care for a small injury.
I appreciated having this kit during a Golden Monkey trek in Rwanda earlier this year. I developed a blister that was becoming increasingly painful. I stopped, covered it with a few bandages and continued on the trek. When I returned to the lodge I was able to fully care for the blister, but the temporary fix meant I did not miss out on this experience.
Finally, check on travel vaccinations that may be needed in your destination. Your family doctor may be able to help identify which ones you need, but a travel clinic can also be useful. I especially recommend a visit to a travel medicine clinic for trips to developing nations, countries that have recently experienced serious virus outbreaks (i.e. ebola, Zika, etc.), or if you have chronic health conditions. No need to contract a serious or debilitating disease that could have been prevented with medication or a vaccine.
Choose Safe Accommodations
Many times in my life I’ve traveled solo, and over the years have developed strategies for hotel safety. I share these recommendations for women and men, but the reality is women are especially vulnerable, and as such I’m extra vigilant about where I stay on a trip.
If I can find a trusted friend or colleague to make personal recommendations when I’m visiting a new city that’s great. I’ll ask how safe the neighborhood is and if I could walk around at night. But if I don’t have a friend to ask, then I resort to other strategies.
The rise of websites like TripAdvisor have been so helpful in selecting accommodations. If I’m visiting a new city and have no knowledge of the neighborhoods, it can be very useful to read reviews. I’ve discovered that often reviewers will comment on how safe they felt (or not) while walking in the area of a particular hotel.
With AirBnB, I have found reviewers are even better about commenting on the neighborhood. They often mention the availability of restaurants, attractions and markets nearby, and will give their opinion of how safe they felt. While none of this is a guarantee of my safety, it's a start.
I won’t select budget accommodations in a city with which I’m unfamiliar. Hotels in the swankier parts of town charge more, but this typically comes with greater safety.
AirBnB And Hotel Safety
Four years ago, I was sound asleep in my hotel room in Kigali, Rwanda. Also in the room was my friend, Danielle. We were both on a mission trip with our church. Around 1 a.m. our hotel room door opened and two members of staff--one male and one female--walked in. We were suddenly wide awake, terrified and staring at the intruders. They quickly left, but we struggled to go back to sleep knowing how vulnerable we were. And in case you’re wondering why we didn’t use the dead bolt, it turns out this room didn’t have one. (We later surmised that the intruders were hoping ours was an empty room that would be useful for a romantic encounter. And we did report the incident to management in the morning).
Since that fateful encounter I’ve read about--and now use--a number of hotel safety strategies. First, if there is a deadbolt, use it! However, it also helps to travel with a small doorstop. Inserted from inside a hotel room or an AirBnB apartment, it will now be very difficult for an intruder to enter. This is an especially useful item if renting a room within an apartment or home which rarely include a deadbolt.
Next, proceed cautiously when opening the door of a hotel room or apartment. If you weren’t expecting anyone, it’s okay to ask them to go away. Or call the front desk to verify a staff member’s identify and purpose for coming to your room.
Beyond concerns of an intruder, it’s also important to know what to do in the event of a fire or other emergency situation. Most hotel rooms will post an emergency escape plan on the back of the door--be sure to read it. If you are staying at an AirBnB, scan the apartment building or home for an exit plan that does not include an elevator.
Finally, if you’ve had any safety concerns during a stay, report it to the hotel staff or AirBnB host.
Choose Safe Transportation
Transportation can be one of the most challenging parts of a trip. From language barriers to unfamiliar types of vehicles, getting from point A to B is not always as simple as we want it to be. Choosing the right--or wrong--transportation can also be a safety issue.
Let me begin by discussing Uber safety (or any other popular ride-sharing app). Jason and I are big fans of ride-sharing, specifically Uber. We’ve used it all over the world. Not only is it convenient, but it removes the language barrier. We order the car in English, but the driver is receiving instructions in their local language.
But I’ve also heard the stories of men and women who have been robbed or even sexually assaulted by Uber drivers. So is Uber safe? First, many of these reported attacks were not by an actual Uber--or Lyft--driver. Be sure to check the license plate of the car to confirm it was the one sent through the ride-sharing app. Second, if traveling alone, take advantage of the feature that allows a rider to report if they are feeling unsafe. Finally, Uber also allows the rider to share the progress of their trip with a friend. Take advantage of this feature and don’t hesitate to let the driver know you’re doing so.
Taxis are often a safe form of transportation, but be sure to research in advance of a trip (or ask a hotel concierge or AirBnB host) the taxi etiquette in a new country. Many countries do not require a taxi to be metered and therefore the fare needs to be negotiated prior to entering the vehicle. Failure to do this could result in an outrageous fare, or even an argument. And do beware that in some places, most notably Prague, taxi scams are a problem. While my sister and I were in Prague last year we only used Uber.
When it comes to forms of transportation common in developing countries such as scooters, moto-taxis or tuk-tuks, proceed cautiously. While locals have learned to navigate these types of vehicles, and rely heavily on them to get around, visitors could be at risk. Do a bit of research in advance to learn if these are good options for you. While in Rwanda I was not willing to balance on the back of a moto-taxi while zipping through busy streets, all without a helmet. Instead I asked the hotel staff to arrange for a car service. (The Rwandan government is working to improve the safety of moto-taxis, so I may be willing to give this transportation option a try in the future.)
Headed to the airport for your next trip? Learn how to Stop Standing In Line At The Airport.
These are just the first 8 of our traveler safety tips. Be sure to look for our next post with 8 more tips later this month. And if we’ve missed anything--or if you have a different opinion--please comment below, get in touch through our contact page, or write to us through social media. We hope to have an ongoing dialogue with our readers about this topic.