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Stay Open, Stay Safe: 5 Unconventional Travel Safety Tips


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For all our readers that ask around the question, “How do you balance safety and openness on the road?” A few thoughts.

The U.S. State Department Travel warnings are shaking the news once again. Apparently, many people are wondering whether to cancel their travel plans. We’re getting notes from family and friends asking us to be careful. And we’re currently in Berlin.

And while we could not finesse our way to safety if we happened to be right on top of the next terrorist attack, there are all those other times — whether we find ourselves at home or on the road — when a few safety approaches and techniques come in handy. Some are natural, but most are acquired and honed from our years on the road in places like Guatemala and Uzbekistan, Egypt and Myanmar. These approaches not only enable us to travel more safely, but they also give us the freedom to open ourselves up to more people and better experiences.

So when we’re asked, “Is there a way to stay open and stay safe?” the answer notwithstanding that there are absolutely no guarantees in life is yes.

Reader note: This piece is long. If prose bores you, you can head straight to the tips here. The reason I include a long pre-ramble is that readers often ask, “How do you do it?” And a travel safety tip list alone, no matter how well articulated and supported, will not get you into my head and explain my approach. I also invite you to read our piece on evaluating travel warnings: The Danger Map of the World: Fear vs. Awareness.

Safety vs. Engagement

But wait. Isn’t personal safety at odds with engagement? The more I put myself out there, the less safe I will be?

It only appears that way. When you step back, you’ll find it depends on your orientation.

Safety is crucial. I grant that first. In the hierarchy of needs, safety is among the most basic. If not addressed properly it will ruin your vacation. On the other hand, it’s also not the factor that’s going to make your vacation. We never return home with stories of what a wonderful experience we had with all the safety precautions we took.

The trick is to keep safety in perspective and realize that through balance, you can use safety as a lever to open your engagement and indirectly yield stories of the “you can tell your grandkids” variety.

Dan vs. the Bull - Boudhanath, Nepal
Safety. Are you ready to take the bull by the horns?

The Foundation: Awareness and Observation

Most guidebooks and top ten lists will give you the basics of personal safety when traveling – dress conservatively, try not to stand out (i.e., no white sneakers), don’t wave your money and camera around, put your valuables in zippered pockets or money belts, don’t walk down dark alleys at night (especially after you’ve tied one on at the bar).

The best general foundational advice one can give: remain aware.

But what does that mean? At this point, we must stress: “remain aware” does not imply, “Be suspicious of everything around you and cower.”

Instead, it means observing from time to time your surroundings. Awareness is an art, one that can be mastered with a little practice and patience. It involves filtering a lot of noise from signal and separating what is perfectly normal and safe (e.g., hundreds of people hanging around a street corner in Mumbai looking for construction work) from something that could cause harm (e.g., a crowd gathering for a violent protest).

5 Unconventional Travel Safety Tips

1) Be most aware in tourist areas.

Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? What are “tourist areas” you ask? These are places with concentrations of popular sites, restaurants with pretty menus in multiple foreign languages, buildings with new coats of paint, cute shops that line the streets. The whole atmosphere is built to feel “nice” and “comfortable.” It’s easy to relax, almost to the point of complacency, which, it turns out is exactly what petty thieves like pickpockets are hoping will deaden the senses of their next target.

Beautiful Day in Quito, Ecuador
Just because it's pretty doesn't mean you should let your guard down.

Thieves also understand that a high concentration of tourists usually comes paired with high concentrations of spending money, cameras, phones, and other gadgets.

Obviously, we’re not suggesting you avoid these areas completely. However, we do suggest turning the vigilance meter up a notch when it comes to securing your personal belongings.

We’re reminded of: Granada, Nicaragua. Very pretty old town center, almost mesmerizingly so. From the moment we stepped in the shadow of the newly painted buildings on Plaza Colon, we could feel eyes following us and see movements of people working together. We kept our belongings close each time we found ourselves on the main square, particularly when the streets were at their busiest. Remain vigilant on transport as well (read the sad story of our friends who weren’t).

Contrast this to the town of Leon, Granada’s more run down – but to many, more charming – neighbor to the north.

2) If you feel you are being cased, stop and look at your watch.

Ever have that horrible feeling in your gut when you’re certain someone is following you in the I want to fleece you of all your stuff type of way? If you feel you are being scoped or cased, choose as safe a spot as possible and pull off to the side as if you are checking the time on your watch (Note smarty pants: this is not the time to pull out your fancy smartphone to check the time.)

If you don’t have a watch, just contrive the motions of something else that you need to do. You can easily note the behavior of the person in question out of the corner of your eye. If he continues to walk by at the same pace and doesn’t notice you, it’s likely that everything was only in your imagination.

If the person you believe is scoping you changes pace and starts to hang around, does some itinerant turns and changes behavior, then your gut was likely right on. Get yourself to safety — into a shop, café, hotel, etc. to wait him out, get help or call for a secure taxi to take you the rest of your way.

In either case, the cost of being certain: cheap as chips.

If you are traveling with a partner, agree in advance that a certain phrase will indicate that this is what one of you is doing. Otherwise, one will check his watch and the other will be halfway down the block!

We’re reminded of: Just before arriving in Kathmandu, Nepal we met an Australian traveler who’d been robbed of his camera and money coming home from a bar in the tourist ghetto of Thamel. So each night we were on our way back to our guesthouse(coincidentally not in Thamel) we were on alert, stopping several times to check for the time. Fortunately, it was all in our heads.

Having said that, we’ve watched the itinerant spins dozens of times, from Kazakhstan to Kokomo. It’s rather satisfying to see the frustrated look when they realize we’re on to them.

3) Make eye contact, smile, and say hello.

Another tactical entry from the counter-intuitive travel handbook. If someone in passing makes or you feel uncomfortable and that he's up to no good, consider looking the person straight in the eye, smiling and saying hello.

On the one hand, I find that this immediately breaks down the distance and fear, often resulting in a surprising smile in return (I love this!). On the other hand, if the person has actually been scoping me out, I’ve just let him know that I’m watching him and know exactly what he looks like if I ever have to describe or identify him. Fortunately, I’ve never had to cross this path.

Cultural caveat: In some traditional countries (Muslim countries, also India) women should exercise caution in making direct eye contact with men as it can be seen as flirtatious or taken as an invitation. In this case, I usually nod slightly to show that I’ve acknowledged the person.

We’re reminded of: Santa Ana, El Salvador. On a walk from our guesthouse to the main market, several local people approached us (including a cool guy in an old Ford Mustang) and told us to be careful. When this happened half a dozen times, I was on alert. I greeted everyone on the street and at the market in a form of self-defense. In the end, we had a great time and met some people we otherwise wouldn’t because of all the hellos and smiles I gave that day.

Santa Ana Vendors - Santa Ana, El Salvador
Sometimes saying hello provides more photo ops, too. Santa Ana market, El Salvador

4) Ask what type of danger.

The thing I love about the vast majority of people we’ve met around the world: they are protective of us. They look at us as guests, some of them look at us as kids (I love that, Dan adores it) and they see it as their charge to protect us. But sometimes that protection risks going overboard to the point of keeping us from experiences that are within our safety zone.

When someone tells you “It’s dangerous,” it’s worth asking, “What kind of danger? What sort of harm will I face? Will my stuff get stolen, or could I face physical harm (e.g., gun or knife)?”

With that information, you can make a decision on what level of “danger” you’re willing to face and how you might prepare for it.

Audrey and Zina - Yerevan, Armenia
One of our protective “mothers away from home” – Zina in Yerevan, Armenia.

We’re reminded of: In Guatemala, we stayed with a host family to learn Spanish. They were a very nice family and our personal safety was of primary concern.

But it seemed that everything we wanted to do was peligroso (dangerous), so we began asking “What type of peligroso? Pickpockets? Or will we face people with guns and knives?” More often than not, the peligroso referred to pickpockets. We can handle that type of peligroso and take precautions. Guns and knives, that’s another set of risks we'd prefer not to encounter. We made our decisions accordingly.

5) Find the grandma.

If the world is ever saved from itself, the grandmas will likely be the ones responsible.

Grandmothers are often a traveler’s guardian angel, particularly for women, and especially for single women traveling solo. On public buses, not only will grandmas often take you under their wing to be sure you get off at the right spot and have some fruit or snacks to go with you, but they will also protect you from drunks and unwanted advances. They often have no qualms about chewing out people who are bothering you; they’ve lived long enough to do what they want without traditional social pressures.

We’re reminded of: A grandma in Kyrgyzstan who nearly threw from a bus a drunk guy who insisted on leaning aggressively into me. (Note: Dan had challenges of his own on the other side of the bus. That’s for another story.)

Also, in Nicaragua a group of older women came to our rescue when a thief scammed us by pretending to be a bus ticket salesman. After figuring out what happened, they yelled after him, forced the real bus ticket guy to track him down. We eventually got our money back. Go team grandma!!

—–

So be safe, but don’t let it strangle the life out of your holiday. Be aware and be open to what travel is really all about.

What would you add to the list? What are some unconventional approaches you've used to keep yourself safe?

About Audrey Scott
Audrey Scott is a writer, storyteller, speaker and tourism development consultant. She aims to help turn people's fears into curiosity and connection. She harbors an obsession for artichokes and can bake a devastating pan of brownies. You can keep up with her adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about her on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

26 thoughts on “Stay Open, Stay Safe: 5 Unconventional Travel Safety Tips”

  1. @Jenna: Glad that a few of these tips were new or different for you. And yes, grandmas rock!

    @Nicole: Couldn’t agree more about grandmas. What I love is that in traditional societies where women are sometimes more reserved, grandmas come out and do whatever they want. It’s like they’ve lived too long to worry about what others say…and no one messes with them 🙂

  2. These are great unconventional travel safety tips… a lot that I had never considered before! Especially number 5, what a brilliant idea 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

    xxx
    Jenna

  3. Grandmas are definitely awesome. I know my grandma would say something if someone was in trouble. And nobody messes with a meemaw.

  4. Great advice and thanks for sharing. I know my family worry when we go away, but they forget I have to be just as aware at home sometimes.

  5. @Ces: Thanks, glad they were useful! And yes, grandmas can be a godsend, both on the road and off 🙂

    @Joanne: So true. We often remind our family that we’re usually safer in some far off place than we are venturing down the street in Washington, DC. But, it’s something about distance and the unknown that makes where we travel feel so much more dangerous.

  6. I agree, Grandmas are awesome. We stayed with two grandmas in Russia and we felt like we were at home. Great guidence and tips on how to stay safe. I loved the post and agree on the tips. Some great ideas there.
    Thank you for sharing.
    Oh and I love the blog 🙂

  7. @Jackie: You’re welcome! Glad you found these tips and piece useful.

    @Shane: I can only imagine how great the Russian babuskas were and how they made you feel at home. Must have been a great experience. Thanks for your kind words here about our blog!

  8. I find that the psychological element is important as well, particularly with the filtering the noise you mention in number one. You just have to remind yourself that 99.9% of people are out there just doing their daily business and aren’t out to find tourists to rob, especially in places where tourists don’t go. In fact, they may be looking at you with just as much suspicion. Once you realize that, suddenly the world is not so dangerous after all and you can focus on the real dangers – cars and tripping hazards.

  9. Thanks for these great insights. I am going on a long trip on my own at the end of the month and I will definitely keep this post close. Great timing!

  10. @Lewis: I couldn’t agree with you more on this. Most people in the world are going about their daily business and focused on supporting their family. We also find that our best experiences and interactions with people happen outside of tourist areas. Always kind of sad to see how tourism has changed a certain area or part of town in this way. And yes, I’d rank cars pretty high up in terms of hazards!

    @Kelly: Congratulations and glad these travel tips were useful for your upcoming trip!

  11. Right on. I find that I use most of these methods in my travels. I haven’t yet used #5 much though, although on occasions a local (either man or woman) has taken it upon him/herself to make sure I got on the right bus or got off at the right place. 🙂

  12. yes i totally agree.. grandma’s are angels in disguise! Ah.. great tips all of them.. but I have to ask.. that 1st photo.. was the bull super-imposed .. or a statue? No way Dan was just standing there with a live bull inches from his face right?! NO WAY! LOL

  13. @Marie-France: Whether it’s a grandmother or not, it’s always great when a local comes to your aid to help you get to the right place…and with a smile.

    @Ciki: That photo is not super-imposed!! We turned the corner in Kathmandu and somehow Dan ended up facing a bull. Fortunately, he was rather mellow and just walked right on by. Pretty crazy, huh?

  14. Love #5 – when I was in Quito travelling by myself I stopped for an almuerzo, sharing a table with an older grandma who told me not to go ANYWHERE in Quito because it was muy peligroso, and then insisted on showing me how to properly hold my handbag to reduce the risk of theft. Go Grandmas of the World!

  15. @ciki: Ha!! Fortunately, he was a mellow bull 🙂

    @Peggy: It’s funny, we had a similar experience in Quito. Although instead of teaching us how to hold my handbag we were taught how to wrap the strap of the camera around our wrist at least two times to reduce risk of theft. Fortunately, we had no problems in Quito but I did hear of some other travelers who were mugged walking around at night.

  16. You have articulated this issue so well – it is so important to balance safety concerns and openness so as not to cut yourself off from genuine human connection while traveling.
    In addition to grandmas, we look for families. While waiting for a late train in Jodhpur, we got the “everyone is watching us” feeling, so we sat on the floor near a big family who predictably adopted us within minutes. We wound up spending our wait time taking photos and singing songs with three generations.

  17. @Casey: Great advice about seeking out families. Often, it’s easiest to start the connection with the kids (who are sometimes more open than adults) and then the parents get curious and want to adopt you as well. Love your story from Jodhpur.

  18. Great advice. From doing travelling myself I think the stopping if you think you are being followed and also the tourist areas being the most dangerous are the best. So many times in the big tourist areas I have seen people eyeing up cameras, wallets etc. Luckily with some caution you can avoid being the target.

  19. @Ross: That’s exactly it – be aware of your surroundings and people who might be eyeing you (and your stuff). When those people know that you are aware of them, it’s unlikely they’ll come after you as it’s easier to go after someone who isn’t paying attention.

  20. absolutely love your stories; they really make you want to pick your backpack and go abroad. I learned a fancy advice in Brazil: Especially white girls can have a hard time at night-time around favelas. I was told to look unfriendly whenever I feel uncomfortable. And it makes sense. You would rather mug (or even worse) an unconfident and nervous girl than someone staring you in the face with an expression that looks like you had eaten (his) her pet. You intuitively expect more resistance and might abandon your plans…

    • Hi Sarinha,
      Thanks for your advice regarding putting on an unfriendly or mean look when facing an uncomfortable situation. It reminds me of a friend who said that her sister used to ride the New York city metro at night because of her job. She would sometimes start shaking and acting as if she was crazy (e.g., talking to herself) if she became scared or uncomfortable. Same logic applies 🙂

  21. Your tips are good ones.
    Two further tips, all based on self awareness of one’s vulnerability in the environment in which one finds oneself:
    1. Be aware of the first 24hours vulnerability. When I arrive in a new place, new culture, new timezone, I find I am uncertain where I’m going or I’m looking at my phone/map or gazing around more than when I’m purposeful in familiar territory. This makes me an obvious tourist and a target. Most of my muggings (I’ve had a few – being small, female and intrepid means I am exposed to this risk) are in the first 24hrs. How do I now combat this? I stay in a nicer area or hotel while I’m getting my bearings, I don’t try to do too much, and I might even take a bus rather than walk while I’m getting used to the place.
    2. Vulnerability increases with tiredness and irritability. Travel is great but it can be tiring and even lovely villagers’ interest in me can be irksome at the end of a long day or week hiking, cycling or whatever. I now know my safety is in my ability to interact with that eye contact and smile you mention, and maintain a conversation about my marriage status and children without showing that I’d rather be by myself and have a shower. My safety in remote areas is not only the grandma but the whole village looking after that ‘nice’ (ie smiling, chatty, interested) person. If I’m not ‘nice’, then that contract starts to break down. If I’m not tired I also engage. I’m more curious and I learn a lot more, become streetwise from their local wisdom. So now, if I find I am tired, dropsy or grumpy, I know it is time for a day off – my safety is directly correlated with my buoyant mood, smile and patience with all difficulties.

    • Hi Pamela,
      Thanks for your thoughtful and helpful comment here! Your advice about the first 24 hours and what to do about it is spot on. We usually book a place in advance for that first night, and it is often wise to take a bus or even trusted tuk tuk when getting around to get one’s bearings for that first day and to suss out what is new and what is suspicious.

      I always tell people that if you have genuine curiosity and are engaged, local people will sense that and want to help or look after you. But yes, when one is tired it’s really hard to keep up that awareness and engagement. I was just telling a new female traveler the other day that it’s recommended to take days off from time to time and to not look at it as defeat, but as a refresher so that you can be more “on” after that break — this not only benefits your safety, but also your entire experience.

      Thanks again for sharing! Great advice.

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