People always ask me, “But is it safe traveling abroad.”
Of course, it’s a valid question, whether you’re traveling to Mexico for a resort vacation, to Costa Rica with the family, or undertaking your first adventure all the way across the world in Thailand.
And, no matter where you are in the world – your hometown or far off in a foreign destination – you need to exercise common sense and basic awareness of your surroundings and situation.
So, how do I answer these nonstop inquiries about personal safety abroad?
First off, I flip that sh*t by asking them if it’s safe in THEIR country. Often, that means the U.S.A., which is met with a. curious response where they go to answer, pause, start thinking about school shootings, random muggings, and skyrocketing theft and violent crime, and they stutter as their whole worldview crumble right in front of my eyes.
I then comfort them by offering my humble opinion – that there’s generally two types of crime or harm that could come upon someone: random street crime or political/religious crime or terrorism.
Looking at the latter first, we always want to avoid countries, regions, and situations where you’re a target because of someone’s political, religious, or military ideology. This includes religious extremists, kidnappers, narco-traffickers etc. For instance, driving through Mexico as a couple of U.S. dudes is NOT smart – and certainly not adventurous. It’s just asking for trouble. Or, in the Philippines where I live, I know that in the far south, they love kidnapping white Americans and holding them hostage for ransom and then cutting their heads off anyways. So, I simply avoid those areas. I also wouldn’t go to North Korea on a vacation and start passing out bibles or stealing mementos. Get it?
However, no matter where you go in the world, you’ll face the possibility of being a target of street crime. Pickpocketing, car break-ins, mugging, scams, bag thefts, druggings, gang problems, shakedowns, and just about every other kind of grift known to man can and will go down at any time.
While there are areas of the world and certain countries that are more dangerous than others, it usually holds true that the bigger the city and the more impoverished the area, the more crime you’ll encounter. Also (unfortunately), the more tourists that are in an area, the higher the crime rate usually spikes because there are people who come specifically to target those foreigners and visitors.
For instance, when I first moved to San Juan del Sur, Nicagarua in 2012, it was still a sleepy, close-knit local community where just about everyone knew each other, and therefore people were more or less held accountable. Of course, Nicaragua is dirt poor and has a violent past, but, once I got the lay of the land and met the locals and showed love and respect, it was all good. The same can be said of Cambodia, an insanely poor Southeast Asian nation that went through one of the worst genocides in history in the 1970s. Living there from 2013-2016 or so, I found that although people are desperately poor, it’s still a relatively safe place IF you exercise common sense and caution.
Of course, this is all just a generalization, and you never know when a random mugger or dude on drugs or hungry hotel thief or angry ex-boyfriend or any other calamity will cross your path.
So, I’ve come to follow these basic tips or hacks as I travel and live abroad, no matter where I am in the world. I genuinely believe they have helped keep me safe – and, I hope, will continue to do so! (Knock on wood.)
1. The first safety tip may catch you unaware, and that’s because I’m urging you to batten down the hatches back home before you go travel. Whether you’re in a house or an apartment, being away on vacation or traveling for extended periods is the perfect time for opportunistic thieves (who are usually watching and casing you ahead of time) to rob your abode. We’ll cover more on this in another review, but make sure to go through all the necessary safety precautions, so you don’t come back to a house that’s been ransacked and emptied of valuables.
2. The vast majority of crimes perpetrated against you while traveling abroad are meant to part you from your possessions, not against your person, and usually entailing subterfuge and speed, not physical violence. Therefore, once you properly secure your things and shift your mindset to ALWAYS paying attention, you’ll be as safe as can be.
3. Start with luggage locks. Get the combination kind so you don’t have to worry about keys, and make sure they are TSA approved. Put these luggage locks on your big checked bag(s) of course, but also on your backpack compartment that holds anything valuable like a computer, passports, etc.
Pickpocketing and purse/backpack snatching are no joke when you’re abroad, and they operate with lightning speed and precision. But, if there’s a lock on it, you’ll deter nine out of every 10 would-be thieves.
4. I also put the things that are REALLY valuable like my wallet, passport etc. in a smaller, tucked away, or hidden pocket within my backpack, that has a zipper or Velcro hopefully. That way, if someone gets a quick reach into your bag or even slits it with a razor so they can reach inside, it will be way harder to get the stuff that really matters. You can even purchase a little zippered pouch and sew it to the inside of your backpack.
5. That being said, I also tie a brightly colored handkerchief, string, or whatever around my bags and my backpack to easily designate it as mine. Not only will you be able to see it easily on the luggage conveyor belt, but it will be more noticeable and draw a little more attention, which is also a psychological deterrent to thieves.
6. That being said, the moment you get to your hotel, put your wallet, credit cards, passport, computer if possible, and whatever else in the hotel safe. Why wouldn’t you?
7. But if you don’t have a safe, where should you hide stuff? You have to see it through the eyes of a hotel room thief who is probably sneaking in and scanning the room quickly for valuables before bolting before they get discovered. Therefore, I’ll put my laptop or valuables inside a pillowcase, high up on the top of the dresser or wardrobe above eye level, or the like. In a pinch, I’ll put my things inside the trash can, with the trash bag covering them. What thief would check the trash AND take the bag out?
8. You can wear one of those money belts if you want, but there’s an easier and more comfortable place to stash money or cards. I throw them in a Ziploc (in case I step in a puddle) and put them under the sole of my shoe.
9. Don’t tempt fate by wearing expensive jewelry, watches, while you’re abroad or carry designer purses, etc. You’re just asking for something to be snatched.
10. But, usually, I don’t feel I need that, although I do like having shorts or pants with zippered or button pockets, which really deters pickpockets.
11. If you rent a car, park someplace where there’s an attendant and tip them when you arrive – not when you leave. Make sure NOTHING is inside the car when you leave it, including the trunk to be safe.
12. Make copies of your passports, credit cards, passwords, travel documents, etc. and email them to yourself as a backup. Or, you can have a flash drive that you keep in the safe but make sure it’s password protected because those are so easy to lose.
13. Even better, have an encrypted storage app like KeepSafe, which allows you to house documents, passwords, photos, etc. on your phone but only accessible with a password login.
14. That being said, you should also turn on your FindMyPhone or Hidden or other device location apps when abroad.
15. Don’t go to the bank machine at night. Use ATMs inside hotel lobbies or malls, not out on the street.
16. If you’re ever in a taxi and find yourself in a position where you have to trust them, like if you’re running into a place to use the bathroom etc. while he waits, simply snap a photo of his (or her) taxi ID, and then the license plate outside. But take your backpack or handbag with your laptop, passports, cash, and cars, etc. with you at all times.
17. Speaking of that, get a good backpack with double zippers and attach those small TSA-approved luggage locks. Don’t put valuables in the front pocket where someone could access if they razor-bladed your bag.
18. Women need to be especially careful. Never accept drinks from men at bars. Don’t ever go alone or split up, and don’t go out on the beach at night in most places – that’s where a lot of bad things happen. Ask locals and staff if it’s safe. Actually, this applies to men, too.
19. Don’t charge things. Pay cash. While using a debit card or credit card is the norm in the U.S. or Canada, it’s not in many countries abroad, and it’s way too easy for someone to copy your signature, run a double receipt, or just get your card info. Seriously – it happens a lot.
20. Know local emergency numbers and your hotel’s number and program them into your phone. Make sure all family members have phones they can use. Get a cheap local prepaid phone if you don’t want to carry around expensive iPhones. Know where the hospital is located and carry medical information like any allergies, blood type, and insurance info.
You want to have fun while vacationing and traveling, and staying safe is essential for that mission! Keep your head up, stay aware, follow your instinct, and ask trusted locals to help you!