Being an American has taught me so many things, but mostly, it's taught me to fear everything. My childhood is riddled with memories of being told all the things that I can't do and being instilled with a fear of all things unfamiliar. While there is definitely a grounded purpose in teaching children to be cautious, never was I taught the truth about the other end of the spectrum: while there are many bad things out in the world, there are also good things too. Sometimes, you have to take the risk of encountering some bad in order to experience the good. Traveling takes a certain amount of acceptance of this complex truth.
I receive a lot of backlash about my travels, particularly when going abroad alone, and mostly from individuals who fear both being alone and traveling to begin with. A close friend once reminded me that, in reality, most people are bound to help you more than they will hurt you, and I strongly stand by this sentiment. I truly believe that most individuals are inherently good. Now, before I continue, I should establish that I have traveled to some very dangerous places. In fact, I once studied in one of the top 10 murder capitals of the world. I am more than aware that some places are extremely dangerous to visit, and for this reason I think it's more than appropriate to equip you with some travel tips that will help to ensure your safety.
In addition, I want to establish some positive framing on these tips, as I don't want individuals submerged in panic as they set off on their adventures. I have yet to experience very many encounters with crime or negative individuals, and I hope my travels continue to remain free of any major incidents. However, I also believe that things have turned out this way because I remain very open and do not pre-judge a place based on sources that are not experience or research-based. So, please keep these tips in mind, and do stay safe no matter where you are! Below you will find some guidelines that I follow to increase security for myself no matter where I am.
1. Check the crime rates and safety lists ahead of time. The US keeps a national safety list that lets you know what countries are considered unsafe for Americans to travel to, and for those outside of the US, your country probably has a similar published list. You can find this list here: US Safety List. This will give you an overview of any dangerous activity that may be happening in a country, an overview of crime statistics, and safety tips related to that nation.
2. Research any dangerous neighborhoods. Just because a city is "safe" does not mean that there aren't any areas that you should avoid. I will often Google "dangerous areas and xxxx" to find information about a particular city. It is also a good idea to Google recent news articles to see what comes up so that you can be aware of any significant current events before traveling to a country, such as protests or political unrest. Most travel books will also outline crime patterns, such as areas where theft often occurs, or any other warnings you need to be aware of. Last, read travel blogs that chronicle what others have experienced within the country. This is a good idea no matter where you are going, there are usually neighborhoods in every city that locals would say you should avoid.
3. Where's your wallet? Please keep in mind that each time you remove your wallet from your purse or bag, individuals can be watching to see where you put it back. This is why you should never put your wallet in a front pocket. It is very easy in crowded spaces, at bus stops, or even in passing on the street for someone to remove your wallet without you even noticing. If I'm carrying a bag, I always put my wallet in an inside pocket underneath my jacket or other items so that if someone was trying to take it, it would be much more difficult. Which brings me to an equally important point.
4. Only readjust the contents of your bag in private spaces. I try not to remove the contents of my bag unless I'm in a restaurant, bathroom, or other private space where I can relax and pay attention to what I'm doing. I rarely adjust the contents of my bag in the street unless completely necessary. In some places, I won't even take out my phone. It's really a matter of being aware of your surroundings. Interestingly enough, I felt very comfortable readjusting my bag in public squares in Costa Rica just because there were police everywhere and at least 20-30 people surrounding me that would probably make it awkward for anyone to bother me. By this, I mean I would stop and check my bag to make sure everything was there, and I also felt fine stopping to check maps or sit and figure out where I was going next.
5. Don't wear anything expensive. This is usually a given. If you have something that someone else wants, you have an increased chance that someone might try to take it. Be aware that jewelry or expensive bags might be on the hot list to snatch up.
6. "Be incognito." I honestly don't know how much of a difference this makes, but dressing like a local may help you to blend in. I honestly don't think doing this alone will deter theft, I thinks it's a combination of you being unaware, looking like a tourist, and giving a sneaky individual the opportune moment to catch you off guard. However, I felt more comfortable simply wearing a t-shirt and jeans at times because I felt like people paid less attention to me.
7. Walk with purpose. If you're walking slow, look lost, or give off the aire that you're uncomfortable, this might make you a target for theft. Check your map/phone before you start moving and walk confidently. This is also a good practice because you'll get used to the streets more easily and start to memorize your surroundings. After a few hours in most neighborhoods, I usually know main streets and or buildings, which prevents me from getting lost later on. If you feel like you're not sure where you are, don't panic, just step to the side and gather your thoughts or ask for directions from a local. Most will be happy to help you.
8. Ask officials for help. Depending on where you are, the most reliable advice can often come from officials. This does not mean that they are the only people that will or can help you, however, so don't be afraid to ask locals for directions, recommendations, or other advice. For example, to find out who the official taxi drivers were at the airport in Costa Rica, I asked an airline customer service rep. However, a local who was waiting to be picked up also advised me about normal taxi fares that I should expect. Both individuals were helpful, and both gave me accurate information. Police, security, store owners, servers, etc. can also be very helpful. Just remember that honestly anyone can be a source of awesome or lackluster information, so be patient no matter what.
9. Speak in shortened sentences. This has sometimes helped if I do not speak the local language very well. For example, when getting a taxi, I find the less that I talk, the less it brings attention to the fact that I'm not a local, which may help in preventing being overcharged, etc. It may also help with bargaining. However, trying to speak the local language has also helped me to gain a lot of respect in foreign countries, so don't take it to an extreme where you're being antisocial as a whole, only in particular situations where it might be useful for your place of origin to be ambiguous.
10. Sit down if you get overwhelmed. There may be moments while traveling where you just simply freak out. I don't blame you. You're in a place that's very different and it can be difficult to navigate. The safest thing to do in those moments is to take a step back, sit down, and calm yourself. I can honestly tell you it's going to be okay. Sit on a bench or get a coffee. Get back up when you're ready.
11. Don't be afraid to address aggressive individuals directly. Sometimes your first reaction when you feel uncomfortable is to become shy or ignore someone who might be the cause of your concern. However, it's best to do the opposite. If someone is persistent, politely tell them you're not interested. Look them in the eye when you're talking. Move confidently and express exactly what you would like to happen. If the situation escalates call or ask for help.
Have some tips that might help others to stay safe? Post a comment below so that other readers can be aware too!