I’ve been travelling the world for over 25 years now, mostly as an independent woman, on my own; and in that time, touch wood, I’ve never had any major problems. I refuse to walk the world in fear. When I was in Malacca, the owner of the hostel I stayed at constantly warned us to be careful and to watch our bags etc. I know he was trying to be helpful, but it led us to view Malacca with an air of fear and suspicion. I’d much prefer to be ready in case things do go wrong than spend all my travel time worrying about it – and through a few simple actions, you can mitigate most risks.
Most people around the world are trustworthy and kind, but as a traveller you will meet a lot of opportunistic people who will try to make a buck or two off you. Also, as a traveller, you’ll often be in places and situations which are not so familiar to you and so not so safe as at home.
I don’t know if I’ve been lucky, but I’ve never had anything go majorly wrong whilst travelling. Although there’s some things you can’t prepare for, you can minimise the disruption caused by most problems if you do a little bit of preparation.
These are my top tips for staying safe:
1. Carry two credit/debit cards and keep them in separate places. That way, if one bag is stolen or lost, you can still access money. If you do lose all funds, don’t panic. Friends or relatives can wire you emergency money through Western Union and they can pay for accommodation etc. for you through a website like booking.com.
2. Look after your passport. I know this is obvious, but in some ways your passport is the most valuable thing you are carrying. Credit cards can be replaced, so can cameras etc., but if you lose your passport you’ll have to get to your embassy or consulate (which may be on the other side of the country) so that they can issue you an emergency travel document. If you do lose your passport, you also need to report this to local police so that you can get a crime number.
3. Get insurance, or a European health insurance card if travelling within the EU. I tend to only buy insurance for the medical cover it gives me. Also, if the worst were to happen and I die whilst abroad, I don’t want for my family to have to pay to fly me home. These days, I tend to buy an annual policy as these tend to be much, much cheaper than individual policies. I tend to find insurance via Travel Supermarket.
As an ex-holiday rep who dealt with this a lot I can tell you that insurance is worth it to offset the additional charges you may accrue if something does go wrong. If you are ill on holiday you may have to get a fit to fly certificate to get home. If you don’t get this certificate then you have to stay in a hotel and get another flight – all of which you will have to pay for.
If I am travelling to a budget airline location within Europe, I sometimes take the risk and rely on my EHIC card (European Health Insurance Card). With an EHIC card they will take you to a local hospital, where they may not speak English; whereas with insurance they will help to get you to an English speaking doctor. You can order your EHIC card from the gov.uk website. It’s free, so it’s worthwhile getting, even if you don’t plan to use it.
4. When you do buy insurance, check your excess (the amount you have to pay up front and can’t claim back). It’s worth paying a few pounds more if you can bring this right down. This is the same for car insurance too when you hire a car.
5. Email a copy of your insurance to a travel buddy, or to your next of kin or someone in your family, so if a hospital needs your details, but can’t ask you for them (maybe because you’ re unconscious), they can still get your insurance information.
6. If you’re going on a longer trip, book a few places on the road so people know where you should be at certain points, then leave a proposed schedule with a close contact.
7. Money belts that go under your clothes are great. You can stick your valuables in them and then forget about them, and you should notice if someone is trying to get into your pants to steal something.
8. If you are going to sleep on a bus or a train, use your day bag with your valuables in as a pillow or cuddle it like a teddy bear. If you’re in a sleeping bag, shove it to the bottom.
9. If you think you are being followed change your route, turn back on yourself etc., and if the person is still there then you probably are being followed. Go to a crowded area and if they keep following you shout at them, don’t be worried about offending them, they’re hassling you and a shouting doesn’t hurt anyone. If you can’t find a crowded area then call one of your friends (if you can) to give them a description of the person following you. And if you can’t do that, pretend to call, sometimes the pest will think you are calling the police and so back off. I’ve been followed a few times (usually by men on mopeds), and flashed at once, but I did the phone trick and luckily they backed off.
10. If you are walking in an isolated area and you feel a bit vulnerable, pick up a stone. If anyone tries to hassle you you can throw this at them to scare them away (this works well for dogs too).
11. If you can, get pre-paid taxis and tuk-tuks. If you pre-pay there is a record of your booking and journey. There is also no benefit to the taxi driver for them to take you a longer route.
I tend to get taxis and tuk tuks that I have flagged down, rather then ones that are touting for my business. Equally, I won’t get into a taxi that refuses to use a meter (unless that is what we have pre-agreed). If I can, I also have an idea of the route in my head, and if it seems as if the taxi driver is driving a particularly strange route, I will question the driver, or even get out and get another taxi.
12. Don’t worry about shouting at someone if they are hassling you: they’re in your space and a shout doesn’t hurt people. I know that getting angry is very much frowned upon in Asian countries, but I also don’t care. If someone is overly in my space, I will shout. Shouting can alert other people that something wrong is happening so that they pay more attention. And although it may be frowned upon, in the long term if it keeps you safe from harm, then the momentary stigma is worth it.
13. It’s pretty certain that someone who approaches you wants something from you. It might not be anything bad, so try to be kind at first, but if they are overly persistent then you have every right to be rude and just walk away (or even tell them to f-off).
14. Don’t let anyone coerce you into an action that you don’t want to make, and beware of someone taking you to an isolated place. Don’t go along with someone to be polite. If you don’t want to do something, don’t do it. In Turkey, I once accepted a lift from a stranger, pushed into it by the staff at my hotel who were being overly persistent and nice, although I just wanted to get the bus. It all worked out okay, but I wish I’d stuck to my guns, been a little rude and felt more comfortable and safe.
I also had a bit of a funny experience at the Taj Mahal (especially funny as I was wearing bright orange shoe covers at the time). I saw this young Western lad surrounded by a group of local teenage boys, and though it all seemed to be quite friendly, they also seemed to be gently moving him to a more isolated area and I was a bit worried about him. So, I went up to him to ask if I could borrow his guide book, to ask his name and if he was okay and also to ask the names of some of the boys he was with (in a friendly conversation way). I thought that if someone had a record of their names, they’d be less likely to do anything bad. He seemed oblivious, and maybe it was nothing, but it looked suspicious to me and so I thought I’d step in gently.
15. My guide in India told me to be aware of what beggars are wearing or what they have. Someone who is wearing gold jewelery or who has a nice bike does not necessarily need your money. If I am in a country with a lot of beggars, I try to give people fruit, as they can’t then pass this on to a third party and they will get some nutrients from the fruit. I hate to say this because I feel like a heartless cow, but supporting begging is not good for a society, so if you do want to help people it is better to support a charity that is working in that area, rather than give directly. However, saying that, I do still try to give people food, if I can.
16. On a plane and in a hotel, do a quick scout for the nearest fire exit. If you’re on a plane, count the rows to the exit. If you have to get out of a strange place, in the dark, in a fire – those few seconds of looking around could save your life. If you’re in an earthquake area, plan where you would go if an earthquake struck – under a table or a bed are the safest apparently. This article from the Independent has good information on what to do in an earthquake to stay safe.
17. Similarly, if you are on a boat, check to see where the life rafts and the life-jackets are. It only takes a minute to look, but it could save your life later on. Also, if you don’t think a boat looks safe, don’t get on it. Whilst recently travelling in Indonesia, we heard lots of stories of tourist boats sinking; and every time I got on one of these ferries I would plan my exit route. If a space didn’t look easy to get out of, I went to sit elsewhere.
18. Most thieves are opportunistic. Thieves will go for quick, easy targets. The longer it takes to steal something, the more likely they are to get caught – so don’t make it easy for them. Hide things in a jumble in your bag, tie your stuff to things, use locks and strange clasps, hang bells from your bags.
19. Don’t take anything you are not prepared to lose. I still mourn my rock kitty T-shirt that I left in a hostel in Phuket, and the stripy C&A scarf that I left in Athens.
20. Try to stay out of trouble: a. you’re on holiday, you don’t need the aggro; b. police are more likely to side with locals; c. even if they do side with you, navigating a foreign legal system can be extremely costly, disruptive and not easy. So don’t do drugs, kids, walk away from that fight, don’t commit fraud. Save that for when you’re at home. That said, if someone commits a crime against you, speak to your embassy and get their help to report it.
21. Remember you’re an ambassador for your country. Try to be polite and kind. If you’re being hassled, then by all means make a fuss and be rude; otherwise, try to remember that when you are travelling you are representing your country as well as yourself; so it’s great if you can be respectful and polite.
22. Do your research: five minutes of research can save you so much hassle, and can also be a fun part of travel planning. If you have an idea of where your hotel is, you may then recognise if a taxi is taking you to a strange place. If you have a confirmed booking, then it’s harder for people to direct you elsewhere.
23. If you can, find out what something should cost, so you know if someone is trying to charge you an exorbitant price. Convenience stores and supermarkets are always great for checking local prices.
24. Don’t take your wallet out unless you want to. Most scams are designed to get money from you, but people can only get your money if you give it to them. If someone tries to change a price on you or tries to charge you an extortionate price for something, when you haven’t agreed to that price – then walk away. The scammer might shout and get angry, but if they were really upset then they would go to the police and they probably won’t do that because that would draw attention to their scam. If someone is trying to force you into a course of action and you don’t feel comfortable, don’t take out your wallet, just walk away. Always ask for and agree to a price before you commit to anything.
25. Be aware and trust your instinct. If you’re not happy, walk away. If something doesn’t feel right, then walk away and don’t be afraid to be rude if you feel uncomfortable.
26. Learn to deal with dogs. Dogs are the scariest thing I’ve had to deal with so far on the road. I had to get a 5 am train in Jodhpur and at one point I was seriously scared a pack of dogs was going to attack me (luckily a tuk tuk pulled up at that very moment). I hear dog whistles are quite useful.
27. Avoid food under a heat lamp. This is my husband’s top tip. Food under a heat lamp has probably been there a while, and so is best avoided.
28. Relax and enjoy yourself. Most people are lovely and like I say, I have encountered very little trouble whilst working as a holiday rep and whilst travelling myself. Rather than worry, it’s far better to be prepared if something goes wrong and be confident that you know what to do.
Now on y va.