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Top Travel Safety Tips

Disaster often makes for good travel stories, but it’s not how many people wish to spend their vacations. By following the below tips you can be sure to subvert many of the most common problems and mishaps that befall international travelers. Don’t flash valuables Everybody says this, but still many don’t seem to get it. [...]

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Disaster often makes for good travel stories, but it’s not how many people wish to spend their vacations. By following the below tips you can be sure to subvert many of the most common problems and mishaps that befall international travelers.

Don’t flash valuables

Everybody says this, but still many don’t seem to get it. Yes, showing signs of status and wealth anywhere will make you a target for theft — especially if you are in a place standing out in the crowd like a big swollen thumb (aka tourist). It’s unbelievable how many times I see tourists leaving their cameras on cafe tables, pulling off their money belts in public because they are “uncomfortable,”or pulling out huge wads of cash in the streets to buy some trinket. “Oh, but it’s safe here,” many say, not seeming to realize that people are more often than not robbed when their guard is down, in places that seem safe.

This almost goes without saying, but thieves and con-artists are going to target people who look like they have money. What you put on your body each morning is a conscious decision, so you decide if you want to show people that you have big bucks or if you’re a pauper. It’s usually best to go the middle route: look nice but don’t show off too much wealth. Status symbols like fancy handbags and jewelry may show off where you stand in the social hierarchy at home, but abroad they just make you a target.

Keep money concealed

Keep your daily spending money separate from your main stash. Put enough cash for your perceived daily expenditures in a pocket or another easily accessible location and keep the rest in either a hidden pocket in your pants or a money belt along with your passport and credit cards. If you do travel with a money belt don’t take it off or out of its concealed location in public.

I learned on trick to keep money concealed from my grandfather, who was a traveling show promoter. One day he pulled me aside, took off his hat, and showed me what was inside of it. On the inside of the inner-band he had pinned a $50 bill. He then explained that he had it there to help if out of a jam, if the need were to arise. If he were robbed or otherwise lost his wallet he would have enough cash to fill his gas tank, get some food, make a phone call or two, and drive to a place where he could count his loses and reprovision. I’ve always taken this lesson in travel preparation with me, and I always keep a little wad of cash in a secret pocket on the inside of my pants or I pin it inside my hat as my grandfather did.

Realize that you are a target

When you’re abroad realize that you are a target, you’re a fish out of water. No matter what the Travel Channel tells you you’re not going to blend in when traveling in a foreign country. Even if you go to a place where the people look like you, your demeanor, style of clothes, hair cut, shoes, and the way you talk are going to give you away. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just something to keep in mind: you stand out like a sore thumb.

Give off a strong and confident demeanor

This is one of the most important travel safety tips that I have: wherever you go, whatever you do when abroad do so with a strong and confident demeanor. Don’t go through the streets pretending to blend in with the crowd — you don’t — and don’t act like meek and passive observer. Instead, walk through the streets with your head held high, look people in the eyes, and greet them in their language. When I find myself in a situation where I’m walking into a group of some pretty bad looking dudes I don’t cower and pray that they don’t notice me; no, I look them in the eye, walk right by them, and say hello. Like all animals, humans can sense fear, and some take advantage of it. Showing fear when traveling is one of the most dangerous things that you can do.

Remember that foreigners are not called on for help

It is very, very rare for a local to ever request help or assistance from a tourist. So if a local approaches you and asks for help turn on the warning lights and ask yourself, “Out of all these people on this street why is this person asking me for help.” Sure, it’s easy to think that it’s because you just look like a nice person, but more often than not it’s because you look like a gullible foreigner. I know that you want to show the locals that you are the “good tourist” who makes a good impression of yourself and your country, but the fact of the matter is that local con-artists know of this desire too, and, all too often they will provide you with an opportunity to show your kindness. Unfortunately, these situations are more often than not scams. So when the little old lady has her purse taken in front of you, or the young college girl drops her groceries by your feet, or a guy with a limp asks you to help him across the street, get away fast or call over a local to help in your stead. It feels awkward and wrong denying someone who asks for your help, but it feels worse being scammed or robbed.

Knowing your place and responsibilities as a tourist in a foreign country is a large part of staying safe. A tourist is the last person that anyone is going to ask for help. Likewise, be on the lookout for phony tourists pulling the same scam.

If you are mugged make the thief happy

If the above advice fails and you do find yourself the victim of a mugging or armed robbery, be sure to make the thief happy. This means giving away your valuables — all of them. It is often suggested that foreign travelers should carry a dummy wallet which is full of expired credit cards and only a small amount of money, but I don’t recommend this route, as it could put you in a far more dangerous situation than you were in before. In point, if someone is bold enough to pull a gun or knife on you in the street they are probably also bold enough to open up your wallet to see what they’ve just stolen from you. If they think you tried to pull a fast one on them or if there is not enough cash in the wallet to make them happy you may find yourself in big trouble or even dead. I’m not joking here, if you are robbed you want to make the thief happy. As a general rule of thumb, don’t mess with these people, they can kill you. Really, the money you could possible save here is not worth the risk.

Always remember: you are not a tough guy

Unless you grew up in ganglandia and through prison, the special forces of some military, or are a tried and tested martial arts expert, you are probably not really a though guy — no matter how much you don’t want to admit it. Even Bruce Lee said that if he were mugged he would hand over his wallet without a fight. No matter how tough you are, someone with a gun or knife, or who has a gang backing him up stands a good chance of coming out on top. The odds are not in your favor in this game. If you find yourself in a compromising situation don’t let pride put you in further peril. Knowing that you’re a rabbit, not a wolf, and acting as such, is probably the top thing you can do to keep yourself safe on the road. Have sense when it comes to self-defense: run.

Plan for disaster

For each activity that you do on the road plan for things going belly up. Think to yourself, “How can this go wrong and what will I do if it does?” for each situation that you enter into. So if you’re riding on a bus in Guatemala, come up with a quick plan of action of what you will do if you’re held up by bandits. If you’re renting a car, find out the local laws about what to do if you get into an accident or what you should do if you’re pulled over by the police. If you’re going out to enjoy a city’s nightlife, be sure to have the address of your hotel on you somewhere so that you can show it to a taxi driver if you get too drunk or end up in an unfamiliar part of town. Find out in advance how you should deal with the police in a country (i.e. should you bribe them or not? should you take a strong and aggressive demeanor or a passive and apologetic one?). Come up with a plan of action if you are robbed. Think about what you will do if you need medical attention, do you have all the documents on you that you will need if you must suddenly be rushed to a hospital?


If you’re going to be in a country where you don’t speak the local language for over a month, make sure you learn how to communicate with people. It really takes very little effort to learn how to say an adequate number of words and phrases in local language to enable you to travel. Just learn how to do this, it will help you exponentially all through your travels. In addition to learning to speak the basics of a foreign language, also try to carry a medium through which you can communicate more in-depth. Having Google Translate on your mobile phone is an excellent way to pull up more specific vocabulary that you’ve not yet learned. If you don’t have a smartphone with a data plan then carry a phrase book or dictionary.

Learn the local scams

Every location in the world generally has a host of con-artists who prey on foreign tourists. Learn their strategies and how to prevent them from happening to you. One quick way to find out the hustles that are being pulled on foreigners in a destination is to ask at your hostel or hotel. Another way to to search the internet for “[place name] scams.”

Get or carry a mobile phone

Carrying a mobile phone is now a global standard: no matter who you are, local or foreigner, it’s just expected that you will have a mobile phone on you. There is really no excuse, as cellular communication around the globe has drastically risen in quality over the past few years, it’s readily accessible, and is often relatively cheap. Just having your own phone abroad gives you the ability to communicate with the local people on a scale that you would not be able to otherwise, and, if in a jam or emergency, it can be a life saver.

The phone booth is fast becoming extinct throughout the world, and the probability of being near to one in the case of an emergency is often slim to none. Sure, you can take it for granted that just about everyone else you see in the streets is going to have a mobile phone that you may be able to borrow, but in a time of dire need, this additional step in the emergency response chain may prove disastrous. In point, if you’re in a country for more than a week or two, get connected to their mobile phone system.

There are two cheap ways of using a mobile phone in a foreign country: 1) Get an unlocked cellphone and get local SIM cards for it as you travel, 2) Just buy a cheap phone locally. For both methods, buying pre-paid minutes is usually the best way to go.

In El Salvador, I paid $8 for a phone with $6 worth of call time, in Mexico I got a phone for $20 that came with 200 free minutes, throughout Eastern Europe and Turkey I popped a $15 local SIM cards into an unlocked phone from the USA and bought minutes as I needed them.

Collect contact numbers

Carrying a mobile phone in a foreign country doesn’t really get you too far if you don’t know any local numbers to call. So be sure to load your phone’s contacts folder with a few necessary numbers, such as that for emergency response (the equivalent of 911 in the USA), the numbers for the hotels/ hostels you stay at, and that of any local friends you make.

Use Skype app

If you get a local smartphone or get a local SIM card for your unlocked mobile, be sure to download the Skype app and upload your contacts. This enables you to quickly call your people if you find yourself in a compromising situation.

Travel insurance

This is a topic that is often up for debate in the traveler circles, and this is my take:

If you are on a short vacation, getting travel insurance is probably a good thing to do. I mean, what is $100 or $200 against the price of a total vacation? But, if you are traveling long term or living abroad, you may want to think twice before signing up for travel insurance.

In point, travel insurance is not the same as medical insurance, as it’s often only for emergency care. This means that if you have a major problem the insurance will cover getting you stabilized and, if needed, back to your home country, but that’s it. You can’t use travel insurance for continuous medical care abroad. So if you’re living in a foreign country or traveling long term with no plan on going home, travel insurance isn’t going to get you too far in terms medical treatment goes.

Keep a photocopy of your passport and visa on you at all times

It is always a good idea to keep a photocopy of both your passport and visa (complete with entry stamps) on you at all times when in a foreign country. This helps in situations where you need to unexpectedly show identification (such as in random police road blocks), and also, if you are ever unconscious or unresponsive, medical first-responders will be able to know who you are and contact your embassy, who will then be able to assist you further.


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Filed under: Travel Safe, Travel Tips

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

1 comment… add one

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  • Jack October 3, 2012, 5:27 am

    +1 on the be confident. When I’m traveling, I make it a point to look people in the eye when I pass by and say hello. Saying hello, hola, ni hao, whatever the local lingo is, unnerves people if they are up to no good. Alongside being confident, you should always know where you are going or try to act like you know where you are going. That puts a determination in your steps and it shows.

    The following could be total BS, but I’ll say it anyways: I also have a feeling, and that’s all it is, that unlike in the US, many muggers and thieves abroad are stealing for money not for the thrill of hurting someone. Saying hello maybe changes them just a bit so they look for someone else to steal from.

    Another tip I have is avoid situations what could turn sideways fast, like getting drunk out on the town. A significant number of friends abroad who got robbed where robbed while drunk.

    Everything I say could be BS, but knock on wood, after 15 years of travel and living abroad, I’ve never been robbed in my presence. I’ve only had to deal with airport personnel taking stuff out of my luggage.

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