When it comes to staying safe on the road, everyone always talks about common sense, as if it's a force field that will protect you and keep the zombies at bay. What exactly are they talking about? Well, since you're asking:
Don’t Flash Your Wealth
In nature, predators hunt the easiest targets, the lowest hanging fruit. Those who target tourists do the same. If they see you walking around with expensive jewelry and cameras, or thumbing through rolls of cash, you become the easy mark. This is especially true in developing countries, where signs of wealth are displayed less flagrantly. Leave your $10,000 wedding rings at home or in the hotel safe. Keep your camera in its bag unless you feel safe in the environment. Draw as little attention to yourself, and try to blend in. It’s the simplest and easiest way to avoid the unwelcome attention of predators.
Don’t Go Where You Shouldn’t
It sounds so simple, and yet it’s amazing how often this is the cause of unfortunate incidents. Every city has places you should avoid. If you don’t know what they are, just ask a local who will gladly tell you. Meanwhile, if it’s avalanche season and you’re advised not to go venturing into the backcountry, heed the warnings. Official government alerts are often over the top, but do some research before you dismiss them outright, and unknowingly find yourself in a conflict zone. If you are visiting a hot spot, make sure you’re in regular contact with friends, and let a government office know. A little bit of knowledge goes a long way when it comes to ensuring you’re not in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
Trust your gut
Our intuition has always been there, we’ve just forgotten how to hear it clearly. When you’re travelling though, it can yell a little louder than normal. You’ll hear it telling you: Don’t eat that chicken, it looks undercooked! Don’t walk down that street, it looks too dark? This taxi is taking too long, I’m being ripped off! Common sense means knowing when to trust that little voice in your head, and dismissing it when it’s being too paranoid. It takes practice, but many of the unfortunate stories we hear in the news could have been avoided if people just listened to their gut. Your intuition is a crucial tool for staying safe.
Know where you’re staying
Carry a card with the name, phone number and address of the place you are staying, especially in countries where you don’t speak or understand the local language. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way, wandering about for hours before I could remember the unpronounceable name of the hotel I was staying at, located on an unpronounceable street in an unpronounceable district. Most hotels have business cards at reception, so make sure you grab one. If you’re staying with friends, ask them to write down their address to show a taxi driver. The rules of common sense are common for a reason: because they are so simple.
Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help
Having traveled to over 100 countries, I firmly believe people would rather help you than hurt you. If you’re in a situation, don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you’re in public and feel threatened, raise your voice, scream, make a commotion so that people know they should come to your aid. If you’re feeling sick, tell someone so they can get you to a doctor or pharmacy. If you can’t speak the language, use gestures. You’ll be surprised just how hospitable locals can be, and how much pride they take in making sure guests in their country are safe and happy. So much so that you’ll want to ask for directions repeatedly, since some locals would rather give you the wrong directions than tell you they don’t know the answer.
When it comes to your safety, you get what you pay for
In La Paz Bolivia, a very popular activity is to bike downhill a 67km road from the mountains into the jungle. A New Zealander who put safety first created it, but once it became a must-do activity for tourists, competitors popped by the dozen with other priorities in mind. They offer a cheaper price, but on cheaper bikes, without maintenance records. Subsequently over 15 tourists have died. The original company has had zero fatalities. Saving a few bucks is simply not worth your life when it comes to choosing between competing services. This is especially true for adventure outfitters, but also for transportation companies. Is the company reputable? Do they look and feel professional? Accidents still may happen, but cutting corners too often might lead to you flying off an edge.
Keep Online Backups of Your Passport, Details and Documents
If you lose everything, and I mean everything, make sure you have backups online. Send your webmail a protected Word doc containing your passport, insurance, banking information and passwords, addresses and contacts. Email yourself scanned copies of your passport and drivers license. Once you have all that information, you can begin the painful, yet necessary task of alerting all the relevant authorities about the theft or loss. But at least you’ll know who to call for help, and what information they’ll need to help you. Make sure, most importantly, you don’t forget your password to access this information online. It’s also a good idea not to keep all your valuables together. Just in case, when I travel I keep a back-up credit card stored in a different location.
Watch our for Common Scams
Read up on some of the most common scams so you’ll know what they are and how to avoid them. Fortunately, I’ve compiled a handy list for you right here. Crowded tourist attractions or markets are popular with pick pockets, so make sure your wallet is safely zipped up, and be vigilant about checking it’s still there. Carry your bags securely and be aware of your surroundings. Never, ever leave your luggage or bags unattended, especially in train or bus stations. Be friendly but weary of random people who approach you on the street.
Act Like You Belong
Scammers and thieves look for tourists displaying obvious signs of wealth, and also those who look nervous and uncomfortable. They might just say hello, but how you answer the question will determine whether you’re an easy mark. The key is to look relaxed and in control, no matter how freaked out and nervous you actually feel. Smile, make eye contact, be assertive but not aggressive. The goal is make it look like you’re too much work to bother with. I once found myself on the wrong bus and had to walk my way out of a South American slum. Inside I was panicking, but I kept my cool by strolling in the streets, smiling, looking like an out of place gringo who nevertheless knew where he was going. Locals are always more willing to help someone who’s behaving rationally than someone in a panic.
Always Carry Insurance, and Avoid Confrontation
Travel insurance is absolutely essential. A few dollars save your butt, and the peace of mind is priceless. Shop around, and read the policy to know what you’re covered for, and what’s excluded in the fine print. Insurance is there for a reason. Never, EVER confront someone threatening violence. It might be brave, but no watch, wallet or cash is worth getting hurt or killed. Remember that the vast majority of people travelling never experience any problems, but sometimes shit happens. Keep a clear head. Call the police to get a case number. Cancel your cards and find out about getting new ones. Contact your insurance company as soon as possible to file a claim. Resist the temptation to tarnish an entire country because of one unfortunate situation. You’ll be amazed at how people will come to your aid when you really need them. But with a little common sense, the chances are astronomically in your favour that you’ll be just fine.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.