Border Crossings: Tips to Avoid Getting Jacked

Border crossing between Thailand and Laos

Border crossing between Thailand and Laos

[mathess]/[iStock]/Thinkstock

Overland border crossings are superb locations for scams, threats and disasters. They’re nearly always confusing. You may have to take two different busses, cross half of a river via ferry and then walk a long bridge (read: rickety plank) with a bunch of “officials,” some of which will undoubtedly actually be official before making it to the other side, hopefully unscathed. Lucky for you, you’ve stumbled over to the PacSafe blog where we specialize in – that’s right – safe travels. So grab your money belts and bravado and saddle up for a couple tips that will keep you from getting robbed and stabbed in a dusty concrete nowhere and thrown in one of several shallow graves. Just kidding. But only kind of.

Tour Company Dependence Vs. Self Reliance
I used to be of the mind that if a tour company can charge me for something, then surely I could complete the same action alone with less hassle and expense. After being screwed at a certain Southeast Asian border I’d prefer not to mention (embarrassment), I no longer feel that way. Ask fellow travelers who’ve made the crossing before which are the best companies for taking care of the entire experience. Generally, they’ll arrange for any and all transportation needs; they’ll help with the documents process, and may even throw in a lunch, because if one thing is guaranteed, it’s that it’ll all take way longer than seems necessary.

Protection of Valuables
If there’s any place a secret money pouch is especially worthwhile, this is it. You need to make sure you have your passport, visa documents and immunization records readily available (not buried at the bottom of your bag) to expedite the process, but you also don’t want them flowing in the wind. The money pouches you wear around your waste keeps them safe and are easily accessible. Anti-theft neck pouches work well too, but in my experience they’re slightly more difficult to access.

Exchange Rates and Currency Options
You might be proud that you’ve planned ahead and have cash in both currencies, and then, regretfully, you find that the folks on the other side will only accept US dollars. Crisp ones, specifically. Nothing soiled or wrinkled, please. When you get to the border you’ll find people who are doing currency exchanges. Know beforehand what the appropriate rate is and be ready to bargain a bit. That being said, this is how they make a living, so do consider throwing in a tip or expecting a less-than-official rate to make up for this. Make sure you receive crisp, fresh bills in small denominations – people seem to hate making change for larger bills and often refuse to do so at all. With both sets of currencies, you’re likely good to go, but it always pays to have some US cash hidden just in case you need it. PacSafe’s anti-theft travel belt is among the coolest things in existence and is worth picking up for this purpose.

Visas, Fees and Procedures
In many countries around the world you can get a visa on arrival, but not all. Don’t waste your time showing up to the border without knowing what you need. Visas can be purchased in immigration offices, embassies and online. Expect entry and exit fees and make sure you have enough cash on you to cover all of the costs involved. Have a look at the US Bureau of Consular Affairs for country-specific information.

Demeanor
If you have your valued possessions stashed in your pockets, are snapping photos relentlessly with a fine camera and in general looking either clueless or timid, you become a ripe target for folks who wouldn’t mind relieving you of your possessions. Deal with customs officers with respect and confidence, avoid interactions with people looking to “help you out” and make sure you’ve done your homework on what to expect for the particular border crossing. It’s true, not everyone is out to get you, far from it in fact, but border crossing have reputations of thuggery for a reason, and they generally aren’t the best places for testing out the odds.

By Bryan Schatz

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