I have been travelling permanently – without a real home – for more than five years. I’ve moved slowly and I’ve quickly. I’ve stayed in luxury hotels and dirty hostels. I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of the world and I’ve done it on all sorts of budgets.
Do you know what has never happened to me, though? I’ve never been robbed and I’ve never lost anything important. However, it does happen and you should always be prepared!
I’m the first to admit that there’s an element of luck that nothing major has happened to me in five years… but it’s more than just luck. I am a firm believer that if you prepare yourself properly then you’re less likely to have problems when you’re travelling.
I’ve learned a lot of things on the road and I would like to share some of them with you. Hopefully these tips will help you next time you travel.
Pack according to importance
Hotel rooms aren’t always safe but your possessions are generally safer there than when you’re on the road. I consider the most dangerous time to be when I am travelling between places with all of my possessions. To minimise the chance of having something stolen (or losing it myself), I apply a ‘rule of three’ where I separate everything into three categories.
The first is the things that don’t matter that much – clothes, shoes, toiletries, etc. I put all of these in my main big bag and then I don’t worry about it because it doesn’t really matter if I lose it.
The second category is the valuables – camera, computer, glasses, prescriptions, etc. These items I keep in a small daypack and I never let it out of my sight, including putting it on my lap when I’m sitting.
The third category is the essentials – passports, cash, credit cards. I keep these in a travel wallet that is attached to my body. That way, even if I lose both of my other bags, I won’t be stranded.
Use two wallets
In a lot of places you might travel to, there is likely to be an issue with pickpocketing or petty theft in the tourist areas. One way I get around that is to use two wallets when I’m travelling.
My main one has credit cards, identification, and all the other cards you carry around at home. This wallet I leave in my hotel room (preferably in the safe or hidden in my large bag).
The second one, which I take out with me, only has a limited amount of cash and any cards I know I will definitely need and are easy to cancel. That way if I am the victim of a pickpocket, I only lose a small amount and I save a lot of hassle of replacing cards!
Don’t flash valuables
This is one of the most common bits of advice you’ll ever get about travel safety – but I would like to give it a bit more detail. People (myself included at times) often don’t think about what we do with our phones and cameras.
I have seen a phone snatched out of someone’s hands by a thief on a motorbike. Since then, I never hold it with one hand near the side of the road. Hold your phone securely in public and if you’re going to stop to use it, try to do it discreetly in an alcove. Also, don’t leave it sitting on a table at a restaurant because I have heard countless stories of a phone being snatched right under the owner’s nose.
The camera can be a bit trickier if you have a large one because it’s not so simple to slip into your pocket. I used to carry mine around in a camera bag but then realised how foolish that was – it looked like a bag that had a camera in it, making it a target for thieves. So now I use the Camsafe V17 anti-theft camera backpack which looks like a normal backpack but has a convenient side pocket for a camera and lens.
Be confident in where you’re going
Many thieves in tourist areas are looking for easy targets – they’re like lions preying on an impala with a limp! So you should do everything you can to look less like a tourist or, at least, less like a vulnerable one.
One of the simplest ways to do this is to walk with authority and try to never seem lost. I tend to look at a map before I head somewhere and then go in the right direction with confidence. If I need to check a map en route, I do it in a subtle way.
Puff out your chest and look stronger than you are. If you’ve got a smile on your face, you won’t look weak. Someone with a brisk reassured walk is harder to intercept than a confused dawdler. It’s funny how these small things can change your demeanour and the way you’ll then be approached.
Do some research beforehand
A lot of safety and security issues overseas arise simply from not understanding a situation. The more information you have in advance, the easier it will be to avoid or get out of sticky situations.
Unfortunately one of the first places that you see in a country – the airport or train station – can often be the most dangerous. Thieves and scammers know that you’re likely to have very little sense of a country so I always read in advance about the potential scams at airports.
It’s good to also know about the different areas of the city because there are often places you shouldn’t be after dark. Some tourist attractions have unique issues and there are scams more common in certain cities. If you are expecting these, it’s very easy to be on the lookout and avoid them.
Follow your gut about people
Ultimately, most issues with safety will involve another person and knowing who to trust can make a big difference. Sometimes it is hard to tell – especially in a foreign country – but your first instinct is often right and you should listen to it. If something feels a bit uncomfortable, you’re better to walk away from that situation. Don’t worry about being rude – having someone think less of you for a minute is more preferable than having everything stolen.
One of the reasons we like to travel is to meet new people and experience local cultures. Don’t be afraid of strangers because there will be many times when you are offered legitimate kindness. But just be confident following your gut.
Having said all of this, the world is a very safe place. The vast majority of people are just like you and they’ll either let you go about your business or offer to help. You shouldn’t be scared of travel or it loses some of its enjoyment. I think being prepared and following some of these tips actually helps you enjoy travel because you have a bit more confidence that something bad won’t happen to you.
By Michael Turtle