By Chelsea La Near
An avid adventure-seeker shares her best safety advice for solo travelers.
As someone who has spent the last decade traveling abroad, I’ve learned that the world is generally a safe place for tourists. After all, tourism brings in money, so local governments have a vested interest in providing a safe environment for travelers.
I’ve also often learned the hard way that bad things can happen - both at home and abroad. Once in Los Angeles, my phone was stolen right from out of my hands. Another time in Italy, my wallet was snatched from my (admittedly) open bag.
Nothing can ruin your trip quite like being robbed, scammed, or finding yourself in a dangerous situation, so travel safety should be a priority when planning new adventures. Whether you intend to travel solo or in a group, these tips can help keep you protected.
Do your research. This starts before you even decide where you’re going. While most locations are likely safer than media would have us believe, there are definitely places you might want to skip this time around. Government databases can help you find the safest places to travel and avoid the most dangerous countries. For example, the US State Department issues travel advisory levels for every country. Level 1 is considered safe, level 2 requires increased caution, level 3 urges travel reconsideration, and level 4 should be completely avoided.
Prepare. Once you’ve decided where you’re going, but long before you arrive at your destination, these precautions can prevent the worst of travel woes:
Register with your embassy.
The US State Department has a Smart Traveler Enrollment Plan - a free service that provides safety updates to help you make more informed travel decisions and makes it easier for the Embassy to contact you in case of an emergency.
Print extra copies of your passport to keep in separate bags or compartments.
Having copies on hand makes the process of replacing a lost or stolen passport slightly less of a hassle. This will also help you secure accommodation as many hotels require some form of identification. It’s a good idea to keep a photo or scan of your passport saved and easily accessible in a cloud storage service like Google Drive.
Learn basic communication. This can be a daunting yet rewarding one. A compromise if you plan to spend only a short amount of time in a country is to write or print helpful emergency phrases (“I need help,” “I need a doctor,” etc) on a small card to keep in your wallet. If you plan to stay for a longer period of time, booking a one-week language vacation with Parlay Vacay can help you quickly acquire the communication skills you need to stay safe.
Get travel insurance. I’ll be completely honest, as a young, budget traveler, I avoided travel insurance for years, but after hearing some of the benefits from fellow travelers, I decided emergency medical and evacuation assistance, as well as 24/7 support, would bring me and my family peace of mind. If you’re younger and plan to travel a lot this year, ask for it as a birthday gift. Parents will be happy to know that you’re safe.
Look up local tourist scams. Broken taxi meters, fake transport tickets, and “free” goods a services are just a few examples of tourist scams that can burden your travels, both financially and emotionally. Familiarizing yourself with common lures and traps can help you identify and avoid them.
Safety in numbers. You know the dilemma: you’re a solo traveler at a bus or train station and you need to use the bathroom, but you have all of your belongings with you.
You’ll need Herculean quad strength to hover over a squatter toilet while simultaneously carrying your hefty backpack. Be careful that none of the straps fall in the toilet. Alternatively, you could risk putting your bags on the dirty floor. Then carry around whatever fun bacteria you pick up.
This is really one of the worst things about solo travel that those who travel in groups don’t have to worry about - there’s always someone there to safeguard your things. Group travelers are less vulnerable than solo travelers for a number of reasons, but there are still plenty of ways to use numbers to your advantage when traveling alone:
Stick to busy areas. Walking an extra 20 minutes on the main road to avoid back alleys can definitely be worthwhile if it keeps you safe.
We’re all in this together. If you’re a solo female traveler, look for other women alone or in groups to be near. I have been in several situations where I was seated with a man who attempted to harass me. Now I always choose a seat next to a woman even if it means I have to get up and move.
Make friends! The best (and most fun) way to stay safe when traveling alone is to make friends with fellow travelers. Hostels and guest houses with common areas are great places to find travel partners. If you prefer hotel rooms, you can meet new people by signing up for group activities and tours offered by local travel agencies.
Get to know your neighbors and surroundings. As soon as you arrive to your first lodging, locate yourself on a map (or ask a local). Find the nearest police station, pharmacy, hospital, and ATM. Try to walk by them during the day if you get a chance. You can also introduce yourself to people who work near where you’re staying, especially if you plan to stay there for more than a few days.
When I was traveling alone in Columbia and staying in a less-touristy part of Medellin, I introduced myself to some of the staff at a restaurant on my street. Their greetings every time I walked by made me feel much safer, like someone nearby had my back - plus I got invited to hang out with them and watch soccer games, so that was fun!
Get a sim card. It’s fairly common for airports in other countries to have kiosks where you can buy a local SIM card as soon as you arrive.
A local sim is helpful for several reasons.
make emergency calls
make local calls more economically
get directions and information
avoid using public wifi where hackers might try to steal your information
Be smart and aware. Seems obvious enough, but here’s some insider travel tips to keep you safe and engaged:
Bring only what you need and lock up the rest.
You don’t need your passport when wandering around, so leave that locked up along with spare cash and credit cards.
Invest in clothes with secret pockets and zippers.
I have a “travel jacket” with large, zippered pockets on the inside where I can keep my phone and passport. I have designated pockets for each item so I know exactly where to find them.
Count your change when you use big bills to pay for things.
International money can seem like monopoly money with its bright colors and different materials - as such, it’s easy to get careless and just assume you’re getting the correct change.
It’s not uncommon for cashiers in some countries to intentionally hand out less change hoping that the tourist won’t notice, then smile and apologize for their “mistake” if they get caught. Spend some time with the currency when you arrive so you can quickly identify the difference between bills.
Always negotiate prices in advance.
I learned this lesson when a local offered to take me around to a few sites, saying he just wanted to show me his beautiful city. I suspected he might ask for money at the end, which he did, but I did not expect that he would ask me for as much as he did! Food, flowers, tours, prayers, jewelry - these are all things I’ve seen locals try to give away for “free” only to ask for money afterwards and make a scene if the tourist doesn’t pay. Avoid this problem by negotiating prices beforehand.
Stay healthy. Plenty of popular travel destinations don’t have the same food or safety standards that we’re used to. These health precautions may prevent an illness from slowing you down:
Water. Find out if you’ll need to drink bottled water, and my advice from experience is to always choose bottled water over boiled water. Lots of hotels and hostels have large, filtered water jugs, so bring a reusable bottle to fill up and carry with you to stay hydrated!
Food. Eating can be a bit more challenging than water, but trust your instinct. If it doesn’t look or smell right, best to choose something else. Carry packaged snacks in the event you can’t find a suitable meal. Ask staff where you’re staying for advice on where to eat.
Medicine. It’s not a bad idea to stock up on medication at a local pharmacy if you’re about to spend time in a more remote area where medication won’t be accessible. I once came down with a stomach bug the day before I was supposed to reach Annapurna base camp, but a kind Australian offered me medication that helped me get through the next day. Since then, I always have the basics on hand.
Rest. With so many new and exciting things to see and do, we often try to squeeze too much in and forget to recharge our bodies. Fatigue can lead to illness, so try to schedule a day or two to sleep in, or even a day to do nothing but relax. Vacations can be good for that!
Chelsea La Near, M. Ed., is a writer, wanderluster, and language education professional from Missouri who spent the past 9 years teaching abroad in East Asia and is currently based in Seattle. Follow her on Twitter @chelsealanear and Instagram @thenearsea for more.
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