I’ve been lucky while traveling and living abroad. In two years of living Madrid, a city notorious for petty theft, I was never pickpocketed or robbed. I’ve ventured alone a LOT without any serious problems. That being said, I’ve experienced my fair share of narrow misses.
I was in Berlin for the Christmas markets, only days before a terrorist in a truck tore through those markets, killing several people. I’ve flown out of Brussels, Belgium, days before the city shut down in a hunt for terrorists connected to the Paris attacks. I’ve witnessed two assaults in Hong Kong during the 2019 political turmoil and protests. And I’ve been lucky to escape it all without any issues.
Whether staying home or traveling abroad, dangerous situations happen. It’s inevitable, and to be honest, the fact I’ve made it out unscathed has been more luck than my own savvy. That being said, I’ve developed some safety strategies and a stronger sense of situational awareness when traveling.
I recently read the book “Spy Secrets that can Save Your Life” by former CIA officer Jason Hanson. While most of the content was common sense, some information was new and eye-opening. Much of it echoed or reinforced some of the tactics I use when traveling to stay safe. Many of the rules I follow were learned the hard way. I experienced less-than-safe situations and made a mental note to avoid at all costs in the future. I write this to educate people and help them make smarter travel decisions – not to scare or induce paranoia.
Before You Go
Packing – what to bring and what to leave
You love your expensive engagement ring, and so will a thief. Flashy jewelry, watches, cameras, and other expensive accessories are best to leave at home somewhere safe. They make you a target, and the risk of losing your beloved possessions dramatically increases when you are always in transit and in unfamiliar places. When it comes to what you should pack – make sure you’re going to be dressed appropriately for your destination. Don’t wear revealing clothing in conservative or Muslim countries. It’s not a good idea, no matter how many travel bloggers try to tell you otherwise. While I want to be pro-female-empowerment and anti-shaming of women for what they wear, traveling in a foreign country is not the theater for that discussion. You want to enjoy your trip with minimal harassment, so try not to stick out like a sore thumb. It’s also good for men to know what to wear to blend in and to respect rules of covering up when visiting temples or mosques. Also – check the voltage requirements of your heated hair styling tools, and when in doubt, leave yours at home and get one from your hotel. I had flames come out of my American hairdryer when I tried to use it in Paris.
Tune into the news
Read my post on traveling in Hong Kong during the protests if you want some insight on what it’s like being in a place of political turmoil. Do as I say and not as I do – read up on what’s going on where you’re headed and make sure it’s a safe time to visit. A seemingly mild political situation can turn ugly and result in severe issues for travelers – like being stranded when airports are shut down or being detained because of your citizenship.
Transport is obviously a huge part of travel. If you’re traveling somewhere, you’re using some form of transportation to get there, and each type comes with potential hazards.
Tip #1 – Arrive during the day
When it comes to booking flights, I am willing to pay extra to arrive during the day, especially in countries I am unfamiliar with. Arriving in the daylight makes navigating to your accommodation much more relaxed, and reduces the chances of something sketchy happening when you’re en route from the airport to your hotel. I will never forget when my friend and I arrived in Marrakech, Morocco, late at night after an evening flight and two hours of waiting to pass through customs. We were on edge, navigating the winding streets of the medina with our taxi driver, the streets dark and quiet as drinking and going out at night is not customary. When we finally arrived at the hostel, we shared a sigh of relief that we had made it unscathed. It would have been much less stressful to arrive in the daylight, with a way to see around corners and more people to ask for help.
On the plane
Pay attention to the flight attendants, and read the safety card. We’ve all heard the speech about oxygen masks and lifejackets, but give the flight attendant your attention and respect during the announcement. Locate the exit nearest you, and take a look at how you’d open the door in the case of an emergency. Every plane is different, and having this knowledge can be life-saving in a dangerous situation.
When in doubt, climb over the seats to get to the exit. Know how to act, to get out of your seatbelt and escape the plane. A fascinating tidbit I learned from the Spy Secrets book was that a surprising amount of people actually survive the impact of a plane crash, but end up dying due to being in shock and breathing in toxic fumes, or unable to get themselves out of danger by freezing up.
When taking a taxi from the airport, go to the metered stands to get an official taxi. Check the car for taxi driver ID and meters to ensure they aren’t going to rip you off. Make sure you feel comfortable with the driver before getting in, that they know where you’re going. Connect to wi-fi and put your hotel in a GPS application so you can follow the route of the driver as you go, and if they veer off, speak up. Don’t sit on your phone texting during the drive either, stay alert to where you’re going.
Most taxi drivers are good people working to make an honest living, but there are plenty of bad ones too. They could try to rip you off or worse, set you up to be robbed. It’s also a good idea to check and make sure the taxi has A/C (if you’re traveling in a hot place) so you can keep the windows rolled up while in transit. Having the windows rolled down while in a traffic jam is a recipe for a robbery.
While transport apps like Uber, Lyft, Cabify, and Grab have made all of our lives easier in the digital age, use these with caution as well. Be aware of the problems that these companies have created in some areas. I found myself in a weird situation with the “Bali Taxi Mafia” during a night out in a popular party hub in Bali.
In Bali, there are many control zones where Grab drivers are not allowed to go. This is to help preserve the business of the official blue taxis. The bar we were drinking at was within one of these control zones. While my comrades wanted to drink into the wee hours of the morning, around 2 am, I was exhausted, ready to go back to the hotel for the night. I (stupidly) walked out of the control zone, a 10-minute walk away from the bar, and got on my phone to call a Grab. I was unsuccessful in the first few minutes, so I gave up and went to an official Blue Taxi. As I was showing him where I needed to go and discussing rates, a white SUV pulled up, and two guys got out, yelling at the taxi driver in Indonesian. They shouted back and forth, the official taxi drove off, and then the two motioned for me to get in the SUV. Fortunately, I was “sober” enough to know this was a terrible idea and a sketchy situation, so I turned around and hustled back to the bar. A hangover is better than being kidnapped – I should never have left the crowded area nor my group of friends to find my way home on my own.
Train & Subway Systems
Trains and subways are notorious locations for muggings and robberies. I’ve seen one pickpocketing during my time in Madrid. A woman had been on her phone texting, the subway pulled up, and she zipped it back into her purse. The thief stood behind her and knew it was on top right below the zipper in her bag. It was a crowded subway platform with dozens of people shoving their way into the metro, he pushed her in, as people were pushing from all sides. In a split second, he unzipped her bag and snatched her phone, turned on his heel, and made his way to the exit. It happened so fast, the second I realized what had happened, it was too late. Avoid being on your phone, especially in crowds, and on the train during stops. It’s not uncommon for an opportunist to snatch a phone right out of someone’s hands and run off the metro at a station, vanishing into a sea of people.
My old roommate in Madrid, a Spaniard, always said to never speak in English loudly on the metro. “If you talk in English loud on the Madrid Metro, you might as well wear a T-shirt that says “Rob Me.” He’s not wrong, and this goes for many busy cities in Europe and around the world. I don’t believe in being paranoid about being an “American” in a foreign country. We are not the world’s most hated tourists. Speaking English in a country where it’s not the native language, however, makes you stick out.
When on a crowded metro, keep a hand on the entry point to your bag, and your eyes up. Look around and scan the carriage for anyone acting strangely or trying to get near you. If you are wearing a backpack, take it off your back and hold it on your front. Never keep your wallet or valuables in outer pockets. I once had the pleasure of watching a thief try to get into my backpack. I could watch from the reflection in the glass windows that he was unzipping the outside pocket. Instead of freaking out, I watched in amusement as I knew I only had my dirty socks in that pocket. The disappointment on his face was palpable. Sucker.
Research the neighborhood
While it’s impossible to get a complete feel of a place you’re going before you arrive, a little research beforehand can make all the difference. Cities are diverse places, with neighborhoods that are safe for tourists, and areas that are incredibly dangerous. Mexico City was the perfect example of this – when you first leave the airport, the immediate surroundings are dismal, definitely not a place you’d want to be lost in. Other parts, like the more upscale Condesa neighborhood, are lovely and safe to explore during the day or night. Of course, you should always practice common sense, no matter where you’re traveling, but you can make yourself much safer by opting for accommodation in central, secure locations.
While you don’t need to read every single review ever written of a hotel or property, it’s always smart to read the first few to know what you’re getting yourself into. You can learn a lot about the pros and cons of a place by learning from the lessons of others. Also, always make sure to check on a map where a property actually is – if it’s cheap but far out of the central location, you may end up spending a lot more money on transporting yourself to the sights than if you would’ve just booked a more centrally-located accommodation.
Use all the locks
Don’t just rely on the electronic door locks that are standard in most hotels. Use all the locking devices on the door. While it’s never happened to me, I’ve heard stories of people waking up to someone entering their room thinking it was theirs, due to an error at the front desk. While these situations are rare, they happen, and it could be much more terrifying if it’s not just a simple mistake.
Keep your room key separate from information about your room
This is an important trick that my flight attendant aunt taught me. When you receive your keycard in a hotel, it’s often in a paper sleeve with your room number on it. Never store your key card in this sleeve after initially receiving it. If it gets stolen, now the thief knows where you’re sleeping and can gain access to your room and your belongings. Keep them separate, and don’t talk loudly about your room number in the lobby or elevators. It’s a super simple thing that many people don’t think of, but can be the difference between just needing to ask for a new key card and having to file a police report for all your valuables being robbed.
Food, Drinking, and Drugs
When traveling in countries with limited sanitation and infrastructure, considering your food choices carefully can be the difference from an unforgettable vacation or several days spent on the toilet. Don’t eat raw fruits and vegetables from sketchy places. Spend some time reading restaurant reviews before you make your plan for dinner – if several people report food poisoning from an establishment, steer clear. If you can, I always advocate eating local dishes over westernized options, since locals know how to prepare them better. It’s also not a terrible idea to get some antibiotics for travel in case of severe food poisoning or taking Pepto-Bismol to keep stomach issues at bay.
Always research if it’s safe to drink the water before you visit a new place. If you’re in the clear, it’s still a good idea to consider bringing a water purification system like a LifeStraw. If it’s not safe to drink from the tap, make sure you’re always purchasing sealed bottles of water.
This is not to make you afraid to eat when traveling in developing countries. There are tons of incredible restaurants in places like the Philippines, Indonesia, and South America that will serve you great food, even on the street and in food stalls. You can get sick from restaurants in developed countries, even fancy ones. I’ve only had severe food poisoning while traveling once in Costa Rica, and I am pretty sure it was from some sketchy coleslaw. Avoid coleslaw during travels and in life in general.
Drugs – best to not do them
While you really shouldn’t do drugs in general, I’m not going to judge people for what they want to do while abroad. Spiritual seekers may be heading to the Amazon for an awakening Ayahuasca experience or plan on raging all night during a full-moon party. The reality is that the temptation will be there for many travelers adventuring abroad.
However, doing drugs in a foreign country is very unsafe. Not only are you at risk of the death penalty in some places. Singapore makes that VERY clear on their customs form, and feel free to read up on the Bali 9 before you try to sneak something across the border. You’re also at a high risk of being set up or being sold substances that are chemically not what you think they are. Many places pay locals a bounty for tricking tourists into buying drugs from them, only to turn them in to the authorities immediately, or sell incredibly dangerous concoctions that are not what you think they are. Do what you want – but be aware of the potentially severe consequences if you do.
When in doubt, stick to beer
Thankfully, I’ve never had my drink spiked during my travels, but I’ve seen it happen to others I am with, and it is not pretty. This is also not just a warning for women traveling alone – I’ve seen it happen to huge guys. While sometimes it’s the drugging of a drink by a predator, there are also cases of bars using cheap or even bootleg alcohol that contains toxic substances that can leave you a mess or worse. This is why I try to stick to beer when I’m uncertain about the establishment we are drinking in. When you can watch someone open a beer, you stay in control of what you’re consuming. Plus, it’s usually the cheapest option anyway.
Check-in with yourself
Drink slowly and do periodic “check-ins” when drinking on your travels. Are you feeling way drunker than usual when you haven’t consumed a large amount? Are you losing control in any way? Do you have someone with you who you’d feel safe going back to your room with if you start to feel sick? Having situational awareness as well as awareness of what is going on with your body is crucial.
Everyone wants to have fun and try unique activities while on vacation. Island hopping tours, extreme sports, and other activities are likely to be a part of your itinerary at one point during your travels. 99.9% of the time, these tours are nothing but fun experiences. There is a small percentage; however, that end in serious tragedy, and often the tragedy was preventable.
If you’re on a boat, whether it be for island hopping or a ferry as transport, locate lifejackets and exits. Knowing how to swim is crucial. It can be the difference between life and death, so consider investing in swimming lessons if you haven’t before. There are also increasing options for free swimming lessons offered by various communities – so take advantage.
Trust your gut before signing up. If an operator seems sketchy, the equipment damaged or outdated, or you notice any other signs that make you uneasy, skip it. It’s better to lose a deposit than your life.
When you’re out and about, it’s essential to maintain a reasonable level of situational awareness at all times. While most places are safe, dangerous situations can arise at a moment’s notice, and you’re left in a vulnerable position if you’re on your phone or otherwise oblivious to what is going on around you.
Be wary of people trying to be too helpful or who try to get to know you too quickly. I think this advice comes with a fine line – I’ve met some incredible people in hostels and on tours while traveling around the world. People I trust profoundly and love keeping in touch with. Be open to meeting new people, but be careful about what information you divulge. Scam artists are good at charming travelers and swindling them for money or worse.
Also, be wary of anyone approaching you to sell you ANYTHING. The worst I’ve ever been scammed was in Las Vegas! In my own country. A fake promotions worker sold me an “unlimited drinks” wristband for either $40 or $60, I can’t remember. We were right in front of the hotel that had the nightclub that it was for, and he was wearing a semi-official uniform. When I look back now, I think “God I was a moron,” but I was naive and trusting, and the circumstances “seemed” reasonable. $60 is not the end of the world in the grand scheme of things, it could have been a much worse situation, but the bruise to my ego hurt just as much as the financial loss. Don’t buy from people on the street. Go into stores and shops to make a purchase.
Another scam I avoided was one I recognized immediately after hearing about it from other travelers. In a popular park in Madrid, a group of children surrounded two friends and me, waving a giant menu over our purses. The strategy is an older child covers up your backpack or bag to block your vision, while a smaller child crouches down as you’re distracted and snatches it. I will admit this is the only time (if you can believe it) that I’ve shoved a child over, pushing them away from our stuff and yelling to scare them off.
No scary travel stories are going to deter me from exploring the world. It’s good to learn from the advice and experience of others. Always be alert and aware of your surroundings (at home or abroad) and to know what to do in an emergency situation. Being prepared can make a huge difference when traveling, and knowing what to do can help you get out of a sketchy situation or avoid it altogether. By taking a few small precautions, you can make your travels more enjoyable and memorable for the right reasons.
Have you encountered scary moments abroad? Leave a comment with your stories!