Safety is a big topic when talking about traveling. I'd like to give you some practical advice with these tips and ways to stay safe while traveling which are applicable all over the world.
Before I start I'd like to point out that I wrote this article based on my experiences of traveling Europe, South America and northern Africa – on my travels I have been a victim of a violent robbery in Argentina, my credit card got copied and I talked a lot with other travelers who ran into similar situations.
Generally there are no “good” or “bad” countries as crime happens all over the world – sometimes just a few simple tips can improve your safety and make your travel experience more enjoyable.
1) Learn the language
If you plan to stay longer in a certain region I highly recommendlearning the language – not only does it enrich the travel experience it also helps you when you run into problems.
Speaking about South America there are not as many english speakers as in other parts of the world – without speaking spanish you are often lost in translation. It helped me a lot to speak spanish, especially when the robbery happened and I had to talk to the police, doctors at the hospital and the dentist afterwards.
Tip: I used an online language course to learn Spanish – it took me only 3 months to achieve a good basic level I could use to get around with. You can try the same course for free.
2) Be informed about your destination
In big cities you should know the areas which are safe and those which are dangerous for tourists. As a citizen from Europe or North America you are easy recognizable in Africa, Asia or South America – in metropolitan areas the poor and rich life close to each other, therefore you should inform yourself which areas are safe to stay in if you choose your accommodation.
If you are at your Hotel/Hostel/Apartment you should talk to the reception as these guys know the city better than you and can give you recommendations where to go.
3) Travel insurance
When you plan to be abroad for a while I highly recommend getting a travel insurance to ensure emergency medical and evacuation assistance and 24/7 support when you need it most.
4) Keep an eye on your belongings
Especially when being in transfer mode (= traveling from on spot with all you luggage to another) you should always keep an eye on all your stuff – when traveling with a backpack you could use a rain-cover to protect yourself from getting pick pocketed.
Big station, airports or busy spots are the favorite places for pickpockets therefore you should never leave your luggage unattended.
Tip: Pacsafe offers a wide range of anti-theft travel gear e.g. the popular Backpack bag protector.
5) Only withdrawal in banks
Skimming is a common practice all around the world – ATMs are manipulated and copy the data on your card unnoticeable. It happened to me in Chile and in Uruguay, afterwards those people tried to steal money from my bank account. A blessing in disguise: as I followed 6) my card got blocked automatically.
Well..you need cash when traveling therefore you should withdrawal money only inside banks during the opening hours because ATMs get skimmed mostly during the off-peak-hours and in public areas like shopping malls.
6) Choose a solid travel card
In emergency situations you should have a card from a provider/bank who offers a 24/7 support and comes with some sort of safety mechanism. When my card got copied a mechanism noticed the misuse and blocked the card moreover I got contacted by my bank within minutes.
When you decide to get a credit card have a look at the safety section or ask you bank.
7) Don't show your valuables around
Walking around with your 1000€ DSLR around your neck could be a problem in some places – especially if you think about the fact that the value of your camera could be 3 times the local monthly income.
Therefore you should put your valuables like expensive technical devices in a daypack and only take it out when you need it.
8) Know the phone number to block your cards
If you get mugged or you notice a misuse of your card you should immediately call your credit card provider to block your card. Mostly this certain phone number is displayed on the back of your card: make sure to write it down separately.
9) Carry passport and cards close to your body
I used a money belt to secure my most important items underneath my clothes – it is not visible for others and almost impossible to access for pickpockets.
10) Use a wallet to pay
It may sound a bit weird after reading the previous tip but: if you pay in shops, on the street or markets you should always use a normal wallet where you carry around only the money you need for this day.
In case you get mugged you always have something you can give to the muggers.
11) Be aware of Scams
There are various types of scams all over the world therefore you should inform yourself which scams are popular at your destination to notice it before you get pick pocketed.
The mustard scam is a very popular one: somehow some mustard gets sprayed on your shirt/jacket, suddenly some helpful guys appear and offer to clean it for you – meanwhile they steal your valuables while cleaning your shirt.
12) Only carry valuables you need for the day
If you're not in transfer mode you should use the safe/locker in your Hotel/Hostel to store your credit cards and passport. For sightseeing, day tours or a day at the beach you only need some cash and a copy of your passport (13).
13) Copy of your passport and login data
Losing your passport will get you into trouble therefore you should only carry it around if you really need it (transfer mode / to cross borders) – in most situations you only need to have a copy of your passport (Hostel, Tour operators…).
Furthermore I also wrote down all my login data for EMail, Facebook etc. – it helps if you happen to forget your logins or if your laptop gets stolen.
14) Travel light
The less you carry around the less can get lost. If you travel a lot through busy areas it is a great advantage if you only need to take care of a small bag/backpack and your hands are free – especially in trains and busses it is much easier to keep an eye on your belongings.
Tip: My current travel backpack is an Osprey Farpoint 40 – a great choice for those who want to travel light!
15) Don't play the hero
If you run into a situation where you get mugged you should act wisely and follow the instructions. In those situations resistance often leads to more violence – it is much better to give away your camera than your health.
16) Enjoy the nightlife in a group – incl. the way home
When it get's dark it also gets more dangerous in many places. If you want to enjoy a night out it's always a good idea to go out as a group and take care of each other.
17) Avoid being totally drunk
When being in a foreign country massive drinking could lead into problems. Take it easy and don't drink too much otherwise you could be an easy target for criminals.
18) Take care of your drink
If you're partying you should always keep an eye on your drink or keep it close to you – it happened at many places that people put drugs or “roofies” in drinks of others.
19) Take a taxi after clubbing
Sometime plans don't work (16) and you're group left you behind at the club. Now you should go for the safe option and take a radio taxi to get back to your Hotel/Hostel/Apartment (see the following).
20) Registered radio taxis
Let's focus on South America: in some countries there are a lot of not registered taxis – for foreigners it's hard to recognize as they also have a “Taxi” sign. More often these private taxis are involved in muggings and it's recommended not to use them.
The safest option is to use so called registered radio taxis. You can call them or ask at your hotel, restaurant, bar or club to call them for you – they might be a bit more expensive but they are much safer.
21) tourist option = safe option
When traveling through Bolivia I got warned of the busses – streets here are very dangerous sometimes as most of them are still not paved, in the rain season a lot of landslides happen in the mountain regions. Furthermore sometimes the bus drivers drink and drive or drive being overtired and cause accidents.
In those countries I decided more often to go for the more expensive tourist options e.g. when booking overnight busses – they mostly had 2 drivers and modern busses. In the end it the costs were only 10€ more (during the month I was traveling there around 60 people died in bus accidents).
22) Sometimes other travelers are dangerous
You can be well prepared and follow all the tips and recommendations but sometimes your fellow travelers can get you into trouble with their behavior. If you decide to travel with somebody make sure you share the same travel philosophy in matters of safety.
If you run into trouble: talk with your friend and tell them about the situation – if they keep acting stupid you should split up from those who get you into trouble.
23) Trust your instincts
Sometimes there is nothing wrong about trusting your instincts when booking a tour, a bus ride or making a decision for the next travel destination. If something feels wrong it maybe is wrong – if in doubt: trust your instincts!
24) Don't change money on the street
In some countries like Argentina it is recommended to bring US$ due to the fact that the unofficial exchange rate (called “Blue Dollar”) is much higher than the official one. Often strangers offer to change money for a very high rate (in Buenos Aires in the Calle Florida).
Please do not change money on the street, do some research by asking trustable locals or friends.
25) Pay with small bills
To avoid getting fake money you should always try to pay with small bills – after getting money out of the ATM try to change it in you hotel/hostel.
Like in this Video from Buenos Aires there are some scams to change real money with fake money and make you pay twice.
26) Have a list with emergency numbers
In case of an emergency you should always know the numbers to call: insurance, family, bank, doctor…Make a list of these numbers – for calling I recommend using a Skype-Account as it is cheap and you only need WiFi to call.
27) Get in touch with locals
Locals know their city best – getting in touch with locals is a good way to get to know a city. Couchsurfing is a great option as you can attend regular meetings (very popular in big cities like Buenos Aires, Sao Paolo, Lima, Santiago…) and meet locals. In Santiago, Lima and Buenos Aires I used the chance, got to know great people, made new friends and met up with them to discover the city like a local.
More often also the employees in Hostels became good friends and were happy to show me around after they finished their work: we shared drinks, I got great recommendations of things to do and some insider tips. If you read my travel guides you'll find a lot of these tips in there.
28) Be careful also at you Hostel/Hotel
Crime doesn't stop when leaving the street – things get stolen in Hostels and Hotels as well. Therefore you should use the locker or the safe.
If you happen to sleep in a dorm and you'd like to charge your tablet, smartphone or camera consider using one of these power banks – you can charge those and keep your devices with you and charge them later with the power bank.
29) Don't become careless
After traveling for 6 months through South America, 5 countries and a hitchhiking stretch of 1000km I felt very safe. I had the feeling I know how things are working and how to act – but I didn't realized that I became careless.
Exactly at that time it happened and I became a victim of a violent mugging.
My recommendation: it doesn't matter how long you're already there – being careless could get you in trouble. Be careful always and have a look around.
30) Respect but no fear
Last but not least: this article isn't meant to scare you! I want to give you advice and tips how you can increase your safety while traveling and with this feeling more comfortable by knowing how to act in certain situations. Like I said in the previous tip you should always be respectful.
Crime happens all over the world, speaking about South America I had the impression that this region is much more safe than the media tries to tell you. I had a great time over there and made a lot of good friends!
More ways to stay safe while traveling?
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This post is also available in: German