A Traveller’s Guide to Travelling Safely

If one of your lifelong ambitions is to travel extensively, then you’re going to want to keep you, your finances and your belongings as safe as possible for as long possible. Most people who travel extensively rarely come across anything more serious than a cheeky con or light roberry, but travel often enough and far enough and you will eventually come unstuck – everyone does. However, if you follow these guidelines, you might be able to minimise how expensive or risky that situation becomes.

1. Be confident

Regardless of whether you really feel so, it’s important to look confident about where you are and where you’re going. The more lost you look getting off that public bus or train, the more likely you are to be approached by touts and hawkers. And the same is true when for you’re walking about in public. If you need to stop to check a map, do it inside a shop or a shop doorway and you should draw less attention to yourself. Try to take a mind map of where you are before you head out and that might help you stop to check the map less frequently too.  

It’s also a good idea to be confident about who you are and why you’re there. If you’ve decided to change your politically-charged nationality for a more innocuous one, you might want to make sure you’ve got your story straight before you start lying openly about your background to the locals. You’ll also no doubt be asked pretty quickly by inquisitive folk as to what you’re doing in their homeland – and you may want to hide or advertise that motivation depending on who you are and what you’re there for.  

2. Be quietly suspicious

As sad as it sounds, it pays to be suspicious of pretty much everyone you meet. This is especially true in the poorer and more entrepreneurial countries such as India where many people will try to sell you something or take you back to their shop if given half the chance. Of course, don’t let such suspicion put you off meeting the locals, just have an expectation for where the conversation is headed and you’ll do better at avoiding a potentially awkward situation. Most of these people are just friendly opportunists, and seemingly wealthy travellers may not pass them by all that often.

Of course, it’s not just the locals that you should be suspicious of. Reportedly, much of the theft among travellers comes from other people on the move who are eager to extend their own travels that little bit longer. It’s a good idea not to trust another backpacker too quickly with the keys to your room for example or to leave expensive equipment lying around to be scooped up. Most people you’ll meet aren’t thieves by any means, but some people most definitely don’t have much of a problem with the concept – and they may have misconceptions about exactly how wealthy you really are.

3. Look like you belong

This can be seemingly impossible to do if you’re travelling in a part of the world where people look nothing like you, but it’s not a matter of blending in with the natives – you just need to look like you’ve been in that location for some time. Carrying a backpack or a camera everywhere and wearing minimal or beachy clothing will most certainly make you stand out in 95% of places, and those that do stand out tend to get targeted more by hawkers who can spot fresh meat from a mile off. Wear simple and plain clothes that cover you well such as trousers and shirts, and try not to look too clean or wealthy. A few scuffs on your backpack, a tan and somewhat dishevelled hair can go a long way to making you look less moneyed and therefore less approachable.

4. Do your research

One of the best ways to stay safe is to be as prepared as possible. Research where you’re going beforehand, know how to get from a-to-b efficiently, and perhaps consider booking that first night’s accommodation in advance. If you know roughly where you’re headed, you’ll probably appear less bewildered on arrival and will likely be better prepared for those occasions when you’re mobbed by touts. Without a good dose of research, it’s not uncommon to find yourself overpaying, making illogical (and expensive) routes across the country, or at worse becoming more open to robbery and cons. Research where is safe enough to travel at night and where isn’t and you should be able to dodge most of the more dangerous situations.   

5. Take advice

The locals are pretty much the best source of on-the-ground information about where is currently safe for a foreigner to go exploring, and travellers will be able to help you out along the way too. If you’re heading out on a hike or a bike ride or are disappearing into the forest for a while to pick mushrooms, try to find other travellers in the area that have done something similar shortly before you. A quick “I wouldn’t do that if I were you because…” may save you a good deal of money, time, nerves and stress. Of course, knowing when locals are scaremongering for whatever reason is also important too. Sometimes, if you listened solely to the advice of the locals, you’d probably never go anywhere or do anything!

6. Avoid being alone

This goes without saying, but try to travel with a friend or partner wherever possible – especially if you’re a smaller, more vulnerable or less confident person. This is especially true with outdoor or remote activities such as hiking where you could find yourself injured or lost without anyone around to help out. What’s more, being with others should mean that you’ll be approached less by scammers in public as you’ll have another pair of eyes or ears to listen out for those half truths or to spot the odd slight of hand.

7. Travel by daylight

Express kidnappings, bus hold ups, banditry – most of these scary but very real (and rare) situations occur at night. And while it might save you on a little accommodation money by taking a sleeper bus, most roads – especially mountainous ones – are most certainly more dangerous after the sun has set. The same goes for exploring the city, town or village you’ve just arrived in. If you haven’t yet scoped out the situation by daylight, you might be putting yourself at risk by finding out for the first time at night. As a general rule, the smaller the place the safer it tends to be. Many cities for example might seem perfectly OK in the day but become altogether different places under the cover of darkness. Such a scenario can be especially true in certain parts of the world, such as in Latin America. 

8. Know the laws

While it might be tempting to act like none of the local laws apply to you, they very much do. And sometimes more so. Certainly, enjoy the more relaxed attitudes that many places around the world might offer, but try to find out pretty quickly which laws can be flouted or bent and which just really can’t. Marijuana, for example, is almost socially acceptable in certain parts of the world – even if the local law claims it isn’t. This can be especially true on equatorial islands where the police force is minimal, non-existent, or simply paid off. It is not uncommon, however, for people to get stung by undercover police for even a small bit of marijuana (especially in bars at night), and then fined or committed to some jail time. So do be particularly cautious of where you buy black market goods, who you buy they from, and how you advertise them. What’s more, make sure your identification and visas are in perfect order at all times. If you are by chance stopped by the police, you might not want those kind officers to have any reason to search your person… because they might just find something you didn’t know was there.   

9. Have some respect

Respect the culture, respect the situation, and respect the nature. Approaching the locals with the correct honorific, attempting to emulate cultural verbal and body language, or providing your new hosts with an appropriate gift can go a long way in making you immediately more accepted. And should you decide to wander off into the oh-so-alluring wilderness, definitely stock up on supplies and pay careful attention to the weather. The most likely wanderers to never return are those who don’t respect the volatility of nature and the remoteness of where they’re headed. Of course, such concerns should never put you off completely from experiencing the world, but they might help you to reconsider whether that day is a good day for this particular adventure. Don’t rush your travels and you’ll have plenty of to time to make room for these sorts of considerations.

10. Stay in touch

While it might not keep you any safer in the short term, letting your folks back home know where you are, where you’ve been and where you’re headed next will certainly at least promote the illusion of safety. Not only does such communication keep you connected to the life you will most likely eventually return to, but should you disappear or anything drastic actually happen to you it will make it so much easier for your friends and family to try to track you (or your body) down. Sometimes being safer is basically the same as telling people you’re alright.