10 International Travel Safety Tips : don’t be a victim in 2020

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International travel can be one of the most fulfilling things you can do, and today it’s more popular than it’s ever been. However, with an estimated 1.4 billion international journeys made each year, it’s the unfortunate truth that some of those travelers are going to be victims of crime.

The good news is that with a few easy steps, you can reduce your chance of becoming one of those victims.

Give yourself the advantage and keep in mind these international travel safety tips to avoid being a victim in 2020.

My 10 International Travel Safety Tips

I consider myself to be very fortunate in two ways.

Firstly, I’ve visited so many countries that I have lost count. Secondly, I have only been a victim of two very minor crimes during those trips.

I put this second point down to a couple of things.

Of course, to some degree, I’ve been lucky to have not been a victim of crime more often. But I also know that I have managed to minimize the likelihood of being targeted by applying some simple, but effective techniques when I travel.

Just because I have not been on the receiving end doesn’t mean that I have not seen the effects of travel crime.

Several of my friends and colleagues have been targeted over the years. Many have been victims of forced bribery (usually from corrupt police who take money from you to ‘make a problem go away’) and street robbery.

One of my team was even a victim of armed robbery… by his taxi driver! This took place whilst we were working in Sub-Saharan Africa, in a country where licensed taxis don’t exist. The driver took the fare and drove my team member to an ATM. The driver then produced a sawn-off shotgun and proceeded to rob him of the money in his account.

A pretty scary situation!

And I’m guessing I’ve now got your attention. But honestly, I’m not trying to put anyone off travel. Far from it!

Remember, most people don’t get targeted, and you can reduce this chance even further by using the below international travel safety tips

Quick links

#1 Do your homework

For some people, the planning part of traveling is almost as good as the trip itself. For others, it’s a massive drag and they just want to get on and experience each day as it comes. There is always a balance to be found, but when it comes to safety, it’s best not to overlook some important considerations before you leave home.

Laptop travel safety research
Visit your own government’s travel advice site before departing

The level of research and planning you need to do will depend on the type of country. If you’re heading to Oslo, for example, then you will probably need to do less safety planning than if you were heading to Djibouti. But either way, check your own government’s latest travel advice on the country.

If you’re from the USA, head to US Department of State Travel Advice 

From the UK? Head here: Foreign Travel Advice from the FCO

Most western countries will have their own government advice page. Make sure you check the site which is from your country (passport you are traveling on), as political situations can mean different restrictions on different citizens.

Other things to consider and plan for:

    1. Where to avoid. Research which areas are best avoided in the city/country you’re heading to. Most big cities have areas that have districts that are not considered safe for tourists to visit.

    2. Country Profile. Get an overview of the country so you know what to expect. You want to be aware of the general political situation, the local culture, weather, road conditions and how foreign tourists are perceived. If nothing else this knowledge helps you to strike up conversations with the locals.

    3. Make a copy of your passport and keep this in a different location to your original document. Ideally, keep it in a different bag. This copy can be used to speed up getting a replacement at your Embassy if your original is stolen.

    4. Medication: If you take any prescription medication, make sure you have enough for your trip. This is also a good time to stock up on basic medicines (paracetamol, antihistamine, diarrhea powders, etc.) as some of these can be difficult to obtain in some countries.

    5. Transport. Work out how you will get from the airport to your hotel and if possible pre-book transport. Ask your hotel or hostel whether they are able to provide a transfer service. Trying to organise transport once you’ve landed at the airport can make you appear more vulnerable and unsure and therefore, a potential target for criminals (as well as rip-off taxis).[This is also when you would want to do your other research about your destination. Check out my Ultimate Guide to Staying in Shape While Traveling, which takes you through the planning for staying fit and healthy during your trip]

#2 Checked Baggage

Most travelers have a traumatic checked baggage experience at some point in their lives.

For me, it was losing my Leatherman CHARGE+ from the front pocket of my checked backpack.

This was an absolute rookie error on my part.

I had the multi-tool in my carry-on until the last minute and realized I needed to put it in my checked bag. Sleep-deprived and in a hurry, I quickly zipped it into the nearest pouch. And now, some light-fingered baggage handler is sporting one of the finest multi-tools on the market. I loved that knife.

Anyway, this tip is in two parts:

Firstly: only pack what you can accept you might lose. By this I mean checked baggage has been known to end up in the wrong country, not leave the departure airport or even completely disappear off the face of the earth (it gets stolen). Pack your essentials (apart from prohibited items) in your carry-on bag.

Secondly: if you need to pack desirable items in your checked bag (like a multitool), then don’t put them in an easily accessible pocket. Stuff them right down in the bag itself. If possible, add a lock to the main compartment of the bag. Ideally get a TSA approved lock, which can be opened by airport security screening if needed. Otherwise, they may cut your lock off your bag.

#3 Carry a Dummy Wallet

Get yourself a cheap wallet off Amazon or from your local market. Fill it with old store cards, a dummy photo of a spouse (use a stock photo off the net) and some local cash. This is now the wallet you hand over if you are robbed. Keep your real wallet out of sight. Ideally, don’t even take your genuine wallet and use one of the many options for concealed document/cash storage, like Eagle Creek’s concealed money belt. (See tip #4)

When you’re out for the day/night, just take the cash you need for that activity. Leave the rest in your hotel safe or concealed location in your hotel room.

#4 Money Belt and Emergency Cash

I’ve always like to use a money belt. There are lots of options out there. I use the Rogue money belt (available in the UK only) because it’s simple and not a brand name that looks desirable. I’ve worn my Rogue belt pretty much every day for the past 2 years and it’s still going strong.

In my money belt, I always carry some local cash, as well as some US dollars.

Why do I carry US dollars?

Because internationally, it is the most recognized currency. If you’re in a bad situation and need to convince someone to help you, $100 USD cash will go a long way in a lot of countries. This means that if I don’t manage to replace the emergency cash with local currency when I visit a new country, I still have an option.

#5 ATM withdrawals

To avoid getting robbed at ATMs, if possible withdraw money only from inside banks.

The second best option is to withdraw from ATMs during daylight hours.

If possible, do not withdraw cash from an ATM at night (remember what happened to my teammate in the introduction to this post?).

When withdrawing cash from an ATM:

    1. Always cover your pin and check for a false card reader on the ATM, which scammers can use to steal your card data.

    2. If you have a buddy, get them to face away from you as you withdraw cash. Their job is to watch for approaching danger, looking confident (see tip #6).

    3. Once you have your cash from the machine, conceal it. Do not leave the machine until it is hidden in your clothes or in your concealed wallet. Overt displays of cash can be very tempting to a potential criminal. (It can also be insensitive to flash cash around in a country which is very poor – you might have one person’s entire monthly wage in your hand.)

#6 Perception is everything. Don’t look like an easy target.

There a few parts to this tip, but the basis for this bit of advice is that you don’t want to look like a target. Particularly an easy target.

So what does an easy target look like?

american toursits
Photo: Duane Hanson

Picture this person:

    • Ralph Lauren Baseball cap
    • Expensive sunglasses
    • Nice wristwatch
    • Camera slung around the neck with a surprisingly large lens
    • Sunburn
    • Bumbag/fanny pack
    • Copy of Lonely Planet in pocket
    • Dressed for the plains of Africa, despite being in central Barcelona city.

This is what an easy target looks like. The only way this could be worse is if this person was looking at their phone the whole time and not maintaining situational awareness.

Here’s how to look like a less easy target:

    1. Leave expensive jewelry, watches, and sunglasses at home. Buy a cheap pair of UV protective sunglasses with no branding.

    2. Conservative headgear. Hats are of course good for sun protection but go for one in a subtle colour. Again, avoid overt branding.

    3. Use sun cream from the minute you get off the plane. Nothing says ‘inexperienced tourist’ better than a lobster-pink neck and tomato-red nose.

    4. Conceal your camera (if you need one in addition to your smartphone camera). Place it in your bag.

    5. Get yourself a good, low-key travel backpack. Wear it over both shoulders to avoid it getting swiped. I use the Dart 24 from 5.11. It might be a bit overkill for most tourists, but I love its build quality, minimal branding, and logical design.

    6. Be sneaky! If you need to study the guidebook or your smartphone (running on a local SIM – of course) then do it out of obvious sight. If you have a buddy, you can do your map check whilst against a wall and they can offer some cover (they should face the street, keeping their head up). If you’re on your own, find somewhere secluded to check the map. Looking lost is another great target indicator for would-be criminals – even if you haven’t a clue where you are, don’t let it show.

My preferred travel pack – the 5.11 Dart 24


If you keep those pointers in mind, wearing clothes more like those of a local than of a tourist, you’re going to really reduce the likelihood of becoming a victim.

#7  Moderate you drinking

This can be easier said than done (speaking from considerable experience), but try and limit your alcohol intake. It impairs your judgment and the chance of you falling victim when drunk increases by a huge amount. Again, you become an easy target.

Check the percentage of alcohol in the local drinks, and be aware that in many developing countries,  the abv. percentage quoted on the bottle can be something of a ‘best-guess’ by the brewer.

Beer drinking safety traveling travels


#8 If things get chaotic, switch on!

If things around you suddenly get hectic, it could be a sign that you’re about to become a target of a crime or a scam.

Examples would be; if a group of noisy kids surrounds you, or an attention-grabbing incident happens very close to you. You might be physically grabbed by someone appearing to need help or someone might just really appear to want your attention.

Basically, if anything happens near you which could be described as ‘distracting’, get your wits about you.

Chaos and misdirection are so often used as a way to divert your attention, right before you become a victim of crime. If this type of thing starts to happen, tighten your grip on your bag and walk the other way, or cross the street.

#9 Save the heroics

So what should you do if you ARE a victim of crime? What if you do get robbed? Well, my advice every time would be; ‘don’t be a hero’.

Yes, sometimes the threat of a knife is an empty threat, but sometimes it’s not. Do you want to take that chance? Do you have that much faith in the emergency medical treatment you’ll receive in that country if you do get stabbed? Is it worth the cost of a new phone?

Exactly. Hand over the goods, then go start a blog to tell everyone about your story.

#10 Trust your instincts

If you sense that something is not right, it probably isn’t.

Our brains have a whole sub-section devoted to instinctive decision making, which has been developed over 1000s of years. And when it comes to sensing developing danger, it is incredibly effective. Don’t fight this instinct. Trust it and get yourself out of the situation calmly and confidently.

If you’re looking for some fascinating reading for your journey, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell looks at this very topic of human instinct and decision making. His case studies around the are fascinating and Blink is one of my favorite books…I left my copy in the backseat of an Airbus A380. It’s got my name in, so if you find it, drop me a line?

Conclusion

Traveling the globe comes with risks. But with a little preparation and some easy techniques, international travel can be a whole lot safer and more rewarding.

Where are you off to next?

Have you got any stories you’d like to share?

Drop them in the comments section below – it’s great to learn from other’s adventures and experiences.

References

https://ourworldindata.org/tourism

https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel.html

https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice

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