In this FATF, I'm discussing travel safety, vigilance, and the desire to visit less-traveled parts of the world.
I'll be honest - even though I am an adventurous person, I find that Western Europe is my comfort zone. Even if I don't know the language of the destination country, I can usually find my way around without much issue. Most Western European countries have the same customs and ideals that I'm used to. But after posing a question on Facebook about travel safety and less-traveled places, my mind (thanks to my well-traveled friends) is full of places that I want to visit that are completely out of my comfort zone: Egypt, Morocco, UAE, Kenya, Senegal, DPRK (?), the list keeps going...
Seriously, I just looked up how much flights to UAE would be. Hey, Vacation 2017!
My summer 2009 trip to Guatemala City, Guatemala pushed me out of my comfort zone. I'd never been to Guatemala and didn't really know too much about the area (aside from what our partner organization told us). I didn't really know what to expect. And my eyes were opened to the amount of unrest and socioeconomic disparity in the country. Everywhere we went, there were armed guards. And I'm talking armed with assault rifles. Just chilling outside of businesses. Our local liaison gave us the history of the civil unrest in the city and what to expect in La Limonada (the slums - houses built on top of each other in a deep ravine). This was something completely outside of anything I'd previously experienced.
La Limonada is a considered a "red zone" in Guatemala - the police won't even go into there. The crime rate is high and the area is ruled by gangs. I walked past houses with bullet holes. My group ended up attending the wake of two kids who were killed due to gang violence the night prior. We spent quite a few days working in La Limonada. And one of the biggest lessons I learned was awareness. To be honest, I never felt completely unsafe. I was aware of my surroundings, my group, and myself.
I say this to say that it is possible to visit areas that are less secure than your own backyard; you have to take extra precautions. And turn your fears into appropriate vigilance. And have a damn good time.
Safety While Traveling
- Make copies of your travel documents - As a rule, keep a copy of your passport and visa in your belongings, a copy of each to stay at home or with a trusted individual in case something happens, and keep the original passport and visa with you at all times. Just in case something were to happen (e.g. riots, terrorist attack, natural disaster), you have identification and the means to leave the country with you. If anything, you can go to your country's embassy or consulate. US citizens and nationals can enroll in STEP, a program that allows travelers to register their trip with the US embassy/consulate in the destination country.
- Make your close friends/family members aware of your itinerary - This can include: sending them your planned travel itinerary, planning check-ins on specific days/at specific times, and making them aware of any unplanned changes that arise (delayed or cancelled flights, public transport strikes, etc.)
- Invest in theft-proof bags - When I travel, I use a PacSafe Metrosafe crossbody bag to hold all of my essentials. This bag has protective mesh inside that is slash-proof, interlocking zippers, and other locking mechanisms to ensure that, short of taking this bag off my body, no pickpocket can get into it. It is also RFID-blocking, so that information from my cards and passport cannot be read with scanners (another tactic thieves use to get your identity).
- Review your country's travel advisories for your destination - For example, the US Dept of State maintains this website on current travel alerts and warnings. This can help you decide if you want to visit a certain place and what things are going on that may/will hinder travel within the country. It even gives dates of expiration for travel alerts.
- Get proper vaccinations for your destination - Visit your country's public health site for more information on which vaccinations to get. For the US, the CDC has a Traveler's Health website that recommends which vaccinations to get based on destination, length of stay, chronic illness, age, etc. It's up to you whether you want to get the vaccination or risk possibly getting sick overseas.
- Learn about local customs/expectations/laws - In my opinion, the last thing that you want to do in an unfamiliar setting is look like an ignorant tourist. Search the internet for your destination's cultural practices and customs. The minute you start to stand out from the crowd is the moment you become a target for theft, scams, and bribery. Rick Steves has a Theft and Scams page that lists the common scams and means of theft in Europe.
- Download an offline city map to use when you're out and about - This will be handy if you're not familiar with the area. Make sure you know where your country's embassy is - just in case. Try and get familiar with this map as much as you can before you leave - just so you're not constantly referring to it once you're at your destination. Why travel somewhere and have your face constantly buried in your phone?
- Travel lightly - Carrying less makes it easier to keep track of your belongings. Refer to my post on packing lightly if you tend to be an overpacker! I went from being a chronic overpacker to being able to do a week overseas without checking any bags. You can do it too! :)
While On Your Trip
- Always be aware of your belongings - From getting off the plane to traveling to your accommodation, always be aware of where everything that you have is at all times.
- Keep the expensive things at home/in your travel accommodation - In poorer areas, shiny jewelry and expensive electronics can make you a target for pickpocketing / (un)armed robbery. Consider leaving these things at home. If you have certain things that you really want to bring, like DSLR cameras, I'd highly suggest insuring these items.
- Always be aware of who/what is around you - Keep checking your peripheral if you sense that someone might be following you. If you're in a populated area, you can always go into a business to throw off your follower or call the local authorities. If you're in a residential area, be vigilant, call the authorities if you have the capability, and stay calm. Especially if you're alone.
- Double-check yourself so you don't wreck yourself - After you get off of public transport or leave a restaurant, double-check to make sure that you have everything that you brought. Have a rightful place for everything that you bring and make sure that all of those things go back into those places before continuing on.
- Don't put anything in your pockets - Just don't. You're making it too easy for pickpockets. Train tickets, hotel keys, phones, wallets, etc. should be either close to your body (money belt) or locked away securely (theft-proof bag). My husband usually has his wallet in his back pocket at home. I had to drill it into him that someone will steal it in Paris if he left it there.
- Respect the culture - Make sure that you're wearing the proper attire when visiting cultural sites (e.g. men cannot wear shorts and women cannot wear shorts above the knee when visiting the Vatican). Women, don't wear revealing clothing in conservative/religious countries.
- Take extra steps if you feel unsafe in a certain area - when my husband and I were in Paris last year, we would use the Métro station that was maybe two blocks further in the other direction from our AirBnB because the closer station was full of peddlers. We didn't feel safe the two times that we went through that station. So, if you find yourself in a situation like that, then take those extra steps to ease your mind and make travel less stressful.
And here are the suggestions from some of my well-traveled friends (thanks to Chris, Josh, and Angelina for your input!):
- Do in-depth research - go beyond Google in researching your destination. One of my friends suggested Thorn Tree Forum on Lonely Planet. I've already bookmarked this for future travels. It has recent information from travelers all over the world. And it covers the entire world. Another colleague told me about the See You In Iran group on Facebook - a group aimed at encouraging travel to Iran and exchanging travel tips.
- Respect the laws and leaders of the country - even if you don't agree with them. Those who get detained and thrown in jail are the ones who break laws. The freedom to express one's opinion might not be as welcome or free in your destination as in your home country.
- Always have Plans A, B, and C - you want to have a plan to get out just in case things go south. This includes getting travel insurance. However expensive it is, it will be worth it if the unexpected happens. When purchasing travel insurance, make sure that your destination isn't excluded.
- Get in with the locals - using AirBnB, couchsurfing, and other alternative accommodations can give you the chance to rub shoulders with the locals and make new friends!
- Learn a few words and phrases in the local language - Even if you don't speak the language, learning a few phrases shows that you're willing to learn and adapt. And it makes locals more willing to help you and interact with you.
- Have a basic knowledge of conflict if you're visiting an area with recent civil unrest. If you're going to travel to a place that is actively dealing with conflict (not something I'd suggest), then you should at least know the basics of what's going on.
- Be aware of certain behaviours in certain countries - For example, public displays of affection are frowned upon in Middle Eastern countries.
This is by no means an exhaustive travel safety checklist, but everything in this post should give you a good idea about how to prepare for a trip to a new place. I hope that this post has taken some of the scariness out of visiting less-traveled places. Maybe this can be your push out of the comfort zone and into new experiences that you would never have if you kept going to the beach every summer.
Here's to staying vigilant, making new memories, and experiencing new cultures,