We Travelers are Vulnerable, Here are Practical Safety Steps You Can Take to Stay on the Road

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Notice how most travel safety tips suck? They tell you to not do this, that or the other thing, so that you might as well lock yourself in your room. We travel to experience the world and that means going to crowded places, it means going to events, it means going to festivals. Any of us could have been in Nice for Bastille Day, drawn to the throngs of revelers.

Let us pause to consider the lives destroyed in Nice. We cannot allow these acts by their frequency to become a numbing blur. Over 80 lives were destroyed and that is only the first ripple of many across their loved ones and community in the aftermath.

To return to the narrow subject at hand, without any intended disrespect to the monument of their loss, we can consider that a traveler in Nice last night was at a survival disadvantage to a local. Several non-French, including 2 Americans, are among the dead. A traveler, even a domestic traveler, would not speak the local lingo as fluently, would not know the terrain, would not know where help can found, would not know the local legal system, and would not have a network of contacts for support.

The paradox is that when we arrive in a foreign land we can have a feeling of invincibility. Call it the ‘Monopoly money’ effect for reacting to new currency as if it doesn’t count, spending freely at amounts that would not happen at home.

Because we are not of the place, our brains say the rules don’t apply, reverting to teenager decision-making. It can suddenly seem a great idea to snort coke in a country with a drugs death penalty.

The key to staying safe while still fully experiencing travel is to recognize and combat that feeling of invincibility. I am particularly susceptible to this when I drive, and now take steps to reign in myself.

Having your wits about you then should be paired with a basic routine that does not get forgotten or skipped.

1. Always carry a security wallet/belt of some sort with the following base contents

(tip to Americans: this is to be worn inside your clothing, not outside):

  • Passport copy
  • Medical insurance coverage card
  • Emergency contacts
  • Blood type record, vaccination record and scientific name of any required medications
  • Emergency cash
  • Emergency ATM/debit card
  • Emergency credit card

These are 4 sheets of paper folded together plus a few plastic cards and currency bills, hardly taking any space.

Medical personnel will tear through anything that can help them identify and treat you. Make it easy for them to help you.

For blood type proof I use my American Red Cross Donor card. This is important to me both for self-interest and in case of need of others, because I am O-negative, a universal donor*.

For cash, I carry US$100 and €100 separate from my  regular wallet and never used unless absolute emergency. In a crisis there are both Good Samaritans and profiteers. The cash deals with the profiteers. When Uber is down, a $100 bill is still online.

2. Load your phone with local language translation packs and offline maps.

I use Google Translate and maps.me, loading every destination prior to trip departure.

Even without phone signal or wifi I can communicate, locate myself, and navigate (GPS works without phone network).

Make sure devices are charged when going out.

3. Ensure capable people, preferably both locals and people back home, know where you are and will take action if you do not check in as expected. Email and social media make this easier now than ever. Send advance, clear itineraries to them.

This is especially important in situations such as vacation rentals and AirBNB where an absence may go unnoticed for a prolonged period.

You can register with your country’s diplomatic representation if they are able and inclined to help their citizens in a given territory.

We can go on and on. What I like about these 3 steps is they are part of my pre-trip routine that continue with me day0-by-day on the road without extra effort.

Readers, what is your travel safety routine?

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[…] of unpleasantness abroad at the same level of proficiency as we would at home. I tend to think being aware of this disadvantage and adjusting behavior accordingly is more useful than not traveling at […]

6 years ago

Having been in a country when a coup happened (thankfully, a peaceful one), I’d also offer, always have a plan. Maybe not a plan for every single event you attend, or place you go, but at the very least, know the various ways out of your hotel, and know where you would go if you had to, via those exits. Have a back-up plan.

6 years ago

Great post! Thanks Stefan..

6 years ago

I think that in a lot of ways the us is less safe on average than many of the countries that tourists would normally go to (most of Europe, Japan, Australia, Canada). Our violent crime does tend to be concentrated in certain places.
The point is more that we are much less careful when we are traveling.
I have a money belt and travel wallet, but haven’t used it lately. I’ll have to get back into the habit. Putting a copy of my passport in there, rather than my real passport would make it much more comfortable too.

6 years ago

Excellent, excellent post. I hope your readers will take it seriously. I always carry my blood type on a card but never a copy of my passport or hidden cash. There is great value in all of these suggestions. It is a solid marker of the safety of the US (still must be low on the list of general crime) and how Americans don’t anticipate the need to be more careful when traveling out of the country.

6 years ago

I love the three D’s. I’m not sure how long ago you wrote that post, but it’s a good one.

6 years ago

This is your best post ever, Stefan. I have observed this invincibility blind spot so often with travelers, thanks for so accurately defining it.

6 years ago

Sometimes I feel like we avoid a lot of trouble simply by not drinking very much. We’ll sometimes indulge if there’s a lounge with free drinks, but we almost never “go out drinking” as our choice activity for experiencing a place. And I wonder if this improves our safety.

If not, at least it saves us money.

6 years ago

This is really good. Thanks.