Whether you are going to New York City or Nairobi, it is important to be a responsible traveler. Often times, tourists fall into traps due to their own lack of awareness and failure of judgment. True there are many incidents you cannot avoid, but for the most part, a good traveler can take certain measure to ensure his/her own safety.
Here are my top 10 recommendations for ensuring safety while traveling.
- Try Not to Look Like a Tourist. If you are carrying a camera around your neck, and a map in your hand, while gazing into the streets, you will be spotted as a tourist. That will automatically make you a target even in the safest areas. My advice is to take only a sling bag or long strap shoulder purse that you can hang around your body. Try to carry everything you need (water, camera, phone, maps) inside it and take them out only when needed. If you need to look at the map, go inside a store or coffee shop, and do it discreetly.
- Don’t Sound like a Foreigner. Learn a few words of the local language so you can communicate without coming across as a total foreigner. At the very least, you should be able to say “hello, thank you, please, excuse me, where is the toilet and goodbye” in the local language. If you can order your food and ask for directions too, thats a huge plus! Most guidebooks have a section in the back that have key words and phrases you can quickly brush up on.
- Carry Only Enough Cash. I know, you feel anxious what if “I can’t get to an ATM, my bank account is frozen, or I am stranded somewhere.” All I’m saying is leave your cash and credit cards in the locker at the hotel. Only take some currency that you need for the day and one major credit or debit card with a picture identification. Even if you did get pick pocketed, you will only loose a day’s worth of expenses.
- Back Up Important Documents. The last thing you want to happen is loose your passport in a foreign country. It can take days to get a new one, especially if you need to prove your citizenship and return home. Make copies of your passport, drivers license and credit cards. Carry one copy with you while traveling and leave another copy at home. In case you loose your bags, someone from back home can always look up your information.
- Ensure Financial Safety. Call your bank and credit card companies before leaving home. Many banks would put an early fraud detection alert and block your card when it is first swiped abroad. You should inform them of your itinerary at least two days before leaving the country. This will avoid any unnecessary stress of not having access to your money when you need it.
- Talk to the Locals. This may seem contradicting to your parents advise “don’t talk to strangers” but most of the time talking to locals can be more helpful than dangerous. Always ask the locals about hotels, cafes and attractions that they recommend. They will tell you which neighborhoods to keep away from and important customs to consider. If you make conversation with someone working at a shop or cafe, you know they are not attempting to rob you.
- Make use of Travel Exchange programs. If you are new to a city, a resident who has been there for a while can really help you navigate the streets and stay out of trouble. You can look up people who can show your around town, take you out for a meal, or host you overnight through CouchSurfing, Servas, Goodwill Guide, or other exchange programs offered by colleges, tourism boards and cultural centers. Do check out your host’s profile and recommendations before meeting or deciding to stay. Sometimes, these are the best experiences you will have when traveling abroad.
- Don’t Take Shortcuts. Walk on the main streets whenever you can. It may seem obvious but many tourists like to “explore” new places on their own and can find themselves in unwanted situations. By staying on main roads and busy streets, you may reduce your chances of getting in the harm’s way.
- Have a Keen Sense of Observation. Be aware of your surroundings, the type of people around you, what they are talking about, and any activities going on. Even as you walk through public areas, you may want to notice other bystanders, rather than feeling overwhelmed by the beauty of the new place. You should be able to remove yourself from dangerous situations before they happen.
- Trust your instincts. Sixth sense or intuitions are strongly undermined in today’s world, but can be the single most lifesaver. Whenever faced with an awkward situation where logic says one thing but your gut feeling is another, trust your instincts and don’t take a chance.