Lists of “best places to visit in 2017” are a dime a dozen at this time of year. Well, why not? Lists are one of the most popular types of articles out there. But honestly, most destinations are just as good to visit this year as they were last year. I’ve already written about some of my favourite countries and my travel bucket list’s top 10 if you need ideas. 🙂

It might be easier to make a list of “destinations that you shouldn’t visit this year”, either because they’ve become too popular for their own good and are now swarming with tourists, or because they’ve become markedly more dangerous.

Actually, I won’t do either in this post. Instead I’ll focus on what to do to make your travels safer wherever you happen to go in 2017 and beyond. Here are my best travel safety tips to protect yourself and your possessions abroad.

Travellers with their gear waiting for the boat in Muang Noi, Laos (best safety tips)

Travellers with their gear waiting for the boat in Muang Noi, Laos

Protecting your stuff

There are two basic rules when it comes to stuff:

  • Don’t travel with anything you can’t afford to lose (sentimental items, irreplaceable jewelry, etc.)
  • Don’t protect your stuff at the expense of your life – no item is worth dying for (unless you’re an international spy!)

Avoiding pickpockets

Although travellers are occasionally mugged, a far more common problem is pickpockets. They’re everywhere, and they like to target tourists for the obvious reasons (carrying lots of goodies and soon to leave the country). Pick pockets are opportunistic thieves. They don’t carry weapons. They rely on ruse, and you being distracted (or inebriated) to pick your pockets or lift your bag. Some are extremely good at their “profession”.

Common tactics include:
  • Someone grabbing your shoulder bag while whizzing by on a motorcycle
  • Someone slashing your bag from behind, or even when you are sitting on a bus with the bag under your seat.
  • Somebody distracting you by spilling something on you while their friend picks your pockets
  • Somebody lifting your wallet out of your bag or pants’ pocket in a crowded place like a market, or public transit.
Market in Pisac, Peru (best safety tips)

Market in Pisac, Peru

What to do:
  • Split up your cards and cash and don’t carry more than you need for the day. Or at least hide them in a money belt (or neck or leg pouch) under your clothing.
  • Keep photocopies of your passport and cards separately from the originals. Unless you need to use your passport, carry the copy of your ID page with you. Having a copy also makes it faster to get a replacement if the passport gets lost or stolen.
  • If you carry a purse, wear the strap diagonally across your body and keep your hand on it.
  • If you travel with a computer, do a full backup before you leave home, and carry a memory stick to copy important files as you go. Keep the stick with your valuables.
  • Withdraw money right before you go back to your room to avoid carrying large piles of cash for longer than necessary. Use the ATM during the daytime, and preferably indoors.
  • Don’t put anything of value in the back pockets of your pants.
  • In crowded places, carry your knapsack in front of you.
  • On a bus, put your purse/knapsack on your lap, or the seat next to you (with your hand through the strap), not on the floor between your feet.
  • Don’t be distracted by groups of beggars, or people who spill drinks or foods on you and then try to help clean you up.
  • Don’t leave your valuables on a table while you run to the washroom (unless somebody is standing watch), or on the ground at your feet. It sounds obvious but I have seen people do this!
  • Hold on to your stuff, and make sure you can see your bag.

Don’t not be lulled into a false sense of security by the presence of a group, or the surroundings of a nice hotel. I have seen people have their money stolen while waiting for their tour group to depart from a hotel twice already. In both cases, their bag was on the ground, a couple of feet from them.

Avoiding hotel theft

Talking of hotels, opportunity thefts can also happen in your hotel room, especially if you leave valuable items lying around.

Room in Cuenca, Ecuador

Hotel room in Cuenca, Ecuador. Don’t leave valuables lying around.

What to do:
  • If your room has a safety box, use it. (Don’t forget your stuff when you leave!)
  • If the hotel offers a safety box at reception, use it if it looks secure (either they lock your things in a drawer and give you a key, or they put it in a sealed enveloped and give you a receipt).
  • If none of the above, hide your money and important documents at the bottom of your backpack/suitcase, lock it, and put it somewhere out of sight in your room if possible. Any camera, computer or phone left in your room should also be out of sight when you’re not there.

Protecting yourself

When it comes to protecting your person, it all comes down to common sense and trusting your instinct.

Kidnappings and murders of tourists are rare even though they are highly publicized. If an area is especially dangerous due to a political situation or drug war, your guidebook and your government’s web site will have warnings. Registering with your government is also a good idea. In Canada you can do this here. This enables you to receive important information by email before or during a natural disaster or civil unrest.

Avoiding muggings

Although nowhere as common as pickpocketing, muggings of tourists sometimes happen. Muggers are thieves who carry weapons (a knife or a gun) and confront you directly, asking for your money, jewellery, cell phone, camera, anything of value that you may be carrying. Of course you should just give it to them and they will normally go away. But for people who’ve lived it, it can be a pretty traumatic experience. Although muggings often happen at night on deserted streets, this is not always the case.

Street in Cartagena, Colombia (best safety tips)

Street in Cartagena, Colombia

What to do:
  • Don’t carry things that you won’t need on a particular outing
  • Avoid walking on deserted streets or beaches, especially at night
  • Don’t walk around drunk, especially if you’re alone
  • Be aware of your surroundings and move away from suspicious individuals
  • Ask at your accommodation how safe the area is at night. If unsure, take an (official) taxi.
  • If mugged, don’t resist. Let go of your stuff. It’s not worth your life.

If the place where you’re travelling is known for muggings, one trick is to have a fake wallet with a little bit of cash and some fake cards (like those cardboard ones you get in the mail) or even expired cards, that you can throw at a mugger before making a quick exit.

Other situations

  • Don’t tell somebody you’ve just met exactly where you’re staying. Only agree to meet them in public places where there are other people.
  • If at any point somebody makes you feel nervous or uncomfortable, just leave. Don’t worry about hurting feelings.
  • Last but not least, don’t believe everything people tell you. There are enough scams out there to fill up a couple of blog posts!

If you have more travel safety tips, please leave them in the comments for other travellers.

(Note: Part of this article is extracted from Chapter 15 of my e-books entitled “Staying Safe” which has additional information about scams, beggars, special safety tips for both men and women, as well as how to avoid injury.)

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