As a frequent traveler, I often get asked for travel safety tips. So many times people have exclaimed that they could never travel abroad as I do because they are just afraid…afraid of pickpockets….afraid of scammers….afraid of terrorists. No offense—especially if you are one of the ones who has said that to me—but the United States is no safer than any other place in the world.
My husband and I talk about this often, and I recently wondered if any place really is safer than any other?
“Alaska,” Mike said to me “I think Alaska’s pretty safe. Not too many people live there, and the state is just too darn big for terrorists to even consider doing something there.”
My dear husband is right, but I ain’t-a-going to Alaska.
All kidding aside, there are a number of things you can do to keep safe while traveling (or staying home). Be on your guard and follow my nine rules for staying safe.
1. Be Prepared
I think a lot of people have problems because they have not completed the preparations for their journey. Make copies of your passport, give one to a family member who is staying home, and keep at least one other with you and away from your real passport. If you are taking credit cards with you, give the numbers to a family member. When a burglar broke into our Prague apartment in the middle of the night, we were able to get in touch with our son immediately and have him cancel our credit cards before the robber could use them. Leave a detailed itinerary with addresses and phone numbers with that same family member. Finally, take at least some of the local currency with you so you can buy a coffee in the airport or pay for a taxi as soon as you arrive.
2. Call Your Credit Card Company
While this is really part of #1, it’s very important and should stand on its own. Before you leave, call your credit card company and let them know where you are going, when you are leaving, and when you’re returning so that they do not freeze your account. In addition, check your credit limit so you don’t overspend. Finally, if you don’t already have a credit card with a chip, request your bank send you one.
3. Enroll in STEP
STEP—Smart Traveler Enrollment Program—is a free service that allows you to register with the government when you travel internationally. In addition to sending you travel warnings and advisories, the program is there to help you in an emergency. When we were in Barcelona a few years ago, we received a number of warnings about possible demonstrations by Catalan nationals. We stayed away from the affected areas and had no problems.
Keep the number of the nearest consulate with you in case you need it.
4. Don’t Draw Attention to Yourself
I always tell the people who travel with me to fit in. For example, I advise that they wear clothes like those that Italians wear—no shorts, no bright colors, no sleeveless tops, no flip-flops. Also, don’t wear flashy jewelry, carry expensive cameras, or talk loudly. (You may think it’s a joke, but Americans have a reputation for being loud and flashy. Unfortunately, a few of them give all of us a bad rep.)
Don’t take out large amounts of cash in public. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen someone pull out a loaded wallet or wad of euros in the middle of a crowded restaurant or store.
5. Carry Decoys
I once read that it’s a good idea to carry fake credit cards (or wallet) with you that you can throw at a thief should the need arise. How, you might ask, do you do get a fake credit card? I constantly get credit card offers in the mail, and a lot of them include a fake card. I save those and bring the with me. I’ve never had to use them, but I like the idea.
6. Separate Cash & Credit Cards
Do not keep all of your cash in the same place, and don’t keep your credit cards with the cash. I suggest keeping a small amount in an easy-to-reach place and additional cash in another safe location—money belt, neck wallet, etc.
7. Don’t Engage Beggars
Beggars are all over big cities, and one of the worst things you can do it give them money. I find that the easiest thing to do is walk by them without looking at them. Saying, “Nein! Nein!” (“No” in German) is also discouraging because it sounds a little harsh.
8. Don’t Use a Backpack
While this is not a popular tip with many people, I still say one should not use a backpack when traveling. Keep your valuables in front of you, not in an exposed position behind you. And, even if the backpack contains nothing but a sweater, water, or any other item that isn’t valuable, a crook doesn’t know that. A backpack makes you vulnerable because someone can run up behind you and try to pull it off of you. A friend we made on a cruise some years ago was crossing the street in Rouen, France, when a burglar ran up and yanked the backpack. Our friend fell, hit the curb, and broke his hip. That’s not the way he wanted to spend his time in Europe.
9. Be Aware
The biggest advantage you can have is being aware of your surroundings. Don’t take shortcuts unless you know where you’re going. Don’t constantly look at your smartphone while you’re walking. Don’t walk with a map in front of your face. Watch that no one is following you down an uncrowded street. The only time I felt uncomfortable being by myself in Europe was when I was in Modena and some guy tried to engage me while I was walking down a main street in town. Unfortunately, no one was around, but I finally found an open green grocer and walked in there. When I left, I went the long way to get to the train station so I could stay on the main road and not accidentally bump into him again on some side street.