"But, isn't that dangerous?"
How many times has a traveler heard this; whether it's from family, or friends, or concerned strangers. When people hear of certain places that may have been given bad reputations by pop culture or the media, peoples' red flags go up. In this day-and-age where social media and news alerts are almost constantly reminding us that the world is big and bad and scary, there seems to be constant dings and headlines on our phones and TVs that remind us that tragedy and danger are around every corner. It can make it hard to keep things in perspective, and to remember that the likelihood of finding ourselves in real while danger isn't as guaranteed as we may think.
Ultimately, the fact of the matter is that "danger" is everywhere. Whether we are on the road, in a foreign country, on the way to work, or even in our own homes, unfortunate situations and circumstances can find us. If you are going to live your life based off the idea that something bad may happen in the general vicinity of a place you want to travel to, you may honestly not be any better off staying in your hometown. It's important to remind ourselves of this, and to not let the fear of elements so wildly out of our control hold us back.
What's also important to remember is that where there's one bad person, there are plenty of good people. Keep in mind all of the glorious, kind, peaceful, selfless acts that happen every moment of every day around the world; acts that are never reported on, and never pop up as news alerts on our phones. I know how when it seems like the world is going to hell in a hand basket, it can be hard to rationalize going out of your comfort zone for no reason other than wanting to travel. The idea of making yourself even more vulnerable by going out in the world (especially on your own) can seem scary to many. Actually, it does seem scary to many, but the fact that you're reading this already shows that you're interested in making that shift. Your goals of exploring the world are just on the other side of that nagging fear in the back of your head.
This doesn’t mean that I’m condoning an impromptu solo trip to areas of significant instability, or that I’m implying that navigating Goma is as safe and simple as navigating Seattle. What I am saying is that the world is far more accessible than we may believe, and if we strengthen our common sense and street smarts, learn to trust our gut, learn savvy smart-traveler practices and learn to utilize our innate good judgment, then the world can grant us with some extraordinary experiences. It's also about believing in the kindness and grace of people in this world, while also not letting our guards down and knowing when to set boundaries and make good choices.
That's what this post is for.
General Safety (Transportation, in Transit, and beyond)
MAKE COPIES of your DOCUMENTS
Make copies of your passport, visa, required vaccines (including your COVID vaccines), and medical prescriptions you need, then keep the copies separate from your originals.
HAVE an ARRIVAL PLAN
Before arriving at your destination, you should figure out how you'll get from the airport to where you’re planning on spending that first night. This can save you the stress and potential trouble of trying to make your way to an unknown accommodation in an unknown destination - especially in some countries where fraudulent taxis hang around airports waiting to pick up uncertain travelers.
Most accommodations will be able to offer directions from major transport hubs, such as the airport, bus terminal, train station, etc (check out their website, or communicate with them directly via email or phone). At the very least, accommodation should be able to arrange a taxi or transport for you if you don't feel like navigating a new public transportation system after, say, arriving in Kathmandu at midnight after an exhausting 19 hours of travel.
PUBLIC TRANSIT vs TAXIS
If you decide to take a taxi that isn't arranged through your accommodation, it is extremely important that you only take cabs that are driven by licensed drivers who are registered, from a legitimate company, and are hopefully metered. You may feel overwhelmed at busy transit areas because everyone will be encouraging you (or, in some places, by physically pulling you) to take their taxi. Only go with a driver who is reputable, and have the address, phone number, and name of your destination written down to give the driver so they know exactly where to go.
If you decide to take public transit as opposed to taxis, it’s important to recognize that you will be more susceptible to petty theft, especially on buses or trains that are overcrowded. Keep your daypack on the front of your chest or at least touching you at all times, don't let your luggage stray out of sight, and try to avoid flashing around pricey objects. For example, on a long bus haul where you want to read a book, it’s generally recommended to have a physical paperback copy you can pull out as opposed to a flashy iPad. On another note, pay attention to how much you should be paying for public transport- some people will try to rip off obvious foreigners. And if you can help it, avoid public transport at night, especially in countries with higher crime rates, notoriously terrible roads, and high incident of road accidents. Traveling during the day is almost always the better decision.
As for hitchhiking, my rule of thumb is to avoid it. Although in places such as Iceland or Patagonia you'll see plenty of travelers hitchhiking, and in these extremely safe places you likely will be fine, it’s generally not a safe or wise decision, regardless of if you’re a man or woman, or if you're solo or with a group.
If you absolutely must hitch a ride, do so with extreme care and caution. It’s okay to turn down an offer if the driver gives you a bad feeling, keep your valuables extremely well hidden, take off any jewelry, and don’t give away too much personal information (if any). Your safety becomes before all else, so when it doubt, find an excuse to get out.
Accommodation Safety (Hostels, Homestays, Camping, and Hospitals)
HOSTELS & HOTELS
When I'm booking an accommodation on a trip, I try and read reviews from a number of different sources to ensure there isn't a wide discrepancy in peoples' experiences. Make sure there are recent reviews and that there isn't anything indicating a sketchy experience regarding safety.
No matter where you decide to stay, be sure beforehand that you will have access to a safe for valuables. Even if you plan to stay in a dorm room at a hostel, asking them beforehand how you can secure valuables is important.
Regardless, I also travel with TSA luggage locks for my bags so I can lock my bags when I leave them in my room for the day.
You can also buy portable door alarms for an extra bit of security at night.
Just like with hostels or hotels, campsites will usually have reviews on Google or on iOverlander. When you pick your campsite, try and camp in an area that isn't completely void of light, and be sure to keep all your valuables (boots, backpack, hiking poles) in your tent with you at night.
A campsite that has security or a night guard can also add an extra layer of comfort. If you're camping in a country or area that has more security issues, a guard and an established fence are important things to lookout for.
If you plan to do wild camping in areas where there are no designated campsites, try to pick a spot that's not obviously in the open (go for the forest instead of the meadow clearing), and be sure that you know all the local animal safety protocols, such as how to hang food if you're in bear territory, or how to choose a campsite if there's big game (such as buffalos or elephants) nearby.
If you find yourself staying in a stranger's home - otherwise known as a homestay - it can be a great cultural experience. Homestays are special opportunities to see a side of a location that isn't always available to people who stay exclusively in hotels.
Most homestays are arranged through an organization (such as a volunteering company) that puts its travelers with local families because of the affordability and authentic experience. Homestays can also happen when you're randomly invited to stay in someone's home.
While in the first situation, homestays are usually vetted and carefully chosen/monitored, in the second situation, it's entirely up to the traveler to make the call on whether or not things seem safe or not. In some cultures, it's not uncommon to encounter genuine hospitality, such as offering a meal or a place to stay. However, don't immediately raise your red flags if someone invites you to their home for a meal or a place to spend the night. Most of the time, they purely are making a kind gesture, which is one of the joys of travel.
Bu like any other situation I mentioned earlier, you should be aware of what's going on. What feeling are you getting? What does your gut tell you? Are they being aggressive or pushy about you coming to their house? If you want to avoid the situation altogether, claim that you're about to meet someone and can't be late, and leave. It's as simple as that. Sample applies for pre-arranged homestays; even if a company you're traveling with assigns you to a family, if you're uncomfortable, you can request a different arrangement. Remember, your safety and comfort is the priority.
If you find yourself suddenly needing to go to a hospital, aim for a private and/or touristic hospital. Look for basic sanitary signs: are the doctors/nurses wearing gloves? Are the needles coming out of packaged bags? Is there any kind of security? Do the nurses and doctors have shoes on? (Yes, I've been in a hospital where my nurse was barefoot).
If you really have no idea where to go, get in touch with your Embassy and ask them for region-specific recommendations.
Safety as a Solo Woman
I cannot find enough words in the English language to convey just how wonderful, empowering, and exciting it is to be a solo woman traveling the globe, and I encourage all of my fellow women to independently take on the world at least once in their lives.
And yet, it’s obvious that the importance of safety can be even more significant in this case, and I know the thought of being alone in a foreign country can be daunting. However, most of the time, solo women simply have to exercise the same caution they would if they were a man or traveling with someone else, such as:
Be vague about where you’re staying, your name, or how long you’re going to be in town when talking to strangers or people you don’t know well
Do not take unmarked/unregistered taxis
Do not leave any drinks unattended
Only drink with people you can trust
If you’re on a road trip and a “police” car pulls you over, always wait until you can pull over somewhere well-lit, such as a market or gas station or busy intersection with street lights and other people.
Keep valuables (money, camera, wallet, passport) well hidden, and use your judgment when it comes to taking out valuables in public
Be vague and subtle about how much expensive equipment you have with you. This applies for photographers for people traveling with laptops, iPads, etc.
Avoid areas of cities or countries that may be tense, such as where riots, fights, or protests may be happening. This is super precautionary, but it's good to be aware. This can easily be read up on the US Travel Advisory website and registering with STEP.
Generally avoid dark streets, unlit parks, and back alleyways.
Always let someone know what your plans are; whether it’s someone at home or staff at a hostel (such as: if you’re going for a hike or trek and what time you’re expecting to be back, what hostel you’re staying at, what the address is of the homestay you're staying at, as well as the names of your hosts).
However, for women specifically, these tips should also be considered:
Walk with confidence, as cliche as it sounds. Keep your head up, shoulders back, and take confident strides. Take up space when you move, instead of appearing sheepish, shy, or vulnerable.
Before you head out, consider where you’re going beforehand so you don’t end up fumbling with a map or guidebook. Not only does this distract you from what’s going on around you, but it makes you appear distracted, which is what thieves generally look for in victims.
Don’t walk around with headphones in.
Feel free to lie about traveling solo. “Oh, my tour group is around the corner!” “My boyfriend is getting us breakfast.” “I’m here working, and I’m meeting my boss any minute now.”
Make eye contact with people who may be acting aggressive towards you. If you feel like you’re being followed or taunted in a busy marketplace, for instance, turn around, stand up tall (refer to the first bullet-point about confidence), stare them straight in the eye, and tell them directly and clearly to stop following you or harassing you. This also tells the other person that you are not easy to take advantage of, and that you clearly see who they are.
Before setting out on your trip, learn basic self-defense. Even one or two classes is a smart idea. You will probably never in your life ever have to utilize these skills, but the boost of confidence and knowledge can make all the difference.
Although it’s unfortunate, we do live in a world where men are often respected more than women. Mentioning that you're married will usually deter a flirtatious man more so than simply saying that you're not interested. A common trick to get obnoxious or unwelcome flirtatious men to leave you alone is by mentioning that you're traveling with a husband. Usually this will be followed up with the man asking where your husband is, in which you can reply something along the lines of, “He’s at the market getting food but will be back in a moment,” or “He’s parking our car,” or “He’s in the bathroom, I’m waiting for him here.” Even long before I was married, I’d walk around with a ring on my left hand, and I noticed a surprising drop in the number of men who bothered me.
Do not carry a knife or another weapon on you unless you know how to use it. (Not to mention there are a bunch of gray areas in the legality of that, depending on where in the world you are).
If you feel like you’re being followed, jump into any well-lit restaurant, cafe, market, police station, disco, gas station; anywhere that has people that can help defend you or at least allow you to hang out until the follower is gone.
Know the country's police phone number by heart.
Don’t be afraid to be loud. If someone is encroaching on your personal space and won’t back off, by all means be loud! Demand boldly and boisterously that they leave you alone. Draw attention to yourself. Get others on the street to notice what’s going on if the situation is escalating. And of course, in the worst case scenario:
Scream. If you feel that you are seriously being threatened, draw as much attention to yourself as possible.
This isn’t meant to scare you.
The likelihood of a situation arising to anything more than cat-calling or tugging on your arm in a touristy market to so you can buy their crafts is not high. However, being prepared for an array of situations and taking certain precautions helps boost your chances of safety, so they’re good to take note of and to keep in mind.
If I missed any crucial points, feel free to leave them in the comments, we can continue to keep each other safe out there in the world.