Travel Safety Tips
We are in Athens. After a long day of driving, the afternoon sun is setting, the street lights are turning on and we are just arriving to our AirBnb – one that has great reviews and spacious looking photos. Oftentimes, these AirBnb’s are in great locations, but not this one. As we pull up to our graffiti-painted building, we see a man of questionable integrity staring at us – that type of guy that you give a wide berth when walking by. He is sitting on the curb not 15 feet from our parking spot. We don’t consider ourselves salty travelers at this point, but we know enough to tell if someone is safe or threatening. This dude, the latter.
Our next move saves us a lot of heartache and has been the standard when we arrive at any AirBnb: take everything essential and valuable out of the car and inside the AirBnb in one trip. We ascend to the top of the building with our luggage in hand to find a comfortable pad; the pictures were accurate. Meanwhile, our car is being been rummaged through. After breaking the passenger window, the thief opens the door and makes a hasty search. Unfortunately for us, we forget the wet wipes in the glove box…perhaps he needs them more than we do. He sure thinks so.
It is almost unavoidable that issues like this will arise. Luggage can be stolen, you may be pick-pocketed on a crammed rail, or the ol’ car thief can execute a petty crime. However, keeping an astute eye, taking some precautions and looking like you belong can prevent a lot of this.
It is a lot less terrible out there than you may think. There are protests, pickpockets, sketchy neighborhoods and thief’s – we have come across our share, but the major issues can be avoided or mitigated, for the most part, with some planning and precautions.
Travel Security Preparations
1. Situational Awareness – It’s hard to blend in to some areas, but you can without doubt be aware of your surroundings and discern when it’s time to leave, or avoid an area altogether. Avoiding the seedy neighborhoods, detouring around the protests and looking like a local can all aid in your ability to avoid dangerous tourist traps. Recognizing an over abundance of trash and graffiti in an area can be your clue that the local authorities are not policing the area well. It may mean you will want to steer clear of these areas entirely. Additionally, we take note of how many local women and elderly people are walking alone in the evenings. If we see many we presume the area is safer than areas where we see few. It’s a practice to remain cognizant of your surroundings; you will get better at noticing these things the more you apply your attention.
2. Mind your posture – There is a lot to be discerned from the way you carry yourself; perceiving non-verbal cues is hardwired into people.
When I arrived at Marine Corps boot camp years ago, the first thing taught immediately after being hustled off the shuttle bus and onto those yellow footprints was how to stand properly. I’ll never forget that evening. The group of nervous recruits standing in military formation were lambasted for what seemed to be hours. Roll your shoulders back and stand tall! Head up! Eyes forward! It may seem rudimentary, but it is a sure-fire way to present more confidence and less vulnerability – exactly what undesirables are trying to avoid. Those scoundrels want easy targets. Therefore, appear confident and walk with purpose.
3. Protect and hide your valuables – I have a dear friend who told me of a time he was traveling through Mexico and had to pay off the Federales. Before he departed on his road trip he split up his cash, hiding it multiple places throughout the rental car. He was stopped shortly after his departure, the Federales noticing his conspicuous rental plates. When the police requested prompt payment for a fabricated violation, my friend could only give what he had in his pocket. It was the only cash he had on him; a half truth, but still true. The Federales took his $40 and let him go on his way while his remaining $200 was tucked away in various places. Perfecto, mi amigo. Bien jugado, Jeffrey.
We do a similar thing: when we arrive to our accommodations we routinely hide our passports, extra cash, credit cards and anything else that isn’t necessary to carry. This may not be wise if you are staying in a multi-person hostel room. Perhaps you could still find areas to stash your valuables, but it may be best to keep them on your person in this case. If we decide it needs to with us, we carry small items in a money belt that fits comfortably and inconspicuously under our clothing. Fanny packs worn on the outside of clothing is not the answer, although they seem to be gaining popularity among tourists.
*Passport Tip: We have never found it necessary to carry our passports at all times. We actually find more peace of mind leaving them hidden in safe places (read: in kitchen cabinets) at our accommodations away from pickpockets. We were told and read many articles prior to our travels that we should have our passport on us at all times, but this is unnecessary. Especially if you are staying in a busy city for a few days to sight-see. If you are moving from one city to another, yes – carry your passport – but same city touring, it’s not necessary.
3. Electronic rather than paper copies – it is so much easier to snap a picture of a document, passport, or ID card than printing out copies and carrying them around with you. In the event you need a paper copy, simply take the electronic version to a print shop. For less than a dollar you can have those images/documents printed quickly. Of course, there is the threat of those documents being hacked into. We mitigate this by putting all relevant documents on a password protected USB Flash Drive and holding the USB drive in our money belt.
4. Know the relevant emergency numbers – This will tend to vary from country to country but it is very easy to obtain this information: simply ask your AirBnb host, Google, hotel receptionist, or taxi driver.
5. Locate the closest hospital – Google Maps is an application that has loads of information. Not only can you find grocery stores and restaurants, but also the closest hospital near you. Google Maps is your best friend when traveling in new, unexplored areas.
6. Place spend limits on your credit cards – To avoid a lot of damage if a credit card number is stolen it is best to place a limit on the card. Say, $200 per day – that should be enough for most travelers. Oftentimes when you pay for something abroad, the credit card machine will be brought directly to you. We love this and think it’s best to not lose sight of your card as you may jeopardize the integrity of its security. Learn more about ways to travel for cheap using credit cards here.
7. Pay attention to the locals – As we were making our way through Rome, a city with tons of tourists, we were amazed at how large the city was; so much to see and so little time. This led us to using the busy subway systems to roam the city more efficiently. Shortly after cramming ourselves onto the early morning rail, Ashley was jolted from behind. A last minute passenger abruptly shoved herself into Ashley’s back and onto the rail. Unbeknownst to us, this passenger would turn out to be a notorious pickpocket looking to snatch Ashley’s purse when the timing was right. Then something interesting began to happen: All around people were shifting and positioning their bodies so they had full sight of the last-minute passenger. We were not sure what was happening. The next stop wasn’t for 5 minutes. Why is everyone looking in Ashley’s direction? Then we heard the unique Roman accent: Be careful, pick-pocket behind you. Both of us were caught entirely off-guard. Ashley quickly pulled her purse closer to her chest and shifted away from the pickpocket. At this point, multiple Romans were pointing out the passenger. The pickpocket turned away, placed her hands on the sliding doors and held her head. This group of passengers taught us a valuable lesson that day – pay attention to the locals.
It is really not difficult to avoid dangerous situations. The use of common sense in a country you are unfamiliar with will go a long way. When we are in our hometown we let loose and enjoy going out. We know the locale, and know which areas to avoid; we are the locals here. If something is out of place, it’s easy for us to spot. When we are traveling, we stay a little tighter. We do not often stay out late drinking, opting to buy beers and groceries to enjoy in the safety of our accommodations – we on a budget, yo. This has prevented us from encountering any late-night prowlers and sticky situations.
Feel out each city/country on its own. They all tend to be a bit different and novel. If you are not one to read up on a place before visiting, keep your head up and shoulders back; act like a local and walk with purpose. Lastly, in the event you find yourself in immediate danger remember to keep calm, head kick and RUN! 😉