How not to be a traveling target

If you’re a novice traveler, allow me to let you in on a little secret. That little Canadian flag some Americans like to stitch onto their backpacks? Not fooling anyone. Your attempts to “go native” and wear Thai fisherman’s pants, or drink maté, or flaunt a bindi? Nope. They still know. Know you’re a foreigner, despite your best efforts to hide it.

Don’t get me wrong- it’s commendable to try and learn the local culture, and adopt some customs and habits, as long as they don’t inadvertently cause offense. But don’t let your immersion lull you into thinking you’re not a target for crime.

The color of your skin or hair, your accent despite fluency in the native language, even the way you walk- all are signs of your innate “foreignness.” Even if you’ve lived in a country for years, it’s hard to fully assimilate, and as such, that can make you more susceptible to anything from petty thievery to more serious crimes.

That isn’t to say you’re bound to get jacked on your holiday- odds are, you won’t. It’s just as easy to be mugged or assaulted at home as it is overseas, but one of the reasons travelers are easy targets is because they let their guard down on vacation.In the interest of keeping your trip as trouble-free-and fun- as possible, here are some tips to help you avoid looking like a walking advertisement for “Have money, will travel.”

Always look like you know where you’re going- even if you’re hopelessly lost.

Whipping out a map in plain sight and poring over the details; hesitant steps and head swiveling- these are almost guaranteed to invite a “helpful” stranger to assist you. More often than not, it’s someone who honestly wants to be of service, and I’ve had to rely on this kindness many times. But the point is, if I need help, I’ll select my source of information. If you absolutely must rely upon someone who has picked you out of the crowd, keep your distance, try not to walk near alleys or doorways, and make sure other people can see you.

Don’t flaunt your cash or cards at the ATM

This seems painfully obvious, but you’d be surprised by how many travelers blithely stroll up to a cash machine, extract their bills, and then stand there in plain sight, counting their money. Besides making you look like a bit of an a-hole in Third World countries where the average daily pay is a dollar, it’s like a flashing neon sign to would-be muggers. If you can’t go inside a bank, just be as surreptitious as possible. I keep my travel wallet and passport clipped into the interior of my day pack, so even if someone does try to snatch it, it will require a bit more effort. I also turn my day pack around to my front, and leave
my wallet down inside the pack as I pull out my cards, and insert my money.

Don’t dress to impress; honor the local dress code
You don’t need to don a burqa if you’re visiting Dubai, but some countries do have very specific rules about how much flesh (men and women) should show. In Marrakesh, you can wear a tank top if you’re female, but make sure it covers your torso, isn’t too skimpy/cleavagey/nippley, and cover your shoulders in places not dominated by tourists. Shorts should at the very least reach your knees. Following these rules is not just a matter of respect, but it also helps you to not stand out and attract unwanted attention. Men, your attire can also make you a target, so if loud colors and open collars aren’t what the locals wear, neither should you. Leave the Ed Hardy to Jon Gosselin (and you know don’t want to be him).

On a similar note: for the love of god, if you are newlyweds/a couple- do NOT wear matching clothes. Not only does it look asinine, but it’s like begging to be a victim.

Keep your wits about you
I’ll be the first to admit there have been times when I’ve gone a little overboard, and not been as responsible for myself as I should have after a few too many drinks. But overall, I try to keep it dialed down when I’m abroad. As for illicit drugs- while they may be a tourism draw in certain areas, just don’t. Not only do you contribute to the corruption of local culture, but is getting caught with that opium really worth a lifetime in a Thai prison? Whether you’re solo or with friends, the only person looking out for you is you. This logic also applies at home, but drunken escapades in Duluth don’t usually end with you being frisked, felt up, handcuffed, thrown in a police car, driven to a remote location, threatened, extorted, and dumped out on a deserted road. Not that that happened to me.

Keep your voice down

Americans are gregarious, enthusiastic folk, which has garnered us something of a worldwide reputation for being “loud,” and “obnoxious.” Please remember that you are in a foreign country, and as such, a guest. Take the time to learn a few phrases and local customs, remember that the people are not there to be your personal servants, and for god’s sake, pipe down. Don’t advertise your tourist status.

Keep your valuables at home, or out of sight

Overseas travel isn’t the time to wear your one-carat wedding ring, or your Cartier watch. Leave the bling at home, and keep your camera tucked away in your day bag of choice. Even if it’s in your pocket, it’s easy pickings. It goes without saying that your passport, money, credit cards, essential medications, etc. should be kept somewhere secure. Personally, I like to keep them on me in my day pack (see, “The empty bladder: why hydration packs make great travel companions”).

Respect local custom, and avoid potentially inflammatory topics

Foreign politics are a conversation best left at home, along with your opinions about religion/race/sexual orientation/women’s rights/child labor/animal abuse, as they apply to wherever you happen to be. This doesn’t mean you should turn into a Stepford Tourist, but there’s a difference between having a civil discussion or coming to the defense of a person or animal in danger, and putting yourself at serious risk. I’ve had to practically wire my jaw shut at times to avoid an ugly confrontation. It’s frustrating, and sometimes heartbreaking, but a big part of travel is learning to appreciate the things we usually take for granted.