I’ve written a lot about the joys of solo travel on Gadling. Articles like “Mastering The Art Of Traveling Solo” and “How To Make Friends When Traveling Alone” reflect my passion for traveling without a companion, and aim to show others how they can do it, too. One common inquiry I get from readers who are interested in solo travel is how to stay safe. To help answer the question, I’ve compiled a list of my top safety tips, many of which apply to group travelers, as well. Do you have a travel safety tip of your own? Let us know in the comments below.
Prepare For Trouble Before You Leave Home
Before leaving for your trip, make copies of your passport, visas, ATM card, credit cards, birth certificate, driver’s license and other important documents or ID cards. Leave one copy at home with your family or a close friend, and take another to hide somewhere in your bag, away from the originals. This will save you much trouble if anything gets lost or stolen.Invest In Some Pickpocket-Proof Gear
There are various companies who offer clothing lines dedicated to traveler safety. My personal favorite is Clever Travel Companion, which sells underwear, long johns, tank tops and T-shirts. I’ve used all of their women’s products, and love not having to worry about carrying a purse or constantly checking if my belongings are safe. If you’re interested in pickpocket-proof trousers, invest in Clothing Arts’ P^cubed travel pants, which look like typical cargo pants or shorts but have pockets in unusual places.
If You Do Carry A Bag, Keep It In Front Of You
For women, the answer is simple: bring a purse or bag where the strap crosses over your body and rests on your hip. These can be easily held against the front of your body. For men, I recommend wearing a backpack as a frontpack. It may sound silly, but I’ve had numerous friends have thieves open their backpack zippers and pull out money, cameras and phones without them even noticing. Always have your belongings in sight.
One of the most common tactics thieves use to pickpocket travelers is distracting them with a chaotic or interesting situation. Some may simply engage you in conversation or have children surround you and starting high-fiving you, while others will go so far as throwing a baby so you focus on catching it. When I was in Barcelona, some men from my hostel and I decided to check out the bars on Las Ramblas. On the way, an attractive woman went up to one of them and started fondling his nether region. While his instinctual feeling was flattery, it should have been to become more alert. Not surprisingly, her main goal was getting his wallet, which she did.
Know A Few Useful Phrases In The Local Language
While nobody’s expecting you to become fluent in another language before your vacation – although, if you can, you’ll certainly have an advantage – knowing a few useful phrases is crucial. Along with being able to ask where the nearest bathroom is, how to order food and the proper way to greet someone, it is important to know how to ask for help. When I was hiking by myself in Ecuador, I had a very scary experience where an angry dog ran out of nowhere and acted aggressive towards me. Instinctively, I grabbed a large rock and held it over my head in a threatening manner, stopping the dog from approaching but not willing him to go away. I began to scream “¡Ayúdeme!” (“Help me!”) at the top of my lungs. Some nearby farmers heard me, and were able to get the animal away safely.
Know When A Group Is A Good Idea
While solo travel shouldn’t limit you from doing and seeing what you want, there are certain situations where you will be better off with a group. For example, while popular hiking areas are fine to trek alone, more remote ones are better done with a companion. Think public places when on your own, and group travel for more remote or private places. The above mentioned dog example was a trek I really should have done with someone from my guesthouse. If the dog had actually attacked me on the rarely trekked path, it may have been hours before someone found me.
Limit Your Alcohol Consumption
Whenever you are so drunk people need to take care of you, you’re making yourself vulnerable. This is especially true if you’re traveling alone in a foreign country. At least if you’re at a bar you near home, you’ll have some familiar faces and nearby friends to lookout for you. When traveling solo, however, you need to be able to fully take care of yourself at all times. This doesn’t mean you can’t go out for drinks, just always make sure you’re retaining control.
Research The Culture And Customs Beforehand
Don’t assume normal things you do at home are okay to do abroad. For example, in Singapore you can fined for chewing gum, in Thailand it is disrespectful to enter a room wearing shoes and in Morocco it is sinful to eat with the left hand. Moreover, in certain cultures a woman simply looking at a man means they are interested in more than friendship. Do some research beforehand to keep yourself out of sticky situations.
Segueing from the above tip of knowing the customs, you should try to blend in with the locals as much as possible. Many times, thieves target tourists, so making it clear that you are from out of town by looking lost, carrying giant maps and huge cameras and sporting shirts that say your home city’s name are not wise ideas. Even at times when you look nothing like the locals, act assertive, befriend residents and try to seem familiar with your surroundings.
Always Carry The Hotel’s Business Card
I can’t count how many times I’ve gone exploring in a new city, gotten lost, hailed a cab and couldn’t remember what hotel I was staying at. Luckily, I always carry the hotel’s business card with me. This is also great because you won’t have to struggle to speak another language; simply hand the driver the business card and they’ll understand. Furthermore, it can be helpful when you need to leave a potentially dangerous situation in a hurry.
Don’t Tell Everyone You’re Alone
While I tell other backpackers in my hostels and guesthouses that I’m traveling alone when trying to put a group outing together, it’s something I try not to make obvious when exploring. If a stranger asks you who you’re traveling with, tell them your husband/wife/friend is in the bathroom and will be out in a minute. Moreover, if you ever feel uncomfortable, move to a very public area, and even start chatting to someone to make it look like you’re traveling together.
Have Your Hotel Show You On A Map Where Is/Isn’t Safe
The first thing you should do after you check in to a hotel is ask for a staff member to get you a map and circle the areas that are safe for you to explore on your own. Ask them to also tell you exactly how to get to these places via public transport. While you should carry the map with you, try to memorize it before you hit the streets, as pulling it out every two seconds will make it clear you’re a tourist.
If You’re Being Followed, Don’t Stop
I’ve done numerous solo backpacking trips, and I can honestly say this has only happened to me once. I was in Rio de Janeiro, and had made the mistake of pulling out my wallet to get my bus fare ready before even getting to the bus stop. The man looked right at me with a menacing glare, and then began following me to the stop. I looked him confidently in the eye to let him know I knew he was there, and began walking quickly but assertively to the nearest group of people and planted myself in the group. I even smiled and waved to the chatting bunch to lead the potential thief to believe I knew them. After looking me up and down one last time, he walked away defeated.
Don’t Assume Your Hotel Room Is Safe
I’ve met many travelers who assumed they could leave their valuables lying around their hotel room, only to have money, passports and electronics “go missing.” I don’t care if you’re staying at a budget hostel or a five-star hotel, thefts happen. And, don’t always trust the front desk with your things, either. I met one traveler who left his money and passport with the front desk of his hostel. When he returned for his valuables, they pretended they didn’t know what he was talking about. To keep your things safe, make use of in-room lockers and safes, where only you know the combination.
Don’t Bring Anything You Wouldn’t Mind Losing
While you may love your wedding ring, designer purse and MacBook Pro, do you really need to bring these with you on your trip? My advice is to leave anything you would be devastated to lose at home. When I travel, I leave my expensive laptop at home and instead bring a cheap netbook. Moreover, I don’t bring any jewelry or any item with a designer label. The most valuable thing I bring is my point-and-shoot camera, and when I’m out on the streets I do not make it obvious that I’m carrying it.
Learn How To Defend Yourself
Taking a self-defense class is not only smart for solo travelers, but for everyone. Whether you’re on a trip or at home, violent attacks are possible. Learning how to defend yourself will not only give you skills to get out of dangerous situations, but will also make you a more confident solo traveler.
Always Trust Your Gut
This is the most important tip on the whole list. Your gut is almost always correct. If you meet a new person, but something about them is rubbing you the wrong way, get away from them. When you’re wandering around a new neighborhood and suddenly get a sick feeling in your stomach, hop in a cab. If you check in to a hotel but something just seems unsettling, check out and find somewhere else to stay. Never underestimate the power of your own intuition.
[Images via Shutterstock]