“Traveling can be dangerous but so can be staying at home. We never know what lurks around the corner, and all you can ever do is step forth boldly, and embrace whatever comes your way.”
21 Important General Safety Tips for Long Term Travelers Over 50
- Trust Your Instinct: Safety expert Gavin DeBacker’s well-known book The Gift of Fear recounts dozens of stories of women who, despite suspicions that they were in danger, allowed strangers into their lives who subsequently raped or victimized them. His essential advice – trust your instincts- applies when you travel as well.
- Many men, particularly, have wrong instincts on the road. I am always amazed at how often male travelers blithely follow anyone, particularly in tourist areas. Remember that the best place for a scam artist to take advantage of tourists is wherever tourists congregate. So, if you have not already, develop a thick skin. If that is hard for you, spend a few days in a big tourist center in the US – like Union Square in San Francisco or Times Square in New York – and learn how to ignore the panhandlers in these areas. If you can ignore them while watching your surroundings in these places in the US, you will be fine overseas.
- While sex is tempting on the road, be careful, or your “partner” will steal your stuff. Unfortunately, they may also refuse safe sex protections.
- Be careful whenever someone speaks to you and in English tells you that someone just spilled something on you. Resist their offers to help you clean up. The only thing they will clean you out of is your wallet.
- Men should resist offers to accompany someone to a bar or to help you find a woman; invariably, your “helpful friend” will overcharge or rob you.
- Be careful about telling strangers about your travel plans through social media and casual conversations. Be a bit nebulous but still friendly in your response. I occasionally say something like I do not know.
- Meet strangers for the first time in a public place, not a private house or hotel room.
- Be careful drinking alcohol. (Better said than done, in my case). Drink slowly. Eat while drinking. Take a glass of water between each drink to avoid hangovers and dehydration. Avoid drinks from strangers.
- Try to act like locals. Ask reputable locals -guides, hosts, hotel staff- for advice about how to act as much as possible.
- Women should dress like local women. As usual as shorts and a t-shirt would be in North America, most of the world dresses much more neatly than we do. Women should cover their arms, legs, and stomach in Muslim countries and wear long pants (outside beach resorts) in Europe and Latin America. Remember that in many parts of the world (particularly the Middle East), women do not show skin unless they want male attention.
- In some parts of the world, women may want to wear a wedding ring and tell local men they are waiting for their husbands to arrive.
- Criminals look for people they can dominate and manipulate, so hold your head up and shoulders back. Look straight ahead and walk with a purpose. If someone harasses you, ignore it and keep moving.
- Keep front-and-back copies of your credit cards, bank and credit card phone numbers, and a copy of your passport on your computer’s cloud.
- Stay in touch with your family and friends and ensure they have your itinerary to locate you quickly in case of problems.
- If you sense someone is following you, remain calm (take a few deep breathes if this is difficult for you). Head for a police or fire station or a busy shop or restaurant, walk fast and remain on well-lit streets.
- Avoid street protests, especially if you are part of a large group
- In many countries, pictures of military installations, bridges, dams, etc. are illegal
- Be careful before taking photos of people. Some people will get angry if you take their picture, and others will ask for compensation. (Some people believe that cameras steal their souls).
- If someone robs you, give up your stuff.
- If something terrible happens to you, contact your consulate. The consulate may arrange for health care and psychological counseling and can loan you money to get home.
- If you think someone is trying to sexually assault you, scream help at the top of your lungs. In many parts of the world (particularly the Middle East), your assailant will encounter hordes of people trying to come to your defense.
- If you are coming back home, particularly after a long trip, ensure your home is in order before leaving. Make the house seem like it is occupied. Suspend newspapers, have the post office put aside your mail, leave a light on, and prepay bills.
My Travel Safety Experiences
- In sixteen years of traveling and living abroad, I have done many stupid things on the road without an incident (mostly involving walking late at night drunk in sketchy places).
- However, I had one major problem, an express kidnapping in Puebla, Mexico, not because I was stupid, but because I did not follow the rules in this post about carefully researching your destination ahead of time and using taxis. I think my overall good luck is because of my imposing frame, awareness of my surroundings, and adopting several strategies early to diminish my susceptibility to safety problems.
2 Top Travel Safety Tips for Long Term Travelers Over 50: Carefully Research Your Destination Beforehand
Find Out as Much as Possible Beforehand the Answers to these Travel Safety Questions:
- What are the best neighborhoods, and which areas should you avoid, particularly after dark?
- Are your accommodations safe? Check for former guests’ comments about safety, mainly if you will be using budget lodging.
- Is public transportation safe? Some cities, like Barcelona, have a reputation for having a high incidence of pickpockets. In many cities, buses and subways are safe during the day but sketchy at night. As a rule, it is best to take a taxi to and from bars and nightclubs at night, especially if you have been drinking.
- Are there places that are not welcoming to women travelers? Bars in Asia (particularly the Middle East) and many sketchy big city neighborhoods and traditional small towns in Latin America are often exclusively reserved for men, and any women inside are considered prostitutes. In the Middle East and Greece, coffee shops are reserved for men only.
- Are there any common tourist scams and pitfalls in your destination? I usually find a google search useful to get this information. In addition, you can find helpful information from the US Department of State Country Information Pages. One of the most common issues you should check is if there are problems if you accept drinks or food from strangers. This is a safe and effective way to promote friendships in some places. However, in many tourist destinations, criminals repeatedly take advantage of tourists by poisoning them and taking their stuff.
Make Sure Your Research is Current
- All the websites that I checked before going to Puebla suggested that Puebla is a very safe city (Smarter Traveler lists Puebla as one of Mexico’s 13 safest places., and the US Department of State’s Travel Warnings assigns Puebla the lowest warning level in Mexico—Level 2; Exercise Increased Caution, and the Spanish Language School in Puebla maintains safety is almost non-existent as a problem for international students in Puebla.
- However, interestingly, if I had done more research on safety in Puebla, I would have found an article in Mexico News Daily. (Mexico News Daily is an excellent place for up-to-date safety information). Originally published in El Universal, one of Mexico’s major newspapers, the article is entitled: “Puebla; The Country’s Most Insecure City.” According to the article, 92.7% of interviewees in Puebla were afraid of being victims of crime. The highest percentage of any city in Mexico. Even more alarmingly, in 52 percent of the households, at least one family member was a crime victim. (Thankfully, only 19% of people interviewed in Merida, the city where I live, were afraid of crime, and Merida reported the lowest fear of any major city in Mexico).
Travel Safety Perceptions Versus Realities
- You often hear about safety issues in the media in places where travel safety problems are rare—i.e., planes, cruises, etc. However, when you hear about travel safety incidents in the news, it is because either:
- The incident affected a lot of people
- The event is rare. (You do not, for example, hear much about traffic accidents in a large metro area like Los Angeles or New York because they are so common as not to be newsworthy, yet you will hear about them on the news in small towns)
- While all the news gives the impression that travelers risk kidnapping, robberies, and other serious crimes, these crimes are not necessarily more likely than at home.
3 Taxi Safety Tips
- Be watchful for gypsy cabs (my cab in Puebla looked like an ordinary taxi) that overcharge, steal your stuff, or force you to take money from your account through an ATM (that is what happened to me). For this reason, avoid taxi touts at many airports and use a kiosk to arrange your taxis. Check for the names of reputable taxi companies and any common taxicab scams before arriving at a new destination.
- In most of the world, avoid taxis that are not marked. However, this is not always the case. For example, in the 1990s, taxis were not marked in Russia, and it was safe to put your thumb out and get in a cab.
- Women should also check to see if they should sit in the backseat of an Uber or taxi. In some parts of the world, single women who sit next to the driver are considered loose.
12 Tips to Safeguard Your Belongings While Traveling
- Bring as few valuable things as possible. The less you worry about your stuff, the more you can relax and avoid attracting thieves’ attention. Do not bring anything that is not replaceable, such as family heirlooms, expensive jewelry, and your birth certificate.
- Minimize the number of electronic devices you bring. If possible, bring out-of-date or well-used electronics. I even put marks on my computer to make it less appealing to thieves.
- Never put valuables into your checked luggage on a plane or in the under-bus storage compartment. My family and I had a camera and a gold necklace stolen from our airline checked baggage.
- Try to avoid carrying substantial amounts of cash if possible. Most experts recommend not having more than the equivalent of $20. I find this hard since I often spend more money than this in a day; however, I seldom carry more than $100 in currency.
- Try to open your wallet or purse in places away from prying eyes. For example, if I need a bus ticket in a city where I feel uncomfortable, I will put the ticket somewhere outside my wallet so that prying eyes don’t see the cash in my wallet.
- Instead of carrying your passport with you all the time, take your driver’s license- it will serve as an ID when needed most of the time (most likely to stay at a hotel or rent an audio guide).
- Develop a habit of keeping anything of value out of plain view in your hotel room or car. Stealing something in plain sight is too tempting, especially for poor people. I have, over time, come to believe that if something is stolen from me which is out in plain view, it is partially my fault. Instead, use a hotel safe or a locker whenever possible. (In some parts of the world, when people put things out in conspicuous places, they intend to give these things to the staff).
- Carefully watch your bags at bus stations, train stations, and popular tourist attractions.
- Check to see if you can buy tickets for buses and trains somewhere other than the train or bus station. In many parts of the world, to save you from becoming a target of thieves that hang out at bus stations.
- If you must put down baggage in a bathroom stall, place the luggage against the back wall and select the stall that abuts the wall. That way, thieves will not be able to see your baggage or snatch it quickly.
- Protect your money and passport in a money belt.
- Men should stop putting their wallets in their back pockets. It is much harder for a thief to get your wallet from your front pocket. Buy pants with buttons or zippers to discourage thieves.
- Be conscious that people may try to distract you and steal your stuff.
4 Safety Issues for Long-Term Travelers
Long-Term Travelers Experience Fewer Travel Safety Problems than Other Tourists
Many long-term travelers feel safe in their new communities. Why? They select safe neighborhoods to live in and have learned how to blend into their environment.
Let us look closer at why expats and long-term travelers feel safe. Here are a few reasons that spring to my mind:
- They do not stick out like a sore thumb. If you do not look vulnerable, thieves will pass you by.
- They let locals look out for them. Once they are part of the community, locals and other Fifty Plus Nomads help them avoid places and situations that may get them in trouble. They are often surprised how even people who do not know them well, like local store owners, will help them out, mainly if they try to speak their language and seem interested in local li. Locals admire foreigners willing to spend some time to get to know their hometown and want them to live in their community.
- They become aware of their surroundings. They slowly become interested in trivial things that make their new home away from home different (and similar) to life at home. After a while, they develop the ability to instinctively scan the scene in their new neighborhood and notice things that seem out of place and potentially troublesome.
- Criminals who are looking to take advantage of tourists work in areas where there are a lot of big hotels and tourist attractions. They do not spend time together in local neighborhoods where Fifty-Plus Nomads live. They stay out of the tourist ghetto.
- They live where locals do and use their transportation and services. As they become comfortable in their new home away from home¨, they start to look less and less out of place and become less and less a target. Remember, thieves, search for people who look out of place or vulnerable.
Special Long-Term Travel Safety Tips
- Long-term travelers, mainly if they live in a big city or an area with safety problems, should:
- Avoid having taxi cabs drop you off in front of your destination. Pick a corner nearby. If you are using the same taxi route often, vary where you pick up taxis so that your route is not too predictable to taxicab drivers.
- If you are going to be in one country for an extended period, register with your home country’s embassy or consulate, if possible. In the US, this is the smart traveler enrollment program (STEP). Make sure info is up to date, particularly phone number.
- If you travel between the same two points a lot (like from a homestay to a school), vary your route occasionally.
- Be aware some real problems are more likely to occur to long-term travelers than if they stayed at home, including:
- Injuring yourself walking. In the 2000s, I interviewed around 500 expats in Costa Rica and Mexico, and I only heard of two serious- a rape and an armed robbery (both in Costa Rica, by the way). Yet, I heard around 25 stories of expats tripping on sidewalk barriers, hitting their heads on low-hanging rooves, and missing unexpected steps.
- Physical problems caused by over-exertion. I have had both dehydration and plantar fasciitis after walking long distances while traveling, especially after drinking alcohol.
- Eating new foods and new microbes create food safety-related issues
- Bus and car accidents are much more common in much of the world than in North America and Europe. (The US has more traffic accidents than most other developed countries, however).