I’ve spent fourteen years as a travel writer, which included six years travelling full-time as a woman on my own. In that time, my travel safety knowledge has increased dramatically. Mostly, I’ve learned from other people’s mistakes. But I’ve had a few unpleasant scrapes myself. Here are the safety tips I give my family and friends whenever they take a trip.
1. Check the safety of your destination
Before you book your trip, you should research the basics of the country you want to visit. The best resource for destination safety is your government’s official foreign travel website. For the USA, it’s the Department of State (State Department). For the UK it’s the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. The Government advice is the best source because it will be accurate, up-to-date and won’t have the same scare tactics you might find on news sites and forums.
2. Don’t travel to banned destinations
If there are issues or travel restrictions for a particular country, you should follow your Government’s travel advisories. In particular, don’t travel to any destination on your Government’s ‘do not travel’ list. Not only will your safety be at risk, but your travel insurance probably won’t be valid, and you may not be able to rely on embassy or consulate support while you’re away. I once met a family due to travel to Venezuela (on the USA don’t travel list) because it had been promoted as the cheap Caribbean. I still wonder how they got on. And if they got back.
3. Know the visa and entry requirement
Every country has rules for tourists entering and leaving. These rules usually relate to documentation needed to enter e.g. a valid passport (usually with a few months to spare), visa rules, and proof of a return or onward ticket (I once got caught out by this trying to travel to the Philippines on a one-way ticket and had to buy a last-minute return flight at the airport).
As for visas, some countries will let you visit for a set period e.g. 30 to 90 days without having to get a visa. Other countries require you to apply for a visa or fill out a form before you fly, like ESTA (for tourists visiting the USA). Tip: most airlines will double-check any visa and entry requirements before you board the plane but do your checks. Your Government foreign office website is the best place for accurate info. For visas and passport renewals, apply well in advance so you don’t miss your trip date.
4. Research local laws and customs
If you’re visiting somewhere that is culturally different to where you’ve been before, check if there are any local rules or customs. From banned medicines in Dubai to illegally sitting on the Spanish Steps in Rome, to rules around what to wear at religious temples, you don’t want to be that tourist who ends up in the news. Guide books like Lonely Planet are a great source of local rules as are expat websites and blogs.
5. Check health and vaccination recommendations
Nobody wants to get sick while they’re overseas and there are some basic precautions you can take to keep yourself healthy. The most important is to make sure you follow any advice for essential vaccinations. Some more exotic destinations carry diseases you may not experience at home like Yellow Fever and Typhoid and you may need to be vaccinated against these before you visit. My go-to resource for checking a country’s health requirements is the FitForTravel website. Although it’s a website by the Scottish NHS, anyone can use it for free and the advice is international. Tip: many vaccinations take some time before they’re effective so this is one to check months in advance (as I found out when I planned a last-minute round-the-world trip).
6. Research mosquito risks
Mosquito-bourn illnesses should not be underestimated. I tell you this because I got Dengue Fever when I was in Mexico’s Yucatan resort area. Again, research – find out if your planned trip is to a malaria zone or has the risk of other mosquito illnesses like dengue or zika. Once again, the FitForTravel website is my go-to place for malaria advice. Always get your advice from a doctor-driven resource. I have tried and tested many mosquito repellents.
7. Book safe accommodation in a safe area
When it comes to choosing accommodation, the best rule is location, location, location. Being in a safe neighbourhood with easy-to-access facilities is one of the best ways to keep yourself safe. In big cities, neighbourhoods can sprawl. Guidebooks, blogs and forums are great for background research on safe areas to stay. But the verified reviews on sites like Booking.com will give great insight into how safe an area feels. You can sort by lowest reviews as well as most recent or search words like ‘safety’. And it’s not just the area to look out for. Check reviews – were there any reports of things being stolen from rooms or other safety concerns at the accommodation like mould and bed bugs? Related: Dealing with Bed Bugs when you travel.
8. Understand how to get around safely
Transport is another common risk factor when you travel. Is there a metro? Is it safe? Or is there a high pick-pocket rate? Are there women-only train carriages like in Kuala Lumpur? Is the bus better? What about renting a car? How can you reduce your risk of car-jacking in places like Johannesburg (I took the local Baz Bus instead)? Are some taxi companies safer, like in Mexico City? Local transport safety will differ from place to place. Know what’s available, know the risks, and know how the local system works so you don’t stand out as a tourist target.
9. Be careful riding mopeds and scooters
One of the top injuries I see when I travel is people who’ve hired a moped or scooter and ended up taking a tumble. Sure, it looks like a cheap and fun way to explore but if you’re inexperienced on two motorised wheels, there is a real risk you’ll get it wrong. And, since it’s a common mode of transport in warmer countries, there’s every chance you’ll be in sandals, shorts and without a helmet. Don’t do it. Road rash (gravel scrapes up your skin) is bad enough. Broken bones and near or actual death will spoil your trip all around! Tip: take a day’s scooter course before you leave home and buy some lightweight protective clothing if you want to travel this way.
10. Strengthen your swimming skills
This doesn’t show up on many lists and I don’t know why because I’ve heard of so many swimming-related problems on my travels. From currents to rip tides to diving into too-shallow pools to not knowing or missing the red-flag warnings on beaches (red flags mean it’s not safe to swim), it’s a real risk. As my self-defence teacher once told me: the three best ways to stay safe are to install a smoke alarm at home, learn to swim and know when to run!
11. Pack a first aid kit
You don’t need to take the whole pharmacy but some basic first-aid items will help in a pinch. I pack hand sanitiser (can double up to clean cuts), plasters, pain medication and rehydration salts. I’ve never been anywhere, even on remote islands, that didn’t have a pharmacy, so stick to the basics.
12. Pack appropriate kit and clothes
Packing the right clothing can save your skin. In a country where women are required to cover, dressing appropriately is important. But more than that, having a UV-protection swim-top for long days snorkelling at sea can save you from fierce sunburn. And technical clothing can keep you safe and warm if you go for a sunrise mountain hike. Good travel shoes with a firm grip can make hiking safer, as can some useful items like a head torch or Swiss Army Knife (checked luggage only). Think about your trip activities and pack accordingly. You might like my Ultimate Packing List.
13. Copy important personal documents
Hopefully, you’ll never need them but saving a copy of important documents is a great backup for emergencies. I have a copy of my passport, insurance document, glasses prescription and list of contact details for family and friends saved online in the cloud. And I know how to access it (including the password) in case I need to. Set up your system for a ‘just in case’ situation. Cloud-based is best – email, iCloud, or Google Storage are all good options.
14. Share your itinerary with family, friends and consulate
I remember sending my brother an email that I’d been evacuated in a tsunami warning on Kauai in Hawaii. It turned out fine but since then I have shared my itinerary for every trip. I use TripIt (free version) and Trello to store and share my travel plans but you can print or email a document. If you want to be very cautious, you can use the Smart Traveler Enrolment Program in the USA to register for free with your consulate. When I travel solo, I also have ‘Find Friends’ set up so my brother can always see my location. It’s comforting to know someone can locate you, especially if you’re in a more dangerous destination.
15. Back-up and password protect your electronics
Safety is no longer just about physical safety. Data, identity and financial safety are just as relevant and at risk. Back up your laptop, tablet and phone before you leave home. Even if you just lose or break the items, you’ll still have your data. Also, travel is a good time to add a security lock to your devices if you don’t have one set up already. You especially want to do this if you have financial payment options saved on your device.
16. Notify your bank
Many banks want to know that you’re travelling so they don’t mistakenly block a transaction as potential fraud. I had this happen when I crossed a land border into Brazil from Argentina – my bank blocked my ATM withdrawal because they didn’t know I planned to be in Brazil. Without cash, I was unable to get a taxi, which involved a long, unsafe walk to my hotel. Tell your bank where you’re going!
17. Check your cell plan for use overseas
You may not intend to use your cell service while you’re away – it can be expensive. But the time you will absolutely want it is in an emergency. So, before you leave home, make sure you’re set up to send and receive calls while you’re overseas. Some cell providers need to switch this on for you (usually at no fee).
18. Secure your home before you go
I have a friend who always packs his iron into the trunk of his car when he goes on a trip: ‘It means I don’t need to worry whether I’ve switched it off.’ While I’m not suggesting you need to go that far, do take a focused few minutes before you leave to check your home is secure and everything you need to switch off is switched off. There’s nothing worse than worrying about your home while you’re on vacay.
19. Pre-plan your first 24 hours away
You’re at your most vulnerable during your first 24 hours in a new country. As well as possible jet lag, you might be grappling with culture shock, a new language, change in climate, foods and transport options. I always have my first 24 hours pretty well buttoned down. I especially focus on how I will travel safely from the airport (or bus/train depot) to my accommodation. I also make sure I know the check-in time at my hotel or whether I’ll need to stow my luggage and valuables.
20. Don’t get too close to the wildlife
I get it, those monkeys are soooooo cute. And your pic would be soooo much better if you were closer to the deer. But, wild animals are exactly that. From monkey and dog bites to kicking horses and charging deer, respect the power of wild animals. That way you won’t find yourself in A&E awaiting a rabies jab. So many times I’ve seen a travel friend post a too-close picture with an animal only to later post a picture of their bandaged wound.
21. Have situational awareness with selfies
We’ve all seen the headlines: man or woman falls off a cliff while taking a selfie. We shake our heads and swear we’d never be that dumb. But then the moment overtakes us. The sunset is perfect…just one step back for the better light and…wheeeee, over you go. Be careful. And don’t pass beyond roped-off barriers or areas. They’re there for your safety. I see this so much. Don’t risk it.
22. Find out if you can drink the local water
Not every country’s tap water is safe to drink. Guidebooks are the most reliable resource, followed by blogs and local advice. If you read travel forums for tap water safety tips, you’ll get a mix of facts and opinions. If the water is unsafe to drink, don’t brush your teeth with it either. Keep a bottle of water next to the sink as a reminder. But there is usually no need to worry about ordering salads or ice in drinks. In countries where the tap water isn’t safe, locals use mass-produced ice and wash salad in filtered, safe water. If the tap water is safe, it still might not taste so nice. In that case, take a refillable water bottle and check for refill stations. Hotel gyms almost always have a free chilled water dispenser (no, you don’t need to work out to use it!).
23. Use hand sanitiser a lot
I’ve always practised good hand sanitising while travelling. It’s a good way of keeping yourself germ-free, whether it’s coughs and colds or stomach bugs. A good rule of thumb is to sanitise before you put your hand anywhere near your mouth or face. We are more likely to sanitise after bathroom trips but using gel after touching currency (which passes through many hands) is just as vital. If in doubt, get the sanitiser out.
24. Check restaurant reviews (or use your eyes)
Food poisoning is a fast way to ruin a trip and while it can’t always be avoided, you can do some basic checks. Read online reviews but also use your eyes – does the dining area and bathroom look clean? It’s a good indication of how the kitchen might be. Also, use your nose. Appetising smells are another good sign. If in doubt, avoid high-risk foods like seafood and chicken.
25. Be careful with alcohol
“I was a bit drunk,” is a common theme whenever I’ve hear travel stories that involve people getting robbed or hurting themselves. Sure, you’re on vacation and want to cut loose a little, but take care. Are you drinking familiar drinks (or extra-large serves of spirits you don’t normally drink)? Are you in a trustworthy bar? Do you know how to get home? Are you with a safe companion? Don’t make it so that you really regret the night before, the morning after.
26. Pack a travel guidebook
While travel guide books may have been eclipsed by online resources, the info they contain is reliable, well-researched and written by a local. I always carry a Lonely Planet guide as they have excellent detailed safety sections. Guidebooks are also available on tablets or your phone if you want to pack light.
27. Have a healthy suspicion of strangers
The vast majority of people are good. I’ve been helped by strangers so many times on my travels that I could write a book about it. However, some people are out to take advantage of you. And, as a tourist, you’re more at risk. Make friends but have a healthy suspicion of people who approach you. Trust your instinct and, if what they suggest is too good to be true, it probably is.
28. Wear sunscreen
We can get so caught up in worries about scams and food safety that we forget the basics. Wearing sunscreen is one of them. And not just on the beach. In hot countries or places where the ozone is thinner (like Australia), apply your sunscreen before you go out for breakfast. Burns are painful.
29. Learn some self-defence
As a solo female traveller who is only 5 feet tall, I decided to take a few self-defence classes. No, I won’t win in a battle with five large men but I have a few more techniques for defending myself. And it’s not just women. Men can benefit too. After all, men are far more likely to get caught up in a bar scuffle than women.
30. Research local ATMs and currency choices
Local currency has gotten easier over time with the rise of card payments around the world. Still, some countries are ‘cash-heavy’ countries. Research is key: will you need cash (taxis, tips, local restaurants)? Is the exchange rate terrible if you use dollars instead of local currency (usually yes)? How much does it cost to use the ATM (local fees and your home bank fees)? Are local ATMs reliable? Or is it better to go to a currency exchange at home? Typically, I get a small amount of cash, around $100 worth, at the airport ATM when I land and go from there.
31. Don’t count your cash at the ATM
I once watched a lady have her thick wad of cash snatched from her hand as she stood counting it next to the ATM. Trust the machine. I have never heard of an ATM dispensing the wrong amount of money. And even if it does, you can’t resolve it with the ATM directly anyway. If you must count your cash, go somewhere private like a bathroom or your hotel.
32. Don’t carry large sums of cash or valuables
Whatever you do, don’t have large sums of cash on you. Personally, I won’t withdraw my whole trip budget in one go. I make several smaller withdrawals, even if it means more fees. This reduces the impact if I am robbed or pickpocketed. You’ve heard it many times: leave the Rolex at home. I don’t have one but I also don’t wear any jewellery that could even be perceived as flashy.
33. Be covert with your money belt
Personally, I don’t like money belts. Nothing screams ‘tourist with a stash of cash’ louder than someone trying to discreetly unfold $20 from a belt beneath their shirt. Yes, we can all see you do it. Even if you’re being discreet. Either ditch the money belt and just carry as much cash as you need that day. Or, head to the bathroom to remove your money before paying.
34. Stash an emergency credit card or cash
Don’t keep all your cash and credit cards in the same purse/bag. I have an emergency credit card that I store with my passport and always stash a little cash in with my clothes, all kept back at the hotel. If this becomes a regular good travel habit for you, do check your credit card expiry date from time to time!
35. Lock your passport and valuables in a safe
Cash, passport, electronics, sentimental items – if there is a safe in your hotel or a locker in your hostel, use it. I know it might seem obvious but go for a hard-to-guess pin code. 0000, 1111, 1234 and your date of birth are not hard to guess (and naughty staff might have access to your DOB from your check-in documents). Worried you won’t remember to clear out the safe at the end of your trip? Put one of your shoes in there. Ideally, the one you plan to wear back to the airport.
As for your passport, this is arguably the most valuable possession you have when you’re overseas. Don’t carry it on you unless it is essential. I’ve heard lots of stories of people losing their passports while they’ve been carrying it with them. Yes, I’ve never heard a story of a passport getting stolen from a hotel safe.
36. Consider using a VPN for online activity
Outside your home, you’re probably hooking onto shared Wi-Fi with low security. If you’re doing tasks like banking or putting in passwords, it can pay to use a VPN. Many cell services offer a free VPN integrated into your cell phone. Otherwise, I use Express VPN. It’s cheap and has a quick toggle-on/off setup.
37. Be aware of local scams
Local safety varies widely so it is important to research local scams. Barcelona is renowned for pickpockets on public transport. In Mexico, there is a risk with some street taxis. In other cities, kids will distract you while thieves go through your bag. In Vietnam, motorcyclists have mounted pavements to grab bags. Elsewhere, slashing backpacks to get to the contents is a risk. Know what’s happening locally and be on the lookout.
38. Ask at your accommodation for local safety tips
There is no better knowledge than the local, bang-up-to-date knowledge. So, ask the person behind the reception desk at your hotel or ask your rental host for local tips. There might be some areas best avoided at night, or some taxi companies that charge tourists too much.
39. Keep an eye on the local news
Without wanting to put a downer on your trip, we live in a tumultuous world. That means you should keep an eye on the world news in the run-up to your trip and while you’re away. Whether it’s forest fires, tsunamis, civil war, flooding or terrorism, it’s best to be in informed.
40. Buy travel insurance
Travel insurance may not stop something bad from happening, but it can get you out of trouble when it does. I have claimed on my travel insurance so many times from injuring my ACL while in the British Virgin Islands (flat-bed business-class flight home after I missed my flight, and hospital fees paid), a broken camera and emergency repatriation from San Jose in Costa Rica during the pandemic. Don’t forget to notify your insurance if you want to be covered for extreme sports (it’s a low threshold for what’s considered extreme) and pre-existing conditions.
With good awareness, pre-planning and travel insurance as a backup, you’re well set to have a safe and healthy trip. Got any stories or tips? Share them in the comments below.