How to Travel the World and Stay Safe
The story of my 18 months of travel around the world, including this and other articles, is available as a big but humble e-book: Journey of J.
I’ve traveled for the last 13 months, with no end in sight, and have so far visited around 150 locations in 30 countries. I’ve stayed safe the entire time even though I didn’t lock myself up. Here are a few thoughts and tips.
- Keep a “Safe” Mindset
- Behave Safely
- Dress Normal
- Only Carry What You Need
- Focus When Traveling with Full Gear
- Take Warnings Seriously but Don’t Go Overboard
- Talk to Locals
- “Feel the Temperature”
- Look Dangerous 😉
- Be Prepared
- Have a Backup Plan
- Update (October 16, 2014)
- Update (September 30, 2016)
Keep a “Safe” Mindset
The most important thing, don’t worry. Fear and anxiety are bad companions. I found it useful—though also an art—to be alert but at the same time assume general safety.
For grounding purposes, behave “safely.” If that makes sense. It’s one thing to go by tips from this and other articles and to be optimistic. But it’s another to become naive. If you’re in a region or a part of town that’s outright dangerous, get out of there. Don’t wander around looking for bargains or sights. No guideline ever absolves us from thinking.
If you’re not traveling around your own country, chances are you’re standing out. Resist the urge to put boatloads of strangeness on top of it. Ironically this includes wearing traditional local attire. It’s traditional because normally, nobody wears it 😉
I also believe that a normal, or travel-normal, look helps mentally as well. You’re used to it, it’s natural to you, and so you end up emitting more calm and confidence.
Only Carry What You Need
The more valuables you carry, the bigger a target you are. Become a smaller target, and carry less. Carry only what you need.
Personally, for example, for the entire duration of my travels I’ve not worn—not even brought—a watch. Watches are one of the more prominent possessions, possibly luxurious, and there’s no need to bring one for a trip that already yields uncertainty. Unless you don’t have a cell phone to read the time, that is.
Focus When Traveling with Full Gear
Certainly depending on the country—all the ideas here come with a bit of “it depends”—, I found myself most vulnerable when moving quarters. During this actual act of traveling, one stands out more (luggage), one is a more valuable target (luggage), and one cannot defend oneself as well (luggage).
I always make it an absolute priority to get to the next base camp. That means to eventually avoid ATMs (exposing money in an unfavorable setting) and not to take pictures (exposing phone or camera in an unfavorable setting). It’s more relaxing to stow the luggage away first anyway.
Take Warnings Seriously but Don’t Go Overboard
I visited several places where people warned me about going out, whether to certain neighborhoods or at certain times. Every time I listened and treated the matter with the necessary care.
Now, here’s the thing: People mean well but they also exaggerate. The benevolent storyteller in us or so. From pretty much any account of danger you can subtract a bit, meaning that things are typically not as bad. My recommendation is to listen, take warnings seriously, then judge whether you still want to go (if you indeed wanted to), and then employ more if not all safety precautions you can muster. Otherwise some places can really spoil your travel experience because you end up staying at home the entire time.
Personally, I’ve had instances at which I outright ignored the warnings (Quito), where I wasn’t affected at all (I had no desire to visit any favelas of Sao Paulo or townships of Johannesburg), and where I followed suit (not going out at night in my part of Nairobi). That probably confirms how things depend.
Talk to Locals
Another good precaution, if you want, is to speak with locals, about matters of safety. Many will warn unprompted (covered previously), otherwise you can ask (covered here, to get additional information). Although there are marked individual differences in terms of perception of danger—some people may not warn because they’re used to the risk, while others may readily share with you all their individual fears—, locals will give you a better idea of what to watch out for.
“Feel the Temperature”
When I first traveled to the United States, in 2008, I was wondering how safe U.S. cities would be. One of my friends suggested to “feel the temperature.” I loved the metaphor and soon picked up what he meant. You’ll know when to be a bit more cautious. Granted you don’t ignore your hunches or act silly this sense helps, a lot. If your internal sensor is going off, listen to it.
Look Dangerous 😉
My dear Julia has once noted the “seals of disapproval” that I occasionally display. That is, I’d look a bit—disapproving, angry perhaps. People who’ve worked with me may have seen that, too, when I’m all passionate 😊
The point is, not looking too much like a tender floret can keep you out of trouble. In some parts of the world. But it’s not necessarily an air of aggression that drives this: determination (knowing where you’re going), confidence, authority all follow along similar lines, and are great defenses. (They quite practically reflect “security operations,” as Harry Sullivan calls them.)
Generally, be prepared. Not for impending disaster, but in terms of mental alertness, training, intuition. Listen. Pay attention. Trust your instincts. Be in shape. Get some training. Stuff like that.
Another example: An easy adjustment similar to the idea of not traveling with a watch in the first place, I got into the habit of… double-tying my shoelaces. At first that seemed like overdoing it but apart from the perk that those laces don’t open up that easily anymore, if I had to defend myself—or run—, my shoelaces, of all things, would not be able to knock me out. So I stuck with the habit of tying them twice. (I also don’t wear flip-flops in places that have been labeled unsafe; not at first. That said, I’m still chill and assume the best.)
Have a Backup Plan
Then, and knock on wood that none of us needs it, comes a plan B. I’ve outlined it to some extent when I talked about preparation: Store emergency contacts and data somewhere easily accessible, keep friends posted on what you’re doing, &c. Anything else, you’ll know just as well.
❧ Finally, it also helps to stay away from drugs, especially alcohol: As someone who rarely drinks I have indirectly avoided many a sketchy neighborhood and fellow this way. Staying sober is such a strong safety measure in fact, it would warrant its own recommendation—if only consumption and distraction weren’t so commonplace in our societies. Hence I chose not to make it the cliffhanger. Just think safety, too, when pursuing voluntary self-impairment.
Update (October 16, 2014)
A bonus tip: If you have something to hide, like documents or valuables, make sure to hide it in your stuff, not in your travel accommodation. As you probably want to hide things that are of importance or value that you don’t need that often, this way you won’t accidentally forget to take it all with you when you move on. For the moment I’ll need you to use your own imagination, especially if you’re traveling light, but I might share some of the spots that I use.
Update (September 30, 2016)
Clearly, there are more useful things to consider! I’ll only add one more, one a friend of mine reminded me of this morning, and that’s to travel during the day rather than at night. Although I had no problems whatsoever when traveling South America, there I received this advice a good number of times. Maybe I had no problems because of it—we won’t know.
I’m Jens, and I’m an engineering lead and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for Google, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly. I love trying things, sometimes including philosophy, art, and adventure. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.
If you have a question or suggestion about what I write, please leave a comment (if available) or a message. Thank you!
On September 4, 2014, 6:14 CEST, Shiju Alex said:
Good points Jens.
I think preparation on knowledge/famiarity is also good. Reading, gathering info in social circles etc.
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