How To Be A Savvy Traveler Everywhere You Go
Travel Safety: How to Be a Smart Traveler
Tessa Juliette Torrente
When planning a trip, it's easy to daydream about natural beauty, shopping opportunities and exotic food. But don't forget the other side of travel - safety. Whether traveling domestically or abroad, safety should always be a top priority. Learn how to protect yourself on any journey from experts who have made exploring the world safely their profession. This guide also offers specific safety tips for:
LGBTQ+ travelers face a unique set of concerns. Acceptance and legal protections for the LGBTQ+ community are more commonplace than ever before, but there are still some places in the U.S. and abroad where such travelers need extra caution to avoid assault or even arrest.
More women are choosing to marry later and have children later; as a group, they are also earning more money than previous generations, all of which has made travel more possible and appealing for women of all ages. However, there are still safety precautions all women should take when far from home.
If your kids are grown and you're retired or working part-time, you just might have time to explore the world. With careful planning and an understanding of potential risks, older travelers can stay healthy and safe on their travels.
Whether traveling aboard for school, backpacking with friends during summer vacation or visiting another state, students should understand the laws, culture and norms of their temporary home away from home.
Traveling with kids
Becoming a parent doesn't mean you have to stop traveling, but it does mean you have to travel differently. Even the most well-traveled parents can use a refresher on how to make sure their kids are safe while having the time of their lives.
General Safety Travel Checklist
Bad things can happen to anyone, anywhere, but that shouldn't stop you from visiting other parts of the world. With thoughtful research and planning, you can be confident in your adventures even if it's your first time away from home. See what our experts have to say about staying safe when going abroad or across the country.
Before You Go
Research your destination
Emily Bernard, co-founder of travel tech startup PlacePass.com, says the biggest mistake travelers make is "not doing their homework, particularly on neighborhoods to avoid, cultural sensitivities and health concerns."
Besides planning all the places you're going to see, do some research on the current political climate and local laws and customs (a friendly "thumbs up" gesture is obscene in some countries: see the Thrillist's "9 Innocent Hand Gestures That Will Get Your Punched in the Face Overseas" for more).
Also, check into visa and vaccination requirements, current travel warnings and alerts, health precautions and risky areas for tourists. Guidebooks, travel blogs, forums, online resources such as the U.S. Department of State are great places to start, as are city, state or country visitor information centers.
Tessa Juliette Torrente who writes the travel blog Travel Where To Next, recommends Lonely Planet's pocket guides. "These books are the best because they are small enough to carry with you while you travel and give you tons of information and historical background," she says.
Get your documents ready (and scan them)
If you're going aboard, make sure you have all the required documents ready for entry and departure. In most cases, this means having a valid passport, but it's best to also have hard copies and scans of things like your plane tickets, hotel confirmations, travel insurance info and vouchers for transfers and pre-booked excursions (store the scans in the cloud if possible or leave a copy with a friend back home). If you lose your passport overseas, you're in for an ordeal: You'll need to visit the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate (which may be completely out of your way) for a replacement so you can get back home.
Enroll in STEP
STEP, or the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, is a free service for U.S. citizens and nationals. When you enroll, the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate in your destination will be notified and you'll receive safety information to help you plan your trip. Enrolling in STEP will also help your friends, family and local officials contact you in case of an emergency.
Notify your bank and credit card companies
To safeguard your finances, banks and credit card companies usually hold or deny unusual activity such as out-of-state and out-of-country purchases. This can be an annoyance when trying to pay the dinner bill, but it can also put you in danger if you need to access your money quickly, say, for medication or medical attention. Before you leave, let your bank and credit card companies know you'll be traveling to avoid a freeze on your accounts. Many banks and credit card companies allow you to do this easily online.
Get traveler's insurance
Traveler's insurance can offer peace of mind when you're taking a big-ticket trip, traveling by sea or going out of the country. If you get severely sick or injured or if your trip is interrupted or cancelled, you can recoup some or all of your financial losses. To learn more, see our Travel Insurance for the Savvy Traveler guide.
Send your itinerary to someone
Ever see 127 Hours? Mountaineer and adventurer Aron Ralston may have been able to avoid his gruesome fate if he had informed a friend or family member of his hiking plans. Before leaving home, make sure someone knows the details of your itinerary and check in from time to time. Torrente recommends also checking in with trusted friends in your hotel or hostel. "Let them know if you're heading out for a night alone and when you expect to be back," she says.
Get an international phone plan
Should something bad happen, an outside line can be the most important part of staying safe. You can use your cell phone when abroad, but international roaming charges can lead to an exorbitant bill. If you don't want to take that risk, consider getting an international phone plan through your current cell phone service provider. Most major carriers offer various options so you can choose one that best suits your travel needs. AT&T, for example, offers three different packages for $40, $60 or $120. An international phone plan is usually the quickest, dependable option, but alternatives include:
- Unlocking your phone and installing a local SIM card if you're on the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) network
- Buying or renting a cell phone that works aboard
- Using a combination of Wi-Fi and voice and texting apps like Viber and WhatsApp
- Buying a pre-paid phone card
During Your Trip
Separate your money
Unless you're moving all your belongings to a new location, don't carry around all your cash and credit cards. Instead, keep enough cash on you to get through the day, plus one credit card; stash everything else in your hotel or hostel room safe. Pickpocketing is common in many parts of the world and if it happens to you, you'll be relieved you didn't lose everything. If you have to take everything with you, separate your money - keep some in your wallet and some in a waterproof zippered pocket or bag in your luggage or another safe place.
Blend in with the locals
As much as possible, try not to stand out. "It's impossible to not look like a tourist when you are a tourist, but you can at least try to look like a savvy tourist so the prowling lions move on to easier prey," says Phil Sylvester, head of PR and media communications for World Nomads, a website that provides travel insurance and safety services. Take note of how locals dress and follow suit, don't stand in the open while looking at a map, and avoid wearing flashy items, especially in developing countries where panhandlers and pickpockets are common.
Trust the locals
Even if you've spent months researching before your arrival, most locals still know more than you. If the concierge at your hotel or the local bartender tells you to avoid a certain area, take their advice. If your host family says the always-empty restaurant down the block is a drug laundering operation, avoid it at all costs. However, if a taxi driver tells you the freeway to your hostel is closed and recommends a different hostel close by, don't believe him/her or call the hostel to confirm. Also, ask locals for recommendations. Often, the most memorable parts of a vacation are visiting places or doing things the locals do themselves.
Choose ground transportation wisely
Fake cabs. Kickbacks. Broken meters and jacked-up fares. Transportation scams can happen anytime, in the U.S. or abroad. Here are some quick tips:
- Have a taxi stand or hotel call you a cab. In Mexico, for example, it's no longer safe to hail a cab on the street due to the risk of being robbed by a fake taxista. If you're at a restaurant, ask someone on staff to call a cab for you. If you're at the airport, get help from a taxi official.
- Be informed. Make sure you know the general route to your destination - and have an idea of the typical cost - to make sure your driver is taking you to the correct place and not overcharging you.
- Don't make other stops. If the driver wants to make another stop on the way, tell him/her that's not acceptable or get a different taxi.
- Confirm the cost. If the meter is broken, confirm the fare before opening the car door.
- Don't trust just anyone. Only use cabs with a taxi medallion and/or visible license.
- Break your money. Keep small bills for payment so you don't lose money if the driver "doesn't have change."
Always be alert
"Just because you're on holiday, it's no excuse to take a vacation from common sense," says Kathleen Starmer, an avid globe-trotter who also runs a business in the San Francisco Bay Area teaching women how to be smart travelers. Starmer says the biggest mistake most travelers make is paying too little attention to their situation. It's natural to want to soak everything in, but don't lose sight of your surroundings so much so that you get lost, wander into traffic or an unsafe area, or lose sight of your belongings.
Learn and avoid cultural faux pas
Every country and every city, has distinct customs and norms, so be respectful of them. Something that's appropriate in your hometown may be frowned upon elsewhere. Immersing yourself in the culture can teach you what's appropriate and what isn't, but you should still do some research beforehand to avoid common missteps.
Don't pet stray animals
No matter how much you love animals, don't pet a stray dog or cat in another country. Many countries around the world have a severe stray animal problem. These animals may look cute and cuddly, but they can sometimes get aggressive when approached, and they may not be up-to-date on their shots. Don't risk being bitten, attacked or getting infected with rabies.
Know the local emergency numbers
Because not all countries use 9-1-1, the U.S. Department of State put together a reference list of emergency numbers in foreign countries. You should also know the location and phone numbers of the local police station, hospital or medical center. Always have the address and phone number of the place you're staying, too. If ridesharing apps like Lyft and Uber don't work where you are, save the local cab company's number in your phone. Lastly, know where the nearest U.S. consulate or embassy is and how to reach it.
Be smart about social media
If you like to virtually check in or post lots of photos complete with geo tags, make sure your social media accounts can only be seen by people you've approved. If your accounts are public, it's easy for anyone to stumble upon your photos and have full access to your detailed whereabouts. And consider investing in a selfie stick so you don't have to ask a stranger to take a photo and risk getting your phone stolen.
See something, say something
Terrorist and terrorist-inspired attacks have made many Americans nervous to travel. Such attacks are very rare, but it's always better to be safe than sorry. If you see something or someone suspicious, don't hesitate to call the local authorities.
Trust your gut
Sometimes you just have a feeling that something isn't right even if there aren't any clear signs of danger. If you feel uncomfortable or question your safety in any way, even in places you're familiar with, trust your gut and get out of there.
It's impossible to avoid danger if one doesn't know the prevailing risks associated with the destination or activity.
Everyone, regardless of age, sex, race and sexual orientation can find themselves in risky situations, but our experts agreed that some travelers have unique challenges.
LGBTQ+The issues LGBTQ+ travelers face are different from many other travelers. In addition to general safety tips, LGBTQ+ travelers should also consider the following to stay safe:
- Research your destination's LGBTQ rights situation so you know what you're getting into before you arrive.
- Find out if it's safe to be openly LGBTQ - in some parts of the world anti gay sentiments are pervasive and homosexuality is even punishable by law. Equaldex, a crowdsourced site that tracks laws related to LGBT rights around the world, is a good place to start.
- Pay special attention to the attitudes of the police in your destination. Will they help if you need it, and if not, what organizations and resources can you depend on?
- If you're traveling with a partner, find out if you need to avoid public displays of affection or book separate beds at hotels for your own safety.
- Know in advance where the LGBTQ+ social scene is.
- In gay-unfriendly countries, use discretion when meeting local LGBTQs. The San Francisco Chronicle points out that U.S. visitors in certain countries may be expelled for overtly gay behavior, but locals may be treated more harshly.
SeniorsMany seniors, particularly retirees, are packing their bags to see what other parts of the world have to offer. Here are some safety tips to help keep older travelers safe and sound:
- Know when to go. It's usually safer—and less exhausting—to travel when the crowds aren't as big and weather isn't too extreme.
- Have copies of all your prescriptions, and take a full supply of necessary medication with you (even for nonprescription meds), especially if you're traveling somewhere where getting a refill may be difficult. Sandy Pradas, owner of Joyful Heart Yoga and Joyful Heart Travel, notes that extra meds can be important if you encounter long delays. She recalls one eventful trip with a group of seniors. "We were stuck in Costa Rica for an entire week because of heavy snow storms in the U.S.," she says. "Most of the group only brought enough medication for the planned trip and had to go without blood pressure medication during the delay."
- Request necessary airport services like a wheelchair or electric cart when you book your flight.
- Research your accommodations to make sure it's easy to get to and has everything you need. If it's difficult for you to go up and down stairs, is there an elevator instead? Will you have to walk up or down a steep hill after a day of exploring?
- Keep comfort in mind at all times. This means packing light—it's easier to get around when you have less to carry and you'll also have fewer things to keep an eye on. Reserve the aisle seat for flights or save up for roomier seats. Request a hotel room on the ground floor for easy access.
- If you have limited mobility, considering booking tours and excursions through a company that specializes in activities for older travelers. That way, you'll travel with people who understand your needs. "A group with a responsible tour leader can make all the difference," says Pradas.
StudentsTraveling as a young adult can profoundly enrich who you become, how you view the world and how you interact with others. Here are some safety tips to help students have good experiences they'll never forget:
- Whether you're partying, hiking or diving, know your limitations. Pushing your body too much can have harmful and expensive consequences.
- If you're old enough to drink, never leave your drink unattended.
- If you're staying in a hostel, bring a rubber doorstop with you. "It's easy to carry and is very effective at stopping unwanted guests from coming into your room while you sleep," explains Sylvester.
- Make new friends, but be wary of acquaintances who probe for too much information or pressure you to go places or do things that seem questionable.
- Don't forget you're a guest in someone else's country so dress and behave in a way that respects the country's customs and laws.
Traveling with KidsKids can lose their common sense when away from home so parents have to take extra steps to keep the whole family safe.
- Always give yourself enough time. It's hard to stay alert and cautious when you're rushing.
- Always assign a meeting place or plan in case someone gets lost or separated from the group.
- Tell your kids where they'll be going. For example, if taking public transportation, let them know what stop you're getting off on. That way, they'll feel like they're part of the plan, but also know what to tell someone if they get separated from you.
- Drill them on not touching everything they see and bring hand sanitizer everywhere. "Your best friend on a family trip is anti-bacterial wipes and hand sanitizer. Use liberally and often!" says Sylvester.
WomenNo matter how far women have come, it's still a reality that traveling as a woman is different from traveling as a man. Whether solo or with other female friends, women have to approach travel differently. You shouldn't let fear hold you back, but there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Research your destination's cultural norms and pack accordingly. In some places, it's inappropriate for women to have bare shoulders or skirts that don't cover the knees. "Yeah, it's unfair [to Americans], but in some places like the Middle East, exposing your shoulders, knees or hair is not only a sign of disrespect, it's also perceived as a 'come-hither' look to the male populace," explains Starmer. She also recommends learning the country's legal system so you have an idea of how the culture views and treats women.
- Spend some time exercising before your trip so you have the stamina and strength to carry and transport your luggage or backpack. Being in good shape can also help if you need to ward off or run away from an attacker.
- If you're traveling to a place where you aren't fluent in the language, Sylvester recommends learning safety and emergency phrases, such as help, leave me alone and call the police. "A few choice words in the local language can go a long way," he says.
- Bring protection, from safety whistles to contraception. Just remember to only pack TSA-approved items.
- Leave flashy jewelry, even costume jewelry, at home or only wear it for a special dinner out with friends.
- Wear comfortable shoes. If you're unable to scare off a would-be attacker, your second-best bet is to escape, says Starmer, and you'll need comfortable shoes to do so.
- When traveling with a group of women, watch each other's backs.
- Always be alert for potential scams and danger, even from other women.
How to Choose a Safe Destination
It's hard to judge the danger of a far-away place, but you won't regret putting in the time to do your research. "If you have a ton of time to research your trip, you want to cast your data-gathering net as widely as possible," says Starmer. She recommends using a combination of guidebooks, online forums, travel blogs and other online searches.
If you start to type in "Is it safe to travel to..." into Google, you'll already see that many other travelers share your concerns. If safety is an issue in your destination, you'll see forums, news articles, blog posts and government warnings in the search results. Read though these carefully, and if any of the information makes you uncomfortable consider a different destination.
Skim through the right guidebooks
If you don't have months and months to do intense data mining, Starmer says guidebooks published in the current year can do the trick. "You'll find that different guidebook series serve different demographics, so it's worthwhile to spend some time in a brick-and-mortar bookstore perusing the different offerings to find a good fit," she says. After taking a first pass through a guidebook, look at unbiased online reviews. "Guidebook writers—and even big-name travel bloggers—sometimes receive financial compensation for their reviews, so it's good to double-check that the 'amazing' hotel which the writer gushed over really is amazing!" says Starmer.
Learn from the (other) pros
Have your friends, family or co-workers been to the place you want to visit? What's their advice? Getting insight from someone who's already been there is often the best way to determine a location's safety and your comfort level for visiting it. Crockett says your best bet is to "talk to others similar to yourself, in age, gender, etc."
Try travel blogs, forums and news media
"Travel blogs can be an especially valuable source of information because there are so many niched blogs out there catering to a myriad of demographics," says Starmer. See what bloggers say and reach out to them directly if you have specific questions. There are also endless review sites where you can get firsthand accounts and photos of various locations. Try TripAdvisor for starters, which has user-generated reviews and also a forum where travelers can seek advice and recommendations. And don't forget to read reputable local news sites for current events or the travel section of larger media outlets. For example, The The New York Times publishes a list of top travel destinations every year.
Go where you have friends or family
Sometimes the easiest way to plan a trip is to go somewhere where you already have family or good friends. You may be able to stay with them to cut costs, but even if you don't, it'll be much easier to explore and get around safely if you're with them, especially if you don't speak the local language. If you don't know anyone, try staying with locals in an Airbnb or a guesthouse. Hosts are usually happy to offer tips and recommendations or even take you around on their own. Just make sure you carefully vet hosts before committing to any accommodations.
How to Find a Safe Hotel or Hostel
Now that you've got a destination in mind, it's time to start thinking about where to stay. When choosing a hotel, hostel, Airbnb or other accommodation, here's what to keep in mind:
When you get to the room:
- Make sure all door and window locks work
- Check to see if the phone works and easily connects to the front desk and/or emergency contact numbers
- Test the room safe to make sure it works
- Check for visible carbon monoxide and smoke detectors (note: requirements for such devices can vary by state and internationally)
- Find the nearest fire exit
Staying Healthy While Traveling
Prevention and preparedness can go a long way when it comes to staying healthy both domestically and abroad. Don't assume just because you're fine at home, you'll be fine when traveling. To stay healthy and maximize the fun, try the following tips:
- Strengthen your immune system before your trip by exercising, getting enough sleep, and avoiding stress
- Make sure you're up-to-date on your vaccinations
- Review your destination's vaccination requirements and get all necessary vaccines at least 4-6 weeks before departure (see the CDC's Travelers' Health section for more detail)
- Bring sanitizing wipes and spray, especially when visiting a developing country where clean bathrooms with hand soap may not be common
- Book a hotel with a gym and actually use it
- Stay active by booking hiking, biking or kayaking excursions
- In developing countries, drink water that is filtered, bottled or boiled, or use water purification tablets
- Stay hydrated, especially during long days of travel or exploring
- Be open to trying new foods, but if something seems unsanitary, don't risk it
- When eating out, remember that steaming hot foods are generally safest
- Visit a local grocery store and stock up on healthy eats such as fresh fruits, packaged salads and microwavable veggies
Read our guide on vaccinations to learn more
About Heidi M. Agustin