Tips for Staying Safe on the Road
Safety is one of the primary concerns people have when it comes to traveling abroad. All of sudden, you're out of your comfort zone, attempting to explore a new city with limited directions and communication skills. Even worse, common misconceptions, stigmas, and horror stories permeate the media (if I had a quarter for every Taken reference...), scaring off potential travelers from countries that are generally safe and no more dangerous than a major, urban American city. Regardless of whether you are close to home or thousands of miles away, staying safe comes down to using common sense and staying aware of your surroundings. Here's the safety advice I usually stick to:
Do your research. You have got to take the time to research where you're going so you can get a basic understanding of the country's customs and culture. This is important. If the country is traditional or deeply religious, dress conservatively. If there is political unrest going on, stay on top of the news. If a Guatemalan man clucks his tongue at you on the street and says, Mamacita, it's totally okay to be alarmed (and annoyed). But skimming the Culture section of a Lonely Planet guidebook for any Latin American country would have explained the concept of machismo and given you a heads up.
Know the typical scams. Every tourist city has its accomplished thieves, most of whom manage to steal by scamming a poor tourist. However, many of the scams are shared in guidebooks, online, and through word of mouth from other backpackers. These scams occur over and over again. They can be as simple as someone magically appearing to help you figure out how to purchase a metro ticket, then asking for payment in return (Rome) or telling you that the Grand Palace is closed and they'll take you to another temple that's open instead (Thailand). Then you end up in a jewelry store on a side street of Bangkok, being coerced to buy gems.
Be aware. Keep an eye on your things, even as you get distracted shopping in the busy markets of Florence or searching for that perfect gelato shop. Take out the headphones. Stop staring at your smartphone while riding public transportation. Keep your hand on your purse. Double check that your wallet is in your pocket.
Do an area sweep. This isn't recon - this literally takes two seconds. Whether you're entering a bar or in a crowd in front of the Colosseum, take a moment to gauge the area around you. Get a quick feel for the people around you, the atmosphere, the vibe. If something feels off, your gut will tell you.
Keep your money in three places. I split my money up when I am out and about: some cash tucked in my bra, some in my purse, and some in my backpack/locker back at the hostel. This ensures that if my purse is stolen, I have enough money to get a cab back to my hostel. If my backpack is stolen, I still have cash in my purse or on my body. Always have backup options. This is true for travel documents, too; keep copies in multiple places.
Avoid walking alone at night. Do not walk back alone, even if you are the only one who wants to head home after a round of drinks. Take a cab back or walk back with a group of friends. Don't let this tip scare you - I don't like my friends walking back alone in downtown Indy, and that area is perfectly safe. It's just common sense.
Trust your gut. Don't ignore your instincts. If something feels off, listen. Take action. Get out of the cab, walk into a crowded side store, or change directions. Your conscience will know first if something doesn't feel right; you have to learn to recognize those feelings as a traveller.
Consider a neck wallet or waist wallet. I only use this when I am traveling from city to city (on an overnight bus, ferry, etc). It keeps my passport on my body, along with my cash and credit cards. It brings me peace that my important travel documents and money are hidden underneath my shirt, as opposed to in my purse or backpack.
Act like you know where you're going (even if you don't). If you need to pull out a map, try to do so in a store off the side of a street. Keep your head up and walk with a purpose, with confidence.
Don't flash money. Be discrete about any cash you have on you. Don't count your money on public transportation or right outside an ATM. In third world countries, be aware that the money you are exchanging is most likely in amounts that locals have never seen themselves. I exchanged $200 (6600B) at the airport in Thailand, and the woman's eyes went wide - the average monthly salary for a Thai is 700B, and I had just exchanged 10 times that amount.
Secure your valuables. Bring a large padlock to lock up your passport, valuables, and extra cash in the hostel dorm locker. Buy 1-2 smaller padlocks to lock the zippers of your backpack together while you're traveling from city to city (I usually tuck the padlocks away in side pockets to try to hide them; thieves will think you have something valuable to protect if they see a padlock) or while it's sitting in the hostel.
Do as the locals do. You can quickly learn which neighborhoods and areas to avoid by talking with the locals and owner at the hostel. There is usually a map at the front desk, and they can outline these areas for you. Hostels will also put notices up letting backpackers know of the latest scams (I remember a flyer in a Nicaraguan hostel warning backpackers not to walk past a certain part of the pier late at night due to robberies). Again, common sense. Don't go where the locals warn you not to go.
Try to blend in. You're not a local, but you can attempt to not stick out like a sore thumb. I dress conservatively in major cities, put away my jewelry, and don't act obnoxious or loud. I do not like drawing attention to myself when I'm traveling, so I will do my best to stay inconspicuous.
Don't overdrink. A drunk, staggering, obnoxious tourist is a target for any thief. Drinking beyond your limits puts you in danger of becoming lost and disoriented, or worse. This is true for any drinking situation, but is amplified when you have only been in Madrid for 3 days, can't remember the name of your hostel, and are convinced you can make the walk back yourself. This is a rule that I really stick to.
...But, what if something does happen?
If you do find yourself in a situation where someone wants something you have, just give it to them. Give them the phone, backpack, cash. In many cases, you may not even have a chance to react - a guy on a moped could snatch your purse or grab your phone in mere seconds. It is unlikely that someone would take further steps to try to harm you.
For me, personally, I don't carry pepper spray, a knife, a personal alarm, or know any defensive skills. I have not been robbed or threatened in any way during my travels, but I have been in handful of situations where I have felt uneasy, like when I arrived in Managua, Nicaragua, late at night. I tend to be very hyper-aware when I travel and can become uncomfortable quickly, even if the situation doesn't really call for it. But even then, sometimes it just comes down to luck.
A final note...
Being a scared, paranoid traveler sucks the fun out of traveling. That is not the point of traveling. The world is not a bad place. It will take your breath away. It will surprise you. It will challenge you. It will move you. Traveling will not only teach you this, it will show you. And it is worth it.