There is no way to protect yourself 100%, especially when you’re in a foreign country wandering. I think you can still take some basic precautions. Here are my sacred rules when I travel.
Tip 1: Don’t engage with people who approach you.
When I’m out exploring a city or sightseeing, especially at classic tourist destinations, I never engage with anyone who comes up to talk to me. When they approach me, I just continue walking and ignore them. It might seem rude, but the vast majority of the time, they are either trying to sell me something, scam me in some way or pick my pocket. When I don’t acknowledge them and simply move on, they find an easier target and a different schmuck. Don’t be that schmuck. Strangers who saunter over to you want something from you and their desires are often nefarious.
This is especially true in airports where loitering people will ask you if you need a cab. Anyone who is offering to give you a ride should not be giving you one. Use only the official taxi line.
There are a lot of scams, too many to list, and criminals are always evolving. I’m constantly reading up on new tactics used by the minority of unscrupulous souls out in the world in an attempt to avoid them, but ignoring people who approach me is a pretty universal strategy for all sorts of deceptions.
Tip 2: Don’t put all your financial lifelines in one place
My last night in Santiago, Chile, I went out to dinner and took a cab back to my apartment. I woke up the next morning and realized I had left my wallet in the taxi. D’oh! Luckily, I lost no money as I had used the rest of the pesos in there to pay for the cab fare. I did lose my credit card and debit card though.
When I realized my stupidity, I remembered my mantra: I refuse to waste time and brain cells worrying IF something will go wrong. I trust myself to problem-solve WHEN something goes wrong. Okay, time to problem-solve!
I checked my accounts online and found no unusual charges, called both banks to cancel the cards and requested new ones be sent to my address in the United States. I then mourned the black wallet my law firm had given me as a parting gift, grabbed the pesos I had put aside the day before to purchase a ticket for the bus to the airport and some food for the day, took out my extra debit card from my suitcase, put it all in my purse and went to Buenos Aires.
Problem dealt with, confidence boosted, minimal damage done, anecdote for the blog, bright side located.
Don’t put all your cash, credit cards, and debit cards in one place in your purse or bag or wallet. I usually keep one card (debit or credit) in the zipper in my purse, one in the zipper in my carry-on bag and one in my rolling suitcase (but make sure to take it out if you check your bag). I keep US dollars in my wallet, in the zippers and in the rolling suitcase (again, don’t put cash in a checked bag) as well. When you’re out and about in a new city, keep at least one card back at the hotel/airbnb/wherever you’re staying so that if you’re robbed or forget your wallet somewhere, you’re just a little bummed out and annoyed with yourself, but not thoroughly devastated.
Tip 3: Remember that thing about safety.
This tip has a terrible title, I know. When I tell people that I travel around the world, mostly solo, they evaluate my stature, gauge my weight, raise an eyebrow and ask me if that’s safe. I always assure them that it is and then ask them how they raise only one eyebrow.
Here’s the thing about safety. It’s an illusion. I believe in common sense and avoiding obvious dangerous situations. I have no plans to visit certain places like Saudi Arabia, North Korea, or Papua New Guinea and I don’t walk around in dark alleys at night by myself, but I believe the odds of being seriously injured or killed in Montevideo are the same as the odds of getting shot or killed in a mass shooting in the United States and the odds are lower than the odds of losing a prolonged battle with skin cancer in Australia. As much as it sucks, you can get robbed in any giant city, any small town, any empty road at any time. You can die or be maimed in a car crash. You could collapse of an aneurysm tomorrow.
Life is uncertain and if you let fear dictate your life, well, that’s a darn shame. There is evil in every society, but there is also so much good to find, so much ground to explore, so many sites to see, so much to experience. So while I don’t engage with people who approach me on the street, I do reach out to people via the Facebook (asking friends if they know anyone in my current city), couchsurfing.org, meetup.com and often just googling “expats in [country I’m hanging out in at the moment].” I suggest to my Airbnb hosts that I’d love to get dinner. I swap numbers with interesting people I meet on tours.
There are no guarantees. Even if you follow all this advice and pack well and go out to conquer the world, you might still have a terrible time, you may still forget something, you may still be scammed. You just have to accept that and do it regardless.
I mean, if you have any desire to travel, that is. If you don’t want to travel, then why are you reading this?