Hi! Welcome to Complete City Guides!
My name is Patrick, I'm originally from Sydney (Australia) but grew up in England (my second home) - and I love exploring cities (and writing about it!)
I work online in marketing, which gives me the opportunity to travel around the world full time.
So while I am away, I keep this blog updated with full travel info. I tend to stay in a city for a few months at a time, to really get to know it - then I write guides on it.
The time you spend abroad on trips can be some of the best days of your life. However, it can also go very bad, very quickly. There are many aspects to staying safe when abroad, but by being aware of them and thinking about them when you are on your trips you can try and avoid most problems. Here is a guide that covers everything you need to be aware of, to stay safe when abroad! I've also asked some top travel bloggers about their tips, to give a few alternative points of view!
This is a long article with many of my tips in the first half, and then some great additional tips from other travel bloggers near the end. Be sure to read their advice too, and leave a comment if you have a safety tip that you swear by!
I feel that in the majority of cases where I've personally heard of friends having issues abroad (such as lost passports, stolen belongings) it is often something that could have been prevented. Of course, no one can guarantee that any trip will be event-free. Even popping to your local convenience store where you live might land in some trouble. But a lot of issues can be avoided with the right preparation, knowledge and research. But of course, there are a whole bunch of things that can happen no matter how well you prepare!
Here are some tips relating to knowing where you are going.
I think it is important to do research for any city you go and visit - even the popular ones (like New York City or London). Every city or area has bad districts that you should avoid.
I met someone from Couchsurfing about a decade ago, she told me about how she arrived in London and got the night bus to a very bad area of London. I've told this to some English friends and they were all shocked that she'd choose to stay in such a bad area. Luckily for her, she didn't have any problem (and question me about why I thought it was so dangerous for a single girl to get a night bus in the middle of the night to this area). But it would have been easy for her to have faced some problems, or arrived at the hotel with no passport, phone or money after getting mugged. A simple Google search would definitely have told her some realities of the area she was staying. (I don't really want to mention the area now - I think in the last 10 years or so its reputation has changed a lot).
You can normally find lists online of where to avoid if you search for things like "areas to avoid living in CITY". I find that there aren't so many resources online if you specifically search for "areas to avoid when booking hotel in CITY".
Most large cities that tourists flock to will have some form of local walking tours. The bigger cities have free ones (that you should tip at the end), but you can normally pay for private tours in even tiny towns (if booked in advance).
They are (often) entertaining and show you around the city. But because the tour guide is almost always a local (sometimes a foreigner who moved there and speaks your language ) they know the city very well. And they will almost always give tips or advice when it comes to safety and security.
I can specifically remember tour guides pointing out things such as:
And probably many more tips that I've forgotten. (I swear that on any walking tour I forget almost everything instantly, despite paying attention and enjoying the walk around town!
911, 112, 999, etc. Find out the local emergency number(s). If you are in Europe in EU countries then you can rely upon the fact that 112 will always work.
Some countries have just 1 emergency number, some have several dedicated ones (for example one for police, one for medical, one for fire, one for local city police, a tourist/foreigner emergency number etc.) - be sure that you know what one you're calling
Download offline maps before you arrive in a city. Make sure you mark where you will arrive (airport, bus station, train station) and where you are going (i.e. your hotel).
I use maps.me on iPhone (Android link). Although the iPhone Google Maps app has the ability to download offline maps, I find it is not as easy to save locations. In Maps.me you can easily place a marker and it is easy to find again.
Here is a screenshot of a trip to Minsk from a little while ago (maybe someone can work out what landmarks and restaurants I wanted to go and see!). When I arrived I knew exactly where the hotel was. Admittedly in this specific example, I got a taxi straight there, but at least I knew he was taking me to the right place! It has been much more useful when getting from train stations by foot to hotels.
You should also always be aware of how to find your hotel again! When first approaching your hotel (or maybe the first time you leave the hotel and head out) you should be thinking "Ok, turn left at the shop with the big red sign", "the hotel is directly opposite the Chinese restaurant" to make it easier to find again later. This is especially important if you plan to go out drinking and will be walking home!
You should also always take any hotel business cards/leaflets that they have. You can always just show taxi drivers this and they'll take you to your hotel - no need to know a common language.
As well as doing research and knowing where you are going, there are some general tips and tricks that can help with keeping you safe when abroad.
I hate arriving in a new city at night. There are so many disadvantages and basically no advantages that I can see.
Every so often I see on travel message boards people posting things like "Have you this person? We last heard from him 4 weeks ago and he has gone missing. 4 weeks ago he was in CITYNAME, but we know he only stayed in a city for a week or so, so he could be anywhere in Europe/Asia/Australia/South America by now".
Let people know where you are! And where you are going! If something happens, how do you expect anyone to get in touch!?!
Even better: if you know someone in the same city (or same country), get their contact details. If you have a really bad emergency it is ok to hit up an acquaintance and ask for their help!
You should never ever, not in a million years, travel with just cash or just one credit card.
Credit and debit cards frequently get blocked by your bank when you use them abroad (they think it is fraud). Always carry at least 2 cards, from different banks. And make sure they have money on their accounts!
If you are travelling with quite a bit of money, you should not carry it all in one place. Thieves operate worldwide - nowhere is safe. But if you have your money split into several locations (separate bags, separate pockets, hidden pockets/stashes) then if they steal one pile then hopefully you'll still have more left somewhere else.
I remember the first time going abroad as a late teenager. Back home we were used to ordering things like double-vodka-cokes (2 normal sized shots), as a single (normal) shot wasn't too big. But in places such as some beach resorts in Spain, their idea of a normal shot is already the equivalent as a double back home. I made the mistake of keep ordering double vodkas (2 HUGE shots).
Then you have the issue of heat. Lots of people claim that alcohol affects them more in high temperatures.
And lastly, the most important reason in my opinion - you don't want to be wasting half your trip with a hangover. I look back now and think about my trips a decade ago - I saw nothing and did nothing during the day because of hangovers. But, it was fun! I just had to go back to most of the interesting cities again to actually see the city and not just the bars.
99% of the time (maybe even 99.9%) you will be completely fine to get a random taxi from the street.
But if something does happen then you will have no way to know who picked you up or where you went.
This can range from losing something in your phone, to getting mugged, or dropped off in the wrong location.
If you book a taxi (via a reputable company) or use Uber you should be able to trace your steps.
Everyone travels with bags and suitcases. Thieves can spot a tourist from a mile away. We stick out! We don't look like locals, no matter how hard we try. Locals don't hang out at airports, carry huge bags, or look completely confused by local transport tickets.
And if you lose your bag you're going to have a miserable day (or week). So you should do everything you can to always be wary of your belongings.
I always make sure that anything I care about is obviously mine. I have a backpack with some markings that are obvious, and that I recognise. I cover my laptop in stickers - I hate this look (I know it is trendy at the moment - I often see people doing this in coworking spaces) - but if someone walks around a cafe with a MacBook Pro it could be anyone's. If they walk around with a MacBook Pro with the exact stickers I know that I have, well then it is obvious they're walking out with my laptop!
I also like to have markings on suitcases for the added bonus of knowing what bag is mine when coming through to the luggage pickup area in airports. When I used to travel with a generic black bag it was very hard to instantly recognise my bag - there are so many that look the exact same.
You never know when you'll need padlocks. I also recommend bringing a little travel cable padlock, as it can be very useful to 'lock' your bag (or other belongings) to rails or something. It isn't 100% secure (anyone with tiny clippers could break the thin, lightweight cable) but it'll give you a bit more security than not locking it up. If I'm not really concentrating on my bag, but staying nearby, I'll always lock it up. It does mean that sometimes I forget that it has a cable lock and I look silly trying to put on a backpack that is tied down... But after a few times of doing this, I quickly learned to remember when it is locked down with the cable.
I also recommend getting something like a carabiner (or even a paper clip) to put on your bag/backpack/suitcase zips. They will stop almost all pickpockets from unzipping it and sticking their hand in, but also mean that you don't have to actually use a key/code every time you want to get in your bag. It'll take you an extra 5 seconds every time you want to get in your bag, so I think it is worth it.
I normally prefer to just use a paper clip. It is enough of a pain that it (should) prevent pickpockets. It also doesn't advertise the fact that I have a bag worth stealing. I am sure that if I was a thief and I saw a backpack with a padlock on its zips, I'd assume there is a nice laptop or other goodies inside it.
I love my hidden money travel belt. It doesn't look cool, it isn't going to win any style awards. But it can hide hundreds of dollars worth of bank notes inside it.
When have you ever lost a belt? Muggers don't ever ask for belts either.
Another alternative is getting money wallets that attach to your belt (you can wear it either on the inside of your jeans or flip it over and put it in your pocket). I have the Eagle Creek Undercover Hidden Pocket (read a review here) - again it looks rubbish but it is very practical.
Everyone travels with at least a smartphone now. It is also common to travel with a laptop or tablet. There are a few precautions that you should take regarding this sort of stuff.
Everytime you connect to a public wifi, anyone can read everything you post online when visiting non-secure sites (i.e. when you visit http:// sites - visiting https:// sites are encrypted and they'll only know the domain name (not full URL or data)).
A way to help with this is to use a VPN network. Basically, instead of connecting directly to a website, you will connect to the VPN which then connects to the website you requested.
This does mean that using public wifi is much more private. However, it does mean that you have to trust the VPN provider.
You can get VPNs on a monthly access for around $10 or so. It is worth having this. Sometimes it means that you can change your IP address location, and sometimes it'll mean you can access Netflix as if you're in a different country.
Imagine your phone or computer got stolen right now. Would you worry about what the thieves could see when looking at your files?
You are probably automatically logged in to Facebook, your email, they'll have your full web history, any saved passwords and more.
The only way to prevent this (other than saving no personal information on your devices) is to encrypt everything.
How to do it will depend on your device. MacBooks have fantastic encryption built in. Cheap tablets won't. Most smartphones have encryption built in. If your device doesn't easily support encryption then you could always get a small external USB pen drive that supports encryption (most do nowadays, via included software) and store personal documents and details only on there.
I use TripIt to organise all of my travel plans. I forward every booking email for trains, planes, hotels, hostels, Airbnb and everything else. Then I can access it on my phone wherever I am.
However, I will always travel with a print out of all important info. I even print a tiny version (I prepare 1 sheet of paper, but change the printer settings to print '8 per sheet' so it is 8 times smaller) and put it in my money belt (discussed above).
Things to include:
Put a copy of this in your wallet or day pack (don't leave your key + Airbnb address together though in case your bag gets stolen, they have the key and will know where to use it).
While on the topic of keys - sometimes hotels will give you a key with the hotel name and room number attached. If possible you should detach it (if it's on a normal keyring this is possible, but sometimes it is impossible to do so). Then if you lose the key you know that anyone finding it won't try and open your hotel door!
Always have a photocopy or a scan of your travel documents (especially passport). I also always keep a copy at a family member's house, so if I needed to I could call them and ask them to read out numbers, email/fax it somewhere etc.
I've never actually needed to use any of the backup photocopies or scans of passports, but I think the one time I travel without it will be the time where I lose my passport and need to know my passport details to get another one.
As a foreigner abroad you will stick out. Scammers will spot you, and try and entice you into doing things, going places or buying rubbish. If your gut tells you to say no then you should just walk away.
Not all rooms in hotels are as safe as others. Upper floors are much safer from burglaries (but less safe if there is a fire). Make sure you know where fire escapes are.
You should also use all available locks on the door. I've seen many friends who go into their hotel rooms and ignore the deadbolt. A deadbolt is one of the safest types of lock that you have on a door. Use it if its there!
You should also think about using the room safe. I also like to hide valuables in various places in the room. If a thief comes in he isn't going to search under every magazine, pillowcase or plate. They are perfect places to stash your stuff. But insurance will normally only pay out if things were in the safe and there was a break-in.
You can also get electronic alarm door stops. They'll wedge under (or on the side of) your door, and make a loud noise if disturbed. They can help prevent break-ins while you're asleep.
If you are travelling by yourself, it can always be a good idea to slip into conversation how your boyfriend, girlfriend, or group of friends should be arriving soon.
If they don't have good intentions then they might leave you alone if they think they might have to deal with more than just you.
I'm normally paranoid about leaving my bag somewhere unattended. But after a really late flight and being absolutely exhausted I left my backpack (with everything in it - even my passport) in a McDonald's late one evening. I'm sure the only reason was that I was so tired that I wasn't really with it and wasn't concentrating. Luckily I ran back inside and it was still there. But it really made me realise how little I concentrate when exhausted. And travelling is tiring!
I think this is less of a problem than it used to be, but some phones (or sim cards) won't work abroad. Get in touch with your phone provider to check yous will work abroad. There is nothing worse than arriving in a city, trying to meet someone, unable to find them and having no way to get in touch with them via phone! I don't know how people travelled 20 years ago before everyone had mobile phones!
This is a good tip for life in general. You should learn some basic first aid. And make sure that you always travel with a small first aid kit in your bag!
People who travel abroad without insurance are honestly idiots! If you buy it online you can get it for the price of a couple of beers. Hopefully, you'll never need to use it. But if you have a horrific accident and need lots of medical treatment then you will wish you had insurance. I find that the excess and maximum 'per item' that you can claim actually makes it a bit useless for personal belongings such as laptops or cameras. I only really buy it for medical emergencies.
These are all experienced travellers with many miles covered while abroad. Here are their #1 tips. I think for this type of blog post (which is quite opinionated) it can be good to see some other points of view.
Understand the actual dangers in that location, not just the perceived ones.
The least safe part of your journey is not always intuitive; in many countries (Mexico and Thailand) transportation accidents are the leading cause of harm to tourists abroad.
It's common for travelers to have all the information about tourist scams in Bangkok (and there are many) but overlook the real potential for physical harm when renting a motorbike to sightsee in the Thai islands or the northern mountains.
Of the many government websites offering travel advisories, I find the Canadian government's site is the most accurate, thorough, and measured.
The best way to stay safe while traveling is not to call unwanted attention to yourself.
Hence, I would recommend that you blend in, which means, you try to dress as normal as possible and not like a tourist. Even more so, do not attempt to behave like one, especially if you are unsure of your surroundings.
If you think and act like the locals do, you will be perfectly fine. For example, locals might not visit a certain part of their city after a prescribed time. They might keep a hidden pocket in their shirt or trousers to safeguard their money while traveling in crowded trains.
These good practices have kept the locals in good stead and they would keep tourists safe too.
My biggest tip for staying safe during my travels is to arrive at a destination during daylight hours, whenever possible.
I find it much easier and feel safer navigating a town or city in the daytime when I can see where I'm going, there are usually lots of people around, and numerous transportation options are available to take me to my accommodation.
My tip for staying safe when you travel is to do some research into the destination, and in particular, if there are any common scams or things to be aware of.
Every destination will have its local quirks and dangers, but just being prepared and informed can help you avoid problems.
For example, if you're visiting Paris, you might want to search for "Common Paris Scams", to see what comes up!
My general advice is to be vigilant and trust your gut in uncomfortable situations. Travel can be uncomfortable for a lot of reasons (new experiences, different cultures), but if something feels "shady" or "off" it probably is and you should try to remove yourself from that situation as soon as you can.
For instance, I felt uncomfortable about a situation in Morocco but went along with it because my travel partner told me I was "being unfriendly" and I didn't want to be rude. It ended up being a scam and we were harassed and physically threatened.
If I would have listened to my gut, we could have avoid the situation all together!
Know the Common Travel Scams
The first travel safety tip that springs to mind is to be aware of common travel scams in the country or city that you are planning to visit.
The Tuk Tuk scam in Thailand, The 'Guide' in the Medina in Marrakesh; the Broken taxi meter in just about anywhere.
Forearmed is forewarned and a quick 10 minutes of research can save you from getting tripped up by these simple scams on your travels.
Don’t Look Rich!
Our No.1 tip for staying safe abroad is: do not look rich! Especially when you are going to a destination, where the pickpocketing is an issue, make sure to take a few easy steps to keep yourself from not being a target.
The best way to avoid the unnecessary attention is to wear plain clothes, loose the “bling-bling” and make sure to have your camera shoulder strap over the head at all times.
Another handy thing that we learned over the years is to keep only a $100 per day in the pocket wallet, whilst the rest of the money is secure on the inside jacket pocket. That way, if you lose the wallet, it’s not your whole holiday spending money.”
(highlighted parts/emphasis added by me, not the contributors. Also I wrote the article without the bloggers seeing it, so there is some duplication of tips. But hopefully it reinforces the ideas and you'll listen to these tips! )
A big thanks to everyone who helped contribute to this article. Go and check out their blogs and follow them on social media!
Let me know your travel tips in the comments below.
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