Safe Travels- Smart Travel Tips to Minimize Vulnerability on Your Journeys
We've been asked over and over about exactly how safe it is to travel, particularly as women. Our answer is the same: very. And then we get the, “No really, how safe do you really feel traveling?” That's when our answer changes: no, really, we feel very safe. Frankly, the scariest part of any of my personal travels have been in the US where I see guns in grocery stores, churches, and under car seats. One of the reasons we feel safe is that the world, excepting war zones, is full of generally decent folks. Another big reason is that we try to travel smart, with safety in mind; we're not afraid to travel because we have learned how to take the right precautions. Here, I'll share our best tricks and tips so you can travel feeling safer and better prepared, as well.
If I fall and I can't get up in Tucson, Arizona, I know how to handle it: I dial “911.” Likewise, if I'm in Llanberis, Wales and I've accidentally chopped off my arm (hey, I'm clumsy with a fork) then I know to dial “999” with my good arm and someone will come to cart me- and possibly my recently detached arm- to the proper facilities. But Italy? I have no idea and I'm never getting up from that fall. In Argentina I'll find little comfort in simply staring at my limp, disconnected arm until I bleed to death. Dramatic as this illustration is, it's absolutely true that emergency numbers are different wherever you go and should you need to dial the local emergency response, if you don’t know, you’re screwed. But, there's an app for that. Several, in fact. I always keep TripWhistle on the homepage of my smartphone for just such emergencies. It's free, it's location-based, and it not only provides the correct emergency numbers, but direct, one-button links to police, medical, and fire hotlines should an emergency arise. It also provides GPS coordinates so I don't have to be well versed on my location; the information is passed on to local response services. I really don't want to have a kitchen fire in Vienna and simply not know what the first responder number is (it's “122,” by the by). If I'm going to have an urgent need, I need an urgent response. Having TripWhistle at the ready is a real comfort.
Nothing screams tourist like the cute little couple standing in the market square alternately squinting at their wall-sized map and their surroundings. In a crowded tourist area, it might be OK but there's a difference between being a foreigner and being vulnerable. We have a policy: we do not ask strangers on the street for directions and we certainly don't accept anyone's offer to take us somewhere if we do not know them very very well. So how do we get around new places? Well, we have our smartphone maps with GPS that help guide us, which we study beforehand and only take out in crowded, public areas briefly. If we're really lost and need help from a local we always choose a grocery clerk, pharmacist, or other nearby shop operator who knows the area but can't follow us. Alternatively, if we know where we are but not where we're going, we simply call the where-we're-going place and ask how to get there from where we are. Look, I feel far less comfortable on an average city street back home than anywhere we've been so far, but as travelers- particularly female travelers- it's always best to use good sense and stay out of trouble.
Speaking of common sense, we have a few transportation rules which apply no matter whether on vacation or at home. Mass transit is easy, convenient, reasonably priced, and full of other commuters. We like taking public transport and even favor this mode over all others for its “live like a local” feel to which we're so committed. Licensed taxi services are convenient in a crunch, but what we DON'T do is take Uber or Lyft. Don't get me wrong, we have no problem with these companies existing. It's just that these drivers are not required to have a commercial license and aren't regulated in the same way city cabs are. We get that they're cheaper but as female travelers, we'll stick to the local, licensed offerings. No matter what, mass transit is always the safer- and way “funner”- bet.
Google may be the devil, but it's at least the devil that gets you a lot of information you might not otherwise have at your fingertips. We don't stay in the city center because that's where the tourists stay and we prefer to live in the area we're visiting rather than hang out with a lot of tourists. That said, we also don't just throw a dart at the map and randomly choose a location within the city or region. It's actually surprisingly easy to search the internet for neighborhood statistics on such things as crime, demographics, and recent events so that you have a feel for what you're walking into or looking to avoid. It's as easy as typing “best neighborhoods Prague,” in your search engine to get a full list of articles that will help you determine where you should be and what you should steer clear of. And by the way, if you believe that staying in a high tourist area is safer by default, you're fooling yourself. It's a tourist area, it's full of safe-feeling tourists, it's pretty easy pickings.
Our Instagram and Facebook accounts always live in the past. Occasionally it's the recent past, but it's still somewhere we've been, not somewhere we are. It's just not advisable to advertise to our 11.5k Instagram followers, some of whom live where we are at any given moment, our exact location. Our daily photos are posted months and months after we've departed. Even our IG Stories are, while posted on the same day as the activities, still delayed until after we've safely left the cathedral/park/museum/restaurant. It's just not smart to advertise to many thousands or even a few dozen people your exact present location. Keep it smart and simple: tell your stories or post your photos and check in at your locations, but be smart and wait until you've cleared the premises to let someone know where you've been.
We've been at this traveling thing for a while now and, while we're not experts at everything, one thing we're really pretty darned good at is looking at a tourist and knowing exactly where they're from. White tennis shoes, college sports team shirt that literally no other country cares about, baseball cap bragging about a bait and tackle shop? It's obviously an American. The folks who look like they've never seen sun, ordering the chips with everything as if there's no other side dish available? Brits, for sure. And on and on, the tourists are easily identified because they stick out as obviously different. It's just fine to be different, but if we know you're not from here, imagine how much more the locals can tell. Again, we just don't care to be that vulnerable so we do our best to blend in with the crowd as much as possible without having to buy a new wardrobe each time. A couple of benefits come from this approach. First, by blending in a bit we don't attract as many folks who seek to prey on tourists- bus tour peddlers, coupon hander-outers, “packaged deal” lurers, and of course, the more nefarious locals. Secondly- and this may come as a great shock to you- while many famous places rely on tourism financially, almost no one likes having tourists invade their space. It's their home and they're constantly having guests barge in. That you've come from Hawaii or Newcastle, or that your college football team won the national championship...none of these things are terribly interesting to the locals; they have their own interests. By blending in a bit, we get better access to those folks who know where to get the cheaper, better food, which museums are really worth seeing, what attractions aren't in the travel brochure that we really wouldn't want to miss, and so on. We've gotten access to things we would never have seen or done had we walked around wearing a Rangers ball cap or demanding chips be served with our burek.
Again, we have never ever ever ever felt remotely unsafe anywhere we've been, and I've personally been more wary of entering a Wal-Mart than I've ever been in the most chaotic places we've traveled. But part of maintaining that sense of security is playing it all smartly, using basic precautions that keep us from sticking out, don't advertise our whereabouts to folks we don't know, and help us navigate the landscape without feeling vulnerable. Because having a little brown dog who turns tail and runs at the first sign of trouble is no protection at all...