I remember this experience all too well when I had made the decision to go on my first backpacking trip. I arrived in Europe fully prepared to be targeted by pickpockets and all manners of shady criminals. Thankfully, it didn’t take long for me to relax a bit and retire the hidden money belt I once thought of as a necessity.
Take it from me; the world is not nearly as scary as they make it out to be. In all of my traveling experience, there has only been one occasion in which I was seriously concerned for my safety. I had just arrived in Bangkok for the first time, and within an hour, there was a terrorist attack just a couple blocks from where I was staying.
This highly improbable experience aside, I have found traveling, even by yourself, to be pretty safe overall. That being said, there are a few precautions you can take to help ensure your safety while abroad.
Buy a Good Lock
Just about every hostel you are bound to stay in provides lockers for their guests. Most are large enough to fit all of your valuables while you are out for the day; some are even large enough to accommodate your entire backpack, should you really want peace of mind.
While the lockers are usually provided free of charge, the locks themselves typically are not. Make sure to buy a good, sturdy lock before you leave, but try to keep it on the smaller side to ensure it can fit all locker sizes. Personally, I recommend combination locks over key locks, as I’m always worried I will lose the key. This is the lock I’ve used for the past 3 years. It allows you to create your own combination, which is great if you tend to be forgetful.
If you want to lock up your entire bag but don’t want to take the chance that the hostel’s lockers will be big enough, check out Pacsafe. They make lightweight steel exomesh wraps that cover your backpack and can be locked to a fixture.
I traveled with one of these on my first backpacking trip, but to be honest, I didn’t use it much. They’re great in theory, but it will add a good bit of weight to your pack. Frankly, I don’t think it’s necessary. Over time, I’ve found that the vast majority of people you meet in hostels are going to be of the same mindset as yourself. They’re there to meet interesting people and see the world; not to steal your headphones.
Furthermore, if you can’t fit all of your valuables in an average-sized locker, you should probably re-evaluate your pack with my packing guide.
Be Smart With Your Money
My personal rule of thumb when it comes to carrying cash while traveling is to never have more than $50 of the local currency on you at any one time. It’s just not needed. Just about every restaurant, store, attraction, etc. you are going to visit will accept credit cards. If they don’t accept cards, remember, you’re backpacking on a budget; $50 should be more than enough to cover whatever you need in that situation.
I’ve met many travelers who will take out several hundred dollars worth of the local currency from an ATM when they arrive in a new country. Should they unfortunately be robbed, it would be an expensive, easily-avoidable mistake.
Be cautious when taking money out from the ATM as well. If someone did want to rob you, the ATM would be a good place to do it. Make sure to stay aware of your surroundings while withdrawing cash. Also, give the machine a quick look over before using it; paying particular attention to the keypad and the card slot. Computer-savvy criminals can use what are known as “skimmers” to steal your banking information while you are using the ATM.
Watch the video below for a good explanation of what to look for.
As for your credit and debit cards themselves, I typically recommend traveling with one debit card and two credit cards. With the exception of when you’re withdrawing cash, don’t go out with your debit card. Leave it locked up in the hostel along with your backup credit card and other valuables. That way, worst case scenario, should your wallet be lost or stolen while you’re out, you won’t be completely out of luck.
Pick a Backpack Hiding Spot
As I mentioned in the above tip, I typically leave my debit card and a backup credit card in the hostel while out exploring a city. In addition to a backup card, I also recommend bringing $100 US with you while traveling as an emergency cash reserve. Should you find your cards unusable for any reason (maybe you forgot to notify your bank that you were traveling and they’ve locked the account), $100 should be enough to get you by until you straighten things out.
But where do you stash these cards and cash? While it’s highly unlikely that someone will steal something out of your backpack, it’s even more unlikely that they’ll take the whole thing. That being the case, pick a seemingly low-value item in your pack that you can use to hide your cards and emergency money.
Personally, I’d recommend a toiletry bag or medical kit; something that is not likely to be stolen by any would-be thief. Again, you will more than likely have a locker where you can keep these things safe while you are out, but on the off chance that one is not available, it’s always a good idea to have a backup plan.
Trust Your Gut
Quite simply, if something seems off or too good to be true, it probably is. Now, I am a big proponent of taking chances and putting yourself out there while traveling. Without a doubt, the greatest part of backpacking is meeting new people, and as a result, the incredible experiences you will have with them.
However, there is a big difference between striking up a conversation with a stranger in a bar and learning about an upcoming event in the city, and being approached by a stranger on the street and told about an amazing party going on in an abandoned warehouse right now. The point is, use your head. Don’t be afraid to live, but do be wary of bad choices.
Keep Your Head on a Swivel
To put it plainly, be aware of your surroundings. You don’t need to be hyper vigilant at all times, but you should always have a sense of what’s going on around you. It’s unfortunate, but there are people who make a living off of pickpocketing tourists in crowded areas like train stations and at famous landmarks.
In times like these, though it may look ridiculous, shift your backpack or purse around to the front of your body. If you make stealing your things difficult, odds are thieves won’t bother trying.
While on the subject, if you notice someone staring at you and they seem suspicious, the best thing I can recommend is to stare at them right back. Make it known that you are watching them watch you. Confidence goes a long way in keeping you from becoming a target. Just be careful how you go about doing this. Remember, the goal here is not to pick a fight.
Granted, this is more of a reactive approach, but having insurance while traveling goes a long way should worst come to worst. A good travel insurance plan will cover you not only in the event that you need medical care; but if your gear is stolen or damaged; lost luggage; cancelled flights and more. Personally, I’ve used World Nomads every time I’ve traveled.
That story I mentioned at the top of the article about being in Bangkok during the terrorist attack? World Nomads was the first call I made after the US Embassy. The situation ended up calming down over there, but the representative I worked with was beyond helpful and was ready to secure me a flight out of the country if I didn’t feel safe staying. On top of that, she even called me every day for the next three days just to check in and make sure everything was still alright. That, to me, is above and beyond good service, and why I will always use World Nomads when traveling. Check out their plans here to see which one would suit you best.
Overall, this isn’t a subject worth losing much sleep over. The vast majority of people in this world mean you no harm. In fact, they’re quite nice! Just keep the above tips in mind while traveling and you’ll get by just fine.
Do you have questions about staying safe while traveling or want to share your own tips? Send me an email! I’d love to hear from you.