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Thursday, April 7, 2016

Safe travels

The first book that inspired me to travel internationally was my favorite novel, Chaim Potok's
My Name is Asher Lev. In it, Asher Lev's mother saw first her husband and then her son off on many trips. Before leaving them at the airport, she would always say, "Have a safe journey." And off the man would walk to his plane, a copy of The New York Times under his arm.

That was my dream--to be that politically aware, global traveler. But I always remembered Mrs. Lev's unease, and the sendoff our loved ones give us when we travel: "Have a safe journey."

Given that every aspect of a journey is not actually within our control, how do we do that? What is the best approach to take to ensure a safe and enjoyable trip?

You won't be surprised to find that I think attitude is the key. Attitude and preparation. Both are necessary to get the most out of our travels as well as for safety, but as the saying goes, "safety first."

Start with attitude. Many of the concerns we, or our families and friends, start off with at home are based on fear, and the fact that news in general tends to focus on negative things. For example, at the moment I happen to live in the London area. From time to time, I hear things said on the news, usually by people in other countries, about how dangerous English cities are or how London in particular has some kind of problem. Because I actually live here, and some of the people I know best are serving or former police officers, I know how wildly inaccurate these statements are, and that the people making them literally have no idea what they are talking about. But if I'd never been to London, and all I knew was what I saw on TV, I might take the news at face value. The point is that news in general focuses on the sensational and the bad, so leaving you with a highly skewed impression of other parts of the world.

If you're a traveler or planning an overseas trip, you probably already have an adventurous attitude, but it still makes sense to be prepared before you travel. One way is to read up on the place you are going--not exclusively travel advisories or news (though of course those are worth taking into consideration), but from travel guides and forums online. People who have recently traveled to an area are usually best placed to advise you. Get an idea of where is generally a good place to visit vs. areas of a city or country you should definitely avoid.

If you're leaving your home behind temporarily unoccupied, you've probably already thought about things like having your mail stopped and taking precautions so that your home does not look empty. Lights that go on at a certain time or, best of all, having a friend or neighbour keep an eye on the place are good ideas. If you're gone for an extended period and have a housesitter actually living in your home, that is ideal, but if it's empty, resist the temptation to update social media on the road. It's tempting to post your pictures right away and tell all your "friends" what a great time you are having thousands of miles away...but it's not wise. Save those posts for after you're safely home!

Preparation before your trip also involves:
  • Packing light. There are so many reasons for this, but the safety one is that the less stuff you have, the less there is to possibly lose, and the easier it is to carry it around. If you're always having to check bags then they're not with you, and if you have a lot of items, you can lose track of them while packing or unpacking. At home, you likely tend to keep your keys, etc. in the same place--get in the habit of packing items in the same place each time too.
  • Stick with what you truly need on the trip. Leave things at home such as cards you won't use. I once had the misfortune of losing a wallet with items inside such as a library card from my hometown. Why was I carrying that? It was one more thing to replace when I got home.
  • The only truly essential things you need are your travel documents--e.g., passport--and money/ways of getting money like a credit and debit card. It's wise to keep these in different places: you can zip your passport inside a pocket of your bag, and keep one card in one place, another in another place with some cash. This isn't paranoia, it just makes the chance of losing everything vanishingly small.
  • Finally, I recommend making photocopies of your passport's ID pages and of your cards, or writing down your card numbers along with the emergency phone numbers to call in case a card is lost or stolen. Keep these papers* in a safe place (of course, separate from the documents themselves). You can't use a photocopy the way you would a passport, but these copies will make replacement much easier, and you can cancel a card if you happen to lose it. From experience, I can say this saved me much time.
Some people suggest scanning these documents and storing the copies in "the cloud." I'm not that digital, personally. Having something in my phone makes it more of a problem if I lose my phone, and if documents are stored on a web-based application, I'm not sure that's secure. In any case, take good care of the physical documents. Your passport is probably safest locked in a locker or safe at the place you're staying; carry the copy while you're out.

Of course, being in transit is when you'll have everything with you and you'll need to be most careful. A padlock is handy to bring along, not only for lockers you may find in budget accommodation around the world, but to lock your bag. I once traveled on a night train and made sure my bag was tucked down under the seat in front of me, not in an overhead rack where someone might have gone through it. Some travellers also suggest a retractable wire lock so you can secure a bag e.g. to a seat.

Having taken care of the most important things, you can easily replace most other items and don't have to pack a lot of clothes. The more you take, such as pricey electronics, the more you potentially stand to lose. Weigh the benefits of having the flashiest smartphone or camera against the risk you are prepared to take.

From this, it sounds as though I think theft is a common experience; in fact, you're more likely just to leave something behind through carelessness than to be a victim. Personal safety is arguably more important. You certainly don't want to avoid whole cities or countries because of a bad report on the news, but you do want to know where you're going. Visiting a new city and exploring it on foot is one of my favorite experiences...but I always have a map and some idea of how to get back to my starting place. If I get lost or just need to stop and reevaluate, rather than stop dead in the middle of the sidewalk, I tend to go into a café or somewhere to have a look at my map. It's more relaxing and I'm less likely to be distracted. (If you're truly lost, it also means you can ask someone local for guidance.)

Although it will be obvious in many places that you're a visitor, a little effort can go a long way to making your trip not only safer, but more enjoyable. For instance, wear comfortable walking shoes--preferably not brand new Nikes that really make you stand out. And don't, under any circumstances, bring one of those "fanny packs"/bum bags, or carry a wallet or other important item in a back pocket. Most theft is opportunistic, so just don't give anyone the opportunity.

Special safety considerations apply to specific kinds of travelers:

  • There is no doubt that being female or gay can cause extra concerns. To some extent, this is true for women everywhere in the world, and this issue is too large to address within this post. I would just say that as for so many other reasons, it's important to be aware of cultural expectations, even if you find them sexist or homophobic. It's not in your interest to draw unnecessary attention in a place you're not sure of.
  • To give one example, I personally would not wear headphones when walking around a strange city, or many other places traveling--perhaps while relaxing in transit. It may not be uniquely because I'm a woman, but I like to have all my senses alert, even while I'm taking photographs or otherwise enjoying the experience.
  • Finally, if you're planning on specific activities at your destination, do prepare for them by gathering information and bringing any necessary gear. Despite what I said about traveling light, you don't want to be that woman (as I recently read about in the news!) who wandered up Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain, on a whim wearing shorts and carrying only a candy bar. Nor do you want to risk your life by hiking into the Grand Canyon in the heat of summer armed only with Pepsis (yes, I've seen those guys too). Preparation!

A lot of travel safety is just the same attitude and preparation you'd use at home in your ordinary life. You probably have a smoke alarm (at least I hope you do) and health insurance at home. Well, on the road you want to make sure you're covered by medical insurance as well (and keep with your important documents* any information you'd need to make a claim--policy number, phone number, etc.) . And as for smoke alarms...whenever I check into someplace, I always look where the fire exit is and figure out which way I'd go if I had to exit my room/the building suddenly. I've twice experienced a fire alarm going off in the middle of the night, and if you haven't checked these, it's disorienting to figure out the exit when you've just woken up somewhere you've never stayed before. If there was ever really a fire, it could save you precious time.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is perspective. Focus on the top priorities (such as survival in the case of an emergency) and even if something else goes wrong, you can recover from it. In all my years of travel, I've only had one bad experience, and even that trip turned out great.

One last thing: listen to your instincts. Our brains subconsciously signal us when something "feels wrong" and get us out of trouble. You are likely to meet people on your travels who want to get to know you, perhaps fellow travelers who innocently want to know where you're staying, or where you're going next. These can be opportunities for great experiences. But following a stranger to a party in a totally unfamiliar location and getting drunk or stoned is not. You need to be aware of your surroundings and enough "in focus" to avoid trouble...just as you would at home.

If someone starts following you around, asking questions which are none of their business, or suggesting you do odd things (participate in a game, jump a turnstile), you may be the potential victim of a con. Never feel bad about cutting off a conversation, even if a stranger has hitherto been friendly. No matter where you are in the world, if at any time someone makes you feel uncomfortable or a situation just isn't giving off good vibes, walk away. 

Your mother will thank me :-)

Useful links for more information:
On the home front: has a great blog, with tips on everything from traveling safely internationally, to winter blackout advice. You can find it here:

And a great blog for independent travel, including safety information, is


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