Travel More Safely

When things have gone wrong for me

Sadly, this is a topic that probably cannot ever be covered completely. I have been lucky enough to have travelled on every continent (bar Antarctica) and have suffered the following mishaps:

  • I’ve been pick-pocketed once. It was in the first hour of the New Year in Madrid and I stuffed my camera into my coat pocket without thinking about making it secure. The lesson I take from this is never to count myself and my possessions 100% secure – even in a location I feel that I know well.
  • I’ve had my backpack stolen once. I was on a train between Luxembourg and Brussels. To while away the journey I had been watching a DVD, with hindsight advertising that I had a Macbook Air and a Superdrive. Coming into Brussels the carriage started to fill up so I put my things away and put my daypack on the rack above the seats so that others could sit down. A couple of stations before I was due to get off a chap queuing to get off dropped his mobile phone which broke into several pieces. He was scrabbling at my feet for one of the bits and as he kept knocking into my legs I was distracted. It was at this moment that his mate must have whipped my daypack off the luggage rack. I was furious with myself for having fallen for this trick.
  • Coming back into Sydney from a tiring long-haul flight I thoughtlessly stuffed my passport into the back pocket of my jeans as I made my way through the arrivals hall. I even felt someone bump into me but being so exhausted from the journey, I didn’t think to check my pockets. The theft of my passport was tiresome in the extreme. I had to cancel it and apply for a new one which is a far from straightforward process.
  • I had another camera stolen at the border crossing from Botswana into Zambia. Our tour leader had put me in charge of marshalling our group through passport control whilst he was occupied with the tour bus. I absent-mindedly put my camera down on the window ledge outside the customs office whilst sorting something out for one of our group. Another member of the group watched as a local helped himself to the camera. It all happened in about twenty seconds but opportunists, of course, need far less than twenty seconds.

Given that I have been to over sixty different countries I suppose that these four incidents represent a relatively charmed existence. I want to share a few principles – in no particular order – I keep to in trying to ensure my safety and the security of my possessions when travelling.

Your passport is your most important document. Look after it!

Your passport is your most important document. Look after it!

Some Safe travel commandments

A travel wallet with a chain is a useful – though not foolproof – deterrent to pick-pockets.

Watch your friend's back

I always make an agreement with my travel companion to keep an eye out for one another’s environs. If, for example, there is someone hovering around near my buddy’s pockets or handbag, I’ll be watching and will be able to alert them or to get in between. This has proved necessary on a couple of occasions – both of them in European cities where pick-pocketing is rife.

Keep moving

When waiting in busy areas I will try not to be standing motionless. Standing stock still would make me an easy target. It might look a bit odd to be swaying or bouncing in the queue for a bus or whilst waiting to get into a museum but rather look silly than find one’s money has been whipped.

Look like you feel at home

Almost certainly my looks and clothing will give away that I am not a local almost everywhere I go, even before I open my mouth and start speaking. Looking confident of where I am going is a huge help, though, in persuading potential ne’er-do-wells that I am not a likely target. Unfolding a map is a sure sign to a thief that somebody is both unsure of where they are and focused on finding out where they are rather than on the safety of their wallet or handbag. When hotel receptions helpfully scribble on a map for you to find your way around town, try and commit the route plan to memory whilst you are in a safe place, rather than having to keep consulting it.

Chain it down

I use a travel wallet which is attached to the belt loops on my trousers by a chain. It’s not a foolproof system but my betting is that given the choice between trying to pinch a wallet attached by a chain and one not attached to anything, the average thief will always opt for the latter, easier source of money.

Don't present easy targets

If something like a camera comes with a little strap that I can wind once around my wrist then I use it. If nothing else, it makes it less likely that it will be knocked off a surface and damaged. Wearing a camera conspicuously around my neck in a big pack is not a good idea though as it instantly marks me out as a potential target. It’s important to keep things discretely hidden whilst ensuring that they are protected.

Don't keep all your valuables in one place

When I am out and about in an unfamiliar place, I will not keep all of my money and cards in one place. I’ve been known to keep money in my sock, in a hidden pouch strapped across my body and in a hidden zipped compartment in my belt. I usually carry an emergency note folded up in the little pocket (the coin pocket) of my trousers. What’s more, I will only take out what I feel I might need for the day, leaving the rest locked up safely at the hotel (either in the room safe or in the hotel’s safe).

Dogs in Argentina followed us everywhere

Stay alert

Try not to get distracted. I will never forget witnessing a pick-pocketing on Las Ramblas in Barcelona (renowned for such activities). A woman approached a tourist and pushed her baby into his arms. It was wrapped in cloths. He, of course, was hardly going to drop a baby but, by the time he registered that it was actually a watermelon, her accomplice had helped himself to the content’s of that traveller’s pockets. There are all sorts of scams used all around the world to distract and disorientate people in order to steal from them. Being on guard and ready to push away people who are behaving unusually and especially entering your personal space is a good habit to develop. Ask at your hotel or hostel reception what current tactics are being used on tourists.

Know where to avoid

When people travel they always find out what they should see and where they should go. Of course they do. Do they ask what they should avoid? Not always. It makes good sense to know which roads and neighbourhoods have a bad reputation. This should always be part of the planning pre-trip. Don’t be afraid to ask at the reception of your accommodation which bits of town are not as safe so that you can make a mental note to steer clear of them.

Stay away from stations

Generally speaking (and there are bound to be some towns and cities that are exceptions) the areas around bus and train stations are less savoury than other parts of town. The hotels and hostels might be much cheaper in these areas but I’d sooner part with a little more money and feel safe.

Look confident and don't take a chance

I try not to linger too long in transport hubs after arriving. If I need to be driven somewhere I will never accept a lift from people who approach me in the terminal building, even if the offer seems too good to refuse. I’ve heard too many tales of travellers being driven to a different place from the one they asked to go to and worse still, sometimes being driven to cash machines and told to withdraw the maximum amount allowed. Better to stride confidently past and approach the official taxi rank. As above, it’s better to pay more and stay safe.

Get the FCO's current advice

Always check the FCO’s (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) current advice to find out whether travel for foreigners is at increased risk in a certain location. They will advise on specific areas within a country as well so make sure that you have consulted their pages before booking.

Beware stray dogs

Ignore dogs in areas that have rabies. Tourists being nice to one dog often find themselves swiftly inundated by whole packs of local strays hoping for a feed. It’s better to just walk on with purpose.


Get your jabs and a health passport

Make sure that you get the appropriate vaccinations for your destination and carry a health passport with you in which all innoculations are recorded. I keep this as securely as my passport (which, with the exception of the Sydney Arrivals Hall incident above, is incredibly safe).

Don't make eye contact

From several acquaintances in South Africa who have experienced being held at gun or knife-point, I have picked up the advice that in these circumstances it’s important to keep one’s eyes down so as not to make eye contact with the attacker. If the attacker thinks that you might be able to identify him, he is far more likely to put a bullet or a blade through you. The advice is to simply comply with their hostile requests to hand over wallet, phone, watch, etc.

Leave a copy of your itinerary with folks at home

I always email a copy of my itinerary to family so that they know where to expect me to be. I can’t remember them ever having to get in touch with me whilst I am away but it’s reassuring for them and for me that they can get hold of me if they need to. If I’m joining a tour, I’ll provide my loved one with a copy of the tour company’s information as well as copies of my passport, my health passport, my travel confirmation emails and anything else pertinent which it would be handy to have emailed should something go wrong.

Zip it up properly

I am quite OCD about the zips on my backpack or daypack. I have to know that the zips are together and I will even stop strangers and tell them if I see their bag even partially unzipped. If you leave the two zips apart, it’s an invitation to an unscrupulous hand to delve inside and take a lucky dip. I always pull the zips together and leave them down the side of the pack rather than at the top where they have a habit of drifting apart. You could, of course, use a padlock but that can be quite inconvenient and send the message to dodgy types that here is a bag with something inside worth snatching.

Please check back as I will endeavour to update this list as and when more ideas occur to me.