A little preparation and vigilance when it comes to travel security and safety can go a long way to a relaxing and enjoyable overseas experience. I am in no way a security expert, these are the things we personally do to stay safe and secure while exploring the world and—touch wood—we’ve had no terrible incidents as yet.
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Pre-departure travel security prep
Choosing a destination
Many people make remarks about safety when we say we are, for instance, going to Detroit for the weekend or road-tripping independently around Jamaica. Unfortunately, many of us have the wrong impression of a place because it’s always the worst scenarios that make international news. Also, older people can have very outdated views of a country – my grandfather was terrified the first time I went to Thailand!
Of course, there are places you just don’t go, but they are few and far between. Most destinations have good and bad parts—just like your home town probably does. The key is doing your research, listening to knowledgeable advice (not your neighbour or uncle Tom) before you decide to go somewhere. Sometimes it’s not a case of if you travel somewhere, it’s how you travel. For example, a guided tour with an informed local can be much safer than an independent adventure.
See my list of things to know before you go, to ensure you have an understanding of your destination before you plan a trip there. LGBTQI+, BIPOC, solo female travellers and those with disabilities will have additional considerations to make, so don’t be limited by this checklist – make a call based on your individual situation.
International travel advisories
Most governments provide their citizens with travel safety advisories for countries and regions. Some offer the ability to sign up to emails for constant updates. Furthermore, others allow you to register your travel itinerary to improve the likelihood of consular assistance in the case of an unexpected event such as a natural disaster.
US citizens can view Government-issued advisories here, and register for their Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) here.
Australians can see advisories at the Smartraveller site, and register travel here.
Brits can see travel warnings here, the registration service was discontinued due to lack of use.
Canadians, check out travel advisories over here and register at this link.
Singaporeans may view destination travel advice here and click here to register travel using their SingPass.
Passports, visas and itinerary
Leave copies of your passport, visas and itinerary with a family member or reliable friend back home. This will speed up the replacement of vital paperwork if it’s lost or stolen while you are on the road. You may also like to put electronic copies in a Dropbox or Google Drive type cloud location so that you can access them readily with an internet connection.
Advise banks of your itinerary
Many banks, vigilant for fraud, will block your card the first time you make an international (or even interstate) transaction. Make sure your bank knows your itinerary, this can sometimes be registered through your internet banking service.
Consider your luggage
Firstly, you want to take bags—both main luggage and day bag—that can easily be locked. Look for zippers and tabs with metal rings that you can thread a padlock through. Makes sure you label it with your details in case it is lost, but don’t make that information easy to read. In other words, use a tag that has a cover, so your info isn’t flapping around for others to read, or use a Super Smart type tag that requires a QR code reader to download your chosen itinerary information.
If you want the added security of a slash-proofing your bag, Pacsafe offer metal mesh bag protectors. We bought and used these when we had to leave our main luggage at a hotel in Cusco while we hiked the Inca Trail for 4-days. They are heavy, so you really only want to use these if really, really necessary—like when you’re transporting the Crown Jewels!
Choosing a day pack
When buying a day bag that is not a backpack, look for a crossbody style (and ensure you wear it that way) to deter would-be thieves from grabbing your bag straight off your shoulder or out of your hand—it happens!
For added security, you may want to invest in a slash-proof day bag/backpack although again, the metal mesh that is built into these bags will make them slightly heavier. Though I haven’t used them myself, Travelon have a great reputation among the frequent traveller community for their anti-theft products such as travel security handbags.
If you are travelling in or through the USA there is a chance the TSA (Transport Security Administration) may want to search your bag. To do this, they will destroy your lock if necessary. Best to purchase TSA recognized locks or bags with TSA approved built-in security, for which the organization has a master key. That way your bag can be searched without losing your padlock or damaging your zippers.
Secure your valuables
For your most valuable possessions such as passport, cash, cards and ID, an underclothes money belt or pouch may be the best option depending on your destination. Make use of hotel safes, but note that they are not infallible. Depending on the quality of your accommodation and its security, you might be better having valuable items on you at all times.
Research common scams
Every frequently touristed destination has its scams and con artists. Unfortunately, that’s just the nature of being places where there are lots of foreign visitors; travellers are often perceived as “rich” in relative terms, and are distracted by their new environment, somewhat out of their comfort zones and therefore vulnerable. Research the common scams before you depart on your vacation. I highly recommend watching a few episodes of Scam City and you’ll certainly get the gist.
Mind your health
Ensure you have extra prescription medications, glasses and/or contact lenses with you and pack them in your carry-on/day bag. Also, keep a copy of your medical insurance company details on you. If you have an accident you will want to have their emergency contact details on hand especially if you are visiting somewhere non-English speaking.
Consult a travel clinic and/or CDC for vaccination recommendations for your destination. I recommend a travel clinician because they can offer personalised advice. They can also address matters such as the potential for altitude sickness, prescribe malarial preventatives etc depending on your specific itinerary.
Secure your home
Let trusted neighbours know you are going away. If you feel comfortable with them, ask if they’ll collect your mail, any packages/newspapers/magazines off your doorstep, bring your rubbish bin in from the curb and address any other signals that might indicate to thieves that you are away. When our retired neighbours would go away caravaning for weeks at a time, they would let us have their magazine subscriptions and pick veggies from their garden in lieu of doing these tasks for them. The post office can also hold your mail if neighbours or family and friends aren’t an option.
Don’t forget to set your alarm and alert the security company to the dates of your travel. Timer or motion-triggered lights can also be a great deterrent. Double-check all doors and windows are locked, unnecessary appliances are unplugged, the oven/stovetop are off and the thermostat is set appropriately.
Pin these tips for later…
Travel security during your trip
Day bag security
As basic as it sounds, always zip up your bag and don’t carry valuables in your pockets—don’t get lazy or lax. We met a guy in Mexico City who was aware of pickpockets in the subway and decided he’d be fine if he rode with his hands in his jean pockets to protect his wallet. However, the train was super crowded and when it lurched to a stop he put his hands out to stop from falling—in that brief moment his wallet was taken! Pickpockets are opportunists and they only need an inkling of distraction on your part to get their work done.
More on that note… Backpacks are great for distributing weight and keeping you hands-free but can leave you vulnerable to thieves. When in crowded or questionable places, wear your backpack on your front, no matter how weird it looks.
Generally, we choose to leave excess cash and our passport in the hotel safe, however, this can also be dependent on the reputation of the hotel. Also, some countries require visitors to have their passports on them at all times. This is when you are going to want that money belt or pouch I mentioned earlier.
Split your cash
Got a wad of local currency? Don’t carry it all in the same place. Split it between your hotel safe and day bag, or maybe you and your travel mate can carry a portion each. Stash it in different, secure places to spread the risk.
Team up for extra vigilance
When we go through security at the airport my husband and I tag team: one of us stays behind to make sure our bags make it into the x-ray machine, the other goes ahead to wait for them at the other end. Though it’s probably the most unlikely place our bag will go missing, this is an example of how we team up to make sure our stuff stays secure.
Withdrawing cash from ATMs is another example. One of us uses the ATM, while the other turns to face outward. This is as much a deterrent as anything. Appearing vigilant and actively looking at passers-by is offputting to a thief who doesn’t want to be recognised or seen coming.
A friend of mine, when travelling with a group of friends, would use a particular acronym or trigger word to remind everyone to check they had their belongings on them. As they’d leave a restaurant, bar, hotel, taxi or attraction, someone in the group would say the word and everyone would know that was the queue to check their wallet, keys, phone etc was on them. This ensured nothing got left behind during the trip.
Hotel key card
Most hotels these days operate with key cards to scan in and out of rooms. They are usually issued in a cardboard pocket that has the hotel branding and your room number on it. Memorise your room number and take your key out of the pouch. If it gets lost or stolen while you are out sightseeing, you don’t want the key accompanied by your hotel and room details falling into the wrong hands. If I find someone’s lost hotel key card on the ground, I will always destroy it for this reason.
If you are travelling with any more than one person and want to break off and do separate things, or even just explore crowded places such as festivals, it can be helpful to choose a rendezvous point and time. This is particularly so if you don’t have phone or internet coverage in your destination (or your battery is going flat). You need to think back to what you would have done pre-mobile connectivity (which may be impossible for some young travellers). Wear a watch (not a valuable one), designate a time and a place to meet if for any reason you are split up.
Also, be courteous to your fellow travellers and rendezvous on time. Not turning up where and when you said you would can be a signal that something is wrong. So, unless you really are in trouble, show up at the designated locale on time.
Internet and Wi-Fi
Free internet in hotels, restaurants, airports and other public spaces are often low on security. Hackers can intercept the network and record your keystrokes. If you choose to use these types of internet, don’t go doing your internet banking, logging into your email or other online activities that will give away sensitive details. If you are a digital nomad or need to use a device while on the move, it may be worthwhile subscribing to a public VPN service.
There are additional travel security considerations if you are renting a car in your destination. Here are some ways to make your rental car more secure:
Firstly, choose or request one with local license plates (this applies mostly for the US and countries that have different state registrations). Next, select parking carefully such as well lit and high trafficked area rather than dark, quiet backstreets. If you’re unsure, check with hotel staff for recommendations.
When you leave your car, make sure all your possessions are out of sight. If you must leave items in the car, lock them in the boot (that’s Aussie for “trunk”) where they aren’t visible. Open the glove box so potential thieves can see there is nothing stashed in there. Don’t leave maps or any other items that identify you as a tourist in view (although number plates can be a dead giveaway at times, so try to get a locally registered car).
If you have rented a hatchback, leave the cover over during the day when you have items in the boot, but when you take everything to your accommodation for the night, roll back the cover so again thieves can see there is nothing worth breaking in for.
Check your bank statements
Just because your trip is over, doesn’t mean travel security vigilance ends immediately. Check your bank statements for unidentified or duplicate transactions if you were using a card while you were away. It can be worthwhile to collect receipts for card payments, especially if there will be a currency conversion. This will make it easier to track valid transactions on your card.
Some of these travel security and safety tips may seem obvious, but lots of people get caught out on the basics. Do you have any tips to add? Let us know in the comments below.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,