How to stay safe when traveling at home or abroad

Long or short journeys, domestic or abroad require preparedness.

Despite the current situation, it is worthwhile to understand how to stay safe when we do travel away from home. It is another aspect of preparedness.

I would like to begin with a story about a former co-worker. Jane back packed her way across Europe with a friend in the 1960’s.

The journey was going well until they arrived in Spain. At the time Spain was under the control of the notorious dictator, Franco.

The train on which they traveled was stopped by the Spanish military. The heavily armed soldiers boarded the train and demanded to see passports. Jane got out her information and although she was afraid, calmly sat and waited.

When the soldiers arrived at their seat, her friend decided to tell the soldiers in very colorful and easily translated expletives what they could do to themselves. They weren’t going to order her around and actually started to rise in her seat as she ranted at them.

Jane had the presence of mind to grab her friend and pull her back down into her seat. She told her “shut up, you’re going to get us killed, give them your passport and not another word.” Then Jane apologized to the soldiers in Spanish for her friend who had misunderstood and to please forgive her.

This regime was ruthless. They could have been dragged off the train and shot. After the train incident, Jane split from traveling with her friend and completed the rest of her journey alone.

Know the person you are traveling with and discuss reactions to situations such as this in advance. You are a guest in someone’s Country and an understanding of the cultural and social mores there will make you a welcome guest who is less likely to get into trouble. You don’t want to get into trouble or land in jail because of someone else.

These are the basics for safe international travel:

Do your research and understand the cultural differences. For example, in Egypt an unmarried female who travels alone is considered a prostitute. 

Learn about any hand gestures that may be considered offensive. I believe it is in Thailand or Indonesia where crossing one’s legs and exposing the soles of the shoe or foot is considered very offensive. In Singapore littering can land you a punishment by caning.

Never consume drugs in a foreign Country and watch the rules regarding alcohol. Never get intoxicated. You want to be lucid at all times.

Find out if there is civil unrest in the Country or if tourists are being targeted as was the case in Egypt.

Never leave your luggage unattended. Never agree to carry someone else’s luggage.

Ensure your family or friends back home have a full itinerary of where you will be staying and a copy of your passport, and other identification, including recent photos and bank information. 

If something happens to you, they will be able to work with authorities using recent information. If you need help financially, they can deposit money to your bank account. Ensure that they are authorized to handle any banking needs, such as bill payment while you are away. International cell rates can be very high.

Set up agreed upon contact points and times and keep them. This way your family will know if something has gone wrong sooner and what your whereabouts where when you disappeared.

Practice situational awareness especially when traveling. 

Women are frequently targeted at airports and kidnaped. Human trafficking is a very real danger. Ensure that the people you interact with, including taxi drivers are who they purport to be. It is safer to use your hotel shuttle service as transport from the airport to your hotel.

In your hotel, ensure that the door is locked and bolted with security lock while in your room. Check the room thoroughly upon possession of it to ensure no on is lurking and also to ensure that nothing illegal was left behind. Never open the door to anyone who is not expected. It takes seconds to call the main desk and confirm who is at your door and why.

If you intend to visit tourist areas, be aware that is also the place where criminals will congregate. Predators go where the prey is located.

If you choose to go to Amsterdam’s red light district, be aware that tourists can have very bad experiences there. There are people who are criminals who have immigrated to The Netherlands. The problem is that as a tourist, you might think they are tourists. They are not. You may be dealing with one at an ATM and suddenly find yourself surrounded by fifteen more men.

These gangs of thieves rig the ATM so that your cash won’t dispense properly. Then they come behind after you give up and fish your money out. Pick pockets are especially bad in tourist areas. They can work alone or in a tandem. One bumps into you and the other steals your wallet while you are distracted.

Deal with the banks in the daytime in the branch. Ensure you wear a hidden money and passport carrier. A zippered money and passport carrier that sits flat under the waistband of your pants is not easily accessible and stay out of sight. Forget purses. Try to blend in with the locals as much as possible. 

Look like you mean business, don’t look like a victim. Tourists very often have a distracted and vague look on their faces because they are preoccupied with the new environment. That is a giveaway and makes you a target.

Jane, the woman in the story who carried on traveling alone finally landed in a small village in Greece only to discover that her American Express traveler’s checks were lost.

She spoke no Greek, but was able to use the telephone of a kindly Greek couple. Jane called her Dad who arranged the Am Ex check replacement which would be there in about two weeks. Meanwhile, she had no money. The check replacement wasn’t as rapid as she believed. 

The kindly Greek couple took pity on Jane and gave her a free room and food in their small room to let hotel while she waited for the money.

Jane was alone and unable to communicate with anyone. She was sitting on her bed, feeling very dejected and then she heard it. It was English! Someone, a male voice was singing “Some Enchanted Evening” quite loudly.

Jane flew through the door overjoyed to have someone to talk with and met the man. She said to him “Oh. You speak English?”

He shook his head and began to sing the song again. It was the only English he knew.


  • Comments (17)

    • 7

      Good evening Ubique,

      Jane’s travel compaion could have had a side trip to Spanish Sahara. She’s speak Spanish when her sentence completed.

      It’s a long held cultural aspect re leg crossing and display of soles of feet.  It’s not only the Asian Muslim areas but also Asian Hindu and Buddhist areas. The leg-crossing cultural prohibition is for the guys. 

      The “Lonely Planet” series of guides does a decent job of addressing cultural offenses.

      In Singapore, tearing off a leaf or flower in public area is a violation with fine – at least for foreigners.  Canning still used. A Chinese-American high school student at “American School”, private school got caught vandalizing some cars. He was tried and sentenced; got canned. 

      • 4

        Good evening Bob,

        Agreed. Her companion would have had many years to perfect her comand of the Spanish language and a deeper understanding of their policies.

        Thank you for the info on the leg crossing and soles of feet. It is interesting to know that Asian Hindu and Buddhist areas areas are also so offended.

        Yes, Lonely Planet, they were one of the books I used as a reference when I planned to go to Egypt. The trip fell through, but I learned about their culture.

        Scantily dressed tourists routinely offend Egyptian families who are picnicking at the Giza pyramids. The wardrobe I sewed for Egypt was pants and tunic with head covered similar to what was worn in Egypt or other Asian Countries. I wanted to blend in.

        I’d love to visit Singapore one day. I just watched a documentary on Singapore’s genesis. Their laws are strict, but the country is so clean and well designed. I think we had a Canadian student or visitor, a male, who was caned.

        People who do that make the argument for preparing.

    • 4

      Another point on staying safe while travelling abroad:

      Always know and have record (hard copy on paper) of the contact info for your embassy.

      I like to overbuild than underbuild preparations, so if I were travelling today, I would include the American and British embassy information along with my Canadian embassy contact info.

      If for some reason, something happened and I was unable to contact anyone in the Canadian embassy, my go to would be our allies for assistance. There might be limitation for what they could do, but I think due to our long relationship as allies, that the embassy staff would try to find a means to contact someone in Canada for me or perhaps another form of assistance in an emergency.

      • 4

        Good afternoon Ubique,

        Also consider prep of a list of “Atlantic Alliance” airlines … both their airport office info and the “downtown” (and frequently at hotels also) office … location, landmarks,  contact info,…

        Ditto a list of banks.  In Jarkarta, rather than the Embassy, the better place was the Chase Manhattan Bank building. 

        Can’t address current situations but traditionally a Canadian would be provided for at US consular facilities during emergencies.   

      • 2

        Good afternoon Bob,

        Excellent idea re Atlantic Alliance airlines and banks for assistance.

        I think that the US would assist us in an emergency.

        I remember the Canadian Embassy assisted with the Americans that were kidnapped years ago. It was quite a story. The movie Argo was based on it.


      • 4

        Have yet to glance at link.

        From my fading memory, the Canadian Embassy had arranged a successful escape. The US Embassy’s arrangements didn’t work.

        There was a successful private rescue arranged by Ross Perot.

        Believe the US captivity was 444 days.  

      • 3

        Good evening Bob,

        I think this might be a different story. From the beginning the 6 American Diplomats were sheltered by the Uk Embassy (1 night) and then the Canadian Embassy employees and families thereafter.

        Ken Taylor was a key Canadian embassy worker who engineered the escape. They issued real Canadian passports to get them out of Iran. Different agencies worked cooperatively to get the diplomats safely out of Iran. 

        It is a great example of cooperation and courage. The Canadian embassy had their families involved, so there was a lot a stake.

      • 5

        Good morning Ubique,

        Yes, definitely a different story within the much larger events.

        There were several escapes contrasted with the US Embassy failure.

        Much was going on with the Ross Perot success made highly public.

        The Israelis were involved in these efforts also.

        “Desert One”, the failed US official military rescue attempt, occured around the Presidential election’s final campaigns.

      • 4

        Good morning Bob,

        I see, this calls for a further read into the broader history of the events.

        Thank you for the clarification. I will do some reading on this.

      • 5

        Good morning Ubique,

        I can’t clarify; only cloud this hidden event. Some of the Desert One personnel were from south of here.

        While resting a few hours ago, I decided it wasn’t politics but rather history to allow adding one basic and important point.

        Another org involved in all of this – facts hidden except for researchers – was government of France.  Most all of what happend was anticipated by experienced foreign area studies field personnel, Alatolla Khomeni (sp?) arrived in Teheran from Paris on an Quai d’ Orsay chartered Air France aircraft. Like Orwell said, this stuff was so clear as to what was going on, only an expert could miss it.

      • 2

        Good morning Bob,

        This is more complex than I realized at first consideration. There are a lot of moving parts to examine.

        I appreciate the additional point as it will help with my research. 

        History can be further complicated by the way memory functions. The first time is when the even occurs. All subsequent memories of it involve remembering which slightly changes each time the event is remembered. 

        If you combine the reporting of events (or lack thereof) with how public perception is shaped by our “remembering,” it makes for a lot of missed history.

        That is another reason why I like hard copy for important prepping instructions. I don’t trust how I will “re”member something in a crisis and under stress.

    • 5

      I bought a portable door lock for when I travel, which isn’t very often. It slides into most any door and allows you to lock it from inside. 

      After seeing some videos about how easy it is for a rogue hotel staff member to enter a hotel room, even if you use the little chain, I decided to do something to improve my safety. 

      Another thing you can do on the fly if you don’t have a door lock is to use your belt on those business style doors. (not sure what they are called) Just slip your belt around the top hinge bar thingy and wrap it around. 


      I learned this trick from a work active shooter training video as a way to keep the shooter out. 

      • 3


        Thank you for these awesome tips! That belt idea is just incredible and it certainly would stop someone.

      • 5

        Good evening Liz,

        Real good !

    • 7

      These would be my top tips, mostly related to traveling abroad in ‘developing’ countries.

      Most of my bad encounters have been with animals.  That has led me to principles:

      1. Don’t f@$ with monkeys
      2. Keep a couple smallish rocks in your pocket.  The action of throwing a rock at a dog is one that transcends language and culture.  I’ve found that dogs in developing countries are often more aggressive at first but also more easily cowed.

      Following animals, I’ve had more trouble with foreigners than locals.  That usually happens late at night in areas known to be party hubs for tourists.  Relatively easy to avoid.

      Beyond that, I usually keep a small amount of money in my pocket and the rest hidden.  If I get mugged I can give them $20-40 US equivalent and hopefully walk away.  I always use cheap phones anyway, but if I had a fancy phone at home I would get an ~$80 unlocked gsm phone for international travel.  In the modern era I download local maps of wherever I’m going (I use Maps.me). I always wear something with a zipper pocket.  When making big moves or going to an ATM I’m very focused and pay more attention to what’s around me.  I try to make it a direct trip.  From one hotel to the next with as little as possible between, or to the ATM and back, no side trips. 

      It can be a challenge but I think it’s important to know something about where you are going.  It makes being there more interesting and rewarding, but it also helps make sense of all the things you see around you.  Are there any elections or national holidays coming up that might be disruptive?  Reuters and BBC are good for news, and I think all countries have English language news sources if you really want a deep dive.  I’ve often felt safer in other countries because violence may be more prevalent but is less random than it is here.  The violent actors (outside of big cities at least) have an agenda and causing drama with a tourist would only cause problems for them.

      • 3


        Thank you for raising very good coping strategies and points about travel.

        Good point about the party hubs with tourists.

        The ATM in Amsterdam was rigged so that the money wouldn’t come out, so if I were travelling and that happened, I would get out of there quickly and contact the bank later. It was amazing how many people assumed it was an ATM problem.

        In Egypt in 1993, they were targeting tourist buses. The first bombings happened before I was due to fly out. But, I do agree that there does seem to be more agenda driven violence than the random acts of violence we encounter here. 

      • 6

        I laughed pretty hard at your travel abroad principles AT because they are true!

        -Monkeys aren’t to be messed with. My sister now has a scar because she tried to pet one. 

        -Dogs in third world countries do understand the action of throwing rocks! Never threw a rock at a dog, but I’ve walked many streets where I felt like they were stalking me. Just doing the action kept them away.

        -Keeping a junk brick phone is a good technique, even if it doesn’t work. Buy one on eBay for $5 before you leave and keep that in your pocket. I’ve been mugged before and they asked for my phone. I handed them that brick phone and they said never mind and just walked away and gave me my phone back.