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11 Tips to Stay Safe When Traveling Abroad

Don't let alarming world news scare you from planning a trip

By Wendy Sue Knecht

The opportunity to travel is one of the great benefits of having financial security and more free time as we age. Traveling is one the most life-enriching activities, and traveling to exotic lands is a learning experience like no other. But potential dangers are lurking everywhere, as recent world events have made us keenly aware. Stop traveling? Never!

As we all know, random incidents can happen anywhere, even at home. Whether you are traveling alone or with a partner or a group, staying aware of your surroundings is important at all times. Practicing “safe travel” will minimize your risk of becoming a victim of a crime, abroad or even at home. Here are 11 simple tips to keep you safe:

1. Assimilate

This is a lesson I learned way back from my years as a Pan Am flight attendant. Don’t travel in uniforms or with logos on your bags. It is best to make an effort to dress like the locals and blend in. That said, it’s not necessary to go to extremes, like wearing a hijab or jilbab in a Muslim country. Western clothing is acceptable everywhere; just use your common sense. No “Texas Ranger” jackets to the Russian ballet, as I once appallingly saw in Kiev.

2. Keep Important Information With You At All Times

Make multiple copies of your passport, and keep a copy in your pocket, not a wallet. This way, if your wallet gets stolen, you still have your identification.  Leave the other copy hidden in your luggage. Keep a list of medications in your wallet, and indicate on it if you have any medical conditions, such as diabetes.

3. Take a Minimum Number of Credit Cards and Safeguard Them

Leave unimportant credit cards at home. This will make things much easier if you become a victim of theft. And don’t ever put a wallet in your back pocket — use a front pocket or hide money elsewhere, such as around your neck. For those carrying handbags, cross-body bags are safest.

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4. Don’t Speak Too Loudly

A foreign accent stands out and draws attention. Loud talkers draw attention, too, and this is something you want to avoid at all costs. “Blending in” is high on the list of staying safe, so talking loud is a no-no.

5. Keep It Private.

When in public, don’t discuss personal travel plans or details, such as which hotel you are staying in or where you plan to go next. If you need to ask directions, be discreet. The safest place to get directions is from a hotel concierge or a shop owner.

6. Don’t Go Anywhere With Strangers

Everything you’ve told your kids all these years holds true for you. Never go with a gypsy cab or take a random tour guide. Book a licensed tour with a registered agent. At tourist sites, guides will have official identification if they are legit.  Follow this rule, and at the very least you won’t be commandeered to visit a rug showroom for hours!


7. Observe Local Customs at All Times

For example, don’t chew gum or spit on the sidewalk in Singapore, don't drink alcohol outside in Canada and don't eat while you are walking on the streets in France. Women: When in a Muslim country, dress appropriately and never call attention to yourself with revealing clothing. Also, avoid tight clothing, short skirts, and anything that screams “sexy.”

8. Buddy Up

If you are feeling unsure about a situation, sit next to other people and pretend you are with them, especially if you are traveling alone. Sitting near aisles and doors can also make you feel less vulnerable in a crowded space, such as a subway or train.

9. Trust your Instincts

If you don’t feel good about a situation or sense anything irregular at all, get yourself out of there! It’s OK to get off the elevator or leave the restroom. Don’t worry about offending anyone. And report anything suspicious to local police. The familiar adage, "If you see something, say something" applies everywhere.

10. Stay Alert.

Wherever you are traveling, make sure you stay aware. Don't walk while you are talking on your cell phone or texting, and don’t let yourself get distracted in public. Thieves prey on people that aren't paying attention. Walk with a purpose.

11. Register for STEP

The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (or STEP), a free service from the U.S. State Department, will let the U.S. Embassy keep you informed in case of an emergency or a natural disaster and can help if your passport is lost or stolen. When you sign up, you will get the latest safety information about where you are traveling and any alerts and warnings pertinent to your locale. The STEP service will track you in case of an emergency and make it easier to ensure your safety, as well as contact loved ones and keep them informed. You can find more information and enroll online at the STEP website.

Practicing these simple but important safety measures will go a long way in helping you to enjoy your trip. Here’s to a bon voyage!

contributor Wendy Knecht
Wendy Sue Knecht is a health activist, a former flight attendant, a designer of travel bags and author of Life, Love, and a Hijacking: My Pan Am Memoir. She blogs at WendySueKnecht. Read More
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