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Top 10 safety tips for solo travelers

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Man standing at a subway platform (Photo: Index Open)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on June 11, 2007. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: Sarah Pascarella, solo travel, vacation package, women's travel.

"I was in Nairobi, one of the most dangerous cities I've had to photograph in," says international photojournalist Jamie Rose. "I was out photographing and I noticed I was being followed ... a gentleman was three steps behind me for about six blocks.

"White Western travelers are often targeted because they carry expensive things—iPods, cell phones, cameras—all out in the open," explains Rose, a frequent solo traveler both overseas and stateside. She kept her wits about her to lose her follower and get to safety. "I went to a busy intersection and called my taxi driver, and said 'I need you here in five minutes.' Keeping a taxi or someone on your cell phone for emergencies is a good idea. In about a minute and a half he was there, and I got out of the situation immediately."

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According to Rose, "If you feel uncomfortable, you're probably right. Extricate yourself from a bad situation rather than waiting it out until it gets better."

If you're planning a solo trip in the near future, don't act blindly. Here are some pre-trip and in-the-field strategies for ensuring a safe journey.

1. Learn about the local culture

"Do your homework," says Marya Charles Alexander, editor and publisher of SoloTravelPortal.com and SoloDining.com. "Learn all you can about culture [and] location ... Query people who have made similar journeys." A little cultural research, pre-departure, can go a long way toward staying safe during your vacation. Are certain styles of dress frowned upon? Are there certain neighborhoods, bus routes, or subway stations that are notorious for petty crime? Getting a preview of what to expect can help you once you've arrived.

"[Some people], if they're taking a tour as part of a group, rely too much on the tour group leader," says Chris McGoey, a security consultant. "[They] have nothing to prepare themselves, no directions, and they walk around with cameras around their necks and are reckless with money when they shop. It's like they're begging the locals to rob them. Do research before you go out."

If you're traveling to a foreign country, it's also a good idea to learn a few key phrases in the local language, particularly those that might get you out of a sticky situation. "Try to learn the local word for help," suggests Anthony Page, Web editor for SoloTravel.org.

Or, "if you don't speak the language at all, finding a guide who speaks the language is helpful, [he] can advise where it's safe or not safe," says McGoey.

2. Try to blend in

Once at your destination, don't advertise yourself as a tourist. "Don't wear white sneakers when traveling internationally," says McGoey. "People hear 'wear good shoes', so they go out and get the brightest white—it's like wearing a flag for the pickpockets, saying 'pick me.'"

"Look at what the locals are doing, and try to blend in as much as possible," says Rose. "When I was in Africa and I finally got tanned, my friend Felix said 'now you look African. You've got the right tan, the right scarf, you look like a local.' He said you can always tell the new arrivals because they're so pale. The more you look like a local, the more they think you know what's going on, even if you don't."

Typical "tourist" wear can include fanny packs, sneakers, shorts and t-shirts, and tote bags (particularly those imprinted with a tour group operator name or symbol). "We had a theft case in Ecuador," says McGoey. "A senior traveler who was carrying a flight bag that the tour companies hand out, an obvious flag for thieves. In the bag, he had his prescription medications, eyeglasses, his passport, his traveler's checks, everything you don't want to carry in one place. He was standing waiting for transportation and placed his bag down between his feet, and someone came and snatched it. It was the first day of his trip and he lost almost everything, every essential item was gone. He had to spend the better part of a week getting the passport replaced, medication replaced, all in a foreign country, which made it a lot tougher and spoiled the trip."

Dress discreetly and use a body or belt wallet. Study how the locals carry themselves, then imitate them. Keep your valuables close by or hidden. By doing so, thieves may not give you a second look.

3. Don't be flashy

In certain parts of the world, iPods, cell phones, and certain clothing styles are the norm. In other places, they can make you stand out more than anything else.

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