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Top 10 Travel Safety Mishaps ... and How to Avoid Them

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Dark Alley (Photo: iStockphoto/Denis Jr. Tangney)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on March 31, 2010. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, health and safety, hotel, Sarah Pascarella, security, vacation package.

Common sense, awareness of your surroundings, and calm decision-making—seems simple enough, right? In the case of traveling, however, foregoing these basic safety strategies can lead to big trouble.

While vacations can be all about relaxation, exploring new cultures, and leaving one's comfort zone, a healthy dose of caution can go a long way toward staying safe. Read on for the 10 most common travel safety mishaps, and how you can avoid similar problems during your next trip.

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1. Intoxication and/or Dehydration

Intoxication can lead to any number of problems on vacation, ranging from personal safety issues to vehicular accidents, loss of property to increased vulnerability. While many want to cut loose and relax while away, it's a good idea to limit your intake of alcohol and avoid illegal drugs entirely—getting drunk or high can quickly escalate a potentially bad situation to an outright dangerous one.

Additionally, be wary of accepting alcoholic drinks from strangers, as their intentions may not always be noble.

"Don't get drunk with people you don't know," says Graham Kingaby, director/underwriter and travel safety guru of WorldNomads.com, a global travel insurance provider. "If you do go out partying, stick with your friends. It can be dangerous to go home alone when you don't know the area very well."

"If you think someone has tampered with your drink, throw it away immediately," says Erin Weed, founder of Girls Fight Back! and author of Girls Fight Back! The College Girl's Guide to Protecting Herself. "If you find yourself feeling very intoxicated and you've only had a few cocktails, it could be the onset of a drug. Find your friends immediately and tell them you think you might have been slipped something. If this is indeed the case, they will need to get you home and possibly to the hospital if the effects are severe."

Finally, consuming large amounts of alcohol can lead to increased dehydration, which can complicate a trip, especially in regions where sun exposure is strong. "From my experience simply being dehydrated and exhausted can be a major problem," says Robert Reid, U.S. travel editor for Lonely Planet. "Always have a bottle of water and be sure to drink ... You get nailed with dehydration, then you're sitting around for two or three days from heat exhaustion or being out in the sun too much. [Beyond] the worries of being robbed or something terrible happening, staying hydrated and rested is something that's very much in your control."

2. Pickpockets

Crowded places, places popular with tourists, and peak seasons for tourism increase the likelihood of being pickpocketed. Use good judgment if you find yourself in such a scenario.

"Don't make friends when you're at your most vulnerable," says Reid. "I've been robbed in a bus station before. Someone approached me and said something and I responded, and it took me off my guard. Someone behind me grabbed my bag and it got stolen. If someone approaches you in a place like that, in a place where you don't see too many locals hanging out, be extra cautious."

While in college, I studied abroad in Rome, a city notorious for pickpockets. After just a few days in the city, I learned which piazzas were rife with petty theft, the specific bus routes known for having thieves, and good rules of thumb for protecting my wallet and valuables. One afternoon, I witnessed a young child distract a tourist with a loose purse; while the tourist spoke to the little girl, the child's accompanying adult swiftly removed the wallet from the woman's bag. After that, I was leery of being approached by kids. I made sure that my bag was securely fastened at all times, and my wallet stowed away in an inaccessible place (the interior pocket of my jacket). By being alert and cautious, I wasn't pickpocketed once.

"Use clothing with zipped pockets or buttons, [and] hide your cash in a money belt, not in a wallet easily accessed from your jean's pocket," says Kingaby. "Be extra careful on crowded public transport, places like markets, and carry your bag in your arms."

You may also want to carry a dummy wallet—one that's empty or contains inconsequential items (cash receipts, to-do lists, fake credit cards from mailed solicitations, etc.)—to distract pickpockets from the real thing. Handing over a false wallet or keeping it in an easily accessible place can give the pickpocket what he wanted, while still safeguarding your money and valuables.

3. Getting Lost

It can be especially frightening to find yourself in an unfamiliar area while on vacation, particularly if you don't speak the local language. Don't panic: Keeping a cool head can make you less visible to those who might prey on your vulnerability.

"Keep your radar on—listen to your head and heart," says Kingaby. "If it feels uncomfortable, get out of there. Try not to look as if you don't know where you are and be discreet if you're looking at your map."

If you carry a mobile device or smartphone, have interactive maps and GPS capabilities at the ready. Studying your phone can be less obvious than consulting a map or guidebook, and you may even blend in with the locals using their own phones.

"I often look for a restaurant or a hotel and I'll go in and have them call a taxi," says Reid. "It's in their best interest to have taxi companies that are reputable and not rip off their clients. Without fault, these places will be able to help you. There are a lot of places in the world where you can't just flag down a taxi, and going into a local business will help you."

Above all, do your research before setting out. By having a general sense of the lay of the land, you can avoid ending up in less-than-safe areas. Call it educated wandering—it's always great to explore a new place on foot and see where the day takes you, but don't go out blindly.

4. Lost/Stolen ID

If you lose your passport, get on the State Department Passport website and follow the links specific to whether you're stateside or overseas. If you're overseas, you'll want to get in touch with your local embassy or consulate immediately to get it replaced.

Regardless of where you are, it's always easier to replace your passport if you have copies of your old one. Keep several copies (preferably one in each bag) in case any of your bags or purse get lost or stolen. You may also want to send a copy of your passport and other relevant travel documents to family or trusted friends back home, just in case a copy needs to be forwarded to the consulate.

If you're stateside and you lose your driver's license, the Unofficial DMV Guide has a comprehensive online guide outlining the steps you need to take to replace it, with specific requirements broken down by state.

5. Accidental Injury or Illness

Before you leave home, double-check your insurance policy to make sure you're covered in case you need medical attention while on vacation, especially if you're traveling abroad. You may want to purchase additional travel insurance to cover medical expenses and/or evacuation in case of emergency. Keep several copies of the policy with your belongings (like the passport copies, one copy per bag is a good rule of thumb), and be sure to save all paperwork from your hospital visit to ensure your claim is properly handled.

6. Road Accidents

If you're planning on driving during your vacation, some pre-arrival research can ensure peace of mind.

"There are now international standards for many road rules—this certainly helps you make sense of signage," says Kingaby. "However, spend some time to research what local rules are and what the environment is like. For example, in some parts of Australia, the huge distances between towns means that it's vital to take water, fuel, and food in case you break down. If you're going to a snowy region, find out if you need to take chains for the tires.

"For more detailed information, the Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT) offers regularly updated road reports for approximately 150 countries," Kingaby continues. "Available via email or download (fees apply), each report covers general road conditions, local driving style, and the realities of dealing with the police, public transportation, and emergency situations."

If you're renting a car, don't hesitate to solicit local advice. "If it's a major rental car company and they rent to a lot of foreigners, ask about problems other people have had," says Reid. "Is insurance included? What does insurance cover? If you thought your insurance covers you and [it] doesn't, do you need extra insurance?"

Before taking the car out of the lot, do a safety check. "Ensure that the car has properly equipped seat belts and also check the tires, headlights, and wipers," says Kingaby. "Always wear your seat belt or motorbike helmet, take regular breaks, [and] obey the speed limit."

"Know that there are different rules that can be hard to imagine [in regard to] traffic, speed traps, [and] difficult roads," says Reid. "Ask [locals] about the rules and common problems."

7. Violent Crime

In the cases of violent crime such as assault, kidnapping, or carjacking, keeping your wits about you may be the difference between life and death. In any new and unfamiliar situation, be on your guard to determine any potential dangers.

"If you get a bad feeling about someone the instant you meet him, honor it," says Weed. "Make a mental note not to be alone with him or trust him for anything (including buying you a drink). Staying with your group of friends is important. If someone is giving you the creeps, surround yourself with good friends and stick with the group religiously."

"Scream to draw attention," says Kingaby. "If they want money, it's better to give it away than risk personal safety. Don't ask 'is that a real gun,' 'will he really use that knife?'.

"Once it's over, make sure you won't get assaulted again by going to a safe location," Kingaby continues. "Take mental notes about the incident and attacker. If insured, contact your emergency services provider ASAP to find appropriate medical assistance. Talk to your embassy, which can help with interpreter services, [and] provide lists of doctors and medical facilities. Decide whether to report the assault to the police—it's your choice. If you do, it's important to act quickly to gather any forensic evidence. Insist on getting a copy of the police report."

"Talk to your consulate right away and get advice from them," says Reid. "Follow calls to action there, particularly if it's something serious."

"Get in touch with people at home, as this kind of incident is very stressful," says Kingaby. "Talking with familiar people is comforting."

8. Hotel Safety Issues

Simply put, some hotels are safer than others. If you get a bad vibe about a certain property, listen to your intuition and find a new place to stay. The inconvenience of finding a new hotel can greatly outweigh the hassles of stolen property or threatened personal safety.

"When picking a place to rest your head, follow my $50 rule," says Weed. "Don't stay at a motel that costs less than $50 per night. That usually indicates that it's way too discount, and security probably isn't the highest priority.

"Once you have selected where you will stay, try to get a room that is close to the elevator or stairs and is between the second and sixth floors," Weed continues. "Avoiding the ground floor makes it harder for intruders to break in and staying below the seventh floor makes fire truck ladders able to reach you in case a blaze breaks out."

When checking in, if the hotel clerk says your room number out loud for other patrons to hear, feel free to request a different room and ask him or her to simply write the number down for you to read. Once in your room, use common sense—ensure the locks work, don't let in strangers, and keep a low profile.

9. Public Transportation Snafus

Being well-informed can make the difference between getting pickpocketed on the subway or bus or coming away with all your belongings intact and secure.

"Research where you're going," says Kingaby. "A public bus in Sydney is a different experience [from] a public bus in Mumbai or rural Cambodia. The road traffic rules or lack of them are an issue in many developing countries—taking a train might be safer than a local bus.

"Consider when you're traveling," Kingaby continues. "If it's at night, you might not want to travel alone on public transport."

"Sometimes you're really packed in, people are coming and going, so you can feel a little more vulnerable," says Reid. "I use my inside pockets a lot. Try not to pack too much stuff and keep it a little closer while on public transportation."

10. Boating and Watersports Safety

Sun, surf, and ... possible danger? An area where you might forget to use caution is out sailing, snorkeling, or diving, but here, too, it's important to stay alert, sober, and aware of your surroundings. Most important, ensure that the company with which you book any excursion is reputable.

"Are the companies certified? Have they been around awhile?" says Reid. "Some of the dive and snorkel companies that have been around for 15 years might charge 25 percent more, but maybe it's worth it, when you're going way out to sea, using tanks, diving. It may not be the best place to look for the cheapest deal.

"I was on a snorkel trip in Vietnam and there were a number of options that were cheap trips," Reid continues. "On one of those cheap trips, they accidentally left someone behind and had to go back and pick them up ... At a UNESCO site, one of the cheapest dive excursion companies went out with a ship that had a hole in it. The travelers were stuck and had to be saved, and they [had been] floating for a number of hours in open water. Everyone was fine, but it was very traumatic for them. Sometimes cheaper means the standards are lower."

If you're staying at a resort, talk to fellow travelers to see if they have recently taken any excursions. If so, what were their experiences? Did they pay extra and get better service? Ask about certifications, reputability, and safety records. It's better to put in legwork beforehand than to be unpleasantly surprised later.

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