“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.”
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.
“When I travel internationally, I take my oldest, most beat-up backpack I have,” says Rose. “I carry my most important things in something that is not flashy or brand new … I want my backpack to look like there’s nothing inside but books, when in actuality it’s going to hold expensive camera equipment. When I went to a new area, I’d always go to a market when I got there and buy something that looked very local [and] native.
“I always carry a very large pashmina or shawl,” she continues. “You can hike up your purse and wrap the shawl around it and you so it’s close, and you’re not advertising [what you have].”
Many also feel a vacation is an excuse for getting new clothes or gadgets. “I saw so many tourists in Africa going to North Face and outfitting themselves in brand-new clothes,” explains Rose. Rather than adding comfort or style to their trip, however, it may have made them more susceptible to petty crime.
Additionally, don’t be flashy with your behavior. While a vacation is certainly a time to relax, approaching a trip as an extended party (particularly as a solo traveler) can lead to big trouble. “Do not drink to the point of losing control or do drugs,” says Page. “Keep an eye on your drink. Try to stay close to others and don’t be tempted by offers from men to spend the night.”
4. Know the area
Before you even depart, browse guidebooks and websites that provide street maps, public transportation routes and schedules, and taxi and rental car information. Getting a general sense of the lay of the land can prevent you from getting lost and being put in a dangerous situation.
“Most airports have a good tourist information office,” says Rose. “When you land, go in there and grab a map. [They’ll also have] very good travel tips. If you’re traveling by yourself you can instantly get a sense of the area.”
5. Keep a phone card and cash on you
“Always carry cash so you can hop in a cab or go into a cafe if you don’t feel safe,” recommends Rose. “You can’t walk into a restaurant and sit down and order something—a really great way to get off the street—if you don’t have cash on you.”
Just make sure you don’t have too much cash, and don’t make it obvious. “Be wary of changing money in urban change centers,” says McGoey. “[I’ve seen] people walking out in the street counting their money, it’s just not safe.”
A phone card is a good item to have, even if you have a cell phone. Should your phone and/or wallet get stolen, with a phone card you can make a quick call to a cab or your hotel to arrange for transportation, or get in touch with friends and family who may be able to help.
6. Safeguard your room
When checking in at your hotel, take a few precautions to ensure safety. “Make sure other travelers around you do not hear your room [number upon check-in],” says Alexander. In many cases, the hotel clerk will not say what room you’re in, and will instead discreetly write the room number on your key envelope. If your room number is loudly announced and you don’t feel comfortable, request a change to a different room.
“Do check out the room you’re assigned,” Alexander suggests. “Make sure that it is ideally about the third floor or better so you’re not too close to the street. Know where the various exits are vis-à-vis your room, so in a case of emergency you know the most expeditious way out.”
“Don’t ever stay in a ground floor hotel room where windows and doors are accessible to the street, or rooms near the elevator or fire stairs—they tend to get burglarized more often,” says McGoey. He also recommends traveling with rubber door wedges. “Stick that under your door, because keys are everywhere. Or, we’ll put luggage or a chair in front of the door so we don’t get surprised in the middle of the night.”
While it’s always a good idea to leave your valuables at home, if you do need to bring them, take advantage of the room or property safe—or be creative. “Housekeepers in foreign countries talk a lot … Never leave anything out that the hotel staff can see,” says Rose. “When I do leave things in my hotel room, I’ll put [them] in places where no one would look for them, such as my camera in the bread box. I’ll also leave something in front of the door so if [it was] knocked over … I’d know someone had been there and been in my stuff.” Rose typically chooses something small, like pens, to leave out. This way, the intruder might not notice things had been moved, but she would.
“Always put a ‘do not disturb’ sign on your door when you leave,” says McGoey. “That way people will think your room is occupied and won’t try anything.”
7. Make copies of everything
It’s a simple rule, but a wise one: When traveling anywhere, it’s smart to make copies of your passport, travel itinerary and tickets, credit cards, driver’s license, and other pertinent paperwork. This can save hours of headaches should your bags get lost or stolen.
“Make triple copies of everything, including the front and back [of each card],” recommends Rose. “Stick them in different bags and places, so when you go to the embassy you have all that information. I save all the 800 numbers for banks, my airline, and embassies of where I am so if anything happens I know exactly who to call.”
8. Notify others of your whereabouts
As a solo traveler, the idea of total freedom—your whims being your only guide—can be very romantic. But not telling anyone your plans can be foolish, should you find yourself in danger. Keep a few people in the know, both pre-departure and during your vacation, just in case.
“Let people know when you expect to return, where you expect to go,” says Alexander. “Leave a trail so if for some reason you do not appear, people will have a way to find you.”
9. Make some new (carefully screened) friends
“Traveling alone makes one more sociable,” says Page. “I’d stake out a comfortable chair in my hostel’s common room, and find someone to chat with. Usually, when traveling, you will be among friends.”
Even though you’ll be on your own, there’s truth to safety in numbers. Sometimes, you may want to seek out a few others if you’re feeling ill at ease.
“One time in Nairobi I was walking along and noticed someone lurking nearby,” says Rose. She approached a British couple who were walking near her, introduced herself, and mentioned the lurker, then asked if they wouldn’t mind walking with her for awhile. “They said, ‘of course, stick with us,’ and I started walking with three other people. The second that guy saw me meet up with someone, he went away … Don’t be hesitant to just walk up and say ‘help me,’ and [people] normally will. The way I see it, if it comes down to being mugged or being embarrassed, go with being embarrassed.”
10. Do the “mom” test
As a solo traveler, always be in tune with your instincts. If you think a situation is bad, it probably is. Don’t be rash or foolish.
“Assess the situation,” says Rose. If she can say, ‘my mother would be so disappointed in me right now because I’m taking an unnecessary risk,’ she’ll decide to change her behavior. Before you put yourself in a potentially bad situation, think of the consequences. Would your mom approve or disapprove?
And remember, solo travel can be rewarding, provided you’re on your toes. Don’t let fear deny you the experience of a lifetime.