Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Safety Tips for the Solo Traveler

Whenever I talk to people about having traveled abroad by myself, the conversation always jumps to how I stayed safe. Here are a couple of tips for those traveling by themselves…
  • When traveling alone, try not to be alone. This is particularly important at nighttime or when in vulnerable situations like long-distance bus rides. This may seem challenging, as you don’t really know anyone, but it’s really pretty simple. When I traveled, I made sure to stay in places where I would meet like-minded people who might also be traveling alone, or might be jumping from place to place like me. I found hostels to be a great place to meet others. Surprisingly, I encountered many solo travelers, many of whom were women. You have to be comfortable talking to anyone, but once you do, you’ll realize that there is almost always someone who is traveling a similar route or someone who is interested in sharing a meal or exploring the city with a new friend. Not only does this keep you safe, but you also can meet some amazing people who might even turn out to be lifelong friends.
  • If you aren’t able to find someone to ride the bus with you, make smart decisions. I only traveled by bus alone a couple of times, but when I did, I made smart decisions. By this I mean that I was willing to pay a bit more to travel a more reputable bus or was willing to be flexible about my travel times in order to arrive during the day versus arriving somewhere alone at night. Also, you don’t need to flash your shiny new iPad on an overnight bus ride, no matter how badly you want to catch up on the new season of Newsroom.
  • Learn how to choose a cab. Let’s start with airport cabs. When I was alone, I favored booking cab drivers through my hostel in advance. It cost me about $5 more, but it was worth it to me to know that I would be in good hands. If taking a cab provided by the hostel isn’t an option, use your best judgement and remember that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. As far as city cabs go, know what to look for to know if a cab is legitimate. In Peru this meant finding a silver sticker on the front window and a black number written across the side. These cabs were registered and generally safer than some random person who is just driving people around to make a little extra cash. Realize, though, that while it is important to be cautious, it’s also important to expect people to be good at heart. At first, I was afraid to speak in cabs, worried that the driver would realize I didn’t speak Spanish fluently and would take advantage of the fact that I was a tourist. But let’s be real, the guy knew I was a tourist even before I opened my mouth. Face it, I am wearing hiking boots, I probably mispronounced the name of my destination, and I am carrying a backpack. Once I got over my fear, I realized all of the cab drivers I spoke to were amazing people with interesting stories and helpful travel advice. So what if I had to pay an extra 30 cents because my accent was American or I missed a few verb conjugations?
  • Only carry what you need. You never need your id, all of your money and five credit cards all at the same time. Be smart about what you carry, when, and where. I never took my passport around with me. Instead, I locked it up in my room where I couldn’t lose it or get it stolen. I followed the same rule with my debit cards. When I needed to get cash, I brought my card, but immediately returned it to my room after taking out money. As far as money goes, it should go without saying that you should only carry what you need. If you run out, you can always return to your room and get more. Whatever you are carrying, split it up and put it in a safe (and accessible) place. I tried to get fancy and hide my money in pockets where no one would know about it. The problem was that the money was so inaccessible that even I struggled to access it. Don’t go crazy. It’s not the end of the world if you lose 50 bucks.
  • Choose hostels carefully. In the beginning, my priority was to carefully monitor my budget. I learned quickly that while this strategy was great for my savings account, it wasn’t worth risking my safety. The cheapest hostel I stayed at ended up being the one that was robbed. Instead of going by cost, talk to people. Get suggestions. Ask questions and find out where other people stayed in order to find the best (and safest) places. Most importantly, write down what they say! I followed this strategy in Ecuador and stayed in some of the nicest hostels on my trip. This may seem like an obvious suggestion, but it took me two countries to figure out in-person recommendations are much more reliable than online reviews.
  • Never leave your belongings unattended in your hostel. Again, this sounds obvious, but there are moments when your phone is charging and you are tempted to leave it on your bed for 30 seconds while you brush your teeth in the bathroom. It might be fine. It might not be. My phone wasn’t. In those 30 seconds, my hostel roommate disappeared and so did my cell.
  • Most importantly, don’t ruin your trip by not trusting anyone or not taking calculated risks. Generally people are wonderful people. Don’t let one bad story taint your experience.

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