How to Stay Safe While Traveling (2023)

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I, like most women I know, have spent my entire life learning and following best practices for personal safety. I was reflecting on this fact when, earlier this week, a 23 year old woman named Ashling Murphy was killed while on an afternoon jog along a canal in Tullamore, a town about 60 miles west of Dublin. Vigils have been taking place across Ireland, and, on social media, the hashtag #SheWasGoingForARun has been a rallying cry. The Irish police believe that her murderer did not know her, implying that it could have been a random attack. 

Ireland is generally considered a safe place to live and travel, with far less violent crime than the US. However, a lower crime rate does not mean that Ireland is spared from the issue of violence against women, nor is the population exempt from other sorts of attacks. Ashling’s murder reminded me of the similarly tragic case of Sarah Everard, a woman who was killed while walking to her home in London. 

Related Post: What You Need to Know Before Traveling to Ireland in 2021

Women know the risks of existing far too well.

We know that walking home or jogging in a popular area could become deadly if someone, a stranger, decides to try to kill us. Or, as the case of Gabby Petito, a 22 year old American woman, reminds us, it could be our boyfriends who decide to murder us. Of course, the three victims I mentioned are white, relatively privileged and conventionally attractive young women.

The public outcry over their deaths has done little to change the epidemic of violence against women, an issue that the World Health Organization has called “devistatingly pervasive.” According to the WHO, 1 in 3 women is subjected to physical or sexual violence during her lifetime. 

UN Women, the United Nations entity dedicated to gender issues and women’s empowerment, put out a list of 10 things that people can do to help end violence against women. I recommend that you familiarize yourself with their list, but also with the male supremacy movement, the issue of missing, exploited, and murdered indigenous women, and abortion. The issue of violence against women is multifaceted, and intersects with racism, classism, and other social issues. 

Related Post: Change How You See the World in 20 Podcast Episodes (Part One)

What does this have to do with travel?

Fair question. Travel involves inherent risk. You’re in a new place, you’re surrounded by new people, you may be alone, and all of those things can be scary. Reasonably so. I mention the cases of Ashling, Sarah, and Gabby because their attacks are reminders that women everywhere are at risk, so long as there are men who decide to attack us. Constant vigilance is reasonable and prudent, and I encourage you to take reasonable precautions everywhere you go. 

Empathy and Travel

However, I would caution you not to exaggerate the risks of travel in your mind. Fear of others, especially related to terrorism or street crime, can make it easier for you to separate yourself from people in other parts of the world, robbing you of one of the greatest gifts of travel: empathy. Learning about the joys and sorrows of people in another part of the world–and, even better, meeting and connecting with people from that place–offers new ways of understanding the global context in which you live.

For example, a few years ago I visited Colombia. We traveled around the country, but spent several days in/near Salento, in the mountainous coffee region. As a longtime coffee drinker, caffeine addict, and general fan of the stuff, I was super excited for this part of the trip. Our Airbnb host helped arrange a coffee tour at a local fina where the coffee is grown and roasted. I saw the coffee crops growing, tried the coffee fruit that surrounds the bean, and learned about the life of a local farmer who made a decent amount of his income from running these tours. 

Our guide was incredibly kind, generous with his time, and took a great deal of pride in his work. I’ll never forget how manual and time intensive the coffee harvesting process was, and appreciated the opportunity to try each step. The process at a small coffee finca first involves planting and tending to the coffee plants, which are usually planted along steep hillsides because that’s where the land is cheapest. Farmers then walk up and down these steep hillsides, manually collecting coffee berries. 

Coffee berries are small stone fruits, similar to cherries, and the pits (or “stones”) contain the coffee beans. In order to turn a coffee berry into a coffee bean, as we know it, it has to be harvested, processed, dried, hulled, and then exported. As part of our tour, our guide hand roasted some of the beans, and we were all able to enjoy a freshly brewed cup of coffee. 

Having learned about the Fair Trade movement in high school, and later helping to plan a conference on sustainable food systems, I felt like I had a decent understanding of how food gets from a farm to your table. I knew, for instance, that labels like “organic” and “fair trade” were really just band-aids for a broken food system, a way to offer piecemeal oversight into specific parts of the process, such as wages and use of pesticides. What I hadn’t considered until traveling to Colombia and seeing the process for myself was the magnitude of the problem of oversight.

The farm we toured was a typical family farm set on a handful of acres, and yielded just enough crops to keep their family going in a typical year. The coffee beans that they produced were sold in markets in Salento to larger distributors, who in turn sold the coffee to exporters around the world. At each step in the process, the coffee beans are often mixed with other beans from the same region, or even different regions. It would be almost impossible for a consumer to know exactly where their coffee had come from, unless the roaster had a direct relationship with a finca or set of fincas. 

A view over Salento, Colombia where I learned an important lesson about empathy
A view over a valley in Salento, Colombia.

Our Airbnb host explained one facet of this problem to me when it comes to organic labeling: the people who certify the crops “organic” usually only come once. The process is expensive, and there’s usually no follow up on the small family farms. The farms, which, again, directly support a particular family, are then the sole income source for a group of people. If a farm is going to apply for an “organic” label, they probably will cease the use of banned insecticides leading up to the inspection. Afterwards, however, there’s a decent chance that the farms revert to using Roundup.

As our Airbnb host walked us to dinner at a local home, she casually pointed to a farm that was allowed to label its crops “organic” and said that she had seen them using Roundup on their crops. She went on to describe the issue as “tragically common.”

What I learned from this encounter is that, indeed, an organic label doesn’t mean what I thought it meant. I had assumed that organic farming was pretty much the same everywhere, but hadn’t accounted for the myriad of people who make up the system. People who are responding to regulatory, economic, moral, ethical, and practical incentives. If a farmer’s motivation is to increase the value of his crop by labeling it “organic,” he might not have the regulatory incentives to continue practicing organic farming after his approval. 

Similarly, there could be a farmer who objected to the use of RoundUp and never used it on his crops, but never went through the regulatory and economic hurdles to be labeled organic. With so many steps, and so much complexity at each stage in the process, it’s up to us to decide whether or not we trust the labels. What I know for sure is that the label is a poor substitute for a relationship with the source of your food, which is evidenced by how surprised I was to learn that some “organic” coffee is, according to my Airbnb host, grown using Roundup. 

I didn’t leave this experience feeling angry at the Colombians I met, I felt a great deal of empathy for their situation. Coffee yields are unpredictable, and the global price of coffee fluctuates wildly, usually to the detriment of local farmers. No one I met, myself included, created this system, nor could we single handedly change it. We were, however, all participants in the global food supply, and we were navigating its complexities as best we knew how to do (and, if you’re wondering, I do still buy mostly organic produce). 

Personal Safety

While Salento was probably the area of Colombia where I felt physically safest, the country in general has dealt with decades of violence. Before traveling to South America, I made a point to read Oblivion, a memoir written by Colombian author Hector Abad. The book talks about war and conflict, vividly humanizing many of the country’s struggles. 

The Colombians that I met while traveling openly resented discussions of Pablo Escobar and the country’s history of drug cartels. Despite a greatly improved security situation in recent years, our hosts were still quick to warn us to be careful when out in the city. They told us to never talk on the phone on the sidewalk (always step into a store, if possible), and to take Ubers because they’re safer. We followed their advice and didn’t have any issues while on our trip, 

As a woman, a generally cautious person, and someone without a lot of inherent street smarts, I’ve spent a lot of my time traveling thinking about personal safety. I’ve also been lucky, and I’ve had a lot of people kindly explain local precautions to me when I’ve been traveling. The security situation will be slightly different everywhere you travel, but my overarching advice is to always be aware, be skeptical, be prepared, and be a self-preservationist. 

Be aware

The idea here is simple: know where you are, what’s happening around you, and continuously be checking the vibe. If you suddenly notice that you’re the only woman walking around in a crowded area, it might be time to go home. Here are a few practical ways that you can try to be aware while traveling:

  • Don’t text/talk on the phone while you walk unless absolutely necessary. 
  • Notice your surroundings
    • Watch what others are doing–if they don’t have their phones out, put yours away.
    • If the streets are totally empty, try to avoid walking alone. 
    • Try to dress in a way that fits in with the local population, if possible. In particular, avoid flashy jewelry or other accessories that will attract attention. 
  • Remember: You see people acting normally all day, every day. If something feels “off,” listen to your instincts and react accordingly.  
  • Look both ways before you cross the street and follow other common sense practices
  • Know (generally) where you are going when you leave a place
    • If you need to use Google Maps, take a few seconds to study the route before leaving your Airbnb or the restaurant table
  • Keep your luggage close by whenever possible

Personal safety tip: Keep your luggage nearby at all times when in transit
I try to keep a hand on my luggage whenever possible while traveling.

Be skeptical 

This one is a learned behavior for me: be skeptical. As much as you’re likely to need to rely on the kindness of strangers when traveling, be sure that you’re always remaining vigilant. 

  • Be very cautious when accepting gifts such as drinks from strangers
  • If something feels off, act on that feeling
  • Double check details like your Uber car’s license plate
  • If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is
  • Always be weary of someone who seems a little too invested in whether you do something
  • Lock up your valuables 
  • Take money out of ATMs in well lit, public places during daylight hours

Be prepared

As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Do your homework, know what you’re getting into, and plan carefully, as this can save you a lot of headaches when you arrive.

  • Know the risks for the area where you’ll be traveling. Research using the State Department, blogs, the internet, and friends/family (if possible).
    • If there are serious security risks where you’re going (robbery, kidnapping, etc.), read about strategies to avoid becoming a target 
  • Leave valuables you don’t absolutely need at home. When I traveled to South America, I bought a small Chromebook for $200 so I didn’t have to take my Macbook. 
  • If you’re going somewhere that may have a pickpocketing problem, put $20 in your sock so that you have enough to get home if your wallet gets stolen
    • If muggings are a major problem where you’re going, consider having a “mugger wallet” with you–this is a cheap wallet with a small amount of cash that is easily accessible. 
    • Consider using a money belt if you’re going somewhere with a pickpocketing/mugging problem. Keep it tucked into your pants/leggings.
  • Know (generally) the cultural norms and expectations in the place where you are going
  • Have a backup plan, or at least think a bit about what it might be before you go, in case things really go sideways on your trip. Would you fly home? Go to stay with a friend? Get a hotel? 

Related Post: Top 10 Travel Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them)

Be a self-preservationist

When I was a child, my grandpa would always tell me, “We can replace stuff, but we can’t replace you.” The same goes for you when you travel. Your stuff can be replaced. Some of it might be covered by insurance. Money can be recouped. Your safety is the most important thing, and if it comes down to it, choose yourself. 

  • If someone attempts to mug you, hand over whatever they’re asking for. Your life is worth more than your iPhone. 
  • If something feels off, try to get out as soon as you (safely) can. 
  • Avoid arguments, illegal activities, and other high risk situations when possible
  • Be Weird, Be Rude, Stay Alive

Final Thoughts

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to personal safety, largely because we all have varying levels of risk that we’re willing to tolerate. That said, fear is what creates the “other.” Take reasonable precautions, but, if you can, leave yourself room to experience places a bit off the beaten path. Connect with locals and make room for empathy-growing activities and learning. 

If you’re interested in going abroad for the first time, I made a guide that can help!