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Security for Travelers - staying safe on the Road

UNITED KINGDOM | Sunday, 24 December 2006 | Views [6188] | Comments [3]

Many travelers have some apprehension when they go abroad, especially if traveling alone for the first time. Despite what you may think from the media, most people’s trips are trouble free and violence against tourists is particularly rare. Of course there is a level of crime everywhere, but most of this is opportunistic; criminals just like everyone else, look for the easy option and generally don’t want any trouble themselves. By taking simple precautions you can do a lot to keep yourself and your processions safe. These notes are based on my travel experiences over thirty years and ninety five countries and particularly on my current trip through Central and South America and Africa, and are aimed at independent travelers on a budget. A lot of these tips may just seem like common sense, but that often seems in short supply and a lot of people get into trouble because they don’t think about what they are doing. Please feel free to add new comments; criminals are inventive and there are always new scams and tricks.

Protecting your valuables

What do you carry that would give you the most hassle if you were to lose them? For most travelers these are their Passport, Money (either in cash or credit/debit cards) and their air ticket home, if they have one, and these are the things which you must do the most to protect. You should keep them in a money belt under your clothes, if the thieves can’t see them, they can’t steal them and NEVER in a bag which you are carrying. I have met several people who put their valuables in a bag which they then left on a rack on a night bus, and were surprised when it was stolen. Of course, thieves know about money belts but they are very difficult to steal without direct confrontation. Have a cheap wallet to carry only the money that you need that day and avoid opening your money belt during the day, particularly on the street, do it in a toilet. Never put you wallet in your back pocket. There are now lots of clothes aimed at travelers that have zipper pockets, and although they aren’t completely secure are better than just carrying a purse or wallet loose. A variation on the money belt is the leg wallet which you carry on your leg, which you can buy in travel shops. Another way to conceal your cash is using tubagrip, an elasticated bandage, which you wrap around your leg with you valuables (inside a plastic bag) inside. This is not that comfortable and I only use in very dangerous cities or on night buses. It is however, very secure, I have been frisked at Airports and my stuff has not been found. Buy the largest size of tubagrip and experiment.

Instead of carrying your valuables around it is usually safer to put them in a hotel safe, if they have one. Assess if you feel comfortable about doing this, if they put them in a draw in reception and the person on the desk is often away, you may be better off carrying them. Theft by hotel staff is also a possibility; usually just a few notes are taken which is not so obvious. Some hotels seal your valuables with tape and have you sign across the seals to prevent this happening and you could insist on this. In particularly dangerous cities, like Mexico City or Rio de Janeiro, it is always better to leave valuables in the hotel safe. Never leave them in a hotel room not even for the shortest time. I met one traveler (in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania) who left her room for fifteen minutes to have breakfast. In that time her room had been turned over (probably by the staff) and her valuables and gadgets taken.

Everyone now seems to carry a couple of gadgets, ipods, cameras, phones and even laptops; these are all highly prized by thieves - everywhere. If you are traveling for a long time you may want to consider trading down some of your toys, like buying a cheap phone just for your trip. Is photography important for you, or could you make do with a compact camera? Again only use them when you have to, if they can’t see them etc. Flashy jewelry will get you noticed everywhere. I traveled on a truck through Africa with a man who wore a $5000 Swiss watch on his wrist; in those kinds of places I make do with a $20 digital. Some insurers, like World Nomads offer cover for gadgets.

Protecting your bags

Like most budget travelers I carry a rucksack and it is worth considering security when you go to buy yours. Try and get one with an internal frame, where the bag is riveted to the metal frame inside the pack. You can then get a flexible metal cable (sold at bike shops) and a padlock and secure you bag to immovable objects. This is particularly useful when you are traveling on buses and trains as you can padlock your pack to the luggage rack or bus hold. I’ve been on a bus (in India) where people have arrived and their bags did not, thrown off the roof somewhere along the way. It is also good if you are staying in dorms where you can padlock the pack to the bed, even if the thieves get your clothes at least they won’t be able to carry them off in your rucksack. Another scam this prevents (from Lima, Peru) is a thief getting into a hostel and throwing the packs out of the window to an accomplice in the street.

On my most recent trip I have been using a Pacsafe, which is a steel wire mesh which you wrap around you pack and secure with a padlock. This can also then be attached to things. The wire mesh stops your bag being slashed open when you can’t see it, like in the hold of a bus. I also put my gadgets in my pack when I leave them in my room which is wrapped in the Pacsafe and then padlocked to the bed. The disadvantages of Pacsafe are that its quite fiddlerly to put on and it weighs around 1kg. They are also quite expensive at around $100 each. Even a rucksack cover will stop little fingers opening zips when you are standing around.

It is important to bear in mind that all physical defenses will be defeated, given enough time and the right tools and knowledge but padlocks and wire will deter the opportunist thief; you don’t see many people wandering around with saws and wire cutters. The harder it is for them, the less likely you are to lose your bag. Try and buy good quality locks, cheap combination locks particularly, often go wrong and you may end up having to saw them off yourself (as I had to recently). It is useful to carry a padlock or even two of different sizes, to lock up lockers in hostels or even hotel room doors, sometimes a padlock is the only lock on a room and it would be safer to use your own. Keep the spare keys in your money belt or with your partner if you are traveling with someone else.

Always be careful who you give your rucksack too. One traveler I met (in Ecuador) had given her bag to a man in a hotel lobby, thinking he worked at the hotel. She then started walking up the stairs to her room, just in time to see him run out of the door with her pack. Never give your bag to anyone in a rail or bus station unless you are certain they are legitimate. I don’t even allow taxi drivers to touch my pack.

Another simple precaution against bag snatchers, especially for day packs is to use some paracord to attach them to things. You can buy cord and carabineers in most outdoor stores. Use them to clip your bags to a table or chairs, then if some tries to run off with it they either can’t move it or they take some extra furniture with them. On night buses I clip my day pack using paracord to my belt, making it difficult for people to move it without me knowing.

Daypacks are vulnerable to being pulled off your shoulder if you only have one strap on, either wear them on the front of your body or wear it with both straps on (and the belt if it has one). You can buy small padlocks to lock the zips together, which will deter the opportunistic thief.

Safety when traveling

Railway and bus stations, and increasingly Airports are particular hangouts for thieves. This is a universal truth, no matter how developed the country, they attract the lowlifes; I was almost robbed standing in a queue in the Frankfurt Central Station. These are always places where you need to keep a close eye on your processions and try and be alert. These are also places where you will get the most hassle, from touts and taxi drivers, stand your ground and take your time. Avoid arriving at them at night. In many countries (like Mexico) there is a system of checking bags into the hold of the bus, and you are given a ticket to present when you reach your destination. Bags checked in this way are usually secure, it’s usual to tip the bag checkers.

One way to avoid a lot of problems is to not travel at night. There is a risk of theft but a far bigger risk is having an accident. Traveling on a bus in a third world country is probably the most dangerous thing you will ever do, crashes with fatalities are not unusual and are much more common at night. Of course your stuff is at more risk as you are likely to be half asleep and it’s difficult to see what’s going on when the bus stops. Unfortunately, in many countries you have little choice as long distance buses only go at night. Trains are much safer, as are planes.

Although flying may be a smarter way to travel, this does not mean that there aren’t opportunistic thieves wandering around Airports. Always keep a close eye on your bags. Many airports offer plastic wrapping for bags and it is worth the couple of dollars to have this done, as rucksacks are particularly vulnerable to theft by luggage handlers, and this should deter most of them. It is not foolproof though, I wrapped my pack to fly to Johannesburg Airport (which is notorious for theft) and left a carabineer on the strap. When I picked the bag up, someone had made a hole in the plastic and stolen the carabineer, worth about $4!

City metros and subways carry their own risks, there are lots of crowds and pickpockets are active. One of the few times I was robbed was on the metro in Mexico City (which has bad reputation for crime) where a gang of men charged into my back when the doors were closing and went through my pockets. They managed to take my guidebook and were very intimidating so I got off at the next stop. Don’t expect other passengers to get involved. Although pickpockets are everywhere, bag slashing is not as common and I have only ever seen one example on the MTR in Hong Kong. Metros which are safe by day can be very dangerous at night, even in relativity safe cities, at night it’s usually safer to take a taxi.

Taxis are usually recognizable the world over, they are black or yellow or have a big sign on top, and most taxi drivers are friendly and hardworking people. However there is problem in some countries with people getting into taxis which are not driven by legitimate taxi drivers but by thieves. It is too easy to stick a ‘Taxi’ sign in the window of a car and pick up some tourists and then rob them. Some towns have a particular reputation for this, Cochabamba in Bolivia for one. In Cusco in Peru, official taxis have a large black and yellow checkerboard design painted on their doors, as illegal taxis were a particular problem there. Find out the plates or registration stickers legitimate taxis should have displayed in the place in the country/town you are in; and don’t get in a car that doesn’t have them.

People are more likely to get in an unofficial taxi late at night, when they are tired or pissed and what to get home. Not surprisingly, this is when most of the robberies happen. Apart from just sticking a knife or gun in your face and asking for your cash, victims are often taken to an ATM and ordered to take out money. This often happens around midnight as the robbers can then take you to another ATM and get you to take out the next day’s daily limit. In countries where this type of crime is a problem, like Brazil, ATM’s only dispense small amounts during night hours.

Usually illegal taxis pick up the drivers ‘friend’ who robs you while the driver drives. In many countries legitimate collective and shared taxis are common. Find out the local protocol, or insist you want the taxi to yourself. If it’s not usual to share a taxi and someone else gets in, try and get out of it as soon as you can.

Some legitimate taxi drivers are not above some theft (apart from the fares) like driving off with your rucksack. If you are traveling alone, try and put your bag in the back seat of the taxi and sit next to it, avoid putting it in the boot (trunk). If there are two of you, use the following drill. When you hail a taxi wait for the driver to get out and come to the back of the car to open the boot. One person then gets in the car while the other puts the bags in. Wait for the driver to close the boot and walk back to the front of the car, then the second person gets in. When you get to your destination, wait for the driver to get out of the car and walk to the back. One person then gets out and starts taking the bags out; the second person then gets out. Never hand over any cash (find out the fare and get the money ready while you are in the car) until you and your bags are out of the taxi.

Protecting yourself – staying safe on the Street

Most people traveling are on holiday, they are relaxed usually not thinking about looking out for danger on the street. Again most places in the world are safe and walking down the street or sitting in a café will present no danger at all but there are places where they do and where you should be on your guard. Some countries and cities (Barcelona springs to mind) are well known for street crime, and in these places you should be on your guard.

If you travel long enough you should build up a street sense - you will spot the group of youths on the street corner who may spell trouble, and learn to avoid problems. As ever the risks of being robbed on the street go up at night and in some places it’s always safer to take a cab. If you can’t find a ride and have to walk in a town late at night, don’t draw attention to yourself. Don’t talk or use a torch (flashlight) unless you have to. If there is no traffic, walk down the middle of the road to avoid anyone hiding in shadows. Don’t forget to look behind you.

Walking around in any city, you should try and be aware of your surroundings and the people around you. Try and look confident and alert and walk with purpose. In some places it helps not to look like a tourist, although this can be difficult (like in Africa if you are white) and to carry a big camera or a guide book. I usually wear shoes or boots when walking around cities as against sandals or flip flops. That way I can run from or after people. If you wear flip flops and a mugger stamps on your foot and grabs your bag there is not much you are going to do about it.

One method to get at your wallet that seems to be universal is the bird shit trick. This is where one guy sprays mustard (or some other nasty substance) on you; his accomplices then surround you and ‘help’ you to brush it off. As they do so they go through your pockets then run off. It’s never happened to me but apparently it’s done very quickly. If you feel something land on you (and it may be real bird shit) put your hand on your wallet or bag and get away from any ‘helpers’ as fast as you can.

Another common scam is the bogus policeman. A man approaches you in the street and pulls out what looks like Police ID; he then says he wants to search you. He then either finds your wallet or moneybelt and helps himself or he plants drugs on you. A variation is the bogus policeman tells you to get into a car, he needs to take you to the policestation. You are then taken somewhere remote and robbed, although I have heard of the thieves (in Ecuador) creating a bogus policestation, so as to hold their victims longer and extract information like PIN numbers. If you are stopped by someone claiming to be a plainclothes policeman start looking around for a policeman in uniform and insist on finding one. Start shouting if you have to, this should usually get rid of the bogus ones. Whatever you do don’t get into a car.

When arriving in a town, ask at your hotel which areas are safe to walk in, particularly at night. If the locals say don’t go there - don’t go there. For example, the safe area of a tourist town like Cusco is a couple of blocks in the centre; away from there the streets quickly become dark and dangerous. Even in the most crime ridden cities most of the problems are in areas where tourists have no reason to go, and the violence is between the locals, usually gangs. If you want to see these areas (like South African townships) go on a tour.

If you are going for a night out on the sauce, try and go with someone else or better still in a group. It would help if one of the group stays reasonably sober to sort out transport or problems later on, a sort of designated minder. If you walk home late even in a group, try not to draw attention to yourselves like yelling or singing. Walking alone, pissed and late at night is a recipe for disaster just about anywhere on earth.

Some cities have reputations for crime that go before them; think of San Paulo (Brazil), Johannesburg (South Africa) or Manila (Philippines). Consider if you need to stay in these cities and if not don’t go, there are often towns close by which are safer and if you want to see a particular sight, either visit on a day trip or take a tour.

Don’t underestimate the risk of street crime in countries that are usually regarded as safe. The only time I’ve seen someone robbed in broad daylight (in a park on a Sunday afternoon) was in Boston USA. The only time I’ve ever seen a policeman go for his gun was on a Saturday morning in downtown Vancouver, which is quite a risky place anyway.

No matter how careful you are there may time when you are confronted by some robbers wheedling guns or knives. Unless you think you can make a run for it there is not much you can do, apart from do what they say, despite how unpleasant that may be. Handing over some cash should be enough in most cases, don’t give them an opportunity to rough you up or search you. Muggers also want quick results and no trouble, its best just to get the whole thing over quickly and learn from your mistake. Don’t underestimate the threat a knife poses, you are just as likely to receive a lethal wound from a knife as a gun.

ATMs (Autoteller machines or ‘Hole in the Wall’ ) have become the easiest way for travelers to get at their cash when they are abroad. In most countries using them is straightforward and poses little risk. They are very tempting for thieves, as they can not only steal the cash you have taken out but with a little effort steal what you have in your account as well, so some care needs to be taken.

I usually try and check out a couple of ATM’s when I arrive in a town, firstly to check they take my card and for security. Always use them in daylight hours. I always try and find one that is inside a bank, and if it has a guard all the better. Also then, if the machine ‘eats’ your card you can get it back. Second best is a machine in a lobby and the worst option is one directly on the street. Always have your card in your pocket ready, don’t go digging around in your money belt. Check the card slot for anything unusual, pieces of tape or plastic or an appendage that shouldn’t be there. Stand in front of the machine to stop anyone seeing your PIN number. If there are two of you one should look out into the bank or lobby to see if anyone is taking an undue interest in what you are doing. Travelers are often robbed the same day they have been to an ATM. In some countries (like South Africa) where PIN theft is a problem, screens have been put in front of the machines to stop people seeing your PIN. If anyone approaches you and offers to ‘help’, walk away. If I’m in a bank I put the cash away in my money belt, if in the street I put it in my pocket with my hand over it and walk quickly back to my hotel and sort things out there. If you are staying in a town for some time, vary the times of day you get out money or use different machines.

Never hand your card over to anyone in a foreign bank; they should normally have no reason to see it. One scam I heard of (in Ecuador) is a smartly dressed man looking like a bank official, comes up and says there is a problem with your card. He carries a hand held card reader and swipes your card though it, this captures all the data on it including your PIN. He gives it back and later makes a copy of your card and empties your account.

Never give anyone your PIN number. This may seem very obvious, but I did meet one traveler who used to give her card and PIN to her friends to save herself the trouble of going to the cashpoint. She got cured of this habit when a ‘friend’ of one of her friends completely cleaned out her account, having ‘borrowed’ her card while they were all at a party. This was in the USA.

Cons have been around since the dawn of time. They come in and out of fashion and many are particular to certain countries. Usually a well spoken man or woman spins a hard luck story about how if you give them some money then can then find or free up something and you stand to make a fortune, all it needs is some of your cash. Most people’s inboxs receive these kinds of messages; when you travel you get them delivered in person. There are always enough greedy and stupid people around to make these cons worthwhile. If it sounds too good to be true, it is.

One con that has been around ever since I have been traveling (it’s probably of ancient lineage) is the Gemstone/Ruby scam, and is fairly common in Thailand and South America. A man tells you that due to family problems he needs some money fast so he is forced to sell his collection of gemstones (usually Rubies). If you buy them, when you get home you can sell them at a much higher price, and make a big profit for your trouble. There are various variations on this theme. This con can be quite elaborate, you can be taken to a (bogus) Jeweler to have the gems value verified, and grand certificates can be produced. You hand over the cash and when you get them home you find out they’re glass, or in one case I heard, red plastic from the stop light on a car polished up. It’s amazing that people are still falling for this old chestnut.

Hotels and Hostels.

I have not had anything stolen from a hotel room as far as I can remember and in most cases hotels and hostels are owned by honest people who don’t want trouble. In some parts of the world where crime is a problem, many of them employ guards and bars on the window come as standard. Hostels particularly, are careful about who they allow in off the street. Although there is the risk of theft from staff, and you should not tempt them by leaving valuables around, most theft is by walk in thieves. Note the precautions above concerning locking your rucksacks up and carrying your valuables in your money belt. Try and assess how safe a place is when you check in, that’s also the time to find out how you would get out of the place if it caught fire. In some countries fire regulations and precautions are non existent and some countries (like the Philippines) have a reputation for hotel fires.

Usually the less secure places like beach huts are the most vulnerable to theft, particularly if the thieves know that everyone is at a party. Generally I always carry my room key with me, the staff will nearly always have a duplicate but it prevents the walk in thief from helping themselves if the reception is unattended.

One trick I heard of (in Colombia) is thieves using poles with hooks to lift valuables out of hotel room windows, which they do even when people are asleep in the room. Keep your gadgets in your pack; I always sleep with my money belt under my pillow.

The higher class hotels are not immune to theft; the pickings are usually better there with most business travelers carrying a laptop and phone. Once I was staying at a conference hotel in a leafy suburb (in the UK) and a thief got in via an open window and stole the MD’s suits. He had to go to dinner in his track suit!

Staying in dorms implies an element of trust between travelers and usually you should have no problems. The era of the traveler who seemed to exist on practically nothing and knew the price of everything seems to have passed. They had often been on the road for years and were the sort of people that you had to watch out for. Although they are not so obvious, there are still travelers who supplement their funds by stealing off others. Never tell other travelers how much money you have or where you keep your valuables, or allow them to keep hold of them, unless you are absolutely certain you can trust them. In hostels it’s usually safer to allow the hostel to look after your valuables or use a locker and your own padlock.

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I recently heard a cautionary tale from a friend just returned from South American. She had met a traveller who was on his way home after being robbed of everything. He had been travelling for a couple of weeks with another traveller, an Australian, and they had become good friends. One day the traveller went back to the room they were sharing to find all his stuff had gone. On the bedside table was a note from the Australian saying that he had run out money and had sold all his companions kit in order to pay to get home. The only thing left behind was the traveller’s passport and air ticket. Choose your friends carefully and keep your core valuables (passport, credit cards, tickets) on you at all time.

The Nature of risk

If you have read everything above you are probably thinking that traveling abroad is very dangerous and if you haven’t traveled before you may be reconsidering your trip. In the West we have been conditioned by the media to think that crime is everywhere, yet in Europe, Australia and most of North America you would be unlucky to be a victim of a crime, particularly a violent one. Most of the crime in developing countries occurs in areas where most travelers never go, and although in some places tourists are targeted, the locals are much more likely to be victims. If you use your common sense there is no reason why you shouldn’t have a trouble free trip. I have just traveled in South America for nine months with no problems, nor did I personally meet anyone who had been robbed. Considering the numbers of travelers there are scattered across the world the odds of you having any trouble are very low, just use your common sense, heed the precautions above and have a great time.

For up to date information on the risk of traveling in different countries, look at travel bulletin boards like Lonely Planets Thorn Tree, or the scams and robberies section of World Nomads Journals. The British Foreign Office and the US State Department’s advice to travelers are full of useful information on areas that are risky and they often know about the latest cons in circulation.

Tags: travel tips



If you think hotel safes are safe, just watch this:


  traveller Apr 12, 2007 8:30 PM


Good advice, One can never cover all the angles. Just in last month my GF in Phillipines went to Western Union to collect money that I had sent. These places are money mines. She exited and was held up at knife point by 2 persons on Motor bike. Last night I sent her money again....She asked her "friend" to look after her baby while she went to the WU. She came back, took a shower, came out of shower, "friend" and all her money gone. Alibaba works all hours and comes in many disguises.

  Tim C Sep 11, 2009 11:06 PM


very good tips, cheers!

  traveler Jun 1, 2010 10:52 PM



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