Make your travel safe, essential tips

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This article provides some recommendations how to stay safe while travelling. These tips are useful regardless of the destination, but especially when travelling to those countries where security risks are the most.

Walking and public transport

When walking, avoid carrying any valuables. If you have to, keep them in inner pockets or elsewhere outside normal pickpocket’s reach. Take no bags unless really needed, even if there is nothing inside, it will make you more attractive target. Walking should be avoided on quiet streets as well as ones that are very crowded. Walk reasonably fast, know where you are going to, show vigilance by looking constantly around. Every guidebook will strictly discourage walking during night. Neither do I recommend it, even though walking short distances like from hotel to a nearby restaurant would often be safe enough.

Personally, I usually feel safe walking around cities like Nairobi and Johannesburg, apart from some shady areas. Instead, it is the traffic, especially need to cross busy roads, that makes walking much less comfortable.

Bus terminals can be particularly crowded and chaotic, that’s where maximum vigilance should be used. If leaving luggage to the compartment, accept the fact you may never see your bag again! When in the bus, it is most likely more than full – take care of your belongings!

Taxi

Taxi is generally a safe mode of transport, but there may be also be bad guys doing the business. Unfortunately western tourists are their prime targets, especially those travelling to/from airport, when travellers have all their belongings and valuables with them – losing everything is not the best way to start a holiday.

Always take the most “official” looking taxi, as tempting is it to go with the cheapest driver. Once on the road keep doors locked to avoid anyone entering the vehicle from outside.

Use GPS-enabled phone and follow the route (certain applications allow preloaded offline maps). if the driver takes unexpected deviations, ask him why. Usually this is just to beat traffic jams, but if he has bad motives then he will probably give them up upon learning you know where you are.

If having any doubts of the credibility of the taxi, I may take note of the register number, taxi number, driver name, car model, and even secretly take pictures of the car and/or driver. if possible these should be sent over internet. This may sound silly, but if something serious happens, then this information may prove valuable.

Be courteous to any people approaching you, but know they probably want something from you. They may be pushy and difficult to get rid off, but are usually otherwise harmless. Don’t get fooled by their stories.     

Money & valuables

A few photocopies of important documents like passports should be taken kept in separate places. They can also be scanned and stored online.

Keeping large amounts of cash is not recommended, but in practice it can’t be avoided. Credit cards are not nearly always accepted (or safe to use).  When drafting money from ATM:s, the most cost-effective way is usually to get as much cash at once as possible, leading to large amounts of cash being carried. Many hotels and tour operators expect to be paid in US dollars, thus the need to take a thick pile of USD notes. Getting US dollars while travelling can be difficult.

For every trip, I take two credit cards with me, keeping those always separate, eg, carrying one and keeping the other one in hotel. Moreover, there is a third card left home, but keep its details so it can be used for online payments even while travelling. 

Mobile phone

There are three essential security features that should be enabled. These are SIM card PIN, device lock code and encryption of storage. If all of them are in use, then a thief will find the device useless and he/she should not be able to fetch any data from the device

Ideally one should use non-fancy phone that is less likely to be stolen, however smartphones are very useful for travelling purposes. I have a mid range smart phone, useful enough but not too flashy. Dual SIM phones a very handy while since then I can keep both local and home SIM card in the same phone.

Sometimes losing mobile phone itself is not such bad thing, but losing a SIM card will be a personal disaster if one needs to be reachable by phone. Getting replacement SIM while travelling will be next to impossible.

With home SIM, mobile data should be turned off during the entire journey, even better if you can turn of data usage completely while roaming, ask your operator to turn it off. Assuming you have a postpaid scheme, set a cap to avoid excessive phone bills.

Camera

Everyone wants to take wonderful pictures of their trip. The best way of getting them, apart from being a good photographer, is to have a good camera, such as DSLR. But these are expensive and bulky, so are they worth to carry during your trip. Those carrying expensive cameras are the stereotype theft targets,

I use to pocket cameras, not the cheapest ones but still affordable. These are easy to carry yet providing nice pictures. Some people use their phones only to take pictures, that’s the option for ultra-light travellers. The quality of smartphone cameras has improved in recent years, but there are still many limitations, not least lack of zoom.

Not backing up travel photos is absolute madness, even if it may prove tricky. Without a laptop an alternative option is to go to the nearest internet cafe and back up photos online and/or portable memory. Some hotels also provide computers for customers use, but not nearly all. Remember that memory card readers and transfer cables are easy to lose, so consider taking spare ones too!

Transferring photos to tablets or smartphones may sometimes be possible by physical or wireless methods, but this should be only interim methods before storing the photos elsewhere, preferably online. A few wi-fi enables camera models may support direct online backup, this feature will hopefully become more common in the future.

If no other backup methods available, take multiple memory cards and swap them regularly, this may require taking the “same” picture twice, just changing memory cards in between.

Laptop

Laptops should be always kept in safe place. Avoid separate laptop bags, since they may generate unwanted attention. If working with the laptop, any new data should be backed up immediately to an external hard drive, but also to the cloud if possible. Storage encryption is essential with laptops, especially if the device contains business- or otherwise sensitive data.

Hotel

Items left at the hotel are never perfectly secure, but it makes sense to assess where they will be most safe to be kept. Lockers that can be locked with own padlock are better than ones where hotel provides the lock, as you never know who holds spare keys. Digital lockers are increasingly common, but beware hotel staff may have master codes to open them. Leaving valuables at reception is often thought most safe, but if leaving seal your valuables in envelopes and check where they keep the items. Sometimes they will just put them on a shelve on the room behind reception.

Conclusion

There are always risks that should be taken into account, and it is good to have a plan what to do when things go bad (important items lost, someone gets injured, …). Most travellers stay safe using common sense and being aware of their surroundings. But being overly careful can only spoil you holiday, these is no point travelling if not enjoying the trip. 

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