There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that I am a fearless solo female traveler. The bad news is that I am a fearless female traveler. I used to be fearless to the point of taking foolish risks, until a few years ago, when I was camping on the island of Kauai – my tent was slashed while I slept in it and all my stuff was stolen. Fortunately, I was not harmed, but it was traumatic – this occurred about a year after 911 and it was nearly impossible to get a hotel room without any ID, credit cards, or money, not to mention that I lost my camera, keys to the rental car, glasses (without which I could not read a menu or drive), cell phone, passport, etc. The experience taught me a lot of lessons, the most notable of which was to never ignore my inner voice. I KNEW I shouldn’t have been in that campground but I ignored what my gut was telling me because I wanted to “wake up to the sound of the waves.”
Following that disastrous vacation, it took a monumental effort to let go of my fear of traveling solo. Before leaving for my next vacation I made exhaustive preparations, created lists after list and layers of travel safety precautions. It took about a year, but the fear subsided and I am back to being a fearless traveler, albeit a much wiser one, and I decided it was worth sharing my hard-won wisdom in the following list of travel safety tips and precautions I take when traveling:
- Carry no more than two. Visa or MasterCard are best – fewer places accept American Express and I rarely see Discover outside the U.S.
- Get the collect phone numbers to call in the event your card is lost and stolen
- Notify your credit card companies that you will be traveling overseas. Tell them which countries you intend to visit and how long you will be traveling. This will help them protect you in the event of fraud, and if you don’t notify them they could put a hold on your account soon after you start making charges all over the world.
- Keep in mind that you will incur a foreign transaction fee or all overseas purchases made with your credit card (mine charges 3%), there fore it may be better to pay for your purchases with cash from ATM withdrawals (see below)
- Have two separate checking accounts: one a money market that earns interest and the second an ‘operating’ account.
- Sign up for online banking so you can access your accounts from an Internet cafe anywhere in the world, but DO NOT enable online bill paying (if someone steals your login and password and finds out what bank you use they can access your funds). Instead, make arrangements with all your vendors (mortgage, utilities, etc.) to automatically draft from your account each month, or pay online though the vendor’s website, rather than using web banking.
- Keep the bulk of your money in the money market and transfer funds from the money market to the operating account online whenever the operating account balance gets too low.
- Get two separate ATM cards for your operating account (not duplicate cards – make sure they have different numbers). That way, if one is lost or stolen, you have a backup. These ATM cards should be linked ONLY to your operating account (no ATM card for the money market). If the worst happens and someone steals your card and gets your pin number, the damage won’t be too great because the bulk of your funds are in the money market, which is not linked to either of your ATM cards. Make sure these ATM cards carry the Visa or MasterCard logo so they can be used just like a credit card but actually operate as debit cards that deduct purchases directly from your operating account.
- Keep these cards in two different places when you travel – carry one and lock one up in the hotel safe or in your locked baggage.
- Carry limited cash when you leave – $1000 at the most but $500 is better – and get cash with your ATM card as you travel. Forget travelers checks – they are not widely accepted and are impossible to keep track of in the event they are stolen, etc. These days, smart travelers use ATM cards because there are ATM machines available virtually everywhere – even places like Tibet and remote areas of Africa. Getting a Visa/MasterCard ATM card ensures it will work in almost any ATM machine around the world. The other benefit to operating this way is that the moment you hit a foreign airport you get cash in the local currency that it is just deducted from your checking account like any other withdrawal and you save the expensive fees at currency exchange services.
- Be aware that you will be charged a bank fee whenever you make purchases with your debit card overseas (usually 1-3% of your total purchase amount), however you will likely not incur a fee for at least the first two cash withdrawals each month. Therefore, it is better to withdraw larger amounts of cash and pay cash for your purchases wherever possible.
- The only time you should use your ATM card as a debit card (where you will be required to enter your PIN number), is when you withdraw cash at an ATM machine. As long as your debit card carries a Visa or MasterCard logo, it can be run through as a credit card that requires your signature. This way, you are not entering our PIN number in public places where people can see it.
- Test both ATM cards before you leave town
- Arrange with your personal banker to be able to do phone/wire transfers in the event of an emergency
- Notify your bank about your trip and your probable itinerary (what countries you plan to visit)
Create a folder named ‘Travel’ on your webmail account and do the following:
- Scan important documents (driver’s license, passport, ID card, credit cards, ATM cards, airline tickets, hotel confirmations, travel insurance policy, eyeglass prescription, etc.) and email them to yourself, storing them in the ‘travel’ folder. This way, if anything goes wrong, you will be able to access a copy of your important documents from any computer, as long as it is connected to the Internet.
- Send an email to yourself that contains the collect phone numbers for your credit card companies & the procedures for getting replacement cards in the event of theft and store this email in your ‘travel’ folder
- Scan the original receipts for any expensive equipment you are carrying and email them to yourself, storing the email in your ‘travel’ folder (you will need these if your luggage is stolen and you need to request reimbursement)
- Email yourself all your credit card and bank account numbers along with contact info for the various entities (include routing numbers & swift codes for the banks), then store that email in your ‘travel’ folder
- If you are going to carry a laptop, download a free telephone program called Skype and get yourself a cheap headset with a mic (or use a Mac, with a built-in camera and mic). Ask your family and anyone else you want to keep in touch with to download Skype on their computers so that you can set up a time to call and talk over the Internet for free, as there is never a charge for Skype-to-Skype calls. For those who don’t have computers, you can set up an account with Skype and buy some SkypeOut credit. Then you can use this credit to make inexpensive international calls to land lines or mobile phones. Over three months, I spent less than $20 in phone calls and I called all over the world to make reservations, etc. In most cases I paid about two cents per minute.
- If you are not carrying a laptop, take along a headset anyway, as many computers in Internet cafes now make Skype available.
- If you will carry a cell phone, contact your carrier prior to leaving and request an ‘unlock code’ for your phone. Once unlocked, you can simply purchase a SIM Card for whatever country you are visiting and make inexpensive local calls rather than paying pricey international rates through your carrier.
- In many countries, hotels are legally required to fill out a form with your passport information and give it to the police. When you check in, they will ask to see your passport. In some cases they may want to hold onto it until they can make a copy, and although I always try to get it back before I leave the front desk, this is not always possible. In the event they need to keep it, I arrange to pick it up from them in an hour.
- Each time you check into a hotel in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, pick up a few copies of the hotel’s business card printed in the local language. That way, after a day of sightseeing, you can simply hand the business card to a taxi driver and be assured that you will be able to find your way back to your hotel or hostel
- Always check to make sure that the windows and sliding doors in your room are locked from the inside. Do this each day when you return to the room.
- Do not leave valuables lying around in your room. Either lock them in your luggage, put them in a room safe, or avail yourself of the safe at the front desk.
- Consider making your reservations using your first and middle initials, along with your first name, rather than your entire first name, which could be a clear indication that you are a woman traveling alone
- Buy a small padlock that operates with a key and take it with you – you will need it in places that have security lockers because they expect you to provide your own lock.
Other considerations (especially for long term travel):
- Make copies of your passport, driver’s license, and airline tickets and carry them separately from the originals
- Look into Travel insurance. Frankly, I decided that medical facilities were pretty good where I was going, and cheap, so I didn’t buy medical insurance for overseas. I also chose not to buy trip interruption insurance, which would cover things like having to return in the event of a family death, because I discovered there are so many loopholes in these policies. I also did not buy theft insurance because I found coverage for electronics was limited and these were the items I was most interested in insuring. I did, however, buy a year’s medical evacuation policy from MedJet Assist. This provides for an aircraft with a medical team and equipment to fly in to pick me up anywhere in the world and transport me to a hospital of my choosing, should I be severely injured. Medical evacuation can cost upward of $25,000 and it comes out of your pocket, so I thought the policy was well worth it.
- Never carry or wear expensive jewelry when you travel – it screams, ‘rob me’ to thugs.
- Always dress conservatively – shorts, skimpy tops, and the like send a message in many foreign lands that invite unwanted attentions from men
- When traveling on trains and buses, keep your hand luggage with you at all times. Don’t slide it under the seat; instead, put your leg through the strap while it is sitting on the floor next to you. On some trains (India, for instance) you will have all your luggage with you (no baggage cars) and you can hardly haul all your luggage up and down the train each time you go to the bathroom or go to eat, so bring along a wire cable to secure it to the luggage rack with a padlock.
- Email your travel itinerary, as far as it is complete, to someone you trust, so that someone always knows where you are. As you fill in gaps in your travel itinerary, always email that same person the new details.
- If you are traveling with other people always discuss where you are going for the day and familiarize yourself with what the others are wearing so it is easier to keep track of them in a crowd. In the event you do get separated, have a pre-arranged meeting place and time so you can reconnect
- If possible, get a backpack that has a pocket on the backside, underneath the straps, and carry your wallet in this pocket rather than the front zippered pocket. Get small combination locks and use them on your backpack when you are in crowds and on your luggage when you leave it in the hotel rooms/dorms.
- If local people ask if you are traveling alone, consider telling them that you are with a group but you have opted for a different activity than the rest of the group for the day
- Carry only the cash necessary for the day, leaving the rest locked up in your room or hotel safe
- Never carry all your cash in one place – spread it around. Many people like to wear a money belt under their clothes, however I find them to be uncomfortable. Instead, I have a selection of clothes that I use specifically for traveling – khaki pants and such – into which I have secret inside pockets sewn. I also never carry more than one credit/debit card with me at a time, so that I have a backup in the event of a robbery or pickpocket.
- In most countries, it is not mandatory to carry your passport with you at all times; a copy will suffice. Scan your passport photo ID page and visa page (if applicable) prior to traveling and print out several full color copies. Always carry a copy of your passport with you at all times when traveling internationally.
Once you decide where you are going, there’s a wealth of information on the Lonely Planet website – go to the country you are interested in visiting and click on the Thorn Tree forum link on the left-hand menu. Here you will learn about touts, scams, and things in general to look out for. Don’t let this stuff scare you. Chances are, you’ll never be exposed to it but forewarned is forearmed. But the best travel safety advice of all is never ignore that nagging little voice in the back of your mind. If you think that something is not quite right you are probably correct; if you are uncomfortable there is probably a good reason you feel this way. By planning ahead and staying alert to your surroundings when you do hit the road, you can feel assured that you have made every possible provision for safe travel.
If you found this article on travel safety helpful, you may wish to read about how I left a corporate lifestyle I detested and began traveling around the world.