Every time I’m headed off to a new destination overseas, I get a ton of questions from people, “Is it safe?”, “Aren’t you worried about terrorism?”, “Where do you find safe travel tips?” You won’t see me, willingly, traveling to Afghanistan anytime soon, and despite incidents which have appeared to target tourist areas of major European cities, my sense of wanderlust will not be stifled.
My husband was an FBI Agent for 26 years and his experiences, which took him to truly dangerous destinations, has helped shape how we travel using some safe travel tips. Also, living in Italy in the age of gypsies and pickpockets taught me a lot. For the record, yes, I was pickpocketed, but unsuccessfully I might add. My expensive Milanese manicure came in handy because I chose to use my long nails to dig them deep into the gypsy’s arm, like an eagle’s talons, as I caught her arm in my purse – all while holding my two young children with the other hand.
So I recently asked my recently retired FBI Agent husband for some really simple, common sense safe travel tips to share, especially in light of some of the recent news stories. These may seem too pedestrian and too simplex, but believe me, I’ve had friends fall victim to crime for NOT following these common sense rules.
1. Put the phone away. I recently read a story of a college town where students are being robbed by the dozens late at night walking home from the bars. And in virtually every case, it was because the victim was busy texting, looking down, not aware of his/her surroundings. This same practice is what makes travelers so vulnerable to crimes – whether they’re personal crimes or location-based crimes. Whether you’re standing to board a train, waiting in line to purchase a train ticket, or waiting at the airport between flights, put the phone away and pay attention to what’s going on around you, especially in crowded locations. Being present and able to make a split second reaction could save your life.
2. Don’t be too friendly. My husband has warned my kids of this for years. If someone you don’t know approached you on the street to make chitchat, there’s a good chance they’re trying to divert your attention, scam you, or size you up. This happens even in the best of places, but quite often in tourist destinations. When we lived in Italy, a friend who was visiting was approached by a woman who appeared in distress and lost and as my friend pulled out a map to help her, an accomplice was taking her video camera out of the bag she set down to open the map. It’s okay to be cordial, but be aware that in many destinations, criminals prey on tourists with a single goal of distracting you. If I’m the least bit suspicious, I say, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you.” and quickly put distance between us.
3. Have a meeting place. One of my biggest fears when traveling is that one of my kids or a traveling companion will not get through the train doors before they close and we’ll be separated. Despite my kids now being young adults, I still have this nightmare. Even in U.S. cities! So whenever you’re traveling with other individuals, even one, have a rendezvous point for each stop on your itinerary. Crowded museums, busy tourist-filled sidewalks and even stopping to use the restroom are opportunities to get separated from your friends or family. So always have a meeting place whether it’s a coffee shop next door to the attraction or your hotel lobby. We used to carry those old-fashioned walkie talkies (remember those?) so that we could split up while touring. Inevitably, the batteries in one device would die and we’d spend countless hours wandering around looking for the other person. Leave nothing to chance. Build in meeting places to your daily itinerary.
4. Leave it in your room. Despite what you read in the guidebooks, do not carry travel documents or your passport with you when walking around. I had not one, but two, friends visiting us in Italy lose their passport while sightseeing. Believe me, spending the remainder of your vacation at the Embassy is not how you want to end your trip. And in today’s world, getting a quick replacement passport is virtually impossible. What my husband does recommend, is that you make a copy of any important documents, such as your passport, and take that with you. Or snap a photo of it on your smart phone, just in case you need it for identification (although in 30 years of traveling abroad I’ve never been asked for my passport except when checking into hotels).
5. Stash cash. Yep, another one of those common sense tips that resonates with me. Primarily because it was one I did NOT follow and wreaked havoc on a trip. My 21-year-old son was backpacking through Thailand and lost his debit card the second day he arrived. With his 3am phone call home, I learned that 1) we forgot to set up his credit card to allow for ATM withdrawals and 2) my 24-hour/365 day bank had recently changed their hours, eliminating the 24-hour bit. He was checking into a hostel and needed to pay. Fortunately, he was able to borrow money from a friend for the night. So always keep an emergency amount of cash, say $100, well hidden, but accessible under any circumstance.Yes, those undershirt travel portfolios or travel belts are corny, but would you rather look silly or find yourself huffing it the 80 blocks back to your hotel because you lost your credit card? And back pockets are not a safe place! This is when bras tend to come in handy.
6. Don’t look like a tourist. White socks with sandals and a camera bag? Let’s hope not. There’s more to looking like a tourist than how you dress. It’s how you conduct yourself. Where’s the most popular place to read a map? Believe it or not, it’s standing on a street corner. If that doesn’t have “I’m a tourist!” written all over it. Hopefully, you’ve planned out your route in advance but in case you get lost or need to refer to your map, by all means, step inside a bar or coffee shop and get your bearings. The same goes with using the map app on your phone. Standing in the train station looking puzzledly at schedules also screams “I’m a great target!” If you do find yourself as a dazed and confused tourist, be discreet and refer back to the #1 tip here.
7. Be an FBI Agent. Yep, you too can be an FBI Agent. One of the funnest, most stressful, most educational things I’ve done was attend a required course at the FBI Academy prior to moving overseas as a diplomat family. We spent an entire day learning when we were being watched or surveilled. It’s a skill I still use to this day. So when you’re traveling in an unknown destination, put on your pretend FBI badge and conduct surveillance. When you or your traveling companion are at an ATM or ticket counters, don’t both bunch up and stand together at the counter. One person should stay back and perform “a safety surveillance” on the other, ensuring that no one is watching the transaction.