It’s important to recognize that personal safety doesn’t start (or end, for that matter) with a tiny can of pepper spray, and for many people, it’s either travel solo or stay at home.
Personal travel safety is all about being aware of your surroundings and putting some basic techniques into practice. After that, it’s about enjoying yourself and having a great trip.
To that end, we give you the most important safety tips for solo travelers.
1. Learn a little about the culture
While the rules for dressing appropriately vary widely from country to country, the most restrictive rules are still universally applied to women. For example, some cultures find it offensive, even a strong enticement, for a woman to wear a short skirt, shorts, or even a bathing suit although a few countries are strict about men’s shorts and bathing suits as well. Of course there are also dress codes for religious sites, such as St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, where visitors will be turned away for bare shoulders or legs no matter whether you are man or woman.
To prevent harassment, physical violence, even arrest, do a little research and dress for the culture you are visiting. Learn a few language basics – invaluable for meeting people and asking for assistance – and pay attention to forbidden gesture rules. For example, the well-known ‘OK’ finger sign has a very different meaning in Brazil and Germany and the classic ‘V’ sign could land you in a fight in Italy or England.
For more etiquette hints, see the reasons to learn foreign etiquette before your next trip.
2. Keep control of your belongings
When times are economically tough – and they stay that way in many parts of the world – travelers make easy targets for crime.
- Keep your daypacks and across-the-body purse straps on you, never hanging on the back of a chair or loose under the table.
- If you have to put your bag or backpack down, put it on the ground between your feet (stepping on through a strap is a great idea).
- Load your own bags onto a bus (in the hull or secured on top), train, or taxi or at least watch to see that your things are actually securely loaded before you board.
- Watch your belongings at crosswalks – a popular site for pickpockets – and when standing in line. Those behind you or to the side of you may have their hands in your pockets!
See our tips for avoiding pickpockets on your trip and techniques to keep your valuables safe while traveling for more details.
3. Choose your transportation carefully and stay awake
As you head out the doors of nearly any airport or train terminal, there are herds of people standing by to take you on the next leg of your journey. Many of them are legitimate but it’s important to do a little quick checking to be sure.
Once you’re in the taxi, bus, or other vehicle, don’t fall asleep on the ride. As tempting as it is to party all night and catch up on your rest on the trip, you could very well wake up with nothing left. If you have to catch some shut-eye, secure your belongings with cable locks and hope no one comes along with a cutting tool.
See our travel safety tips for public transportation for the details.
4. Distribute your valuable stuff
The more you spread out the valuable stuff – your cash, bank cards, electronics, and passport – the less likely you are to lose everything if you’re robbed.
Carry a spare ‘fake’ wallet and some coins. Your fake wallet should be a little worn out, so it looks used. Stuff a few expired cards and small bills in there. If you’re mugged, hand over the decoy wallet and all the coins in your pocket. Your assailant is in a hurry, and this may be enough to send them speeding on their way without losing much of your stuff. Experienced travelers often keep a few bills in their sock too. Most criminals won’t take the time to strip you completely naked.
See our post on learning to love money belts for more on keeping your cash and cards safe.
5. Connect with others cautiously
Many of the people you meet will have the best of intentions, but some strangers chat up the travelers so they can use the information they gather to harm you down the road. In most cases, keep your travel plans, where you’re staying, where you’re headed next, etc. to yourself. Definitely keep the fact that you’re traveling alone to yourself, and if asked, make up a story about a fellow traveler (a spouse or sibling works well).
That said, meeting the locals and other travelers is one of the best things about travel and sharing stories and info on the favorite sights, hidden restaurants, and places only the locals know is a great way to truly experience the place you are visiting. Plus, sometimes, a fellow traveler is the best one to have your back. So share, but do it with a little caution.
6. Imbibe wisely
Too many travel horror stories start with the teller having one too many drinks before they realize their mistake. In some countries, driving after having even a drop of alcohol is illegal but any public display of having too much to drink is akin to waving a flag to criminals.
Losses due to accidents, injuries, and other travel mishaps while over the local legal limit are not covered under any travel insurance plan either. So, keep your heavy drinking for safer confines, such as where you’re staying especially since you don’t have a travel buddy to make sure you arrive safely.
7. Invent a group when you have to
Anyone who’s ever watched television knows that a single entity is harder to isolate and take advantage of when they’re traveling in a group. Of course, a solo traveler doesn’t have a built-in group, so you may occasionally have to invent one.
If you are in a risky situation and feeling some fear, attach yourself to a group. Sit near them and engage them in a conversation. Stand near them and ask a question – anything to dispel the idea that you are alone and unguarded.
If it’s not possible to join another group, lag discreetly behind those going the same direction you want to go. If you’re solo hiking, for example, wait at the trailhead for another group to start out. You can tag along behind them and have some level of group security while respecting their privacy as well.
8. Look like you know where you’re going
When traveling in an unfamiliar place, it’s a good idea to at least look like you know where you’re going. Stopping on the sidewalk to thumb through your guidebook points you out as a traveler to anyone who cares to notice.
Take the time in your room or on the bus or train to study the route to your next destination. If possible, count the number of blocks so you can check them off as you go without having to check the map again.
If your smartphone is equipped with navigation, it’s often less obtrusive than a big folding map, but check it quickly and keep moving like you know what you’re doing. If you get lost or need to reference where you are, step inside a pub or hotel lobby to refer to your map away from prying eyes or someone who may want to strike while you’re attention is diverted.
9. Trust someone with where you’re going and when you’ll be back
When you’re traveling solo, no one is waiting for you to return or show up at dinner on time. If you are staying with a local proprietor you trust, let them know your plans for the day. In some cases, a fellow traveler you trust can fill this role – especially if you do the same for them and you’re meeting later on.
At the very least, let someone back home know and check in with them by email or text when you return. It’s a great idea to check in occasionally with someone back home anyway, and this is one method of accomplishing both.
10. Check in with your gut frequently
You may have heard this before, but your best guide is your own intuition. If something doesn’t feel right, turn around and get out of there. If a person is making you uncomfortable, move away from them and toward other people. If someone is persistently insistent on making unwanted advances or gaining your attention, get loud and call attention to the problem. It’s not embarrassing for anyone but the person you’re trying to get rid of – and it works.
11. Have adequate travel insurance
Last, and certainly not least, have adequate travel insurance for your trip. We can’t say this enough. If your trip is expensive and you can’t afford to lose your trip investment, trip cancellation and interruption coverage protects you before you leave and if you have to suddenly return.
See our Travel Insurance 101 to better understand what coverage you need for any trip you’re taking, whether for business, for study, for pleasure, and more.