Safety and Security Tips While Traveling Abroad

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You love nothing so much as the joy of traveling abroad. You get to see a new place through new eyes, experiencing the hidden wonders the world has to offer.  

Unfortunately, not all elements of travel are magical. And while the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we think about safe travel, it’s important to remember that some aspects of safe travel haven’t changed.  

This guide will explore what you need to know about crime rates in popular tourist destinations, how to choose a safe travel destination, what you need to prepare for a safe trip, and how to stay safe when you land.  

pick pocket in tourist areas

Crime Rates in Popular Tourist Destinations

When the travel bug hits and you’re trawling travel sites for beautiful photos of your next dream destination, crime is the last thing on your mind. The problem is that crime and tourism have a close (if uncomfortable) relationship.  

  • From the traveler’s perspective, tourism is traveling for business or pleasure. It’s an adventure and a period of discovery. It’s not always easy to see things from the destination’s point-of-view. But from the host side, tourism is a complex relationship between visitors, local businesses, host governments, and host communities. The areas that manage this relationship successfully are the ones that become popular destinations.  

This is why tourism is more than just travel—the best destinations strike a balance between appealing attractions and the infrastructure to make the experience enjoyable for visitors. The key is visitors—locals experience a place quite differently.  

This is also why crime is a major concern in tourist areas. In fact, major economic crimes (i.e. robbery, burglary) have seasons aligned with the tourist season in many popular venues.  

Tourists are attractive targets for three reasons. First, they are lucrative targets, since they tend to carry cash, credit cards, and valuables on their person. Second, tourists are unfamiliar with the area and are more likely to be relaxed and off-guard in areas where they ought to pay attention. Third, tourists are less likely to report a crime to avoid problems on a return trip.  

Worse, the tourism industry and tourist venues attract whole crowds of lucrative targets, some more attentive than others. In some cases, tourists may not even speak the local language. The result is a lucrative picking ground for savvy criminals.  

Common Crimes Against Tourists 

If you’ve traveled extensively, you’ve seen or heard about all sorts of crimes and scams, from the tried-and-true ins and outs (the hand in and out of a pocket, the razor blade bag slash) to the sinister (the fake drunk, something extra in your drink) to the frightening (muggers) to the inventive (beggars with babies, the slow cash count) to the elaborate (the fake cop scam).  

The moral of the story: crimes and the scams executed to pull them off are only limited by the criminal’s creativity. Common crimes against or related to tourists include:  

  • Pickpocketing 
  • Robbery 
  • Burglary 
  • Fraud/confidence schemes 
  • Financial crimes 
  • Fencing stolen property 
  • Offenses related to casino gambling 
  • Organized crime or gang activity 
  • Prostitution 
  • Mass-transit crimes 

That said, most crimes against tourists are related to theft. Americans traveling abroad have a particular lure to criminals: the American dollar, which has an even higher value abroad thanks to exchange rates.  

Scenarios Conducive to Crime 

Typically, crimes against tourists are the result of several scenarios.  

Most crimes against tourists begin by identifying the tourist as an easy mark. The tourist may be an accidental victim, with the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  

What makes a location “the wrong place?” Usually, it’s a combination of nightlife, culture, and a variety of victims to choose from. Tourists congregating around adult entertainment venues, for instance, are disproportionately targeted for crime.  

Unfortunately, the tourist industry itself may provide the ideal environment for crime. It creates a tourist-friendly location (lots of hotels and restaurants) and brings a crowd of lucrative strangers who may not observe the same safety precautions they would at home.  

Also, keep in mind that the local attitude toward tourist translates into crime rates. Tourism is a complex cooperative relationship, and if locals are hostile to tourists, they’re less likely to take measures to root out criminals. 

choosing travel destination

Choose Your Destination

The existence of crime doesn't mean you should stay home and never leave your house. It’s a big, beautiful world out there, and you can still have the trip of a lifetime even in areas with crime.  

It does mean that you should travel with care. That includes selecting your travel destination with care.  

Essential Safety Information for Your Destination 

Tourist destinations guard tourist crime data closely—after all, it’s bad for business if it’s known that crime is widespread. That said, you can find a wealth of information that collectively paints a picture of safety or lack thereof. That means looking beyond travel blogs and tourist sites.  

Americans should check travel advisories posted by  and the Centers for Disease Control, as well as reports from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. These will give you a picture of safety and health issues in the area, though it is worth noting that the two agencies sometimes disagree on ratings.  

Reinforce that data with information posted by the host government of your chosen country, as well as your local consulate. Some consulates are more helpful than others, but they can reveal some useful rules that might not occur to you.or example, in Canada, you need a doctor’s prescription for Neosporin.  

Beyond awareness of crime and safety issues, one of the biggest barriers to a safe travel experience is lack of knowledge of the local culture. Remember, criminals like tourists because they’re clueless. Don’t be that tourist. Bridge your knowledge gap with travel guides, expat websites, and friends or family who have traveled to that destination. Read up about your destination before you leave home.  

List Emergency Numbers 

Before you travel, you should save several phone numbers in your contact list (and write them down, just in case your phone gets stolen). These include the local emergency number (the local equivalent of 911), your local embassy, your hotel or hostel, your airline, your family doctor, and your house sitter, to name a few.  

Also, keep in mind that not all countries use one emergency number universally, the way the U.S. uses 911 for all first responders. In Brazil, for example, there are three different emergency numbers for police, ambulances, and the fire department. In South Korea, there’s a medical emergency number specifically for foreigners. Write them all down!

If you’re not sure where to begin, the Department of State has a whole library of emergency information for travelers.  

Planning and Preparation

Ready to book your ticket? Your preparation doesn’t end with choosing the right destination. Whether you’re in Amsterdam, Amman, or Abingdon-on-Thames, the right preparations will keep you safe.  

Type of Bag to Use 

As all veteran travelers know, the right bag can make or break your trip. Just imagine the last time you tried hauling a roller suitcase through cobblestone streets—it's unwieldy, it’s too big, and it’s a neon sign that says I’m a tourist.  

While hiking backpacks are made for ergonomics, they have all the organization of a trash bag. Plus, nothing shouts tourist louder than trekking in the middle of a city with a hiking backpack.  

Worse, neither bag gives you enough security.  

Your safest bet is to reach for a travel backpack. All great travel backpacks have three features in common: they’re carry-on sized, they’re front-loading, and they’re comfortable. This gives you the space and obsessive organization of a carry on combined with the ergonomics of a hiking backpack.  

The best carry on sized travel backpacks will have compartments and pockets for all the little essentials (like your passport, cards, and keys). These should be secured by lockable zippers and a sturdy material that’s difficult to slash, all in one muted package designed to blend in with other commuter bags.  

The Tortuga Outbreaker is a full-featured travel backpack with all the space and security you need to travel with peace of mind. For a streamlined version, reach for the Tortuga Setout. Students, budget travelers, and weekend vacationers will thrive with the Tortuga Prelude.  

What Travel Essentials to Prepare 

You should always travel with copies of your essential documents, and leave photocopies with a loved one at home. Traveling with a passport photo and a copy of your passport is a good idea if your passport is stolen.  

It can be a good idea to have a “steal me” wallet. This is a decoy wallet containing things like an expired credit card, filler cards, and a small amount of cash. That way, if a mugger demands your wallet, you have something to hand over without giving away essential cards.  

You can use the same premise on your phone—take the SIM card out of your pricey smartphone and put it in a cheap phone that only calls and texts.  

There’s some debate over the money belt. Some travelers swear by it. Tortuga travel writer Shawn Forno says it’s high time to disavow them. He says using one advertises that you have valuables and exactly where to look for them.  

Also, keep in mind that what you don’t pack is just as important as what you pack. The rules are simple: don’t bring anything name brand, valuable, or that you would be heartbroken to lose. Some travelers use simple stand-in rings instead of traveling with their wedding bands. You don’t need to go to that extreme, but don’t pack your mother’s favorite necklace either.  

Tips When You Arrive at the Destination

The moment you land is the moment your preparation goes into action. Whether you’re carrying everything you own or just your wallet, here’s what you need to know to stay safe.  

Where to Go and Where Not to Go 

For all the effort that goes into choosing your destination, you should apply just as much effort to choose where you want to go when you arrive. Whether you’re visiting the jungle, a concert, or a sake shop the size of a shoebox, you should quickly figure out what locations to visit and where to avoid.  

A good approach is to research in advance while you’re choosing your destination. Travel blogs, travel guides, and expat blogs are a good place to start. You can also ask your hotel or hostel for recommendations.  

But for travelers who want to get off the tourist path, especially for those who like to stumble upon an experience at random, you’ll have to play it by ear.  

Take London, for example. This is a city without a sharp dividing line between the “good part of town” and “the bad part of town”. Instead, you can walk along a street, turn a corner, and find yourself in a questionable area within three feet of that charming street you just left. Apply common sense: if it looks unsafe, it probably is, so take your wandering elsewhere.  

Regardless of where you visit, it’s a good idea to keep a farmer’s schedule. This isn’t so much a schedule as a common sense life philosophy: more bad stuff happens at 2 a.m. than 2 p.m. Even the nicest area can turn sketchy after dark.  

What to Do When Faced With a Threat 

Sometimes, all the best preparations can still be foiled by bad luck.  

Always remember chaos theory. Chaos breeds confusion, and thieves thrive on confusion.

A good example is the stripper scam, a memorable con in which a vendor accuses an attractive woman of shoplifting and she proves her innocence by slowly removing all her clothes. She leaves, and the men in the crowd find their wallets have left too.  

There are less colorful cons out there, but no matter the game, your goal is to get out of it as quickly as possible. If you think something might be a scam, get your hand on your bag and get out of there.  

In cases where you can’t get away, or you face an aggressive mugger, always hand over what they ask for, even if you don’t have a decoy wallet or phone. You can cancel any card and replace any ID. Nothing is more valuable than your life.  

Final Thoughts

It would be easy to look at crime rates and safety precautions and view the world as dangerous. However, experienced travelers know that mindset is everything. If you approach every interaction thinking you’re going to be robbed or scammed, you will eventually be proven right. 

More importantly, that mindset takes all the magic out of traveling. If you’re only looking for the ugly, you’ll never see the beauty.  

Instead, practice common sense. Pay attention, take the right precautions, trust your gut to guide you out of a bad situation, and then let yourself enjoy traveling. 

References:

Bureau of Consular Affairs. (n.d.-a). Emergencies. Department of State. Retrieved April 9, 2021, from
https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/emergencies.html 

Bureau of Consular Affairs. (n.d.-b). Report my Passport Lost or Stolen. Department of State. Retrieved April 9, 2021, from
https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/passports/have-passport/lost-stolen.html 

Bureau of Consular Affairs. (n.d.-c). Travel Advisories. Department of State. Retrieved April 9, 2021, from
https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/traveladvisories/traveladvisories.html/ 

Bureau of Consular Affairs. (n.d.-d). U.S. Passport Photos. Department of State. Retrieved April 9, 2021, from
https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/passports/how-apply/photos.html 

CDC. (2020, February 11). COVID-19 and Your Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/map-and-travel-notices.html 

Glensor, R., & Peak, K. (2004a). Crimes Against Tourists | ASU Center for Problem-Oriented Policing. ASU Center for Problem-Oriented Policing.
https://popcenter.asu.edu/content/crimes-against-tourists-0 

Glensor, R., & Peak, K. (2004b). Crimes Against Tourists. Department of Justice, Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services.
https://cops.usdoj.gov/RIC/Publications/cops-w0076-pub.pdf 

Office on Drugs and Crime. (n.d.). Crime and criminal justice. United Nations : Office on Drugs and Crime. Retrieved April 9, 2021, from
//www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/crime-and-criminal-justice.html