*Please know that the safety information for while abroad is not meant to frighten you or deter you from trying new things, exploring new places, or enjoying travel. It is provided as a guide to aid in avoiding dangerous and inconvenient situations. Use these tool to help you to know what to do in case you do encounter trouble, based on my personal experiences.
Know Customs and Faux pas While Abroad
While traveling abroad, sometimes what is acceptable at home, may not be appropriate in the country you are visiting. It is always a good idea to read up on basic customs, traditions, and daily cultural expectations that are not familiar to you.
Small acts can make a big difference. Seemingly harmless gestures can be construed as a lack of respect. For example, in some cultures you leave your shoes at the door. You are expected to know this. Wearing them inside would not only be rude, but would be extremely offensive. This seemingly simple act could cause someone hours of cleansing work or rituals. At best, cultural errors are shocking, embarrassing, and show a lack of presence. At worse, they can be punishable legally.
When you are in a foreign country, it is difficult to know every cultural nuance. Travelers are bound to make some faux pas. However, it is best to educate yourself, ask questions if you are unsure, and do your best to learn by being present.
One way to avoid offending anyone is to be present to what is going on around you. For example, everyone you are with removes their shoes in the doorway. You are busy snapping photos and do not notice. This awkwardness could have been averted. People are generally kind and curious about foreigners. They usually accept cultural differences. However, when traveling in conservative, politically strict, or religious countries, it is best to have some level of understanding of expectations.
Specific information may be found under Destinations and the tab for each continent.
Secure Your Personal Belongings
- Take care with backpacks and wallets in your back pocket. Especially in crowds and large cities. It is best to keep items in front of you and in sight. Petty theft can happen anywhere, not just in “bad areas.”
- Keep your documents, passport, extra cash, jewelry, digital equipment, and other items of value, in a hotel safe, or securely on your person.
- It is not a good idea to ask strangers to watch your personal items while you run to the restroom or take a walk on the beach. Unless you know the person well, manage your own belongings.
- Plan for museums or other attractions where you may have to check your bag. It is best to leave valuables in your room whenever possible.
- On public transport such as trains, busses, and ferries, always keep your cash, passport, camera, and other high value items on your person.
Your bags may be placed in a luggage compartment, rack above your seat, under your seat, or in a small storage zone. While this is generally safe, you need to keep your eyes on your bags at all times. Especially when something is under your seat because someone can slide it out from behind easily. If you do not have a reserved seat, choose an area that contains others, rather than an isolated location. Also see my post on traveling securely at night.
On a train or in a crowded area, I place my ankle or wrist through the handle of my bag if it is on a floor or table. This way, even if I’m distracted, I would immediately feel if my bag is moved. I especially tend to do this if I’m tired and dozing off.
TIP: I often use a small travel combination lock, (the kind that has numbers you spin, not one with keys because they are easily lost), or a lock that uses your fingerprint. I put it through the zippers of my backpack, luggage, or even for the train door at night. Securing bags so that they cannot be opened without you noticing works really well. Generally a petty thief would not want to work that hard.
I especially like a lock that comes with a cable so that you can not only lock your bag, but secure your bag to a fixed object. Some locks are TSA approved, and you can tell when they have been opened by TSA. However, when checking luggage (especially with a commercial airline) it is usually best to remove locks or the security may cut them.
Taxis and ride shares are a great alternative to renting a car in many situations while abroad. It is always important to exercise caution when entering a stranger’s vehicle. For more on “How to Safely Use Taxis and Ride Shares”, please see my complete article.
Visiting Isolated or Potentially Dangerous Areas
At times the most beautiful or amazing areas may be on roads less traveled and to destinations less populated. Other times, there may be volunteer opportunities or an invitation from a local friend that you would like to accept. It is best practice to let someone you trust know where you are headed. Continued in my post, Steps to Take to Increase Safety when Traveling off the Beaten Path.
Implement Common Sense While Abroad
- Always be respectful of others and their beliefs, even when you do not agree. It is best not to engage in heated conversations or to get involved in situations that may become unsafe. Use good judgement.
- Part of showing respect can be attempting to speak the language of your destination and not expecting others to always speak your native language. This may be construed as arrogant or rude.
- If you feel a situation is unsafe or wrong, then it probably is; Trust your instincts. The old adage better safe than sorry definitely applies.
- Do not enter known dangerous areas, (such as violent, gang, war, or known as generally unsafe)
- Take caution, especially at night, to stay in well-lit populated areas
- Do not flaunt expensive personal belongings or wads of cash
- Never give out your accommodation name and room number
- Do not be so intoxicated that you are unable to function, are making poor decisions, or pass out
- Never leave your food or drink unattended
- If someone offers to buy you a drink, be sure it is either sealed or delivered to you directly by a bartender or waitstaff
- Never leave your luggage unattended in public areas
- Do not accept a ride from a stranger
- Always lock your room or rental property and do not leave ground floor accommodations with open windows or doors at night or when you are out.
- It is always fun to try out new things, but do not engage in an activity that seems unsafe or not maintained.
- If hiking, be sure to have supplies such as water, a compass, a map, food, a waterproof jacket, and a flashlight. See Top 10 Travel Hiking Essentials Packing Checklist for a more complete list.
Food and Water While Abroad
Water is an essential part of daily life. Unfortunately, there are still many places in the world where potable water is a privilege, and not always readily available.
Dealing with Water While Traveling
It is important to know whether or not the water where you are is drinkable. If you are ever in doubt, stock up on bottled water, or have a filtration kit available. Filtration kits are a great option as using many plastic bottles is not environmentally friendly. Drinking unsanitary water can make you ill, sometimes severely. You can always ask if the water and/or ice is filtered. Then it is up to you if you trust the person providing the information.
Even when water is drinkable by locals, it can contain bacteria from the region. Your body may not used to foreign bacteria. This can make you feel ill and give you traveler’s diarrhea, causing dehydration. It is a good idea to carry an anti-diarrheal with you while traveling, such as Immodium.
If the local water cannot be drank, or if it is known to cause problems in travelers, you also need to look out for ice, glassware and dishes that may still be wet from washing, and raw vegetables that have been washed in the water or grown near a contaminant.
Food While Abroad
In cases where the food supply is a problem, it is safer to eat fried and well cooked food. In these instances, be careful of soups, juices, and watery substances. Sometimes it is best to stick with anything canned or bottled.
TIP: When buying water or bottled drinks, always ask to receive them with the cap in tact. Be sure that the cap is “factory sealed” or it may be a bottle refilled with faucet water or homemade juice.
When consuming refrigerated products, such as dairy, be observant in places that may not have proper refrigeration. Items that are not properly stored can cause you to be ill. If you do fall ill from food poisoning or something you ingest, see a local doctor. Dehydration can be serious and certain bacterias can become bigger problems if not properly treated.
Health Tips While Abroad
Always wash your hands and use hand sanitizer when available. Avoid touching your eyes, face, and mouth while traveling; This helps to prevent infections. Always practice safe sex. See top 15 ways to stay heathy while Traveling.
Dealing with Life Events While Abroad
Life events may occur while traveling abroad. With marriage, divorce, voting, retirement, and death, you may need to coordinate help from your home country. Contact any travel insurance you may have purchased for assistance.
All travelers should know the contact number and website of their home government to acquire the necessary information. While abroad, US citizens can get information by visiting the US Department of State Website.
Know Who to Contact In Case Of Emergency
In an emergency, you should know and have with you, several phone numbers. This includes contacts for your nearest consulate or embassy, close friends or family, and your hotel and its address. Know how to reach the local authorities. As an additional resource, usually accommodations will assist their guests in dire situations.