As a 20-year-old woman who has traveled alone in Europe and in small groups through South America, Australia, Africa, and the Pacific, I promise it’s worth it. Traveling enriches your life in ways that greatly outweigh the slight hassles that come with transporting yourself overseas and leaving your daily life behind for a few days, weeks, or months. Seeing the world’s most beautiful places and experiencing cultures that are different from your own are privileges that many people will never have. And so here you are, about to embark on a fantastical journey to a far-off place you’ve never been, and you’ve been dreaming about the new sights, sounds, smells, and tastes for months. Don’t get me wrong, the world is your oyster, but there are a few things you should keep in mind as you travel:
1. Know where all your “essential items” are at all times. This includes your passport, wallet, phone, keys, and camera, but also things like common medicine and a small first aid kit, sunglasses, maps, and even an extra pair of underwear (you’ll thank me later). Put all of these essential items in the same place every time in your backpack or suitcase. The same place every time. Don’t get smart and come up with a new hiding place for your passport so no one will find it – you will end up being the one who can’t find it, and then you have an even bigger problem on your hands.
2. There is no such thing as being too vigilant when it comes to evading pickpockets. In the fall of 2015, I was living in Madrid, Spain, which might as well be the pickpocketing capital of Europe. My mom was visiting me for a week, and on her first day off the plane, we were walking by the Parque del Retiro when she looked down and realized her bag was open and her wallet was gone. She was wearing a very small purse, it was zipped up, and it was right in front of her on her hip, and yet she was still robbed. Pickpockets are professionals; they know where the touristy spots are, who’s a tourist, who’s not paying attention, and how to slip by unnoticed in a large crowd. Be vigilant and take extra precautions, especially in crowds and on public transportation. When I was commuting to school on the Metro every day in Madrid, I put a padlock on my backpack and held the bag in front of me in crowded subway cars. In my three months living in Europe, I was never once robbed.
3. Learn at least a few words of the local language. Believe me, it will go a long way. It will not only help you find important places like a toilet; you will also know how to ask directions if you’re lost or ask for basic help if you need it. Plus, locals are more likely to treat you with respect if you take an hour of that long transoceanic flight to learn a few words of their native language instead of watching the newest episode of House of Cards. In May 2015, I found myself in the passenger seat of a car that was falling apart, driving down the one road in Rangiroa, an island in French Polynesia. My two friends were in the backseat and we were trying to make it back to our ship, of which we were part of the crew, in time to continue our journey north through the Pacific. The driver only spoke French. I did not speak French. But the one word I could think of to use to give directions was “plongée”, which means scuba diving. The driver drove us to the one scuba shop on the island, right next to the dock where our ship was waiting for us.
4. Be careful of assumptions. It’s easy for anyone to think that the cultural norms, amenities, and facts of daily life they take for granted in their home country apply to anywhere they visit, but that’s simply not the case. I was reminded of this when my friend reminded me to spit out the water I’d used to brush my teeth on a safari in Tanzania, and when it took me forty-five minutes to get a waiter to bring the bill in Sevilla. Different countries, and even different regions and cities, have different cultural and social norms and priorities. One country’s set of norms is not better or worse than the other; they’re just different, and that’s OK. When you travel to places that are very different from your home country, you’re going to encounter things that surprise you, amuse you, or just plain annoy you. When you get frustrated or caught off guard, remind yourself not to assume and to remain open to new possibilities.
5. You’re going to look like a tourist, and that’s OK. I used to feel very self-conscious in places where I obviously didn’t fit in, and never wanted to be identified as a tourist or a foreigner. But a white, blond, English-speaking girl does not “fit in” in Botswana, Ecuador, or Palau. And that’s OK. Try your best not to go overboard with tourist-oriented merchandise and clothing, but don’t feel so self-conscious that you don’t enjoy yourself. Nine times out of ten you will still look like a tourist or at least a foreigner, no matter how hard you try. And sometimes you’ll be pleasantly surprised, like when a Portuguese guy thought I was from Switzerland instead of the U.S. when I arrived at my hostel in Madrid.
6. The trick is how you behave. Yes, tourists get targeted for pickpocketing and some other crimes, but tourists are mostly targeted for how they behave instead of how they look. You can’t change the way you look, but you can influence your behavior. Be aware of your surroundings – if you sit down in a restaurant when it’s mostly quiet in the room, keep your conversation at low volume. Don’t be too impatient. Be respectful about who and what you take photos of. If you’re wearing a big backpack, make sure you don’t accidentally bump into or disturb the people around you. This last one brings back a memory of finding myself on a crowded local bus in Granada with my hiking backpack on. I stuck out like a sore thumb – the only one with blue eyes, my backpack taking up the same amount of space as a clone of my body would – but by being very aware of my surroundings and communicating to the people around me, I managed not to annoy anyone (at least I don’t think I did).
7. Always have enough water. Anyone who knows me well knows that I constantly carry a water bottle with me – it’s practically an extension of my body. I grew up in Colorado, where the thin mountain air dries you out like a lizard on a hot tin roof. Water is sacred to me, and I carry this principle with me when I travel. Always make sure you have enough water on you, keeping in mind that men need 3 liters (just under one gallon) of water per day, and women need 2.2 liters (just over half a gallon). If you are going airport security and need to empty your water bottle, have a plan for getting more water as soon as you exit the machine. If you aren’t taking care of your basic needs, you cannot possibly enjoy the beautiful sights you will see on your trip.
8. Think critically and thoughtfully about how you engage with the cultures you observe. As a tourist, there are many opportunities to learn about and engage with the local culture. Some of them respect local opinions and priorities and some appropriate and reduce the local culture into a commodity. It is a fine line that we must walk as travelers, because understanding local culture and seeing some of the special customs and rituals associated with a culture can be a meaningful way to experience a place. However, some of the ways in which tourists can “understand” local culture have negative consequences for local people. Why does this relate to travel safety? Because being respectful and aware of the local culture will inherently make you safer. Understand that you are not traveling in a vacuum – your actions and what activities you choose to participate in have a real and tangible impact on the lives of people in local communities.
9. Monitor your bank accounts during and after your trip. Identity theft is more common around travel, since you are using your credit card in new places. Be sure to tell your bank where you’re going and what the specific dates of your trip are, and monitor your account charges during your trip and a few months after your trip. Don’t find yourself in the situation my boyfriend experienced when he woke up a week after our spring break trip and realized that some cowboy from Utah bought $800 worth of lipstick with his credit card number.
10. Follow your gut. Even when you are in a new place, surrounded by an unfamiliar culture, your thoughts and feelings are just as valid. If you feel unsafe, you feel unsafe. Always go with your gut; it will tell you when something feels right and when something feels wrong. Don’t push yourself if you’re not comfortable. And know when you need to back out of something in order to feel safer. During a weekend in the Canary Islands, my boyfriend and I arrived in Las Palmas, the biggest city on the island of Gran Canaria, late at night and walked to our hostel. On the internet, the hostel looked great – super modern and clean, with lots of amenities and close proximity to all the activities we wanted to do. When we got there, we found the complete opposite: a dirty, dark, sketchy hideaway with an extremely incompetent receptionist. Our gut told us this wasn’t right, and we canceled our reservation and booked a room somewhere else.
Traveling has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my life, and visiting new places and meeting people who are very different from myself has given me a wide perspective on the world. With these travel safety tips in mind, your adventure will go smoothly and you can focus on enjoying the present moment. I hope your trip is everything you’ve dreamed of and more. Bon voyage!