The following tips should help you travel safely and travel mindfully when traveling alone. They include issues that you’ll likely have to deal with. Some of them are fairly obvious, like watching out for pickpockets in crowded areas. Others are more subtle, like avoiding putting your bags in the trunk of a taxi if possible. These tips aren’t meant to increase your anxiety or get you to rethink your decision to travel alone. They’re presented to help maximize your safety and increase the likelihood that your journey will be enjoyable from start to finish. The overarching theme here is the need to be aware of your surroundings at all times. Because as a solo traveler, the only one who can guarantee your own safety is you.
touron (tʊrron) n.
A moron on tour. A traveler who causes havoc by paying no attention to the people and world around them.
Before You Depart
Passports and ID
Make a photocopy of your driver’s license and passport and email them to yourself. That way, if they get lost or stolen, you can always pull up the image on a computer to verify who you are. Although a printed copy of your passport won’t get you through airport security, it should be sufficient to get you into your country’s embassy or to check yourself into a hotel.
Write down your credit card details and email them to yourself. If your card gets lost or stolen, you’ll still be able to book hotel rooms and train and plane tickets if you do so online. Because it’s generally not a good idea to send credit card information via insecure methods like email, consider modifying the card number in a way that you’ll be able to decode easily later. For a sixteen digit Visa number, for example, you might add digits somewhere in the middle to make the number too long to be used by anyone reading the email.
Write down your name, emergency contact details, your blood type if you know it, and a list of all medicines you are taking. Then put the slip of paper inside your money belt. In the unlikely event that something happens and you’re in need of medical attention, this information could save a lot of time and make it easier for doctors or first responders to help you.
If you’re planning to take a taxi from the airport or train station on your arrival at your destination, do a bit of light research in advance. Find out roughly how much it should cost, how long it should take, and which roads you should be traveling on. The more you know, the less likely you’ll be taken advantage of.
If you’re planning to use Uber or some other car service, find out in advance if the city or country you’re heading to allows ride-sharing companies to operate. In Europe, for example, Uber is currently banned in Bulgaria, Denmark, Italy, Portugal, and Hungary and within the City of London. In addition, some cities allow Uber but not Lyft or Lyft but not Uber. And some cities allow both but not at the airport. It’s best to know this information beforehand to avoid delays and unexpected expenses.
At the Airport/Train Station
Don’t assume the person trying to offer you a ride is a real taxi driver. Find an official taxi rank and get in line.
Research in advance roughly how much it will cost to get to your destination and the most logical way to get there. When you arrive at the airport or train station, before getting in a taxi, ask the driver how much it will cost to get to your destination. If his or her quote is far above what you were expecting, either walk away and find a different driver or negotiate a better price.
Whenever possible, avoid putting your luggage in the trunk. If your bags are locked in the trunk, you have no real bargaining power if the driver tries to overcharge you when you arrive at your destination.
If you took a legitimate taxi and the driver tries to overcharge you, push back hard. Take photos of his or her taxi license. Also take note of the name of the taxi company, the make of the car, and the license plate number. If the driver sees that you’re serious about causing them trouble, they’re more likely to back down.
Ride Share Services
If you’re using Uber or Lyft or some other ride share service, make sure you get into the correct car. This sounds like an obvious point, but when you’re tired after a long journey, you’re less likely to be paying attention to details like the license number of the car you’re getting into. My friend’s daughter recently threw her bags into the trunk of the Uber car that pulled up to her at the airport curb. When they arrived at her destination, the driver demanded $200 for the relatively short journey. It was only then that she realized it wasn’t an Uber car at all. The driver had seen how tired she looked and had deliberately misled her into thinking he was legit. After a fierce argument, he drove off with no money but all of her luggage.
If you’re getting onto a bus where passengers stow their bags underneath, try to keep your bag with you if it’s not large. If you must store it underneath, sit in a seat that gives you a view of the baggage compartment at each stop. That way, you’ll be sure your bag doesn’t get removed from the bus at an interim stop.
Also, don’t place your bag in an overhead rack or anywhere that it’s out of your line of sight. If you fall asleep, someone can rifle through it or steal it and you mightn’t realize it for hours.
At Your Hotel/Hostel
The key in any hotel or hostel is to be alert at all times. That doesn’t mean you should be paranoid, but you should be aware of your environment. Where are the emergency exits? Do the door and window locks work properly? Is there adequate lighting in the halls at night? Try to get a room close to, but not beside, the elevator or main stairwell. Avoid rooms at the back of properties or down long corridors. That said, however, you should avoid rooms immediately adjacent to the elevator or stairwell. These tend to be much noisier because of the amount of foot traffic that passes in front of them. In lively destinations, you could be up all night listening to the elevator dinging.
If you’ll be gone most of the day, take your ID and cash with you in a money belt around your waist. Or use a travel pouch that hangs from your neck inside your shirt. Losing your ID is a guaranteed way to ruin your day and possibly bring your trip to an unexpected end. As such, you should do everything you can to avoid this happening. If there’s a hotel safe, use it whenever you’re leaving the room for even a brief amount of time. Yes, they’re flimsy and there are hundreds of YouTube videos showing you how to crack them. But ultimately, they’re better than nothing.
“We provide safety deposit box in the suite to keep your values. We are not responsible for values left out of the box.” English sign in a Costa Rica hotel room
Don’t just hide your passport and money in the room. Housekeepers are supposed to clean the whole room, so they might find your hiding spot by accident.
Don’t open your door to strangers. Use the peephole to see if it’s a uniformed member of the housekeeping or service staff. If so, it’s reasonable to assume it’s safe to open the door for them. In the event the person knocking is not in uniform, ask them through the door what they want. If they claim to be from maintenance or housekeeping or another hotel service, call the front desk first to confirm.
Don’t invite strangers up to your room. In your room you’re isolated and presumably in proximity to all of your valuables. Although it’s unlikely anything will go wrong, there’s little benefit to placing yourself in such a vulnerable position.
In Crowded Public Areas
Your biggest safety concern in busy public areas is pickpockets. When you’re in a crowd, it’s not uncommon to get jostled and to have people briefly press up against you. A good pickpocket uses these factors to their advantage.
Be aware that pickpockets often work in pairs. One member of the team will approach you and draw your attention to them. They’ll ask you questions, beg you for money, drop money in front of you, or do anything to distract you. At the same time, their partner will be behind you going for your wallet, camera, passport, or backpack. To avoid becoming a victim, you should try to make yourself a less attractive target than those around you. You can do this by keeping the following recommendations in mind:
- Place your valuables in a money belt around your waist or hanging from your neck inside your shirt.
- Keep your camera, backpack, purse, or other valuables in front of you at all times. Don’t leave them slung over your shoulder out of your line of sight.
- Don’t carry more money than you need.
- If you need to withdraw money from an ATM, choose carefully. Choose one that is not isolated, but that has no one hanging around beside it. Remember, you’re most vulnerable from the time you grab the cash until you get it into your money belt. As such, reduce this time as much as possible by having the belt open and your hands free.
Avoid any areas of a town that are experiencing civil unrest. Whether it’s a riot, a protest, or an over-enthusiastic celebration, public events can turn ugly quickly. And you don’t want to get caught up in one, especially if you don’t speak the language. Or if you’re not aware of the reason for the unrest in the first place. You might think it would be fun to record the disturbance on your phone so you can share it later. Leave that to others. Getting swept up in a riot or nabbed by the police during one is not something you want to experience.
As a solo traveler, you’re in a bit of a pickle when it comes to drinking. You want to have a good time, but you don’t want to have too good of a time. Because if you get drunk, there’s no one to watch your back. There’s no one to ensure that you get safely back to your hotel or hostel.
“We cheat tourists and drunks.” Motto of Pat O’Shea’s bar in San Francisco
What and how much you drink is entirely up to you. I would suggest, though, that you keep an eye on your drink at all times. You don’t want someone doctoring it when you’re not looking. Also make sure that your glass is not topped up when you’re distracted. Getting your drink refilled constantly is a sure-fire way to end up drinking far more than you realize.
For tips and advice on how to travel safely and securely by bus, check out our earlier blog post, Survival Tips for Long Bus Trips.