ADVICE: 10 TIPS FOR TRAVEL SAFETY
& OVERCOMING TRAVEL ANXIETY
We get it, leaving your home, leaving your home country, flying on that outbound airplane to a country and city you haven’t been before, for the first time, is terrifying. The first time I left Canada (not including the US), was to meet up with Trevor in Costa Rica. Trevor had just been on a 3 week Central America tour that ended December 27 in San Jose. To say the least, I was terrified. This was my first time entering a country that didn’t speak the language, although… Spanish is a lot easier to play along with than Polish… and I was terrified that I would be in a crisis that I couldn’t get out of. From some trial and error, here are our top things to think about and remember before leaving for that first big trip and to help calm you down.
1. (Almost) everyone speaks English.
We are biased here because Trevor and I speak English as we are English speaking Canadians. But if English is your second language, this is a huge benefit. We have found, due to the wide travel of Canadians, Americans, and Europeans, if someone wants to work in the travel industry, they most likely have to speak English. Any major travel destination or tourist attraction will most likely have someone who speaks English working there. If worst comes to worst, point and say yes / no in the country’s native language, this can go a long way.
The most likely places you will experience language barriers are: cabs, trains, and police, which obviously is the biggest concern. To say we’ve been lucky in these situations is an understatement. We can go on and on about close calls but here is some further advice surrounding these situations.
2. Agree on a cab price before you get in the cab.
Cabs aren’t like they are in Canada / US, we’ve even heard to do the same thing in the UK. Before you get into a cab, show them where you are going on a map or with an address, and ask HOW MUCH. If they cannot give you a direct answer, take a different cab. Most cabs will give you an approximate price. We had a cab in Turkey, hold up 5 fingers and say “5” … we had no idea what this meant, but our hopes were that because we had him agree to a price, it must be a reasonable one. The cab was 70 minutes long due to traffic in Istanbul and we paid just under $50 CAN. For that long of a ride, we thought the price was incredibly reasonable. We took a cab in Warsaw for 7 minutes, as we were passing other cabs we noticed that these other cabs had different prices on the outside of their cab… we started to panic, and we had good reason to. The cabbie charged us $80 CAN for the ride. When your luggage is in the back seat… you are a hostage at that moment. The best thing you can do is pretend you don’t have the cash on you. They won’t want you to use credit because that creates a paper trail of their scam. Give them about 1/4 the price, for example, we showed him a $20 CAN and said that was all we had. Then we gave him some change in zolt and he sighed and took it. It was a $27 CAN ride that should have cost $7, but it was better than $80. If possible, avoid cabbies, take the time to walk, use the local transit train/subway/bus, or book a shuttle with your hotel / resort if you can. If you’re a hostel-goer, chances are you’re traveling on a budget and a cab will be an expense you can’t afford. Look ahead of time as a lot of major cities will have public transit to take at a much cheaper cost. Might take a little longer, but we personally avoid cabs at all costs.
If you have to take a cab, show them the address to where you're going or mention the site you are going to and ask "how much will this be," make sure you get some confirmation on a price before you get in a cab, otherwise, look for a different cab, or walk.
3. Book your train tickets through a kiosk or show up incredibly prepared.
But the overall tip is in most cases, you can book train tickets within a country at a kiosk, which has an English or “UK / US” option. In some cases however, you cannot avoid booking a train without talking to a person. Personnel working at train stations generally speak very little English, so read our advice blog about booking trains to know everything you need to know about buying train tickets. Overall, showing up prepared, knowing exactly which train at the specific time will go a long way when dealing with the language barrier issues at train stations.
4. Worse comes to Worst, ask a local for help.
If you’re in a pickle where you need someone to translate for you, a local will stop and help. Now, this has been our personal experience. But if a scene is escalating, ask people who are walking by if they speak English and can help translate. We’ve had a couple of moments were things were going sideways and someone translated from us to the person to describe what was going on and the situation was diffused. Most likely the person who would help you will be a tourist who speaks English and the country’s native language, or someone involved in tourism. Stay calm, and ask someone, “English???” and see if someone will help.
5. Police: ask someone to translate or have some cash prepared for paying a “fine.”
This goes for police as well. Trevor had a situation where he was about to cross a street and didn’t notice the “no walking” sign and was grabbed by a police officer. We were separated because we were looking for our tour guide for a walking tour and had no idea where the meeting place was. Luckily within the minute, I had found the tour guide and spotted Trevor. I guess the tour guide knew what was going on because he ran to Trevor and spoke on behalf of Trevor and we got out of there.
If things were to have escalated, Trevor would have paid whatever fine he was supposedly charging Trevor and just left. This is why having some cash on you that you’re willing to part with can help, most likely, the police are looking for some quick cash. If you see it escalating, say "this is how much I have to pay a fine" and show them your money and hope they take it and leave it.
6. Bring along a reference guide for the country.
A reference can include Lonely Plant or just having some sites from Trip Advisor bookmarked. If you’re really nervous about taking a specific bus to get to a destination or finding your hotel, take screenshots of all of the information you need. If worst comes to worst, show someone your references, either a book or your screenshots, and someone will help.
You can also use the reference guide, including Trip Advisor to read about any additional information you might want to know about the country / city you are visiting. Having a reference can just calm you down mentally and is recommended by us as we personally feel better when we have some kind of reference to refer to in case we need information ASAP.
7. You can most likely purchase a Visa at the airport.
In some countries, such as Russia or China, this is not the case. But (at the time) in Turkey, for example, we had ordered our Visa beforehand, but at the airport, they had massive sections of kiosks to buy a Visa. Most likely a Visa will just be a fee you pay to enter or exit the country and the stamp you get on your passport will represent your “Visa” time. Looking up Visa information online takes some research but really it just means you take a moment to Google it through your government website and you get the information. Each traveller’s home country will have different Visa restrictions for entering a country and different fees. For example, it is usually cheaper for Canadians to purchase a Visa than Americans. Getting a visa is not a major concern, most likely at the border or at the airport there will be an opportunity to pay for a Visa, it just might be cheaper to purchase it beforehand.
8. Calm down about “offending some kind of custom.”
Do you walk around your hometown waving the middle finger at strangers? Do you throw food at a restaurant when your order isn’t right? Do you say please and thank you on a regular to semi-regular basis? Chances are you’re a decent person and don’t need to worry about some kind of insulting custom. I read on Pinterest once “insulting things NOT to do in Canada” and they were all crap. None of them were true and in any of those cases, I would not have been offended. If you’re really concerned, do your research, buy the Lonely Plant book, and just act like a polite, normal human being. If you’re super nervous, maybe turn up the dial on being polite, smile and nob more, and learn “thank you” in the native language of the country you are going to.
9. If anyone offers to help you or offers anything, decline immediately.
Yes, it feels rude to do, but tell them no and walk away. In a case or two, they might be helping, but in most cases, if anyone offers to help with anything they are going to scam you or steal from you. Be aggressive, be rude, be blunt, tell people to go away. The biggest scams will happen when someone tries to help you. For example, there’s a scam popular in South America where one person will throw something at you, either water or some kind of wet item, and run over offering to help – meanwhile, a second person is looking to grab your stuff as you go to put it down to wipe whatever off. DO NOT put down your stuff, be rude, do not accept their help, and wait to clean yourself up when you are at your accommodation.
If people are trying to sell you something and they go to put something in your hand, FLING your arms open so you don’t grab it or walk around with fists. In Rome, people are very aggressive and will constantly try to put things in your hand, therefore, walk fast, don’t make eye contact, and make fists. Don’t take pictures with people in costumes, unless you really want to pay, because they will for sure charge you and will follow you. If someone is selling a CD, do not take it, it is not free, people will charge you. Unless you want to pay in all of the cases I listed, just ignore people selling things because it is not free and they will follow you until you pay.
10. Safety is absolutely your number one priority.
Being robbed, losing your passport, and someone walking away with your luggage are major concerns. When you’re walking around with your huge backpack on your back, you’re immediately a target and we have had situations where we know we stood out and felt a little uneasy. Here are a couple of tips:
- On a bus, sit on the side where the luggage is being taken on and off at each stop so you can keep an eye on your bag
- On a train, put your luggage above your seat if possible. If in a shared cart, get to the train early so you’re there first and can reserve the room you need for your bag, don’t worry about the others, just make sure you have yours with you – be aggressive
- NEVER EVER carry ANYTHING in your pocket. Period. NEVER
- Have a smaller carry around bag – for example, I have a 1 shoulder little North Face bag I use – that feels comfortable to wear on your front instead of your back. When you’re on a cramped subway or walking through a packed market, wear your bag on your front. WHO CARES what it looks like.
- Have a dual bag system, your huge backpack on your back with your clothing items etc. and your smaller bag on your front with all of your personal items that you cannot live without. If your backpack gets slashed, yeah it is awful, but you can replace those items. Your greatest concern is your passport and your cash / credit cards. NEVER keep these items in your pocket, carry them on your front pack so you have your eye on them at all times.
- Photocopy copies of your passport, credit cards and debit cards (front and back), and health care cards and numbers. And make sure to create multiple copies, put one in each bag, and leave one with a relative who you will be communicating with while you travel. This way, if anything gets stolen, hopefully not all at once, you have a copy for the Embassy, and have all of your card numbers so you can call and cancel everything. We’ve done this every time, luckily we’ve never had to use the copies. Trevor did however lose his debit card in a machine, it ate it, so just make sure if you are ever using a machine to remove your card immediately so you don’t lose your card.
- BUY TRAVEL INSURANCE. Your bank, your health provider, your university, tons of agencies provide travel insurance. GET IT. FOR SURE. And also make several copies, leave a copy with someone before you leave, and have it with you at all times
From chatting with people who haven't travelled and from our own first time experiences of going to new countries, these have been the greatest worries. The truth is, a lot of bad does not happen, and we've found the horror stories few and far between. For the most part, people want you to have a good time in their country, they want you to come back, so unless you're going to Warsaw ... see our blog about that here... you most likely will have a fabulous time. Be smart, be safe, be paranoid, and you'll be fine.
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