Yesterday, a friend’s daughter stopped by before she headed off to a semester in Cape Town, South Africa (Bon Voyage, Sarah!). Although Cape Town is my favorite city on the planet, I seriously considered Sarah’s questions about safety, and although she already knew some of what I passed along, a few of my tips surprised her.
What I shared with her applies to any teen, college student, millennial, or quite honestly, adult, heading out on an independent international adventure, so I decided to share them with you, too.
Here are 10 tips for safe international travel:
BEFORE YOU LEAVE HOME:
1. Take a picture of your passport: The old advice was to copy your passport’s info page, and I still do that and leave it with someone at home. But when you’re traveling internationally, you want to keep your personal details safe, and a photocopy kept in your wallet can easily be used for identity theft if you’re pickpocketed. Instead, take a photo with your smartphone (send the image to someone at home, too). If you need your passport info, you’ll have it on you, and if your phone is stolen, you can lock it, and your personal info, immediately.
2. Enroll in STEP: It stands for “Smart Traveler Enrollment Program,” and while that’s a mouthful, the acronym will hopefully help you remember to take the “step” (see, that’s catchier) to register with the US Department of State’s travel services before you start traveling. This info is relayed to the appropriate embassies and consulates at your destination. If there’s an emergency in your destination, the consulate will know you’re in country and relay relevant info and find a way to get you to safety if necessary. (Follow @TravelGov on social, too, for travel warnings and alerts.)
3. Get travel insurance: Not just for health emergencies (although it’s necessary for that, too), international travel insurance plans will help with lost luggage, cancelled flights, and, most importantly of all, repatriating you back home in case of emergency. (My personal choice when my family and I travel internationally is World Nomads — although study abroad programs will usually include insurance in their services.)
4. Register your credit cards: Let your banks know you’ll be on the road. This protects you in case of fraud, but also will stop you bank or credit card company from accidentally putting a stop on your card. Also make sure you have a card that doesn’t charge international fees — I have a Chase United card that works well, Capitol One is another popular choice. (NB: South Africa is deemed a “fraud risk” by Chase, so they won’t let you register that as a travel destination–very counter-productive, I know.)
5. Don’t pack valuables: My basic packing advice is always to keep important items (medication, glasses, phone) in your carry-on so they’re always with you. But you also want to keep expensive electronics — laptop, iPad, camera — in your possession. Although I trust airports, these items have been known to disappear from checked luggage on their way to far flung destinations. Yes, insurance will often cover the loss, but if you want your camera for the shot NOW it won’t be much help. If in doubt, keep it with you.
After you land:
6. Beware of Airport “Helpers”: This can be confusing, but in non-Western countries, there are often people in the airport acting as baggage help, airport information experts, or drivers who aren’t actually employed by the airport. DON’T FOLLOW THEM. I know this sounds obvious, but after you’ve been traveling for two days you might be so tired that help sounds appealing. Remember that officials will always have official markings and airport insignia. If in doubt, head to an official help desk or guard.
7. Pre-arrange a ride from the airport: This is often a saving grace for me, and doesn’t cost much more than public transportation in developing nations: a pre-arranged driver will have a sign with your name and be waiting for you after luggage collection, a welcome sight when you’re on your own. It also means that you have a predetermined cost for your ride so you don’t have to negotiate straight away, which is helpful as well. UBER is now an option in many countries (I use it in South Africa), and can be a good choice, too.
8. Have Smartphone, will travel: Yes, data plans are often expensive, and NEVER keep your phone on roaming. But, for the first day in your destination, set aside some of your budget for phone use until you hit where you’re staying so you can UBER or let family members know you’ve arrived safely. Then buy a SIM card to use in your new destination. I’ve also rented phones for literally pennies a day when I was in Africa.
Exploring Your Destination:
9. Try to blend: Take a look at what the locals are wearing in your destination. Everyone in pants and your were planning on shorts, maybe reconsider so you don’t stick out as a tourist. Consult your maps before you head out the door so you’re not wandering aimlessly in a new neighborhood. And leave your flashiest jewelry back at home.
10. Hit a Hotel: Obviously, I’m going to tell you to stick to areas where you know you’ll be safe, but if you ever feel uneasy, a big comfy hotel is solace. I told my teen friend to speak to the front desk and tell them her parents had stayed there once if it made her feel more comfortable, but honestly, for the price of a coke in the lounge, the hotel staff will be at your disposal. Consult the concierge for a safe passage home. Have the doorman call you a cab (I’ve done this on more than one occasion). Tip them for their help.
Most importantly, don’t let fear of the unknown keep you home. The world is filled with possibilities for you to explore, just do it safely.