Traveling-Forever travel tips

Secrets Smart Travelers Know to Stay Safe on the Road

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Should you be worried about danger when traveling? Wondering about this is normal, but don’t worry. Just be prepared and use your common sense.

As a tour director for 18 years and as a traveler for more years than I can remember, I’ve found myself and my tour members in vulnerable situations on occasion. Yes, I’ve fallen prey to tricksters that caused me a lot of grief at the moment, but luckily, I can look back now and laugh.

The reason I can laugh is that in my cases, the danger from thieves in foreign destinations involved loss of possessions. No physical harm was part of the robber’s m.o.

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Robbed in Madrid

Madrid is one of my favorite cities of the world, but like many cities, it has a reputation for robbing or scamming tourists. And that reputation is well deserved – at least, in my experience.

I don’t even have to look at my journal entries, and three times in Madrid pop into my brain when a robber attempted to relieve me of my money. The first time was successful, but I learned a little about the technique and was able to recognize it afterward before the next thief was successful.

So how did I end up at a police station in Madrid crying my eyes out?

I was walking along Calle de Bailén on my way to the Royal Palace. Madrid is usually full of people out walking, but not this street was strangely empty on this day. I wasn’t in any hurry and was casually strolling along.

Shortly after a lady passed by me, I felt a warm liquid hit my right shoulder. I looked back and a man pointed up to the trees, indicating that a bird had dropped a load on me.

I stopped and put my purse on the bench that was conveniently along the sidewalk. The woman ran back and gave me a tissue. Wasn’t she kind? Wrong! She then grabbed my purse and ran.

The man immediately took off after her. Wasn’t he kind to try to help me? Wrong again. A car pulled up and stopped just long enough for the two to jump inside and then speed away.

You can imagine my shock. All my assumptions about the situation were so totally wrong. And I wasn’t a novice traveler even though this was many years ago.

And I’m from Chicago, where danger supposedly lurks behind every corner. Still, I was naïve enough to not recognize what was happening until the damage had already been done.

Lesson Learned

I was, however, smarter the next two times that something similar happened. I realized that I needed to watch people more carefully, so when my traveling buddy Sarah and I were out in a crowded area, I recognized when a man and woman were planning the same kind of robbery.

When I pointed out to Sarah how the man and woman who’d been walking together had split up but were still in sending signals to each other, Sarah went right up to the guy and started spouting out how she was going to call the police. I don’t know if the guy understood English, but the word police seems to be universal. The man and woman got away from us as quickly as they could. They’d probably never been confronted by a potential victim like that.

General Advice

When you are traveling, it is important that you not stand out as a traveler. Acting like a tourist can make you a target for crime.

A simple fact of life is that many places, while depending on tourism for earning money, are full of people who dislike tourists. Actually, that’s not true. They love tourists, but for the wrong reasons.

As a tour director, I gave lots of advice to my tour members so that they wouldn’t suffer the same fate that I’d suffered that day in Madrid. Here are some of the tips I gave them.

  • Before you leave the hotel, take a look at yourself in the mirror. Your appearance should look the same as if you were going grocery shopping back home.
  • Avoid wearing fanny packs around your waist. Only tourists wear these – and usually only American tourists. Not only do fanny packs label you a tourist, they are very easy for thieves to get into – either by slicing the strap that goes around your waist or by holding a map in front of your face and asking a question while one hand goes into the fanny pack.
  • Instead, women should carry a purse that can go diagonally across their bodies. If the shoulder strap isn’t long enough for that, keep the purse tight to your body under your elbow.
  • Men should put their wallets in front pockets – never in back pockets.
  • Don’t open up paper maps to check your location or destination. Looking at a large map identifies you as a tourist. If possible, photocopy the area on the map that you plan to visit on that day. Thieves won’t recognize you as a tourist if you’re looking as some photocopies. If you can’t get photocopies, before you leave the hotel, fold the map to show only the area you’ll be visiting while you’re out.
  • An alternative to a map is to use your mobile device to help you get directions.
  • Probably the most important of all is to not have your camera out constantly for taking pictures.
  • Once you reach an actual tourist destination, you may use your camera openly. Tourist locations expect this behavior. But on the way to the tourist destination, you should take care to not look like a tourist. Even if you have your luggage with you, do your best to act like a local and make sure that you know where you are going ahead of time.
  • Ladies shouldn’t sit their purse down beside them on a bench because it’s easy to get distracted and not see a thief taking it or taking something out of it. Yes, this one happened to me in Jakarta, Indonesia. After I sat down and put my purse right next to me, someone dropped coins about 20 feet in front of me. While I watched my ex-husband help pick them up, the partner of the coin dropper grabbed my purse and ran.

Traveling-Forever pickpocket

  • Original passports should be left in the safe so that they wouldn’t be lost if pickpocketed.
  • Don’t take all your money with you. Leave most of it in the safe.
  • Don’t take all your credit cards with you. Take one and leave the rest in the safe.

You might wonder how many of my tour members forgot to take items from the safe on departure day. I had a solution for that. I suggested putting a shoe into the safe – the shoe that they expected to wear on the travel day. When they wanted to put it on, they’d remember it was in the safe, and they’d be sure to get all their other valuables as well.

Tour Members Don’t Always Believe the Tour Director

Len and Mary Jones from Seattle were on tour with me in St. Petersburg, Russia. They heard the same advice I gave on every tour about avoiding getting robbed. I even gave them written handouts with advice.

But like many tour members, they chose not to follow the advice I’d given. Yes, I sometimes felt like I was talking for my own benefit. Still, I shared the information when I was talking on the microphone and also in writing.

One afternoon, I got a phone call from Len. Would I please come to their room? Len had ignored three important pieces of advice.

  • He had all his money in his wallet.
  • He had all his credit cards in his wallet.
  • His wallet was in one of his back pockets.

Yes, St. Petersburg, Russia, is another city that used to have a well-deserved reputation for pickpocketing. The situation has become better now that a school for children to learn pickpocketing was closed down.

In any case, a clever thief made out very well when he picked Len’s wallet out of his back pocket. Len lost everything, except his passport. Mary still had her purse and her credit card, but because the card was tied to Len’s card, both had to be canceled.

Traveling-Forever pickpocket

They soon learned that credit cards could not be replaced quickly. We still had several days on our trip, and then they were going to France for another week before returning home.

The credit card wouldn’t reach them in time to cover the rest of their trip, so I loaned them enough cash to last until they returned home.

Did Len learn this valuable lesson? I certainly hope so.

Being alert and aware of the types of dangers that thieves pose is the best way to avoid becoming a victim.


Most likely, the biggest dangers you’ll encounter overseas are germs that are different from what your body became accustomed to at home. These germs aren’t generally more dangerous than the ones at home, but they’re different and lying in wait for new victims.

Wash your hands as often as you can, but just expect that at some point, you may come down with stomach problems, diarrhea, colds, etc.


Unless you have chosen to go into a war zone, terrorism is way down at the bottom of the list of dangers you might encounter. However, places that seemed safe in the past now seem to share equally in the possibility of receiving a terrorist attack. Don’t worry about what you can’t control.

The U.S. Dept. of State issues warnings about the safety of traveling overseas, but sometimes they are a little off target when they list places not safe to visit. For example, Indonesia is usually on that list, but if you talk to the expats living there, they’d probably tell you that it’s safer than where they came from – New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc.


Hi – I’m Kate – shoestring traveler to Indonesia, Nepal, India, Tibet, Malaysia, Thailand, Spain, Russia, Siberia, and more – well-trained and loyal servant to 5 whippets and 2 Dalmatians – blogger about all things travel and dogs. Join me to explore the amazing adventure that can give you location independence.

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