The reasons I haven’t used a guide book on my travels for well over ten years are:
1) They make inexperienced travellers suspicious before leaving the airport immigration hall and…
2) If you want the most up to date information and real glimpse into the country, speak to local people. They can add so much to your journey and you don’t have to lug them around in your backpack!
Sure guide books are chock full of pearls of wisdom, maps and historical information which for a new traveller is gold dust; it’s not the way I prefer to travel. I think this comes down to backpacking around the Middle East as one of my first trips; 22 years old, completely wet behind the ears, learning the rules of the travel world first hand and making mistakes as I went.
Would I be a savvier traveller if I had stuck to guide books? Or are these life lessons an essential part of the journey? Yes I think they are but despite considering myself a streetwise and aware traveller, I still get ripped off once in a while. These days when I get cheated or overcharged I take my hat off to them. Why? Because if they are smarter or more desperate then me then fair enough.
I truly believe we need to put our faith in the cosmos when travelling. We should be open to new situations and whatever the world wants to teach us. Equally we should travel safely and be aware of what’s happening around us.
Now readers, I don’t suggest you are going to be attacked when you walk out of your hotel room, you are NOT a walking target with a bull’s-eye slapped on your back but if you sauntered around with your eyes closed, it might just end with you in tears making a collect-call home.
Here are a few of life’s little nuggets that I personally live by to travel safely. Some of these have be learnt the hard way and others are just my personal preference. Before I real off my pearls of wisdom, they won’t appeal to everyone – please don’t send me hate mail.
When and where to change money and how much to carry? Unless you are planning on buying precious stones in Thailand to resell back home (please don’t do this) I try to keep a maximum of GBP200/US$300 with me in local currency with me at any one time.
Cash machines – Obviously if you’re going remote where there aren’t cash machines you’ll need more, but if you’re in New Zealand or the tourist trail in Vietnam you’re never far from topping up. So why £200/US$300? Because it’s there when you need it and won’t break the bank if you lose it.
Money belts – Personally I don’t like them or use them but that’s personal preference, for all intensive purposes they work well. I keep everything I’m not keen to lose in my day bag and guard it with my life (including taking it to the bathroom when I shower in budget hotels). But if I was travelling somewhere with a lot of cash and I felt on edge, I have used a belt (as in to hold up trousers) with a zip inside to conceal folded up notes. Don’t do like I did and forget there was money stashed inside and leave the country.
Split your money – If you lose your cash you don’t want to lose it all. Keep money and cards in different places so if your wallet goes missing, you won’t be reduced to dinners of plain boiled rice. Many a traveller has been stuck in one place whilst they wait for another card; don’t be one of these people. Wouldn’t you rather be on a beach somewhere relaxing instead?
Hotel safe – I have mixed opinions about this and it’s only because I’ve worked in the travel industry for a long time. Ultimately you take your chances. I’ve used budget hotel safes in the past by putting my money inside an envelope, sealing and signing over the seal with a pen and never had any issues. These days however, I prefer to keep everything with me so I only have myself to blame if things go wrong. The only exception is if I’m heading out for a boozy night, then I either use a hotel safe or hide my money inside an empty shampoo bottle, why? Because regardless of how desperate people are, they won’t take your shampoo!
A few tips
– Know where you’re going each day, what you’re doing and how much you should need so you’re not carrying an excessive wad of cash
– Don’t leave money in that ‘secret’ compartment in your backpack on a hostel floor, it’s just asking for trouble
– There is no need to flash a wad of bills around – opportunistic thieves are more prone to act if they can see money burning a hole in your pocket
– When changing money, ask for small denomination notes and what I do if handing over a big bill (I have an Argentinian taxi driver to thank for this one) is take a brief glance at the serial number in case they swap notes
– After taking out/changing money be aware of who is around and if they are following you. I don’t mean to make you nervous, it is just a habit of mine
– Don’t accept ripped or marked bills where possible. Some places like South America don’t accept ripped American notes
– Don’t change money at the airport before travelling, in my experience the rate is better locally. Ask the hotel for the best place to change money
– Changing money on the black market; alarm bells should be ringing. I’ve done it before but I typically stay well away because there are other options and why risk ending up with a wad of counterfeit notes?
– After changing money, count it before walking away, changing any bills you’re not happy with
– Pay what you think is fair – so many travellers compare who paid what but at the end of the day, pay what you think is fair. If it’s too expensive then bargain, but barter the way it’s meant to be done as opposed to a dual to the death
Who can you trust?
This is where common sense and your instincts should be trusted. Some of my worst mistakes have had beautiful consequences but can also go horribly wrong. Do your research, use the internet, ask locals and other travellers who they used and what they paid so you know what to expect. Ask the right questions and gauge the response; does it sound dodgy? If you meet someone in a backpacker bar, is this really a reputable contact and are you sober enough to judge? Personally; if I’ve done my research I’ll trust anyone if they can offer me what I want, at the right price and can answer questions without just saying yes to everything. Most people are essentially good people.
Reading Situations & trusting your instincts
Most people are pretty clever and know when situations are not safe (or will soon enough). Trust your instincts and if something doesn’t seem right, walk away to consider your options. Read the situation and make the right decisions based on your options. Don’t be pressured into something or feel like you can’t say no. I once saw a lady get ‘pressured’ into buying a CAD$1000 rug with sweet apple tea and smooth talk because she felt like she couldn’t say no, then tried to cancel the transaction later when it was too late. If in doubt walk away and think about it, or better still, use the internet and speak to locals for recent feedback.
A few tips
– If the taxi driver says your hotel is closed and he knows another, he is probably trying to make a commission from the hotel
– If you need to pay in advance and it seems legit, ask for a voucher or receipt
– Don’t always take people at their word if they say something isn’t possible or doesn’t work like that anymore. If you’ve done your research you’ll know how it works and what can be done. We put man on the moon and anything is possible, so ask around and ask the right questions to the right people
– Trust your better judgement, this is typically the safest way to travel
Luckily for you I wrote a blog on just this, Travelling Solo . The best thing for any solo traveller is to meet others for company and safety. If a solo traveller asks to join you for dinner or you see someone on their own, they may be out of their comfort zone.
A few tips
– Join group city tours to meet people to travel independently with
– Join a group tour for a country you feel particularly unsafe in
– Make an effort in hostels and tourist areas to meet fellow travellers heading your way. Safety in numbers isn’t something to be sniffed at and if you’re feeling a bit shy, what’s the worst that could happen?
– Look like you know where you’re going. Even if you’re just out wandering around taking pictures, walk confidently and make sure you’ve checked if it’s safe to keep your camera out. As a keen photographer I’m certainly aware of this
– Do your research, choose a hotel in a safe area and don’t accept free drinks form locals if you haven’t seen it poured
I have travelled solo many times and never had any issues so I don’t want to panic you. When travelling with others there is always someone watching your back but when travelling alone, you can be more of a target and it pays to be aware of what is happening around you, and how you appear to others.
Under the influence
Don’t take all your fancy camera equipment or full wallet out when tasting foreign beers in foreign places. This is a mistake. So many times I have left things in pubs, or in taxis and woken up with a dirty hangover. What do you NEED to take out with you? How much do you think you’ll spend? Put some reserve money in your sock or back pocket in case of an emergency (or if someone has precious stones they are willing to sell you) and try not take a bag.
– If you’re going to fall asleep on an overnight bus, wrap your day pack (with valuables inside) around your leg or keep it in your lap. If the bus stops mid trip for a toilet break, take it with you even if it means losing your seat (the lesser of two evils right!)
– It’s common for hotel vendors to wait at bus stations to tout business, don’t be panicked by this. Remember you can always say no if the mattress has that ‘lived in’ look
– Get chatting to locals on the bus, they are the best source of information and will give you a great insight into the country, what to look out for, where to visit and avoid
So readers, you’ll see this information is only meant to make you aware, and not written to scare you. These are things that I’ve learnt and have been helpful on my travels. Rarely have things gone wrong for me and as long as you have common sense and have done your research, you should be ok.
Happy travelling folks.
A little about me.
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