Is there really such a thing as safe travel? Can you guarantee it?
Of course you can travel safely and no, there is no guarantee.
Traffic can happen anywhere. So can violence and theft. Even war and terrorist attacks can strike close to home.
Certain dangerous places trigger fear in travelers - places where terrorism is rife, where natural disasters occur frequently, where women are disrespected. Let's be honest - your primary emotion probably wouldn't be elation if someone handed you a ticket to Afghanistan or Syria right now. And this makes perfect sense.
But sometimes, our fears are not as rational. We may fear a place because we don't know it, because no one we know has ever been there, because we heard or read about someone's negative experience, because it's not covered in our guidebook - in short, we fear it because we know very little about it.
Why do we fear some of these more 'offbeat' places?
Does that mean you should stay away from less common destinations?
No! Please don't - you'd be missing some of the best travel has to offer. Just take a few precautions and you'll find that traveling to less-visited places is no more and no less safe than joining the crowds in Amsterdam or Rome.
Of course you'll use your common sense. But common sense alone might not be enough. Have you taken these steps too?
Is your mindset adventurous or terrified?
It does matter. If you feel or look like a victim, you might be drawn into situations you're not prepared to face. If you look strong and forthright, you'll feel more powerful. If you can't bring about those feelings, just pretend. LOOK powerful. Stride with purpose. The mindset will follow. Don't be afraid of something just because it's unfamiliar. Looking strong will also help deter anyone on the prowl for a victim.
Have you planned your visit intelligently?
This takes a little more thinking than your usual week in Paris because safety is at stake. Have you left you itinerary with someone you trust? Have you done as much research as you could - online, in books, at the library? Do you have some accommodation reserved? At least if you don't show up you'll be easier to track.
Have you checked your destination's safety rating?
I have a new favorite travel app and website - it's called Geosure - and it provides you with a safety rating for your destination (and it's free!). Rather than check every government listing and individual sites, it's all gathered for you in one place, with an interactive map so you can check out several places at once and even compare their safety ratings. Use it to plan your trip and in conjunction with newsbreaks and news alerts for your destination.
Have you matched your destination to your comfort level?
If you can't stand a sideways glance by unknown men, you probably should stay away from places like Spain or Morocco. Think of who you are, of your own personality, and try to match it to your destination. If you're open and smiling, try a country with a reputation for friendliness and hospitality. In other words, don't add to your burden if you don't have to.
Are you letting fear take over?
Fear is often irrational and no amount of logic will dislodge it. I've found that an effective way to deal with fear is something called the Emotional Freedom Technique, or EFT (you can find plenty of online courses - just search for EFT or tapping, as it's sometimes called). It's a simple technique you use to tap gently around certain parts of your face and chest - no one really knows how it works, but it does. It has walked me down cliffs (in the throes of severe vertigo), helped me swim safely to shore, or climb narrow mountain roads I was sure would lead to certain death.
Are you physically protected?
No, not a weapon, but a whistle (hat tip to Jodi of Legal Nomads for this one). I admit I did carry a small cannister of mace with me when I crossed Africa but that wasn't for people - it was for stray dogs, which scared me more than people. Another way I've protected myself is by taking a self-defence course. I never planned on using what I'd learned BUT it skyrocketed my sense of self-confidence. Knowing I COULD use these techniques changed my mindset. (And I happen to carry a safe travel talisman when I travel. Yep.)
Do you have an escape route?
Last year I visited Sri Lanka and planned to stay by the sea, but memories of the 2004 tsunami haunted me. I decided to invest in a commercial alert service that would send me a text message whenever unusual underwater activity was detected. I also mapped an escape route on Google Maps: I looked at the aerial photographs and carefully traced my steps to safety - just in case. I'm glad I did because when I checked into my hotel and asked about tsunami escape routes, the staff looked at me as though I was a lunatic. I was happy to have my printed map with highlighted route safely in my bag.
Are you wearing the right clothes?
Yes. Really. In addition to the usual - look conservative in conservative societies - there's another dimension to fashion. If you are traveling somewhere potentially dangerous, pay careful attention to your clothing. Women, don’t wear high heels or anything that will impede your running. Men, don’t make that rookie traveler’s mistake and carry so much gear that you can barely break a shuffle with your pack on.
Have you protected your online information and persona?
Traveling can often mean exposing yourself to unscrupulous data thieves when you use free or unsecured WIFI at airports, hotels and the like. Find out what it means to protect your data, why it is now indispensable, and how to do it by using a virtual private network, or VPN.
What kind of traveler are you?
This will influence the safety measures you take. Are you a mature or senior traveler? A young girl on a gap year? Are you a mother traveling with children? A lesbian traveling alone or with your partner? A woman taking a trip on your own for the first time? Each of these circumstances means you'll look at safety through a different lens.
How will you cope?
A lot of it comes down to preparedness. If you visit a place having done your research, and with your eyes wide open (as I did when preparing for Sri Lanka), you'll have a better stab at safety should something arise.
This seems like a good time to throw a few statistics out, because our fears are often so unfounded. Did you know that...
Here are some of the things you should consider.
And then there's this sobering fact: sometimes, you can do nothing.
I certainly didn't expect to get lost in a minefield in Mozambique or in the Amazon rainforest. It happened - and I was terrified. In both cases I was lucky - yes, luck does play a part.
It would be nice not to have to think about any of this scary stuff, but that would be foolish. Being prepared and aware will usually do the trick, and most women can and do travel safely, facing no more danger than they would on their own doorstep.
Yes, we can all stay safe. All we have to do is give it a bit of thought before we travel instead of playing ostrich and hiding our heads in the sand in the belief that things only happen to 'other' people. And that may well be the case - because you'll be prepared.