As is usually the case, the best advice for travel safety and security, is just to use your common sense. Yeah right, but since when did any of us have any common sense, especially when we are excited, exhausted or overwhelmed?!
With that in mind we’ve put together some practical tips to keep you travelling safely. Some are fairly obvious, but others are ones that we learnt or perfected along the way.
And… for the record, during our recent 14 month travels in Latin America, we were not robbed and did not lose anything more significant than a pair of socks or a charger!
- DO back yourself up with insurance. Where there’s a risk, there will always be an insurance to cover it. Getting the right travel insurance for your trip might not always be the cheapest, but its important, so don’t neglect to get it sorted! Be careful of the small print if you plan to do any unusual activities. For example we would be spending a lot of time at altitude so needed to make sure that we were covered for hiking up to 4000m.
Insurance should be the first thing that you book so that everything else that you buy will be covered. Why not try asking for it for a birthday or Christmas present!
We used World Nomads’ Travel Insurance and were able to use it to claim for an X-Ray that Jess needed and a missed flight connection.
YOUR BIG BAGS
- DO research your backpack carefully, it’s probably going to be the most important item in your trip as well as your portable home for potentially a long time. It is worth going for a high quality one as it will have to withstand all sorts of mistreatment along the way. Alex got himself an Osprey Farpoint 70 and Jess an Osprey Wayfarer 70 especially designed for women. They have the advantage of opening up like a suitcase and having a smaller day bag attached to them, which is useful for excursions and short trips.
- DO carry your own bags – all sorts of ‘helpful’ people are going to want to carry your bags for you (for a fee of course). Whilst it may be tempting to be released from underneath that massive backpack for 5 minutes, try to do it yourself or at the very least keep an eagle eye on your assistant.
- DO get a receipt for your bag when it goes on a bus or boat. You always get a receipt when you fly so why shouldn’t you get one for other means of transport? It won’t always happen but get one if you can, reputable companies (such as Cruz del Sur in Peru, our favourite!) will operate some sort of system as there are so many stops on bus routes.
- DON’T automatically trust that your backpack that is being packed on top of a bus is protected from the elements. Even if a tarpaulin is applied it often is not very effective and although your bag says its waterproof we guarantee that it won’t stand up to a serious tropical soaking! We got very wet bags in the Peruvian Amazon and it wasn’t easy to dry our clothes in almost 100% humidity. Heavy duty bin bags and gaffa tape time!
- DO padlock your bags for long distance journeys. To be honest padlocks are more of a deterrent than actually useful as if someone really wanted to get into your bag or simply pinch it then they would. We had problems with our combination locks breaking and having to have them cut off – not such an easy thing to explain! In the end we just gave up on the padlocks altogether. But one could try disposable zip ties, which would also act as a deterrent.
- DON’T ever leave your bag unattended. Pretty obvious, right, but it really only does take a second and it’s gone! It’s not nice to be mistrustful all the time, but in less affluent countries it is common for tourists to be perceived as being rich and their bags being full of all sorts of goodies!
- DO be careful not to become a smuggler…of coca leaves or of fruit and vegetables that is. Many countries and even different areas within the same country have strict restrictions on organic goods! Jess got caught out by a sniffer dog taking satsumas from Lima to Arequipa in Peru, in Chile they got upset about our limes and honey and Belize had it in for our apples! And remember that coca tea or leaves are only legal in Peru and Bolivia!
- DO keep your valuables on your person on long (or short) bus journeys and of course your medicine, toothbrush and a spare pair of pants, just in case you are separated from your bags.
- DO choose the right day bag. Your day bag is probably going to contain more items of value than your big backpack, like your phone, MP3 player, camera, passport and cash. Choosing the correct bag is essential. It doesn’t have to be a specialist bag, but do choose one that you can buckle to yourself securely or wear diagonally over the shoulder. This is the best way to guard against bag snatching.
- DO think about a slash proof bag. As well as our basic rucksacks, Jess had a PacSafe slash proof handbag
- DO keep your day bag stuck to you like glue, especially when travelling on buses and so forth. Keep it on your lap, not above your seat or under your seat where it could be easily snatched whilst you snooze. This is especially important for long distance journeys where there can be many stops during the night.
- DO take a money belt or necklace where you can put your passport and cash close to your body.
- DO keep some money in your bag and some in your money belt/necklace or in your pockets. If you do get robbed you can hand over/lose a small amount of cash from your pocket or wallet, safe in the knowledge that the majority of your money is concealed on your body.
- DON’T carry your passport around with you unless absolutely necessary. Take some colour photocopies with you, normally a copy is sufficient to prove your identity and allow you to purchase tickets etc.
- DO have a night bag, that is a small bag of essentials that you can take out at night with you, especially if you are visiting bars or clubs.
SECURITY WHERE YOU ARE STAYING
- DO take advantage of storage where you are staying. Most accommodations will look after your bags if you have to wait around for your room to be ready or for onward transport. Also take a good look at where they are putting your bags and don’t leave them if you are not happy with the situation.
- DO invest in a portable safe, we got ourselves a Pacsafe Travelsafe 5L Anti-Theft Portable Safe . Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it sounds and we were really glad that we had bought one. It’s basically a slash proof bag that you can padlock around a bed or (our failsafe) a sink. We used it for our passports, credit cards, cash, laptop and camera. It prevents petty theft by employees of the accommodation, other guests or opportunistic intruders, which are much more likely than targeted robberies. The only downside is that it is quite a heavy piece of eqipment to add to your baggage.
- DO get the relevant vaccinations. You are very lucky that you have easy access to simple vaccinations for preventable diseases. Much of the world does not have this luxury! Normally you need to speak to your doctor’s surgery and fill in a form about what vaccinations you already have and what travel you are planning. Do this 6-8 weeks in advance of your travel date as some vaccinations need some time to be effective. The surgery will then give you their recommendations and the vaccinations can be booked in with a nurse. Quite a lot of the common vaccinations and boosters are free, but you may have to pay for something that is less administered like Rabies. We were vaccinated against Rabies and were happy that we had bought it after Jess was scratched by a sandwich stealing Capuchin monkey in Costa Rica!
- DON’T be unprepared for mosquitoes! Remember that as soon as they see a tourist they will devour him! Mosquito bites are irritating and ugly but more importantly mosquitos carry diseases like malaria, chikungunya, yellow fever and zika. The simple rules are to cover up with loose-fitting clothes at dawn and dusk when the mosquitoes are most active. Note that the clothes should be loose-fitting because mosquitoes are fully capable of biting through! Repellants that are worn can be effective but you need to make sure that the DEET percentage is very high. We had mixed results with indoor mosquito repellent plugs. Most accommodations in affected areas will have a mosquito net, but you may wish to bring your own in your backpack.
- DO consider taking a course of anti-malarial drugs if you are travelling to an infected area. Note that these should be bought in advance in your own country to avoid not being able to find them and being severely overcharged. The most commonly recommend drug is Malarone. This is a brand name, so you can immediately save money by ordering the generic medicine named Atovaquone. (If you are in the UK go to Asda pharmacy which sells the cheapest product). In the end we didn’t actually didn’t use our anti-malarials following advice from locals. Note that anti-malarials do have significant side effects and can leave you feeling unwell.
- DO use plenty of suncream. Pretty simple, put it on in small amounts regularly, especially in between going in the water and if you are shockingly translucent white British like Jess! The sun is always hotter and stronger than you think! Beware of powerful sun at high altitudes even if the temperature is cold and watch out for reflective sunburn from snow or water.
- DON’T wear insect repellant or sunscreen when visiting or swimming in nature reserves like cenotes in Mexico as the residue will damage the ecosystem. You can now buy suncream that is biodegradable. It costs a fraction more but is worth the price.
- DON’T drink the tap water unless it is widely accepted as safe. It may be unhygienic or just have a mineral composition that your body is not used to. We used Water to Go water bottles with filters which are a great way to get our water from pretty much anywhere, even the dodgiest public toilet tap. They also saved us the money and trouble of having to constantly find, buy and carry bottled water, though at times we treated ourselves with some mineral water.
- DO stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water especially when you are sweating a lot and also at altitude. Sports drinks like Gatorade are sometimes a better way to stay hydrated as they replace the salts and sugars that you are losing at the same time.
- DO use hand sanitiser before eating and wherever you don’t have access to a place to wash your hands thoroughly – pretty much everywhere!
- DON’T take risks with food. Apply common sense; does the area look clean? How was it stored? How old is it? Does it look OK? Does it smell alright? Is is cooked all the way through? Unfortunately quite often you won’t get satisfactory answers to any of the above questions, but for the lack of any alternatives (other than going hungry), a leap of travellers’ faith is required! We found that throughout Latin America there is no shortage of roast chicken and chips joints and they often proved to be the safest, and sometimes tastiest option.
- DO pack some Imodium for when you have to be on the move! The Spanish name for the medicine is loperamida.
- DO take the medicines you need or make sure that you know the generic name of your medicine rather than the brand so that you can easily ask for it in the pharmacy. In South and Central America we found pharmacies to be abundant and well stocked, although generally you need to ask for everything at the counter.
- DO carry a small first aid case. You can buy these off the shelf in most pharmacies and they will contain the basics for cuts, bruises, sprains and strains as well as other items like eyewash.
- DO get help when you need it, especially if you become dehydrated or unable to keep down food. Your accommodation can help you see a doctor, and normally they will come to you. The consultation price is less than £50 and normally the medicines you need will not cost too much. Keep the receipts and you may be able to claim it on your insurance. We saw doctors for food poisoning, an allergy and a finger injury and a monkey scratch!
- DO think about your comfort, you don’t want to come back a (physically or mentally) broken person! Travelling can be a noisy uncomfortable business. Take some good quality earplugs, we used beeswax earplugs (absolutely essential in most of South America where silence and peace are a real luxury), an eye mask and a blow up neck cushion.
- DON’T wear flip-flops all the time. Yes it can be very hot and not enjoyable to wear proper shoes, but when the terrain is rough or the ground very dirty, you really need to wear closed shoes with some grip.
- DO be prepared to lose stuff! That means that you really shouldn’t take anything with you that has any sentimental value. Jess was sad to leave her engagement ring at home, but losing it would have felt a lot worse (and she got married anyway!).
- DON’T bring unnecessary valuable items such as jewellery to avoid making yourself a target for thieves.
- DO be alert. It might be OK to walk around your home city with music playing in your earphones, but in places you are unfamiliar with you need to have all your senses switched on.
- DO be vigilant at the launderette! We lost quite a few items of clothing at launderettes. In Latin America you just leave your dirty pile and pick it up all washed and dried at a later point. We recommend familiarising yourself with what you sent to the laundry and counting the number of pieces that you left as it can be annoying to realise that something is gone when you are already in the next town! Also don’t expect too much from launderettes, sometimes clothes come back stinking more than when you brought them in. Consider doing your own hand washing whenever possible.
In conclusion, we believe that many developing countries suffer from a bit of a bad reputation when it comes to safety and security, but this is manly due to Western government agencies being over-cautious when giving travel advice (according to the UK Foreign Office, you should never leave the house!) and on bad PR management on the part of some countries. For example, Nicaragua is largely perceived in the west as being a dangerous place, perpetually on the brink of civil war, whereas conversely it is actually statistically the safest country in Latin America.
Safety when traveling long-term essentially boils down to two main things: common sense and a little bit of luck. Your good judgement (ie. avoiding gang-infested areas, not socialising with narco-traffickers and anyone with MS-13 tattooed on their foreheads!) will help you to create your own luck, to a certain extent. Some things are definitely out of your control though. Unfortunately we experienced a strong earthquake in Valparaiso, Chile, which also created a tsunami that devastated nearby fishing villages. But natural disasters aside, we were very lucky and didn’t experience any man-made troubles. Relax, do your research, follow our do’s and don’ts (obviously!) and you’ll be fine.