Staying safe when travelling in a foreign place is a difficult but crucial aspect of planning for any trip. For a lot of people, it’s easy to pretend things will be fine, and let’s be honest, they probably will be. But it is always worth preparing for the worst.
And as a woman, it is even more important to protect yourself and your belongings. I apply every tip on this list where possible and I am confident they have helped keep me out of trouble. At the very least, they have helped me feel a bit more comfortable in new places and more confident that I can make the right decisions.
If you follow these tips you will greatly reduce your risk as a female traveller.
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1. Choosing the right bags and tips for avoiding theft
Bags for everyday use
In some countries, handbags are easy targets for thieves. They’re easy to snatch, hide and typically contain valuables.
For these reasons, I almost always opt for my daypack instead in countries such as Southeast Asia where petty crime rates are high. I carry it on my front as it is harder for anyone to get into it and if I do carry it on my back, I’ll put a lock on it.
Pack valuable items at the bottom of your bag under a jumper, towel, hat etc. This will make it a lot harder to get to and by the time they reach into the bottom of your bag, you’ll likely have noticed.
When seated, put one arm strap secured under a chair leg or if you’re on a bus or train, on your lap rather than on the floor.
If you decide to wear a handbag, there are some things you can do to make yourself less of a target for theft. Instead of draping your handbag over your shoulder, wear it across your body. This makes it harder to pull it off your body.
Keep the handbag on the side of your body facing the shops i.e. not close to the road. Some countries are notorious for handbag snatching by moving motorcyclists! Keeping it on the other side will make it more difficult to snatch. It seems hard to believe but thieves have perfected the art – I’ve had a friend who had this happen to her. Luckily, she escaped with her handbag and without any injuries!
Just like the daypack, do not leave your handbag unattended. When sitting down keep it on your person – leave it across your body and move the bag onto your lap. Alternatively, make sure the strap is under the chair leg before placing the bag on your lap.
If you’re travelling alone at the beach and are wanting to go for a swim, you’ll need to decide what to do with your valuables.
You could look out for families nearby and ask them if they could watch your belongings. Some beaches can be quite remote so this is not always the best option.
Alternatively, use a Moko Waterproof Phone Pouch so you can physically take your valuables with you in the water. This is the option I always use. Be sure to test whether the pouch is waterproof before use, but I’ve never had problems with mine and it has been well-used!
Other options include digging a bit of a hole in the sand to put your backpack, then put your towel over the top or even better, putting your valuables in a snaplock bag and burying those partially in the sand. If someone does take your belongings, they’ll just grab the bag on top without knowing the valuables are under your towel.
Some also recommend putting valuables into an empty sunscreen bottle. For me, I definitely think it’s safest to have my valuables on me so I always carry my waterproof pouch.
Keep your backpack locked so no one has a chance to go through your belongings on the beach. These TSA Locks do the trick.
Checked in luggage
For checked in luggage, consider opting for a large backpack rather than a rolling suitcase. It makes you a lot more mobile and it’s a lot harder to snatch when moving from place to place. Large backpacks especially have a chest strap you can buckle to secure it on your back.
Pack as light as possible. You’re likely to buy things and shop when you’re on holiday so your luggage is only going to get heavier. I usually aim to leave with 10 kg and often return with 16-18 kgs.
I still do carry a wheeled suitcase as it is less stress on my back than carrying a large backpack. If you do carry a wheeled suitcase, make sure you can carry the weight and if not, pack lighter. Yes, you’ll be able to wheel it through most places but there are times where you’ll have to pick it up and carry it i.e. over gravel or up hostel stairs. If you are seen struggling with your baggage, this makes you an easier target for mugging.
2. Keep money in multiple places
This is an incredibly easy tip to follow. No matter how safe the country, I always do this as a just-in-case.
For starters, I carry a small, inconspicuous wallet. It’s just a simple pouch with a zip I bought at a market in New Zealand. This fits into my pocket more easily (we all know women’s clothing can have ridiculously tiny pockets, if that).
Because it’s less easily seen, pickpockets are less likely to identify it on you. In saying that, never keep your wallet in your back pocket. It is the first place pickpockets go for.
When my pockets aren’t big enough or it looks too obvious having a wallet in my pocket, I just go without one. Fold up some cash and tuck that into your pocket instead.
If I’m carrying a backpack with me, I’ll put my wallet at the bottom of my bag underneath a jumper, drink bottle etc. As I mentioned earlier, this just makes it harder to get to IF someone manages to get into my bag.
If I don’t have a pocket, I’ll safety pin a secret pocket to the inside of my shorts or bottoms to keep a bit of cash in.
This tip doesn’t work as easily if you’re wearing a dress. When going on holiday, I usually bring the two dresses I’ve had tailored with pockets. If I’m not wearing one of those dresses, I’ll bring a bag and also wear my secret bra pocket, the Eagle Creek Bra Stash. It is a little strange to access this is public, so I don’t keep everyday items in here – just a card and some petty cash for emergencies.
Travel security accessories
This is my favourite travel security item. It’s not bulky at all – just big enough to put an emergency card or two and some cash. Just clip it onto your bra underneath your clothing either in the front or on the side.
Money Scarf or Bracelet
These are alternatives to the bra stash. The scarf is great for colder climates and the bracelet is easily accessible from the wrist. But, it can look awkward and bulky. Thin money belts are also an option.
Travel Wallet/Fanny pack
I recommend you avoid using these if you’re travelling during warmer weather. Amongst the recent years, thieves have learned how to spot these under your clothing, especially as the buckles are quite bulky. They should be totally fine to use in colder climates as you will be wearing many layers anyway.
Other places to store cash include inside your socks and shoes.
Sew pockets inside your clothing
I have a secret pockets in my denim jacket that really comes in handy. If you can hand sew and can get your hands on some material, sew a secret pocket inside your jackets and other outerwear.
You can buy some clothing with secret pockets specifically for travel. The most common one I’ve come across is a tank top with inconspicuous zips under the armpits. I’ve never actually bought any travel-safe clothing and have instead chosen to add things to my original pieces. This may be a better option for travellers on a budget.
3. Blend in with the locals
It is recommended to dress like the locals and blend in so you become less of a target. If people dress conservatively in your destination country, avoid wearing short outfits, heels and flashy jewellery.
An easy way to blend in is to wear muted clothing or neutral colours and buy some clothing at your holiday destination. You’re probably planning on doing this anyway when you’re out shopping.
Do I stick to this? Yes and no.
I definitely don’t stick to neutral-coloured clothing. I personally love wearing bright colours and floral prints.
Instead, I’ll try to blend in by not wearing flashy jewellery, heels and dressing conservatively around temples and countries where this is custom.
When travelling, I’ll always bring a minimal amount of jewellery. I’m not so much into jewellery as it is and only really wear stud earrings and a couple of rings on a daily basis, so this tip is easy for me.
Bring one pair of earrings and a necklace that will go with all your more formal outfits. Choose something that is versatile which matches most of your outfits.
The good thing is if you do want to bring quite a few pieces of jewellery, it doesn’t take up much space in your suitcase. Even so, make sure you don’t bring your most expensive pieces. You don’t want to lose your favourites and you may not be covered by travel insurance. Check this before packing.
If travel insurance won’t cover your engagement or wedding rings, it may pay to leave these at home. Another popular option is to wear placeholder rings. Buy a cheap ring from ebay or etsy that looks similar to the original and bring this instead.
If you’re carrying a camera, you’ll easily be identified as a tourist. When you’re walking around markets, restaurants or places where you’re not going to take pictures, keep your camera hidden in your bag.
When you do carry your camera, always sling it across your body. If you have it hanging off one shoulder like a handbag, it’ll be so much easier to snatch.
4. Location sharing
Download the google maps app. Click the menu button (three horizontal lines) then location sharing. Select the ‘add a person’ icon and select the person you want to share it with. Make sure you have their email in your phone so you can find them in your list.
The most useful way to use this would be to share your location with someone in the same city as you. But if you’re travelling solo just share it with a friend or family member back home. Let them know where you’ll be for the day and message them at the end of the day so they know you’re safe.
Give them your accommodation details so they can call reception if they need.
Another essential I carry with me without fail is a power bank. In case your phone runs out of battery, this will have you covered. Technology is important for keeping you connected when you’re travelling, whether it be to communicate with friends and family or even using google maps so you don’t end up lost.
5. Carry a fake wallet
If you’re worried about getting mugged, consider carrying a fake wallet. I personally don’t do this but it’s a commonly-used tip for travellers.
Keep a small amount of money in here and no cards. If you do happen to get mugged, you can hand over the wallet without losing too much.
It’s more likely thieves are interested in your money, not you. So if you do find yourself in this situation, throw your wallet as far as you can and run the other way to flee from the scene. You might lose $5, but you’ll escape safely which is much more important.
6. Do your research before travelling
Know the scams
Research the scams that may occur in your destination country and find out how to avoid them. It also pays to research expected costs, so you do not pay more than you should. An example of this includes transportation from the airport, foreign exchange rates and food costs.
You can also see where the locals recommend. Go to a restaurant full of locals, rather than the expensive restaurant full of tourists, charging tourist prices.
Here are some of the most common scams and how to avoid them:
- PIck pocketing – don’t carry a wallet in your back pocket, keep your bag locked or keep your wallet at the bottom of your bag
- Handbag snatching – sling your handbag across your body, avoid using a handbag in busy areas, keep your handbag on the front of your body and hold onto your handbag when walking if possible.
- Taxi scams – don’t fall for ‘the meter is broken’. If this happens, find another taxi. Using the meter is the fairest for both parties, use reputable taxi brands or use the Gojek, Uber and Grab apps.
- Money changer scams – money changers may use sleight of hand techniques. You may not be able to tell they’re hiding a few bills before handing you the stack. Always be the last person to count your money.
- Rental damage scams – when returning your rental vehicle or equipment, you may be told to pay exuberant fees for damage that was already there before you rented it. Always take pictures of your rental equipment before you use it so that you can prove the damage was not your doing.
Get familiar with the location
Do some research into your location before travelling – find out the best areas to stay and where to avoid. It may be best to stay in tourist areas. These are often busy areas which are well-lit.
I feel much more comfortable staying at a reputable hostel in the middle of the city rather than in the middle of nowhere down a deserted alleyway.
When you arrive, find out information from the locals. Hotel/hostel staff are always great sources of information. Find out the nearest restaurant, police station, bus stop, train station, the easiest way to get a taxi and the areas to stay away from.
Enter emergency contact numbers
Before entering into a new country, google numbers that may be of importance and save these onto your phone. This includes the following:
- Emergency (police, fire and ambulance)
- Reputable taxi companies
- Hotel/hostel reception
- Travel insurance
- Tour bookings
- Local embassies for your country
Yes, it’s a pain having to enter in all these numbers before your trip. But if you’re caught in an emergency or stressful situation, this will definitely come in handy.
Learn local phrases
Learn phrases of the local language to help you communicate. You don’t have to go into some in depth learning, but learning a few phrases can really help you get by. Have the Google Translate app downloaded as well.
Here are a few phrases I try to learn before entering a new, non-English-speaking country:
- Thank you
- Do you speak English?
- How much is this?
- Where is the toilet?
It pays to be organised.
Print out all your travel documents before you go. This includes insurance details, hotel bookings, flights, tours etc. You may be caught in a power outage or your phone may be out of battery or not working. This happened to me once when I was caught in a tropical storm!
If you’re travelling during busy periods, have accommodation booked before you arrive. If you’re the type of person who wants to scope out a place before deciding to stay, just book for a night or two in advance.
My friend once arrived in a small town in Southeast Asia and began looking for accommodation. Unbeknownst to her, there was a festival on at the same time and accommodation was fully booked literally everywhere. She even checked the top 5-star hotels as she was desperate.
She was so lucky to end up with one lovely hostel owner who allowed her and her friends to sleep in their outdoor patio free of charge.
Although this is an unlikely situation, check beforehand if it is a busy season or during a festival. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
7. Avoid travelling at night
If you do feel unsafe or nervous in your holiday destination, avoid travelling at night. Get up bright and early to make the most of daylight hours.
As I mentioned earlier, book accommodation in a busy area. That way when it does get dark, your hotel will be close to all the amenities you need – cafes/restaurants, supermarket, pharmacy etc.
8. Take martial art lessons
This is not at all compulsory and easily the most expensive tip on my list. It could be a great option if you’re looking for a hobby or something to do to keep fit before you go travelling.
Krav Maga is said to be the best type to learn for self-defense. It was developed for the Israel Defense Forces. The technique combines many martial arts and fight training.
This is something I’ve looked into and am really interested to learn, but unfortunately lessons in my home country are very expensive!
9. Always be observant
Don’t walk with headphones on
Everyone loves to listen to music during a commute, but this may not be the best idea during solo travel in a foreign country. This especially goes for nightime.
Wearing headphones or earphones will take away your sense of hearing, so you may not be able to hear someone come up behind you or a motorbike speeding past.
Instead, you could try wearing just one earphone so one ear will still be receptive to outside noises. Or limit its use until you’re sitting on a train or bus.
Trust your instincts
If you find yourself in a situation where you feel uncomfortable, remove yourself from it.
This includes finding a different hostel or hotel room once you’ve arrived, even if you’ve paid for it. Your safety is more important than the cost of a room in a safer place. Some travel insurance companies may reimburse you in these cases.
We once arrived at a hotel in Phuket which we thought we’d be more than happy with. We always read plenty of reviews and do our research. However, when we arrived we were told to leave our room key in a bowl at the reception instead of taking it with us.
The reason for this is because many hotel guests had lost their keys in the past and it was expensive for the hotel to replace. But the bowl was in the middle of an often unattended reception area with an open deck for the public to access. What’s more, is the deposit to use a safety deposit box (usually free) was ridiculous.
We stayed there one night and snuck our key with us when we went out for the day, but the next day we found a better place to stay. Thankfully, we were partially refunded by our travel insurance company.
Don’t get drunk
Drinking alcohol will make you less aware of your surroundings and slow your reaction time. I’m not saying you should completely abstain from drinking, but definitely limit your intake. If you enjoy having a cocktail or a wine, then it’s perfectly fine to go out for one drink. Instead of getting tipsy or drunk which will dull your senses and could potentially put you in danger, switch to mocktails.
Another option is to buy some alcohol through duty-free or a supermarket and make some cocktails in your hotel room during a night in. This is a better option for budget travellers as drink prices can be inflated in bars and restaurants.
Another tip – don’t tell people where you’re staying. You never know what kind of person you’re talking to. If someone asks, just say “I’m just staying in a hostel in the city centre” rather than specifying exactly where.
10. Join a tour
Tours are a great way to travel as you’ll always be with people and you can make friends to travel with after the tour is over. Contiki and Topdeck are both very popular tours with a huge range of destinations and durations. It takes the stress out of your travel as you’ll have everything planned for you and it is a superb way to make friends.
I have done one Contiki and had the time of my life. The major drawback is that they are always pricey. You could book the same trip (minus the social aspect) for a lot less.
For budget conscious travellers, this definitely won’t be the best option for you. Instead, joining a day tour every so often could be a way to spend your days with others.
Otherwise, book a hostel with a social atmosphere. Some hostels run cheap day tours for those staying at the hostel. You can also meet others like yourself when you’re in a common area such as the bar. Consider splitting taxis with them to save money and also to have some travelling companions.
11. If you’re in trouble, make a scene
If you do find yourself in trouble, make a scene to draw attention to yourself. Passersby may hear you and come to your aid and the offender may leave you alone if they are worried they’ll be identified.
Pepper spray has been widely used for many years as a form of defence. Others have used everyday products as alternatives such as hairspray or mosquito spray. If you’re already planning on bringing these with you, this could be a great option. Check with customs before using these as they may be confiscated in few countries as they are seen as a weapon.
Instead, people tend to carry small travel whistles to draw attention to themselves if they ever are in a dangerous situation. They are compact and many come on a keychain to be easily attached and carried around with you every day.