A few years ago I was headed out of the United States for the first time in my life. I was on my way to tour Italy with my future wife. While it was only going to be a 7 Day trip (Damn American Vacation Policies) we had plans to visit the beach side town of Rimini, then Venice, and then Rome. This trip abroad would teach me a lot about safe international travel and prepare me to visit Russia, a potentially hostile foreign country. As the day to depart came closer I finished up all the planning, checked the reservations, and packed my bags.
There are a lot of things to do before traveling overseas, and it can be easy to overlook personal safety in between all that planning.
Italy is a place known for its quick handed thieves and loosing your passport and credit cards in a foreign country is a real pain the ass.
So prepare for it.
Here are some safe travel tips:
Keep your space and stay aware.
Situational awareness is key to protecting yourself and your items. The only way a thief is going to be able to pick pocket you is if you give them the chance to get close enough. When viewing popular tourist sights keep your eyes open and don't get to close to other people. When on public transportation find an open area or cover your pockets if you must walk through a tight crowd.
Walk around and act like you know what you are doing, even if you have no clue. Make it look like you have been to that country before. Experienced criminals will pick you out of the crowd and prey on you if they can tell you are looking lost, tired, or unsure.
Do not be that loud group of Americans that everyone can pick out of a crowd. Trust me, I have seen it more times than I would like to overseas and every time it makes me disappointed at the lack of tact some people have. Yea they make us look like Ugly Americans, and yes, you should read that book. When in a foreign country take their lead, do as they do. For this you will need to have an open mind and honestly your experience will be so much more interesting and immersing. Try dressing similarly to how that native population does, this will make it harder for someone to pick you out as a foreigner from a distance.
Use a hidden wallet.
You can buy these all over the internet and come in all different styles. Some are worn around the neck, others near the ankle or leg, and a lot of them are designed to sit inside your waistband attached through your belt. Personally I purchased a hidden waist wallet on amazon and used it to keep my passport, ID, Euros, and credit cards safe. I kept a small amount of money and change in my regular wallet and wore that in my front pocket instead of my back pocket. This will keep you from having to get in and out of your hidden wallet which can be a pain and also keep you from lifting your shirt up and revealing your stash to would be thieves.
While I was still in Phoenix at Sky Harbor Airport waiting for my first flight I took a look at my carry on backpack. I was wearing a Black tactical backpack, and on the outside Molle loops I had attached a small pouch containing a survival/first aid kit. As most proud Americans do, I had a US Flag Patch on that pouch. I was breaking the rule, Blend In. I took the entire pouch off the backpack and stored it inside, decreasing the chances of someone running by and ripping it off my pack. Sadly, sometimes you need to tuck Old Glory away. While it may give you great pride to show everyone you are American, you are making yourself a target overseas.
When flying internationally, you must weigh cost vs time vs security. Being a first timer I made the mistake of assuming cost was everything, and it cost me in time and security. Also if you are like me and need to eat all the time, spending 10 Hours in an airport will cost you quite a bit in food money as well!
When purchasing your ticket work hard to find the lowest price and the shortest travel time (layovers being the most important factor here). On my first trip to Italy I flew from Phoenix to Vancuver BC, and then had a 6 hour layover before my flight to Rome. Of course that plane was delayed due to weather and I only had a 2 hour gap between my next flight from Rome to Rimini. So of course I missed my flight out of Rome.
I would recommend layover times in the range of 3-4 hours. This will give you some time in case your flight is delayed.
Thankfully, when our plane arrived to Rome around 10PM Local Time, Air Italia representatives set all of us who missed flights up in the Hilton closest to the Airport for free and got us on the next flight out in the morning! Things are much more relaxed in Italy, and they didn't seem to stress one bit about doing this for us. I would fly again with Air Italia anytime.
The only issue was, how to get to the Hilton? She had mentioned a bus but not a word more in English. This was a contingency that I had not planned for and I found myself standing outside the Airport at 11PM at night with no idea where to go. After wandering around I found a group of about 10 travelers standing in a dimly light area, cautiously I walked over and saw some small bus signs on cement pillars. I was close but which bus? I looked over the signs and found the word Hilton on a sign with some pickup times listed. But I was torn, everyone else was waiting at another stop.
While waiting alone at that stop a young 20 something year old Iranian man came up and was looking at the signs. He was looking for the Hilton too, and despite having read the same sign I did(he spoke good English), he decided to join the group of people at the other station. He probably ended up in some part of Rome lost because he trusted the masses rather than himself. Follow the rule, Be Confident. Don't be afraid to Stand Alone. I ended up right at the Hilton.
Do you follow the crowd who seems to be in the same situation as you? Or do you follow your own instinct based of off observation? Always be aware of what others are doing, but never trust their judgment over yours!
Tip: Shit happens, get maps of the cities in which you are flying through and a local language phrase book because you just might end up standing alone in the dark outside the airport with no clue. A good map will help you keep your bearings and a phrase book allows you to ask simple questions in the local language.
The next morning after a delicious and complimentary breakfast I took that same bus back and flew to Rimini.
Throughout the trip I followed those basic rules above and never once had an issue. We had an amazing time exploring Italy and taking in a different culture. While traveling abroad does pose some risk, most can be mitigated by proper preparedness and situational awareness.
I learned a lot on that trip about the do's and don'ts of safe international travel. For my next journey, I would need to be steadfast in following those basic rules above to ensure my safety as an American travelling in Russia.
Keep your eyes open for Part 2 of this series!
Live The Creed,