Travel Safety – 21 tips for safe travels in the developing world

Travel Safety - passport being taken out of bag

1. Leave the bling at home

You might not think twice about wearing a thousand dollar watch or ring at home.

When you travel, think about it in terms of how many months wage that watch (or ring) is worth at your destination. Say in Phnom Penh Cambodia it would be worth on average about three months salary.

Depending on where you come from, earning enough to buy that watch or ring might take on average one week. So looking at it this way, it is twelve times more valuable to a local criminal there than it is to you.

This goes for designer and brand name clothing as well. Wearing this stuff is a clear reminder to the world that you are rolling in it (relatively).

2. Be polite and smile a lot

If you are somewhere with a lot of touts, keep in mind that these people do this day in day out to survive.

Politely saying ‘No, thank you’ (possibly several times) and smiling will leave a slightly better impression than being angry, or worse, treating them like they aren’t human. They may well know the local crooks so don’t unnecessarily upset them.

You can even make joke of saying no, just make sure that it is clear that isn’t at their expense. E.g. ‘No tuk tuk, see my big belly’, or the confusing ‘No massage, I give you massage for local currency value

Also, don’t give them hope for later. If you say ‘maybe tomorrow’ they will remember you and give you even more attention tomorrow.

3. Make copies of your travel documents

Keep one copy with you and keep a copy on a cloud server such as Onedrive, Googledrive or just email to yourself.

This way if you lose a copy, it is simply a matter of finding an internet connection and a printer.

4. Get some pickpocket resistant clothing

This includes clothing with zips on every pocket, inner pockets, tight jeans and clothing with lots of buttons on the pockets.

Any clothing that is hard for you to get stuff out of is also hard for pickpockets to get stuff out of. This makes you a less appealing target.

5. Take only what you need for the day

If you carry a wallet or purse at home with all your cards, cash and the kitchen sink – leave it at home.

Only take cards out of the hotel if you intend to use them. Get a slimline card wallet that doesn’t make a large bulge in your clothes and carry the amount of cash you will need for the day split up in a couple secure pockets.

This way even if you do run into trouble you will only lose a day’s budget and one or two cards.

I tend to carry a photocopy of my passport rather than my actual passport.

In some countries you are legally required to carry your passport however I would prefer to deal with the potential consequences rather than have my passport at risk every day. Often I have a US$100 note tucked away near my photocopied passport, fortunately I haven’t had to use it yet.

6. Be careful with your latest model phone

Whether you are walking around Rio Di Janeiro, Manila, Colombia, South Africa or Saigon – you can guarantee that iPhone and Samsung marketing has successfully penetrated the area.

The local criminal element know the value of the latest iPhone and probably desire one even more than you did.

I recall a story of a traveler I encountered who was teaching English for several months in Cambodia. Every morning she would talk to a nice local guy as she waited for her bus. He turned out to be a not so nice guy as he stole her phone after three months of friendship and proceeded to ransom it back it to her.

Another person I know was in Rio was sporting an iPhone two generations behind the latest. When they were robbed by some local street kids, the kids looked at the phone and laughed. They weren’t interested.

I have even used a ‘travel phone’ at times, an older phone with a local sim that I wasn’t afraid of losing.

7. Just Say No… when offered anything dodgy or too good to be true on the street

Whether it be illicit drugs, a suit, pharmaceuticals, the latest (Thai knockoff) iPhone, gold watches or whatever – just say no and don’t engage in a conversation.

If it is illegal, there is a good chance they are in league with the local cops and involved in a ‘buy-bribe-repeat’ scam. If it cheaper than it should be then it is probably a knock-off.

The longer you engage in a conversation the more likely you are to get sucked in. They will have all sorts of tricks to get you stay, e.g. getting in front of you and holding out their hand to shake (which many of us feel naturally obliged to do).

8. Get some travel insurance

Although I have never needed it, I always make sure I have travel insurance before heading overseas. The cost of a medical evacuation can be huge. Many credit cards offer complimentary travel insurance, some have no sign up fees or sign up fees less than the cost of travel insurance.

9. The road well traveled is often the safer road

The tourist areas are often safer than the areas tourists don’t venture. Some of us love to get off the beaten track but do your research before hand. Going and staying in a favela or entering the slum towns greatly increase your risk of something going awry.

Tourist areas are often given special attention by the police as the government wants the tourist dollars to keep flowing.

For example, in Siem Reap the locals take a very dim view of anyone directly stealing from tourists and are reputed to engage in vigilante justice.

10. Take a few cards to access cash and credit

“and make sure to leave one at home”

Bring several cards that can access cash, preferably with no or low fees. I bring at least two debit cards and two credit cards, held with different banks and often different processors (e.g. a couple Visa cards and a couple Mastercards). Sometimes a processor won’t like the ATM you used and will lock your card until you contact your bank and let them know everything is okay.

Some cards I have only to use when traveling.

Another good trick is to have one credit card at home with the details stored on a cloud service like Onedrive or Googledrive. Most hotels can process a card payment so long as you have the number, expiry and CVC. To protect your card put the details inside a password protected Word document. Then if you lose absolutely everything, you will still be able to access credit if you can get on the internet and open your last resort.

11. Notify your government of your travel plans

I only do this when I am visiting somewhere that is a bit turbulent or tends to have a lot of natural disasters. If there happens to be a Tsunami, Typhoon, political uprising or an Earthquake it doesn’t hurt to have your government know where you are.

12. Hire motorbikes at your own risk

Motorbikes have a higher rate of accidents regardless of where you are. Add unfamiliar driving styles, scammers and potentially corrupt police to the mix and you are opening yourself up to a good deal of risk just to get around.

Different countries licensing requirements vary and many find out too late that they weren’t licensed to drive and have to pay an on-the-spot ‘fine’ (read bribe) to sort it out.

I have even heard of breathalyzers that give false readings and leave you with the option of paying and hefty ‘fine’ or spending the night in the lockup.

13. Be aware of card skimmers

Card skimmers won’t always be visible parts trying to camouflage on the outside of ATMs. Some of them are installed in the ATM or EFTPOS terminal.

Some places are notorious for them, the ATMs at Rio Di Jinerio were known to be skimming cards for years (and maybe still are). How they let that go on at an international airport simply amazes me.

If they get a credit card then you can charge back and cancel the card if you catch the transaction within around 30 days.

If they get a debit card then you may not be able to recover the funds depending on your bank. This is a good reason to drip feed funds into the account your debit card is linked to.I have only been caught out twice in all my travels. One card was skimmed in Buenos Aires at a high-end shopping mall when I bought some socks. About a month and half later a charge showed up on the card for about US$900 attributed to ‘Save the Children’. I know it was that transaction as I only used that card once all trip. After I informed my bank they were kind enough to reverse the transaction and cancel the card.

The other I suspect happened while I was booking an domestic flight online in India. About twenty days later a charge for another air ticket with a Bangladeshi airline showed up on the card. Again I informed my bank and they returned the funds.

14. Don’t put valuables in check-in luggage

Just take it as given that your checked in luggage will get a quick unofficial inspection at some point. Your clothes and toiletries should generally be okay. If you have electronics or jewellery or any other easily sold valuable then carry it on.

In my experience key locks are not an effective preventative measure.

Plastic wrapping services will protect your bag however they are a pain and an unnecessarily burden on the environment.

15. Keep your carry bag close

The strap should always be diagonal across your body to make it harder to get off you. In some countries bag snatchers ride motor bikes and will attempt to grab your bag straight out of a tuk tuk.

16. Read up on your destination

Get on the internet and check what the local scams are before you get there. That way when the taxi driver mysteriously can’t find your hotel but knows another nearby, or when a bird manages to get droppings on you shoe and a shoe shiner appears by your side, you will know they are trying it on and you can tell them ‘good try, but not today’.

17. Be careful with your drink

If you are male you likely don’t have to worry about drink spiking at home. If you are female then unfortunately you probably already know about drink vigilance.

In certain bars and areas you shouldn’t let your drink out of your sight. This means finishing each drink before making a trip to the bathroom. If it becomes urgent and you don’t have a known friend to look after it then just take your drink with you to the bathroom. If you are with people you just met you can make a joke of it, e.g. ‘I’ll get thirsty on the way’.

People get spiked to make them an easier target for robbery or just to make them more suggestible for further spending and some other scam variation.

18. Be smart when using taxis, tuk tuks, trikes, cyclos, etc


Make sure you agree to use the meter or negotiate the fare before getting in. Check on the internet who the reputable providers are in the area. Don’t get in unprofessional looking cabs. Consider using Uber or the local equivalent as these drivers are more accountable because they have to maintain their account.

A phone is also very handy to stop taxi drivers taking you the long way. Many countries have free GPS enabled even if you don’t have a local sim so you can download an offline map with Google maps or use an offline map app like ‘Maps with me’.

Having a local sim and internet is even better as you can ask Google to recommend a route to your destination. Your driver will see what you are doing and be a lot less likely to try and pull any funny business

Tuks tuks, trikes, cyclos etc

Find out what the fare should be from your fellow travelers, your accommodation or the internet. Negotiate and agree a reasonable far before getting in.  

19. Your trip to and from the airport is when you are most exposed

This is when you will have all your valuables, your passport and all your cards with you.

Plan accordingly by getting a reputable method of transportation. The trip to the airport is often the one the taxis try and scam you the hardest on as they know you are leaving the country and it will be harder for you to follow-up. Again Uber or the local equivalent is good for this due to the increased accountability.

20. Be objective about sudden out of the blue romantic interest

Firstly, holiday romances do happen and you may very well appeal to someone due to having unusual eyes or a different bone structure or just generally being exotic – so don’t rule out the possibility. This is rather like a girl or guy with a foreign accent in your homeland getting a bit of extra attention.

However, be aware that you could also be targeted by a ‘black widow’ scam. These involve a false romantic interest that is used to get access to your valuables, identity etc. Black widow scams can involve drink spiking.

You could also just be being lined up as potential client of someone who earns their living horizontally.

If a beautiful Russian girl (or guy) in Macau asks you to take a photo then strikes up a conversation at 4am after the club has just closed, then you have to ask yourself objectively – is this normal?

21. Always keep a cash reserve

ATMs can be fickle beasts. I traveled to India during Modi’s note changeover, the lines to ATMs stretched around the block. Another example of where you can get caught out is regional Japan, they have less ATMs than you might expect.

How do you deal with this? Always keep a cash reserve of US dollars in large and small denominations, and keep a cash reserve of local currency.

Don’t spend all your cash and only visit an ATM once you run out, keep a certain amount as backup that you don’t spend until you are about to leave the country.

Finally, enjoy yourself while being safe

These tips aren’t meant to scare you out of traveling. I rarely have anything happen to me while I am overseas. I have however been targeted by all sorts of scams, by groups of pickpockets, by potential black widows, and had plenty of dodgy taxi drivers try it on. If you are cautious you can travel all over, have an awesome time and keep the risks low.