Travelling to new and exotic locations is one of life’s greatest joys. However, travelling to a developing country often carries a perceived level of additional risk. While many of these countries offer unique experiences, their infrastructure sometimes means taking additional measures to stay safe. But don’t let that deter you! I’ve often found that the countries perceived as most dangerous have been the most welcoming and rewarding. However, common sense must prevail. In this guide, I will share tips and tricks to ensure you stay safe when travelling while still having the time of your life.
What's in this post:
10 things you can do to stay safe while travelling (which really applies to anywhere)
1. Do Your Research:
One of the most important things you can do when planning a trip to a developing country is to research it heavily. Know the customs, political landscape, which areas are safe to go to, what dangers you need to look out for, and how to behave as a visitor. Make sure you do your research and take note of any warnings issued by your government; they are there to help protect you. However, at the same time, don’t succumb to scaremongering!
The better you understand a country, the more you will be able to enjoy it. A prime example of this would be taking a taxi. At home, they all have meters, so I know I will just be charged what the meter says. However, in many countries, taxis operate without a meter, so you must negotiate the price upfront. If you don’t realise this and then arrive at your destination and start the negotiation there, chances are you will feel like you’ve been conned, which will provide you with a bad experience. But it could easily have been avoided by understanding their customs.
I have met some of the kindest people in supposedly dangerous locations and situations. When you are doing your research, look beyond the media. Positive news rarely sells. I also recommend avoiding any information that generalises information. An entire country isn’t dangerous, in the same way that nowhere can be completely safe. The important thing for me is to understand the risks and the possibilities and to put steps in place to mitigate them while always maintaining an open mind.
2. Be Respectful:
Remember that you’re a visitor in someone else’s country. Therefore, it is essential to be respectful of their culture and customs. Research and understand their sensitivities before you go. This will ensure you don’t offend or disrespect them, which could potentially put you in danger. For example, if you are in a conservative country, cover up! Now isn’t the time to work on your tan! If you’re unsure about something, ask a local or a guide. Most locals are willing to help, and you might even find they share some of the most exciting experiences with you.
Personally, one of the most enjoyable aspects of travel is getting to know the locals and their customs. This often means adapting to their ways, having an open mind and sometimes accepting that we might have very different views and that I’m not there to preach what I believe to be right, but instead to learn and understand their point of view.
3. Learn the language:
Communication breaks down barriers, and locals really appreciate it when you make an effort to speak their language, even if it is just a few words. Being able to say “kushe” (hello) and “how di bodi” (how are you) in Krio when I was in Sierra Leone completely transformed my experience with the locals. Although the majority of them speak English, they were instantly more receptive to me. It also meant I found it easier to make friends, and that opened opportunities for me to explore areas with a local that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to visit on my own.
4. Stay Connected:
Let your family and friends know your itinerary, and check in with them regularly. Whether you’re travelling solo or with a group, maintaining regular contact will ensure that someone would be alerted if anything were to go wrong. Many cell phone providers offer international travel plans, so consider purchasing one before you leave. Alternatively, buy a local SIM card when you arrive at your destination. This is often cheaper, supports the local economy and gives you yet another opportunity to experience the country you are in. I tend to buy the SIM card at the airport. I know I pay a premium (but in developing countries this is still often small change). However, it means I am connected from the get-go. If you’re in an area with an unsecured network, always connect to a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to protect your sensitive information.
5. Protect yourself from opportunistic theft
In most countries, not just developing ones, the most likely crime you will encounter is opportunistic theft and pickpocketing. Spain, the second most visited country in Europe, and considered one of the safest, is a prime example. I remember seeing a pickpocket stealing from schoolchildren in Barcelona!
Pickpockets look for easy targets, so try not to be one. Keep your wallet, phone, and other valuables secure, like an inside pocket or in a concealed money belt. Avoid carrying too much cash with you and only keep the items you need for the day on you. Try not to draw attention to yourself by wearing flashy jewellery and expensive watches. Also, be mindful that some accessories might be cheap but look expensive, so they could still make you a target!
Be aware of who is around you when you are busy taking photos. It is very easy to snatch a phone when you are obsessing about whether you look good in the selfie or not! And I know we all love taking photos of our food, but don’t leave your phone sitting on the table. That is a very easy target!
In developing countries, the consideration needs to go beyond whether it is safe or not. For me, it comes down to respect. Flashing an iPhone around that costs more than someone’s annual wage simply doesn’t feel right.
6. Have you considered having a mugging kit?
There are some countries where you could encounter more than a simple pickpocket. When we travelled to Brazil we were conscious that there was a likelihood that we could be robbed. In those circumstances you are best to hand over your possessions to avoid the situation escalating. We actually created a “mugging kit”! This was a wallet with a cancelled card, some money, and an older phone that we would hand over should the occasion present itself. There was enough money to hopefully appease the robbers, but we wouldn’t lose everything and, therefore, would be able to continue to enjoy our trip. As it happens, we encountered nothing but friendliness in Brazil!
7. Stay healthy
We often think of crime when we consider how safe a country is. However, the reality is that you are more likely to succumb to sickness than to crime. Before travelling to any country, visit the Fit to Travel website. This will tell you everything you need to know about potential diseases and the precautions you need to take. While I will let the doctors advise what vaccinations or medications you might need, there are some fundamental steps you can take to try and remain healthy:
Practice good hand, water and food hygiene
Wash your hands regularly with soap, and after rinsing them apply alcohol gel. In countries where tap water isn’t safe to drink, ensure you are only drinking purified water that is either bottled (or bagged) with an intact seal, that has been boiled and then stored in a clean container, or that has been treated with iodine or run through a reliable water filter. This doesn’t just apply to drinking water, but also to water you brush your teeth with and to the water used to make ice! If in doubt, ask for your drink without ice!
When it comes to food, the best way to make sure it is safe is to ensure it is cooked fresh and served while still pipping hot. Beware when eating street food of how the food has been stored and what hygiene practices the cook is following! If you want street food, opt for the busier stands as that food will be much fresher. Plus, the locals tend to know which is the best, so follow their lead!
If you are in a developing country, chances are the medical care will not be as good as what you are used to at home. With this in mind, maybe now isn’t the time to take unnecessary risks. Of course, you still want to have fun, but if you wouldn’t ride a scooter at home without a helmet, maybe Vietnam isn’t the place to start doing it!
Avoid insect bites
Many diseases can be transmitted through insect bites. For example, mosquitos can transmit malaria, yellow fever and dengue fever, while you may develop Lymes disease, encephalitis, African tick-bite fever or Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever from ticks! Personally, none of those sound appealing. Therefore prevention certainly sounds better than cure.
Mosquito bites can be avoided by using a good quality DEET repellent, wearing long sleeves and trousers, especially at dawn and dusk, and sleeping under a mosquito net. Areas known for having ticks are best avoided. If you can’t, then it is worth tucking your trousers into your socks (it’s a great look!), wearing light clothing so they are more easily spotted, using appropriate insect repellent, and always checking your clothes and skin at the end of every day.
8. Trust Your Gut:
You use your intuition at home, and the same goes for when you’re abroad. If a situation feels off, it probably is. Trust your gut and remove yourself from any situation that doesn’t feel safe. It’s better to offend someone than to put yourself in harm’s way. If you see someone following you or feel as though you’re being watched, walk into a shop or restaurant and ask the staff to help. Keep an eye on your belongings when in public, and never leave your items unattended.
9. Paperwork I never travel without
Make sure you have emergency contact information with you at all times. This should include any emergency numbers (police and ambulance) as well as the contact information for your embassy or consulate in the country. Also make sure you have your travel insurance policy number and contact number to hand, as well as that of your bank, in case you need to cancel your cards!
I have a wristband that I travel with that has all my information on it, as well as my emergency contact details. I call it my “return to sender” bracelet because if I were found incoherent, they’d know how to contact my husband.
Make copies of your passport, visa, and other vital documents and store them separately from the originals. This can be a saving grace if you lose anything. Also, make sure someone you trust has copies and details of your itinerary so they can step in to help if ever required.
10. Use common sense
Last but not least, staying safe really comes down to using common sense. Don’t break the law, don’t walk around alone at night, dress appropriately for the culture, use a local guide whenever possible (this has the added benefit of helping the local economy), and above all, smile and engage with the locals.
Travelling to developing countries can be an incredible adventure, but remaining safe during your journey is crucial. Researching the location and its culture, investing in the right gear, staying connected with loved ones, listening to your gut, and being respectful of the local culture and customs are just some of the steps you can take to ensure you stay safe when travelling. Remember that taking risks is part of the excitement of travelling, but make sure you undertake these risks safely. Stay safe, have fun, and create the memories of a lifetime on your journey.
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