How often do you use the expression safe travels to farewell a loved one? And how many times have you had someone else wish you a safe trip?
Whether you take a two-week vacation, go on a business trip or explore around the world for a year, there is no checklist that (if you’ve ticked all the boxes) ensures your safety. No one can guarantee you will stay safe while travelling. But there are some essential tips and rules that have helped us remain out of harm’s way while travelling full-time. And we are sharing them with you here.
A ship in harbour is safe — but that is not what ships are built for – John A. Shedd
We hope these essential tips will help you stay safe no matter how far or how long you travel.
Download our comprehensive Travel Risk Register
First designed to assist us on a three-month South America trip, this travel risk register will open your eyes to what you need to do about the various risks you may encounter. Easy to follow and update.
Tip 1: Research your destination
For Australian citizens: https://smartraveller.gov.au
For Canadian citizens: https://travel.gc.ca/
For Dutch citizens: www.rijksoverheid.nl
For German citizens: www.auswaertiges-amt.de
For New Zealand citizens: www.safetravel.govt.nz
For England citizens: www.fco.gov.uk
For United States of America citizens: https://travel.state.gov
We can’t list them all, so if your country is not on the list just do a Google search.
We always take the advice provided on these websites with a grain of salt: If we had taken them literally, we would have missed out on amazing countries like Mexico and Guatemala. That said, your travel insurance may not cover you if you visit a country against the advice of your government.
Do you really have the right insurance coverage?
Having insurance can be a lifesaver (or a nuisance). Our step-by-step guide helps you find a policy that suits your needs.
Tip 2: Get an effective travel insurance policy
Opinions are divided on whether travel insurance is worth it or not, but we wouldn’t travel without it. In our view, the value of the policy far outweighs its costs if something goes wrong.
Accidents can happen while you’re overseas – even if you’re visiting a safe destination – and you could be left with an enormous bill for medical, legal and other expenses. Don’t rely on your Government (or family) to bail you out.
Comprehensive travel insurance covers your medical expenses (often including emergency medical evacuation) and personal liability. It can also compensate you if your belongings go missing or you need to cancel or change travel plans.
Travel insurance does not cover every eventuality (and activity), and there are terms and conditions you must meet before your insurer pays out:
- If you have a pre-existing medical condition check with your insurer as they are not normally covered unless you specifically ask for coverage and pay a premium.
- If you want to volunteer somewhere, go scuba diving or ride a scooter check whether your insurance covers it (or at least doesn’t exclude it).
So make sure you read the fine print carefully and compare travel insurance policies before you buy.
Tip 3: Get a health check and/or vaccinations
Having lived in New Zealand and Australia, we have come to appreciate the health systems in both countries. Emergency services are free, the public health service is generally good, and even for life-threatening diseases, palliative care is exceptional.
That is not always the case when you travel overseas. If you get sick in a foreign country, you likely won’t know where the next public hospital is, or you may not speak the language to explain your pain, illness or injury.
Getting a health check before you go won’t protect you from getting sick, but it can reduce the likelihood of getting a serious illness (or annoying and painful issues with your teeth) while travelling. This is especially important when travelling long-term. Likewise, many vaccinations don’t protect you from getting sick but they reduce the impact that a disease may otherwise have.
Depending on the length of your journey and which countries you are going to travel to, schedule a visit to your GP or a travel doctor. Get a medical check-up, discuss potential health hazards at your destination/s, find out which vaccinations you or those travelling with you may need and obtain those recommended.
Tip 4: Register your travel plans with your Government
Imagine you were one of the people caught up in the 2004 Tsunami. If your government knows that you are in a certain area when disaster strikes, they will look for you to confirm your safety. And if you are missing, they know (with more certainty) where to search for you.
Occasional terrorist attacks, often conducted at places popular with travellers, highlight the importance of registering your globetrotting intentions as soon as you book your holiday. So, register your travel plans with your government. It may feel like Big Brother is watching you but the benefits outweigh the inconveniences if something did happen.
In 2019, pre-trip registration with the Australian Smartraveller website ended. It was recognised that many people were not providing accurate itineraries, updating their itineraries when plans changed or advising if they left a destination they had been staying in for a while. Inaccurate information made it difficult to reach people who really needed help during a crisis. The solution instead was to subscribe to receive updates on the destinations you are travelling to and through.
What happens in a crisis?
Where a crisis occurs, many Governments set up crisis registration portals. When they do that, they publish the link on their websites and share it on social media. This allows travellers or their loved ones to register their location and contact details with their Government so they can be contacted and provided with advice.
In January 2022, The Australian registration portal was set up in the lead-up to the war in Ukraine and they were able to quickly gather information on the number of Australian citizens and permanent residents who were in the Ukraine and nearby areas, provide them advice on what to do and check whether they were in danger.
Tip 5: Share your itinerary with loved ones
Log your itinerary into a travel management system and grant close family and trusted friends access to it. Allowing your loved ones to know where you are at any given point in time is critical in cases like the Tsunami, as they will be able to assist your government find you by providing more detail.
We use and recommend TripIT. We update TripIT as soon as we made a booking, so our loved ones are always up to date when it comes to our travel plans. Our TripIT records include telephone numbers and email addresses of our accommodations so that our loved ones know how to contact us in case of an emergency.
Tip 6: Note emergency details for your destination
When disaster strikes you are likely the least level-headed person on the planet (unless you were specifically trained to handle them).
To help us cope in an emergency, we always carry essential emergency information on us (not in a wallet, travel pack or phone – all of those could get lost, stolen or destroyed). Our lifesaver (just a piece of paper no larger than a business card) includes:
- Phone number of local emergency services
- Phone number of our travel insurance and policy number
- Address and phone number of our countries’ nearest Consular Office/Embassy
- Our passport numbers.
It is updated whenever we change our destination.
Tip 7: Pack appropriately
You’ve done your research: You know what the weather is going to be like at your destination. You have a basic understanding of your destination’s customs. So, all you need to do now is pack accordingly. Choose the clothing you are planning to travel with according to local customs. This way, you can’t accidentally grab an item that may be seen as inappropriate.
Want to know what we pack as full-time location-independent explorers?
We research and document every item that we carry as travellers, whether during van life in our backpacks or as digital nomads, earning a living on the road. These packing lists are all based on our own experience. If you travel (and who doesn't) and you have something to add as recommendations for the items to carry, please feel free to contact us.
If you liked our packing lists and found them helpful, we would appreciate it if you could share them with your friends and family via the Share buttons below. Even better, link to the page from your personal blog or social media platforms.
Tip 8: Always be alert
Awareness (of yourself and your surroundings) and trusting your instinct goes a long way, especially when you travel in a foreign country and when you travel alone.
Before we leave our accommodation in the morning, we make sure we only carry what we can afford to lose. That goes for money as much as for other valuables like mobile phones or jewellery.
We don’t walk the streets staring at our mobile phones (and making it easy for someone to snap them out of our hands). If we don’t know how to get from A to B we stop somewhere safe (we may use each other as a shield if need be) and only then does one of us check the offline map on their phone while the other keeps an eye on our surroundings.
If we are entering a crowded area (a market or a street party for example), we switch our daypack to the front and hold on tight. We never keep our wallets in our back pockets. And we always keep an eye on our surroundings. If something doesn’t feel right we leave.
If you go out for dinner (or a dance club) at night, choose a path to/from your accommodation that is well-lit with heaps of people out and about. Take a (licensed) cab if it is getting late, especially if you had a bit to drink.
Speaking of drink: A friend of Sandra’s had his drink spiked in a popular bar in Colombia. He woke up the next morning in his apartment with all his belongings stolen. To avoid being drugged order a drink that is opened in front of you and hold on to it, covering the opening with your hand.
If you have become a victim, learn what to do if robbed while travelling.
Tip 9: Stay informed
Up-to-date information helps you make better decisions when it comes to your safety while travelling.
You can register your email address with your government to receive travel updates for your chosen destination/s. While many government agencies now publish travel, risk and safety information on Facebook – which is especially important when you do not have a TV to watch local news or don’t understand the language – Twitter still beats them by a mile.
So, before you head off on your next trip, google what the key newspapers at your destination are and subscribe to their Twitter accounts. In addition, you may also want to consider following the Facebook pages of government agencies in the countries you plan to visit.
Tip 10: Don’t be stupid – Obey laws and respect customs
As in your own country, ignorance is no excuse. When you visit a country you have an obligation to obey the laws of that country, no matter how draconian, anti-social or weird they may seem. It’s a no-brainer for us but too many people still do stupid things.
If you plan to engage in what is considered an illegal activity in your home country, chances are it is also illegal at your destination. Furthermore, there may be serious penalties for breaking a law that might seem trivial at home. If you want to take the risk accept the probability of being caught and the fate of the courts.
In Jamaica, as we walked around the streets, we were regularly asked if we smoked. They weren’t trying to sell us cigarettes… In Jamaica, smoking marijuana is part of practising Rastafarianism. You can smell Ganja everywhere and at any time of the day. Yet, as a tourist, if we were caught in possession (of more than 56 grams) we could face a jail term.
While it may not be illegal to ignore local customs, we consider it disrespectful. This includes being mindful when taking photographs and videos or using binoculars. These activities may be disliked by locals or misunderstood by authorities, especially near military installations.
What travel safety tips should be included on the list?
What tips have helped you stay safe on your travels? What crazy things have you experienced ‘on the road’ and what would you do differently, with the benefit of hindsight?