Getaway Day: Don’t Be A Stupid Traveler. Just Don’t.


Is your area safe at night? How do you know? Answering questions like these is your first step toward safe travel. Photo credit: Nicholas Swanson via Unsplash.

By Sharyn Alden

If you’re like a lot of travelers, you start to worry the second you hit the road. You worry about missing a flight because you’re stuck in a long security line. You worry about packing everything you’re going to need, and whether you really did stick your passport in the top pocket of your bag just before you left. Did you remember to shut down your computer at home, and tell your neighbor to accept that package for you while you’re gone?

Once you’re airborne you worry about your arrival international destination. Will you find a place to exchange currency for the cab if they don’t take other forms of payment? What about the language barrier, or any crazy local customs? And what if I get sick?

Too often, those worries are realities. Travelers do dumb things when they travel because they don’t ever worry about preventing problems. They put themselves at risk more often than they do at home, whether because of language barriers, lack of understanding of local communications, ignorance of road regulations, or that free-spirited, “so what, I’m on vacation” attitude that leads to risky behavior. They don’t focus on big, often preventable problems like security breaches, identify theft, accidents, injuries, even death.

If you’re crossing a street in a foreign country, for example, and paying more attention to the scenery than local traffic, you’re at risk for an accident. The World Health Organization  reports injuries are among the leading causes of death and disability in the world – and injuries are the leading cause of preventable death in travelers.

Prevention is more than plain old common sense – it’s the willingness to do what you know is best, even when travelers around you are jumping in unmarked cabs.

You can prevent accidents or injuries if you take time to evaluate how safe you and your family are when traveling on the road, especially in foreign countries. Consider the following:

Driving in a foreign country? Rent a car with seat belts.
Driving in a foreign country? Rent a car with seat belts.
  • Rent cars with seat belts. Look for taxis with seat belts (not always easy on international trips). Don’t drink and drive.
  • Don’t drive at night in developing countries.
  • Make sure you understand the rules of the road wherever you drive. Some countries have banned all cellphone use while driving. Check the International Road Travel site for further tips.
  • If you plan to ride a motorcycle or scooter, bring your own helmet or find a place to rent one before you hop on the bike.
  • If some countries it’s commonplace for passengers to ride on top of a bus, and there may be no rules as to how many people can be jam-packed in these contraptions. Overcrowded, top-heavy buses are not high on any safety list. Look for other forms of transportation.
  • If you get in a bind and miss your flight, forget flying in an unscheduled plane just to make it to your destination a bit faster. A bumpy flight with an inexperienced pilot is no picnic, especially if there’s terrain involved.

When I was waylaid with an injury on the Adriatic Coast in Croatia there were several offers to fly me in a small plane to Zagreb – about 4 hours by car over mountains – to get an international flight back home. I opted to stay put in the hotel for an extra couple of days and let my trip insurance take care of getting me back home.

In this case it was a good thing common sense prevailed. I learned that one of the pilots pushing me to buy a ride in their plane had engine trouble the following day. He was forced to make an emergency landing, and while he was lucky to walk away, the plane was a total disaster.

Common sense extends to your hotel stay. Here are some common-sense tips for staying smarter:

  • When you check in, tell the hotel desk you don’t want anyone—a hotel guest or visitor — to be given your room number or know that you are staying at the hotel. All hotels should know this, but some staff members eager to please break the rules anyway.
  • If someone knocks on your hotel door, do not open it. Ask who it is; if you aren’t expecting anyone, call the front desk to report the incident. If there is “scheduled” maintenance (like a broken refrigerator or TV) you should be notified by the hotel’s engineering or housekeeping departments before someone shows up to repair it. Don’t let any “repair” person in without confirmation from hotel staff.
  • Never give out your hotel room or your last name to people you just met.
  • Try to avoid staying in a room above the sixth floor. If there’s a fire, ladders usually can’t reach above the sixth floor. Read the evacuation guidelines—usually a card posted on the back of the hotel room’s entry door.
  • You may be staying in a hotel where you feel safe and comfortable, but don’t let down your guard. Don’t leave valuables like jewelry, an open, unlocked laptop or cell phone on the dresser when you go for a swim.

And here are some safe habits anywhere you travel:

  • Learn basic CPR and first aid if you’re traveling abroad with another person.
  • Don’t plug your electronic device into any mobile power station. You risk “juice jacking” … not pretty from a security standpoint. Instead, only use a power plug in a place you trust.
  • Be aware of what a substandard power supply might do to your electronics. When I was staying in an old cabin on Washington Island, Wis., last fall, I plugged in my phone and the cord was immediately fried. A friend had the same phone cord, and I had thought to bring along a portable power bank so the week wasn’t doomed due to tech problems. In general, read up on the power grid in your destination country before you leave.
  • Don’t connect with a hotel Wi-Fi network because it says “hotel” and looks like the hotel’s network. Ask the hotel what network they have available before arbitrarily logging onto an unsecure network that could result in identify theft.
  • Buy travel insurance. It can make all the difference between having a wonderful trip and a getaway fraught with problems that are difficult (and costly) to handle on your own.

Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, Inc., based in Madison, Wis. Contact her at