Travel Safety 101

Vancouver, Canada

I have this silly fear of heights, which makes suspension bridges like this the scariest part of my travels at times.

Exchanging money on the black market in Argentina is always an adventure. It is just like the plot of a spy movie except – sadly – there is no Jason Statham. The movie started when a friend of a friend (an expat) gave me an address to a building in the swanky part of Buenos Aires with no sign and blinds covering the windows. I rang the doorbell, and the door buzzed open.  As the door automatically locked behind me, I panicked. Was I about to die? Or was I just being overly paranoid as usual? After negotiating rates with a Che Guevara lookalike, I was walking down the sidewalk fifteen minutes later with a purse full of pesos and feeling good about my spy skills.

Due to Argentina’s high inflation, the black market is used by literally everyone because the rate is almost 50% higher than the ATM. I did my research beforehand, went to a reputable place and thoroughly checked the bills as I counted them at the counter. I checked again at my apartment, which confirmed my fear was overzealous as usual.

Despite what my mother and the news say, the world is actually a safe place. (Motorized vehicle accidents are the leading cause of unnatural deaths for Americans abroad, according to the New York Times.) I have traveled solo to five continents since 2002; safety is always my top concern. I want to dispel some fears with tips about how to stay safe in case you find yourself living in a spy movie while roaming the globe.

I’ve had my share of mishaps – my purse was stolen in Thailand and again in Barcelona because I was not paying attention—which were both good lessons that helped me stop a pickpocket in Buenos Aires and will hopefully help you as well.

Here are a few tips to help manage your fear and stay safe:

 

Traveling Warnings & Country Specific Concerns

  • Check travel warnings. Before booking flights, research health, environmental, political and terrorism concerns in your destination. Americans should check travel.state.gov for warnings and sign up for the STEP Smart Traveler Program, which provides free email updates.
  • Read recent travel guides.  These are a good resource for reported safety incidents and high theft areas. (Personally, I felt the safest traveling solo in Japan, Europe, Australia/New Zealand and most of Southeast Asia. I also felt safe in Cuba and Burma. My guard was higher in parts of Mexico, Peru, Nicaragua, Bolivia and India.)
  • Avoid areas with military conflicts/elections. Keep in mind that smaller elections may not make international headlines. (I was stuck in Northern Chile for a week due to combination of bad weather that closed the border to Bolivia and rumors of election protests blocking roads across the border. The snow and protests faded a few days later.)
  • Dress culturally appropriate. Ladies, be sure to cover up in conservative cultures to avoid unwanted attention. Be respectful when visiting temples. (Some places in Thailand make you rent shawls if you are wearing tank tops or shorts.) Baggy harem pants are a good option for hot places like India and are great for preventing mosquito bites. Both men and women should avoid fancy jewelry and watches especially on public transport.

Get Travel Insurance

The key to insurance is simple: You insure what you can’t afford to pay yourself. I ALWAYS have travel medical insurance that covers emergency evacuation, trip interruption, adventure sports and end of trip coverage (after long-term trips). Most policies will not cover phones and will only pay a flat fee (usually $250) for other electronics. (I insure my camera gear and my Mac separately with State Farm’s Personal Articles Policy.) Many credit cards also include travel insurance benefits like baggage delay, trip interruption and accident coverage.

I always cancel my normal health insurance for long-term trips because American polices have very limited international coverage. Instead, I opt for a zero deductible travel medical policy, which offers better coverage overseas at a fraction of the cost ($30-50/month).  I’ve used International Medical Group for years, and they pay claims within 30 days. (I have no affiliation with them.)

 

Check the Weather

Prices usually drop in the low season for a reason: monsoon season. Be aware of transport issues during monsoon/hurricane/typhoon season. In some places like Thailand, the monsoon season just means a little rain each day. In other places like the Philippines, it means dangerous conditions that can halt transport for days.

 

Travel Safety Transport


Safe Transport

  • There is no price for safety. Never risk your safety to save money. 
  • In high risk areas, avoid local buses for long routes and pay a little extra for private buses. In Peru, I always used Cruz del Sur buses because they were the safest company with private bus stations, secure luggage claim and safe taxis options.
  • Never grab a taxi off the street in areas with high crime. Have your hotel, hostel or a restaurant call one  instead. Safe radio taxi companies operate in major cities including Meru in India, Tappsi in Colombia and EasyTaxi in Peru.
  • Avoid arriving late at night in countries with safety concerns like India, Central America, Peru and Bolivia. If you are taking overnight transport, be sure to arrive during daylight hours in these areas.
  • Write down the address of your destination on a piece of paper to hand to the taxi driver. Never give the driver your phone to see the address.
  • Research local taxi regulations to ensure your taxi is marked properly before getting inside. Guidebooks and receptionists are good resources.

Tips for Avoiding Theft

  • Never carry EVERYTHING with you. Only take the money you need when you go out for the day. Hide your money, passport and credit cards in many different places. The more obscure (like cough drop bags), the better.
  •  Lock valuables and passports in safes or lockers at hotels/hostels. (I never stay in a hostel that doesn’t have lockers. I bring a sturdy combination lock to secure it. Avoid flimsy suitcase locks and giant high-school-locker-style locks, which are usually too big.
  • Watch your bags in crowded places, restaurants and public transport in high risk areas like Barcelona. Put your leg through your bag strap when standing/sitting. Do not hang purses/bags on the back of restaurant chairs or put them in the upper racks on local buses. Keep bags in your lap or at your feet.
  • Do not put your phone in your back pocket or lay it on a restaurant table. Break the habit immediately. I always keep mine in my purse, which is always in my lap with the strap across my body.
  • Watch your bags on public transport. If you have a purse, ALWAYS keep your hand over the zipper. Move all items in your pockets to one of your front pockets. Keep your hand inside the pocket to secure items. Put your backpack in front of you in crowded places or lock zippers with a suitcase lock.
  • Watch out for counterfeit money in places with high inflation. Be aware of all proper watermarks and holograms for the local currency. Check your change carefully in taxis and street markets especially when you are breaking a large bill. Even if you end up with counterfeit currency, don’t worry—it can be passed off fairly easy in street markets. (I was given some fake currency on my last day in Peru. I made a game of spending it all before I left and succeeded!)
  • Don’t go into the backrooms (non-public areas) of shops. Have the vendor bring items to the main area. If a shop vendor in India offers you tea, politely decline.
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Overweight ferries are a huge safety concern. Don’t take this Ometepe, Nicaragua ferry. ALWAYS get the larger car ferry. (I thought THIS was the biggest ferry at the time.)


Trust your Instinct

Would you walk around the rough parts of your hometown at 2 a.m. with $1,000 cash in your pocket? No? Then, don’t do it abroad! Use common sense. Also, watch your partying. Alcohol and drugs impair your judgment and make you more vulnerable to thieves. (Many of the robberies I’ve heard about in my recent travels happened at night when people were partying or walking alone late at night.) If your gut instinct tells you something is even the slightest bit weird, get out of the situation immediately! Don’t worry about being rude. Get out!


Ask the Locals

I always ask locals for safety advice. Hotel receptionists, guides and expats are great resources. (I never stay in swanky hotels but have no qualms walking into one to ask the concierge about safety concerns.) Is it safe for a foreigner to take a local bus or visit a certain area of town? Do they feel safe in that part of town? If they don’t feel safe or think I won’t be safe, then I avoid the area or the time of day. Other travelers are a great resource as well.

COMING UP NEXT: A Guide to Buenos Aires (my FAVORITE city in the world!)

Five Ways to Travel Better in 2016

Classic car, Marfa, Texas

When I’m back in Texas, I spend my time exploring the state and cool towns like Marfa.

As the year wraps up, I encourage you to start thinking about your travel resolutions for 2016. I wanted to share a post I wrote for Afar.com a few weeks ago about how to travel smarter, longer and lighter next year!

Here are five ways to make make travel a priority in 2016 and maximize your vacation time:

1. Maximize Weekends. When I studied abroad in England, I spent every weekend exploring and saw more of the country than my local friends who had lived there for decades. I did the same when I moved to Austin, Texas. I took road trips to Marfa, Houston, Big Bend National Park and every quirky, photogenic town people recommended.

Write down a list of places you’ve always wanted to visit but take for granted due to their proximity. Once a month, plan a trip to explore areas closer to home – nearby towns, national parks and attractions within your state. Take friends or family along for a fun day or quick overnight trip.

2. Travel Lighter. Learn to pack smarter and carry on all luggage. I always start packing a few days before a big trip. (It’s way too easy to over pack when I am rushed!) Then, I spend a few minutes each day eliminating items down to only the bare essentials. Packing lighter saves time at the airport because I skip the baggage check line and get to sleep in a few extra minutes!

Pack complimentary colors to maximize outfit options. Limit your shoes to two pairs. Roll clothing to make more space in your bag. No matter where you go, there will be laundry services!

3. Workout. Travel isn’t an excuse to abandon your exercise routine. Instead, use your workout as a reason to explore a new city. (My favorite thing to do on my first morning in a new place is to go for a sunrise run while the tourists are still asleep.) Bike the local neighborhoods, climb a volcano or go sandboarding! Join a tour or do it solo! Either way, you’ll get a more authentic look at the culture.

Consider planning your trip around activities are that are both physically challenging and rewarding. Hike the Inca Trail or the W circuit at Torres del Paine. Climb Kilimanjaro or trek to Everest Base Camp! Push your limits and comfort zone. The stories will be priceless!

4. Take Longer Trips. It’s cheaper to travel for longer periods of time than to take multiple trips. Flights are usually the most expensive part of travel. Once you arrive in a destination, it’s much easier and cheaper to country hop than to take additional trips. Spending a month or three in Southeast Asia is always cheaper than multiple visits.

How do you find the time? For me, it was simple. I took advantage of gaps of time between jobs and after graduation from both college and graduate school. I also quit multiple jobs to travel. Each time I was honest about my reasons for leaving and even got rehired when I returned!

Glance at your work schedule for the year. Devise a detailed plan that allows you to take an extended trip without affecting your productivity. Meet with your boss face-to-face to outline your plan and/or discuss options to work remotely. Be honest and direct. And, offer to bring him back a nice bottle of Argentinean malbec!

5. Start Collecting Miles. I wrapped up a seven-month trip in Central/South America earlier this year. I flew fifteen times and only paid for four flights. The rest were paid for with miles that I collected from traveling (for both work and personal trips) and rewards credit cards.

What’s my secret? Sign up for a rewards credit card and frequent flyer mile accounts at each of the major airlines in your country. The initial sign-up bonus offered by most rewards cards is enough for one free flight! Take advantage of online shopping malls offered by rewards credit cards. Simply click on their customized link to popular retailers (Sephora, Apple, Target, etc.) to earn miles. (This isn’t an excuse to spend frivolously but to collect points of your normal purchases and holiday shopping!)

Don’t forget to collect miles for work travel for flights, hotels and rental cars. (Despite who pays, the person who flies gets the miles!) Double dipping is also key. Hotel loyalty programs like Hilton HHonors let you earn a combination of hotel points and airline miles for every dollar spent on a hotel stay.

COMING UP: Next week, I’ll be posting my favorite travel photos from my 2015 adventures!

Ten Ways to Maximize Your Frequent Flyer Miles

Beagle Channel, Ushuaia, Argentina

I traded in a few Delta FF miles for a one-way flight to Ushuaia, Argentina – the gateway to Antartica in January.


I recently wrapped up a seven-month bucket list trip in Central and South America. During the entire trip, I flew about fifteen times but only paid for four flights. The rest were booked with frequent flyer miles.

Whether you’re planning a trip to the Himalayas or Kauai, follow these ten simple ways to maximize your mileage.

1. Sign Up

The first step is to sign up for a frequent flyer mile account with the airline you fly the most often in each of the three major airline alliances: Star Alliance, oneworld and SkyTeam. Otherwise, choose the most logical national/regional airline near your home in each alliance. (For most Americans, the best options are usually Delta, American Airlines, and United.) For family travel, make sure everyone has their own account including children.

2. Airline Alliances

Airline alliances provide more options to both earn and redeem miles. When I lived in Australia for a year, I usually flew Qantas but always earned miles on American Airlines. Even if you book the cheapest flight, the odds are good your airline is part of an alliance. Simply add the frequent flyer number of the corresponding national/regional airline from your country to every reservation.

3. Redeem Wisely

There is an art to redeeming miles. International flights are almost always the best deal. Plus, airline alliances open up a wider range of route options. One-way domestic or international flights are great options for planning multi-city trips.

For U.S. domestic routes, fares under $300 are usually not a great value for award travel. (A mileage award for a domestic flight can be almost as much as a more expensive international flight so choose carefully!) For domestic routes in foreign countries, reward mileage levels can be as low as 6,000 miles one-way!

Book award travel online to avoid fees. If that’s not possible, most airlines will automatically waive the agent fee for booking by phone. If they don’t, be sure ask for a fee wavier.

4. Book Early & Avoid Peak Season

The early bird gets the best deal. During holiday and peak seasons, moving your travel dates back a few weeks or even days can save you up to 75%! Award travel for the holidays should be booked months in advance to snatch the best deals. If you wait, you still might get award flights, but you’ll have a higher chance of ending up with multiple layovers.

Seals in Beagle Channel, Ushuaia, Argentina

Start racking up FF miles so you can photograph seals in Beagle Channel, Ushuaia, Argentina!

5. Double Dip
Many hotel and other loyalty programs allow you to earn airline miles in conjunction with their points. Hilton HHonors allows you to earn one airline mile per dollar spent. You can even exchange their hotel points for miles! Most airlines also have deals with rental car companies for discounts and bonus miles.

6. Work Travel

There’s nothing better than getting paid to travel. Many people forget to collect miles on work travel for airlines, hotels and rental cars. Regardless of who pays for the flight, the person who flies gets the miles. But, make sure all hotel and car reservations are in your name to ensure you get mileage credit!

7. Rewards Credit Cards

Almost every reward credit card includes a signup bonus offer – spend a certain amount (usually $1,000) in the first 90 days and receive up to a 40,000-mile bonus. That’s more than enough for a round-trip flight from the U.S. to Central/South America or a one-way flight to Europe!

Airline-based cards often give you double points for flight purchases and either a discount or percentage back for redeemed miles. You also get free checked bags for you and companions; plus, priority boarding! (Keep in mind award cards usually have an annual fee that is waived the first year.)

Some non-airline cards allow you to redeem miles for the partial cost of the flight. The best part is that you can still earn miles on those flights!

8. Dining Programs

Earn miles while you eat! Most major airlines have dining programs that allow you to register all of your bank cards. You earn points when you dine at a participating restaurant with any of the cards linked to your account!

9. Mileage Shopping Malls

Online shoppers should check out airline mileage shopping malls. Many offer extra points when purchasing online through their mall, which links to websites of popular retailers like Apple, Target and Home Depot. Simply click on your airline or credit card’s link to the retailer’s website and all purchases made will earn bonus miles.

Bonus mileage varies per retailer and ranges dramatically with regular promotions. Maximize your points by using your rewards credit card for purchases. There’s no better place to do your holiday shopping!

10. Social Media

Many airlines offer free miles on social media for watching videos or participating in online promotions. Plus, it’s also a great way to keep up to date about their current sales, new routes and mileage promotions.

(This is a post I originally wrote for AFAR.com.)

How to Cut Costs on Transport

Transport

Left: VW Beetle in Oaxaca, Mexico. Right: View from above Mexico City.


Use Public Transport

Most large cities have efficient and affordable large-scale train or bus networks connecting the airport with the city center. (Even Delhi has a great air-conditioned metro train system.) Take a local bus instead of a taxi to the bus/train station or airport for 1/10 of the price. Daily and weekly passes are a good deal if you travel frequently. (ALWAYS get the 7-day pass in NYC.)

Many parts of the world have a system of pickup trucks with seats in the back that have routes just like buses. They will drop you anywhere for next to nothing. In Thailand, they are called songthaews. Take advantage of them!

Night Buses/Trains

Night buses/trains are my favorite form of transport. For long journeys, both help save time and accommodation costs. Most overnight trains include options for beds. The sleeper trains in Thailand, Spain and India are pretty comfy and affordable. Plus, you don’t waste a day traveling. Aside from specific areas of Central and South America, night transportation is extremely safe.

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One of my favorite street photography shots from a train station on the outskirts of Delhi, India.

Rail Passes

England, mainland Europe, Australia and Japan have great rail pass options for travelers and students. Check prices of individual tickets to see if it’s worth it for your planned route. Plan in advance because most rail passes have to be purchased BEFORE you leave your home country. Students receive a significant discount on passes so take advantage!

Local Buses

VIP Tourist buses are an overpriced scam with blaring TVs and are often a target for thieves. Most countries have cheaper, comfy local buses for half the price. In Thailand, I always take second-class buses for half the cost. They still include large comfy seats, air conditioning, a bathroom and a free bottle of water/meal. There are even cheaper open-air “chicken” buses. These can be rough for long trips but are great for short day trips. These are completely safe in Southeast Asia, but women traveling alone should be cautious in other parts of the world.

tuk tuk

Left: La Piedra in Guatape, Colombia. Right: Agra, India

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taxis & Tuk Tuks

Agree on a price in advance or ask to use the meter. Ask locals the fair/standard price for your route beforehand then negotiate accordingly.

Compare costs. Tuk tuks are a great deal in India but outrageous in Thailand. A metered air-conditioned taxi will be a ¼ of the cost in Bangkok. Taxi fares increase during rush hour, late at night and for airport routes. Drivers might also charge exorbitant flat rates on weekends and near tourist spots. Sometimes it’s best to negotiate a taxi to the nearest public transport station instead of your final destination then take a train/bus.

Research reputable taxi companies in countries with safety concerns. In India, I only use Meru or a private taxi provided by my hotel. In Bogota, I use the Tappsi app for safe taxis.

Flights

– Research local budget airlines. They don’t always show up in big travel search engines. (I find Kayak and Skyscanner are the best search engines with the best deals and airline options.) Book with the airline directly if possible. Some won’t accept foreign credit cards so book through sites like Cheaptrip.com for airlines like Indigo in India.

– Consider flying to the closest major city to your destination. Then, take public transport or a budget airline flight. I always bus/train combo to Southern Thailand from Bangkok to save flight costs.

– Check for luggage fees and pay them in advance. Some budget airlines increase luggage fees significantly on the day of the flight and charge heavily for overage. Print your boarding pass because some also charge if you don’t!

– If a city has several airports, consider transportation costs to the city from both airports. Budget airlines can fly into the smaller, domestic airports with less transport options.

– Be aware of arrival times. Is affordable/safe transport available at 3 a.m.? It’s better to sleep in the airport for a few hours and catch the first train into the city than fork out a fortune for a taxi in the middle of the night in a strange city. It also saves accommodation costs. Considering paying a little extra to fly in at a more reasonable time if transport is outrageous during the night.

– Keep track of your frequent flyer miles. Sign up for the FF mile programs for the major airlines in your country/area. Most major airlines are part of global alliances allowing you to earn miles on another carrier’s flight. I fly at least once a year on miles. (Don’t worry – I’ll post a guide to FF miles soon.)

– Government-owned airlines in third-world countries are notorious for being unreliable and can have sketchy safety records. Do your research. Foreign owned airlines are usually nicer, safe and more reliable. (Indigo is my favorite budget airline in India, and they fly to other parts of Asia as well. Interjet is the best in Mexico and Central America. Both are super nice!)

 

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Wooden Long-tail boats in Koh Phi Phi, Thailand

 

General Transportation Tips

 

1. Buy tickets in advance

Purchase tickets directly at the stations. Travel agencies and hostels add commission. Prices can also be significantly lower in advance. You also get first choice for seats, which is ideal if you are prone to motion sickness. (The front row on the right side usually has the most legroom.) When you arrive in a city at a station, consider buying your departure ticket before you leave the station.

2. Get it in Writing

If you change a ticket, ALWAYS do it in person and get it in writing. Always get a printed copy of any ticket. If you only get a receipt, be sure to have the contact info for the person you bought it from if an issue arrises.

3. Consider Transport Options

When deciding between different forms of transport, factor in the cost and difficulty of getting from the airport/station to your destination. Your arrival time will be the main factor. Consider the total cost of getting to your accommodation, not just the cost of getting to the city.

4. Ride Shares

Share rides with other travelers to airports/border crossings. Make friends and ask their final destination. Ask local travel agents for available ride shares and compare with taxi rates. Sometimes it’s a better deal and less hassle to go with a travel agent.

5. Skip Airport Taxi Surcharges

Grab a taxi at the departures hall in the airport to avoid paying the extra airport taxi fee at arrivals. The minute someone gets out of a taxi, I ask the driver if I can have a ride. (This worked well for me at Bangkok’s main airport (Suvarnabhumi) and saved a ton of time.)

6. Take a Boat

Ferries are totally reliable method of transport and a fraction of the cost of flying. I recently took a ferry from Panama to Colombia. There’s no land crossing between the two countries due to political unrest and jungle terrain. Flying from Panama City to Cartagena was close to $370 ONE-WAY for an hour flight. (This is ridiculous considering a friend flew one-way from San Francisco to Cartagena to meet me for less than $300!) The 18-hour ferry was $150 for a private cabin and $100 for a seat. (I did the cabin.) Considering I’m technically unemployed and living on my savings, I figured 18-hours of my time was worth saving the $200. Plus, I got a ton of work and reading done. And, I met some new amazing friends!

In coastal towns, water taxis and boats are the best and fastest option. Negotiation is key. Ask people at the port if they are going the same area to help reduce the cost for everyone.

7. Take Advantage of Free Ride Promos

Sign up for mobile taxi services with Uber and Lyft. Your first ride is free, and you get a free ride for each person you refer. Refer anyone traveling with you so you both benefit with all the free rides. You’d be surprised how many cities in the world use both services!

Do you have any tips for cutting costs on transport? Share them in the comments below!