I thought I was a pretty savvy traveller until recently, when an incident in the first week of a four-month trip overseas drove the message home: All travellers, even the frequent ones, may face risks in a foreign place. But there are ways to minimise those risks and maximise the good times. Here are my top five tips tailored especially for women to take on board.
1. Fake it ’til you make it
Attitude is everything. Minimise the risk of becoming a ‘tourist scam’ statistic by staying sharp and looking like you know where you’re going and what you’re doing, even if you don’t have a clue. It’s preferable to approach a local for help rather than attract unsolicited assistance from a stranger, who may have their own agenda.
Of course, being duped can happen to the best of us, usually because we’re too trusting, we’re sympathetic to locals in need, we let our guard down, or we don’t have the language and cultural insights when we arrive in a foreign place. The worst thing you can do is let a negative event ruin your trip or mar your perception of an otherwise fabulous place. Learn from the experience and move onwards and upwards.
2. Travel light
Bag lady. Packhorse. You don’t want to look like either, groaning under the weight of all the worldly chattels you simply had to bring… just in case. Pack with the intention of using/wearing every item in your luggage. See, it’s lighter already.
Importantly, make sure your collective luggage is of a size/weight/number you can handle yourself without relying on others, especially on public transport. If you appear to have it all under control when you disembark, there’s less chance of pickpockets ‘relieving’ you of your valuables. It also reduces the risk of a ‘helpful’ local whisking away your unwieldy bags (and you in tow) to their unregistered taxi or second-cousin’s dodgy hotel before you can say “Sisters are doin’ it for themselves.”
3. Know what’s cool and what’s not
How many times have I greeted my young nephews by mussing up their hair? (Too many, they would probably say. LOL) However, I would never do that in India, where touching another person’s head is a no-no.
Sometimes, the most seemingly innocent actions can translate as serious cultural transgressions in foreign places, incurring the displeasure of your hosts. Research the customs of your destination before you arrive so you don’t put a foot wrong – literally – by pointing your feet at others when sitting in a Samoan fale (hut), for instance, or failing to remove your shoes before entering a Hindu temple. (Not that members of these communities are likely to outwardly express their annoyance, but being sensitive to their cultural practices will ensure a warmer welcome.)
Familiarise yourself with the local dress code and pack appropriately. While we’re on that subject, I always keep a light scarf in a neutral colour in my handbag or daypack. It weighs nothing and takes up no room but is invaluable when I need to cover my shoulders before entering a place of worship, or as a barrier against a chilly wind or the harsh midday sun.
4. You’re not in a Hollywood rom-com
Drink-spiking is known to occur in bars, clubs and hotels around the world. Never leave your drink unattended or even under the watchful eyes of your new ‘friends’ while you go to the toilet. Don’t accept a drink with the promise of ‘no strings attached’ from that handsome stranger unless: (a) you see the bartender open/pour it before your very own eyes; (b) you’re confident you can maintain control of the situation; and (c) you have a foolproof exit strategy if needed.
5. Where’s my bag?
It goes without saying you should secure your daypack or handbag at all times, especially when weaving through crowds or stopping to take photos. The same applies when using public toilets. Observe where the hook for your bag is positioned on the door of the cubicle. A hook that is high and/or off-centre may enable a thief to access your bag from the other side of the door or the next cubicle after gaining leverage from the sanitary bin conveniently provided. By the time you look up, your bag is gone. I know of this happening to a Sydneysider in a shopping centre in her home town, proving locals are no less immune to bag theft than visitors.
More great travel advice for women can be found at the Australian Government’s Smart Traveller website. Click here.