No really, it’s a serious thing. To many times naive tourists head off to an unfamiliar land and aren’t aware of the potential trouble that a pure lack of ‘travel smarts’ can cause. Yes I said it: ‘travel smarts.’ You either have them or you don’t, and if you’re even considering venturing off to a distant, foreign land you’ll want to get some asap.
There are too many stories circulating around South East Asia about how iPhones have been snatched right from someone’s ear in Vietnam, a taxi driver in Malaysia screwing a van full of friends for 50 bucks more than he should have charged, and phony, overpriced tours that are often offered on the busy streets of Thailand. Derik and I have both have ‘travel smarts,’ more Derik than I. He is constantly aware of his surroundings and learns to adapt to a new culture quickly. I’m the researcher. I’ll spend days online before we leave for yet another adventure, trying to find the tourist traps and safety risks of each country. It works.
Now, on to sharing my top 10 travel smart ideas.
1. Research an area ahead of time – As I just stated in my previous paragraph, research is key. See what Travel Advisor is saying about a specific area. You can most likely find up-to-date reviews for a specific place you are looking for. Check out the local news, make sure there isn’t a civil war going on (that would be one pleasant surprise). Google ‘tourist traps in _________’ and see what comes up! You may be surprised. I know it sounds a bit grandma-ish to be looking for problems like this, but seriously, you my save yourself a few dollars in the long run knowing what to avoid.
2. Don’t look extravagantly rich – Is it a no brainer to tell you that if you are going to a poorer country than what you are used to, leave your Prada bag and Gucci shoes at home? You might as well say goodbye to your 3 carat diamond ring if you decide to keep it on your finger. Nothing draws attention more than a little bling-bling. In poor countries all over Asia, westerners stick out like a sore thumb already. Don’t give the locals any reason to come after you.
To put it in perspective, Derik and I hired a taxi driver for the day in Bali. He charged $45 dollars, and that would be his money for the day to feed, clothe, and pay for his 4 children to go to public school . We went a little further inland to a local elephant sanctuary and got to talking to one of the workers. He made the equivalent of $10 dollars a day, and he didn’t get to work every day.
If anything (say you’re not even concerned in the least about safety) don’t be rude to the locals. They work so hard for their money and here you are openly flaunting cameras, phones, jewelry, clothes, and pocket change like it’s nothing to you. Just be respectful. When I travel I don either a small pearl bead ring or a simple silver band instead of my wedding ring. It works perfectly!
3. Learn your surroundings – It’s seriously not a good idea to go galavanting around at night on your first day in a new country. Figure out where the ‘nice’ places in town are as well as the places to stay away from. Just because you are on vacation it does not mean the rest of the world is as well. You will still find drugs, sex trafficking, drinking, and gangs in almost any country you visit.
Just remember it never hurts to ask! Most hotel and resort staff are more than happy to help you find places to eat, shop, and hang out. They’ve most likely lived in the area their whole life and can honestly tell you where to avoid. You might be surprised with how much information someone is willing to share! On our last trip to Borneo, the hotel clerk educated us on how to use the local bus system, where the good places were to eat, and how to get a taxi.
4. Know when to leave your stuff at home or out of sight – Just because you want to take pictures doesn’t necessarily mean you should whip out your camera whenever you want to. I usually keep my camera in my backpack (which I usually have facing forward for safekeeping), and will only get it out if I feel comfortable in my surroundings. Walking down a desolate, poor, remote, and creepy alley? Yeah maybe that’s not the place. Why are you even there?!
Also, be respectful of other people’s privacy. There are so many times I want to point and shoot GORGEOUS people, but I’m too chicken to take the picture. I don’t want to be rude, it’s not a zoo or a school field trip. I’m walking into someone’s everyday life and I need to be respectful of it.
I almost NEVER bring my iPhone anywhere when we travel. If I do it stays in my backpack until I enter a safe place to take it out: Starbucks, a NICE restaurant, or the hotel. IPhones (or any smart phones for that matter) are hot commodities in just about any country, and are easy to resell. Just think about that guy who makes $10 dollars a day. If he snatched an iPhone off of an unsuspecting person, he’d make several hundred dollars. That would set him up for a couple months!
5. Have an emergency plan – I always hated emergency plans growing up. They always seemed so stupid. Now that I’m a mature adult (ehhhemmm), I see the value in them. Our plans are never elaborate, just enough to get us by and out of panic mode if we get separated. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to use my international plan on my phone (talk about an arm and a leg). My husband and I keep our phones in airplane mode the whole time we are on a vacation. The nice thing is though, if we ever do get to the point where we would need to call each other or someone, our phone provider automatically links us up to a local service provider, and our phones work instantly.
Worst case scenario we always have a meeting point. If the hotel isn’t far that’s the place we will go if we are separated. If it is, a local and easy to get to public restaurant or cafe. Thankfully we’ve always been stuck on each other like glue and haven’t ever had to use this action plan.
6. Don’t travel alone – I know people have different opinions about this, and I honestly think it depends where you go. Guys are pretty much safe anywhere, but if you’re a girl with Western features (hair, eyes, skin), you’ll be eyed the whole time. It’s kind of creepy being openly hit on while your husband is standing there holding your hand. I can’t imagine what it would be like to travel alone as a girl. If you do it-props to you.
I think it’s important to at least have a friend or contact with you, that way if you get into trouble they can help you out. If that doesn’t convince you to travel in a pair or group, think of how much fun you can have with others!
7. Shop smart, don’t be afraid to haggle! Shopping is one of my favorite parts about being in a foreign country. Every country has slightly different rules of the trade, and I’d have to say that I had my most favorite haggling moments in Bali. Some countries frown upon haggling, some countries expect it and inflate their prices by well over 200-300%. I’ve been working on my haggling skills since I went to Panama when I was 15, and I’ve gotten pretty darn good at it. My husband is usually too embarrassed over the prices I ask, and will point at something he wants and then disappear. I’ve only been cussed out once, so I assume that’s a success.
One of the best techniques I use is to do a little bit of window shopping first. If you take the time to go to a huge public market, you’ll see the same things being sold over and over. Check the prices! Don’t be afraid to mention that the stall down the road is selling the same exact item for 1/2 the price. The sellers will realize you’re there to shop and not to be swindled.
8. If it smells bad, don’t eat it – I love local food. Night markets in SE Asia are one of my favorite things to go to. Not only do you get to experience the hustle and bustle of local life, you get to eat the food! My favorite night market experience was in Phu Quoc, Vietnam. You could literally pick a live fish, crab, prawn, snail, or even frog and say you wanted that for dinner. They’d have it sitting pretty on the grill in two seconds flat
excuse the barbaric mental image.
However, I’ve been to a few night markets where the fish is already cooked (like the above picture). There is no telling how long it’s been sitting there, and watching the ladies wave flies away over and over again doesn’t put my mind at ease. Just remember, fresh is always best!
9. No safe in your hotel room? Become and expert hider – You guys. My husband is AMAZING at this! 8/10 hotels in SE Asia do not have safes, and if they do they don’t work. So where do you hide your passports, extra cash, and anything else valuable to you that you don’t want stolen? Why under the furniture of course. We all know that ‘under the mattress’ is way overplayed, so why not try picking up the heavy side table or dresser and shoving your stuff under there? Just don’t forget about it.
10. Don’t lose your head – I have seen one to many vacationers stumbling around happily drunk as the sun is setting. I have no problem with drinking a cocktail or two on the beach, but be careful how much you drink! If anything, leave your passport, credit card, and anything else important to you at your place of residency. You’d be surprised what goes missing when you’re not right in the head.
On another note about losing your head, just don’t leave your brains home when you go on vacation. Be smart, people. It’s good to be aware of what is going on around you, but by no means do you have to be paranoid. I’m always overly cautious about safety the first day or two, but then my mind is put to ease as I gain understanding with what is around me.
Being in a foreign country is an eye-opening, mind-blowing experience. I wouldn’t trade travel for the world. The key to having a successful and safe trip is by using your ‘travel smarts.’
What do you do to stay away from problems while traveling?