10 vacation safety rules I learned by experience

Ah, travel is bliss! Or, we’d like to think so. One reason we get upset about delays, ticket mishaps, and schedule changes is that we want our vacation to be perfect, and anything less makes us cranky.

To that end, vacation-goers seem to inhabit a cocoon that presumes everything will be wonderful — the flight/cruise/drive, lodging, food, weather, etc.

We WANT to make it so, so it will be. Yeah, right. There’s nothing wrong with positive thinking, but there’s nothing wrong with a little reality and precaution, either. Many things can go wrong when traveling, so for now, we’ll focus on staying safe and solvent.

I’ve been remiss myself. I’ve traveled somewhere and treated my destination like Disney World where everybody loves me, wants to help me, wants me to have a splendid time.

Boy, was that dumb!

Once in Aceh, Indonesia, a colleague and I hired a couple of one-way bike-taxis to go around town. Neither of us spoke the language. We could have been robbed, raped, murdered, or abandoned somewhere dangerous. Luckily, we were just overcharged. Figuring how to return to our hotel was punishment enough, since we couldn’t explain the address to our driver. Eventually we got back, but I still don’t know how.

Everyone knows to protect their passports and cash, but what else can you do to stay safe? First of all, think about how you protect yourself at home — traveling is no different.

1. Be alert in parking lots, after dark, on public transportation, in sparsely populated areas and at ATMs, banks or whenever cash is displayed. Thieves are everywhere, even charming seaside villages, looking for opportunities.

2. Don’t leave valuables out, but don’t carry more than you need — use a hotel safe, if possible. Don’t carry lots of banknotes; using credit cards is safer and smarter. Don’t travel with expensive jewelry. Take fabulous-looking fakes (even celebrities do it!). I switch my heavily encrusted wedding rings with a simple gold band abroad.

3. Consider the image you present and minimize that giveaway ‘tourist’ look. Wear comfortable clothing that blends with the locals. Note, nothing says American tourist like a ‘fanny pack.’ Don’t advertise status with designer labels and expensive watches. Western women: Consider covering more of yourself than you might at home — in some countries lots of exposed skin signifies a prostitute.

4. Don’t let your guard down. Avoid excessive drinking that impairs judgment and makes you an easy target. Be careful when others offer you drinks, they might be trying to get you intoxicated, or spiking it. Don’t leave drinks unattended and only accept drinks that come straight from the bartender. Don’t accept any drugs. Also beware of any situation that might be illegal — foreign jails can be torture.

5. Women, be sensitive to your surroundings. Guard personal information and important details such as hotel information and room number. Ask for a more secure room – one above ground floor and closer to the lobby or registration desk (never at the back of the property). Verify the identity of anyone seeking entry to your room. If you’re meeting someone you’ve never seen before – a tour operator or job contact – arrange to meet in the lobby or other populated place.

Steer clear of dicey neighborhoods. Ask the hotel staff about areas to stay away from. Always lock doors and make sure windows — all windows — and patio doors are secure. My parents once got robbed by someone who came in through a bathroom window.

6. New places can be disorienting. Keep a local map with you at all times. Confirm directions to sites with the concierge. Use well-recommended taxis and tour operators. Put the local emergency number into your cellphone. Travel in pairs or groups if possible. Walk with purpose, like you know where you’re going, even if you don’t. If you’re staying in a remote location, insist on a room with a phone — solitude is one thing, but how else would you phone for help? Cellphones don’t always work.

7. Be aware of the ruses used by criminals. Observe your environment. If someone is asking only you for money and not the locals, suspect a scam. (Some cons are impressive, with fake service uniforms). Resist giving money to street beggars, some are lures to get you to take out your wallet. Watch out for strangers that cause a distraction, ask you to hold a baby, or hand over airplane tickets for any reason. Sometimes a stranger will feign an injury you ‘caused’ and demand money — ask to settle this or other unusual scenarios at a police station.

8. Use common sense. In Indonesia, my novice colleagues were persuaded to hand over luggage claim tickets to the “blue shirts,” supposedly a luggage retrieval convenience. This could hardly be a ‘service,’ as a traveler would recognize their bags faster than strangers. Depending on the perceived contents of your bags, they would either steal them, or bring them to you and demand a steep fee. Some of these same guys offer to load luggage into your vehicle and then aggressively hound you for money.

9. Prevent fraud. Change money only with well-known institutions or your hotel. When using a credit card, try to keep it in sight the entire time. Make sure the purchase is completed in local funds. Don’t let a merchant offer to convert amounts — your credit card company will offer a better rate and he won’t be able to cheat you.

10. Don’t let anyone rush you. If you’re going to a market or place where its cash only, take a calculator to figure out the conversion rate. (You can also use the display to haggle with vendors in countries where you aren’t fluent). Don’t give out a credit card number to anyone over the phone, even if they’re supposedly from the hotel. Go to the front desk to settle the matter. Smart thieves will pretend to be any number of official types to get those digits and separate you from your cash. Beware of deals – just like home, if it sound too good to be true, it is.

It can be tough to navigate between trying to be a friendly diplomat for your native land and being cautious and seeming rude, but I’d err on the side that lets you get back home alive.