Travelling Safely: Antidotes to Fear

| August 25, 2009 | 17 Comments
safetycard Travelling Safely: Antidotes to Fear

Careful planning and awareness of safety and security are essential to backpackers.

This post is part of a series of articles focusing on travel safety for the long-term traveler; however, they should be of interest to travelers of any stripe! The series, entitled ‘Travelling Safely’ comprises Antidotes to Fear, Before You Go, Urban Bright—City Safety Tips, Tips for a Safe Night’s Sleep, and Personal Safety Products. Have any tips that didn’t make the lists herein? Please contact us!

In a rapidly changing world, independent travellers who forge their own paths have seemingly never faced greater challenges (if CNN were to be believed). Regardless, careful planning and awareness of safety and security are essential to backpackers, since you are responsible for your own well being while abroad.

But, rest assured, while you might pride yourself on your independence, you are not alone. You can prepare for these challenges with a little research and a little preparation.

It’s safer than you think

Often cited as the ‘first backpacker’, Giovanni Francesco Gemelli Careri was a seventeenth century Italian adventurer and traveler. He was among the first Europeans to tour the world using public transportation and his travels may have inspired Jules Vern’s Around the World in Eighty Days.

As Gemelli described it in his journal, his five years abroad were often a ‘nightmare’ plagued with bad food, epidemic outbursts, the fear of violent crime and even death. As Gemelli’s account proves, as long as there have been ‘exotic’ destinations luring curious people, there has been fear.

High-profile cases—like that of British backpacker Daisy Angus who spent five years in a Mumbai prison after being ‘duped’ into becoming a drug mule—feed anxieties.

Is the fear warranted?

Random crime and crime that targets travellers and tourists isn’t going away, but neither is it increasing. Does a flurry of high profile crimes targeting or involving backpackers put travellers in greater danger? Take for instance the fact that every year over 1,000 people globally are involved in hostel/hotel fires on their travels, of which 50–100 perish. It’s an alarming statistic. However, in light of the fact that there were over 922 million international tourist arrivals in 2008, it’s statistically unlikely that you would ever be involved in a fire while abroad. It’s these statistics and our perception of them that interests University of Toronto professor Jeffrey S. Rosenthal. He is the author of Struck by Lightning: The Curious World of Probabilities, wherein he considers probability and randomness in everyday life.

Rosenthal admits that individual behaviours or characteristics affect one’s chances of becoming a victim of violent crime; , hence, admittedly, by their very nature, travelers face increased odds of something going wrong. However, these odds are still extremely low.

If the odds are low, then why do the traveling public still worry after high-profile incidents abroad (ie the Bali bombings or those in Egypt)? Rosenthal calls this phenomenon “headline bias”. He says: “when something makes the news, people think it happens a lot. But the reason something makes the headlines is because it doesn’t happen a lot.”

Ultimately, according to Rosenthal, public reaction is rarely in co-ordination with the actual statistics. As he explains it to a Toronto Star reporter:

Our brains evolved when we lived in smaller groups, with less access to information. So if you heard that someone was eaten by a lion, it was probably one of the 50 people in your tribe. It meant there was a lion around and you should be careful. Today, if you see a headline about someone getting shot, it’s one person out of millions, and it doesn’t mean there’s any greater risk to you.

What can you do to protect yourself?

Today we’re kicking off a series of posts on safety focused on the difficulties backpackers experience while abroad. And how to prevent problems before they can occur—or avoid them altogether.

The four most important things that you need bring on your trip to ensure your safety won’t take up any space in your pack. Better yet—they’re free!

  1. Vigilance. As the maxim goes—“Be ever vigilant, but never suspicious”. This proverb is especially appropriate for travelers as it has often been borrowed through the ages and has come into its present usage through a number of different languages and cultures. Vigilance is the ability to remain alertly watchful especially to avoid danger. The importance of vigilance while travelling independently cannot be overstated. No government, organization, or gadget can take the place of an alert, ever vigilant backpacker.
  2. Intuition. For a long time, intuitive perception was regarded as an illusory event and often dismissed as imaginary. Now, however, science has come to understand it as a transcendent personal (and very practical) event. Intuition is merely the convergence of one’s senses, conscious insights and subconscious memories. This information comes together to produce insights beyond the scope of our conscious mind. Bottom line—trust your intuition. If something seems wrong—it probably is wrong.
  3. Common sense. Common sense simply consists of what people in common would agree on—a common natural understanding. So why is it so uncommon on some parts of the tourist trail? Do you indiscriminately accept drugs and alcohol offered to you by complete strangers at the corner pub? Not likely. Then why make exceptions when travelling? By its very nature, travel demands that you do things you would never imagine doing at home, but that doesn’t mean you should dismiss common sense. Indeed, backpacking is itself a succession of transitional moments wherein the traveller need necessarily reconsider some common sense advice in order to ground themselves once in a while.
  4. Humour. As the pioneering American psychologist William James once write: “Common sense and a sense of humour are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing.” So, pack your funny bone and maintain your sense of humour. Things don’t (and won’t) turn out as planned. Detours and disasters are a fact of life—both literally and figuratively. But sometimes, they are the ingredients that make a trip so interesting!


While travelling, remain ever-vigilant, trust in your intuition and heed common sense. But remember, when faced with screaming headlines and 24-hour cable news networks, it’s best to maintain a sense of humour.

Further Reading

  • The Rough Guide to Travel Survival: As per the publisher: “This slim, information-packed volume is indispensable for every adventurous traveler, aid worker, or foreign correspondent whether you’re trekking through the 6% of the world covered in rainforest or are forging through a distinctly more urban jungle and need to spot scams and thwart pickpockets.”
  • World Nomads—Keep Travelling Safely: Get specialist independent travel safety advice on where you’re going.
  • World Nomads Travel Safety Hub Blog: Travel advice and travel safety. Stay informed on the road.

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About the Author ()

For nearly ten years now, Daniel of Two Go Round-The-World has explored how travel captures our imagination and engages our deepest emotions. One half of the duo that maintains the widely read Two Go Round-The-World blog, Daniel treats his subjects not only as works of art but also as symbols of the cultural and political forces that inspire them. Check him out on Google+.

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  1. Travelling Safely – Antidotes to Fear | Global Bloggers Network | March 7, 2010

  1. I am usually not suprised when I hear of an incident when a traveller had something stolen from them. Usually the cause was that they did not use common sense. Some people are use to behave like they do at home and forget that in the new surroundings they play with different rules.

    Great article.

    • Daniel says:

      Agreed—although I’m guilty of sometimes getting lost in the moment! Vigilance, intuition, common sense are such intangibles. It seems to me the longer that you travel the more ingrained they become. Even these days I more aware of my daypack than I was prior to a long-term trip. Always keep it close to my body—even when out with friends!

  2. Jason says:

    Most of our friends and family wish us safety first. It’s because they see the dangers on the news, but not the triumphs. Understand that it’s supposed to be a fun trip, but one that along with the simple task of driving a car, requires alertness and common sense.

  3. You act and behave as you would in any big city in your home country. When I traveled around the world I am fortunate to say I had no run-ins with the police and was not the victim of petty or violent crime. Be vigilant and keep your eyes open and the odds are you’ll come home with nothing more than fantastic memories.

    • Daniel says:

      Agreed, Brian—I think that putting travel into a frame of reference that we all can relate to (ie act and behave as you would in any big city in your home country) is especially helpful—thanks for the comment.

  4. Anil says:

    The more you hear about something on the news, the less likely it is to happen :)

  5. Bali Travel says:


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    Do pass on the award and inform other travel bloggers regarding the award so that we all can benefit on this and increase awareness of our blogs.


  6. Daniel says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. Truly appreciate them!

    Regardless of the manner by which you consumer your news, it’s easy to fall prey to “headline anxiety”. You read a headline, and your heart rate increases. The US 24-hour news networks (especially Fox) have turned this into an art from. Even when a real cause for concern exists, the anxiety produced by headline news doesn’t help us to respond throughfully or critically to what’s happening. But the news outlets hardly care, they increase their viewership, which drives their earnings.

    Now, the problem is exacerbated when government news agencies seemingly confirm the anxiety spawned in the headlines. Suddenly, we have a prudent, unbiased trusted source of news corroborating the fears fed to us by the worst of mainstream media. One’s anxiety is suddenly amped up, and all of our fears are seemingly coming at us from all sides.

    For this reason, I prefer the CBC or the BBC to CNN or FOX.

    Also, that’s why I like to talk with those that have been there; those that you meet on the ‘tourist trail’. Other travelers are often the best source of information about a given area. At the same time, however, I don’t dismiss what I see or read in the news, I merely regard it in a more critical fashion.

  7. I sometimes find myself getting anxiety about headlines — the recent flurry of plane crashes has made me a little freaked out about my flight in a few weeks (doesn’t help that I was on an Air France flight just one week before the Air France crash). But I am trying to remember that those are rare and planes are generally very safe.

    I was in Paris by myself for a few days last summer and when walking by myself at night, I was a little paranoid and kept looking behind me. I am probably a little too cautious, but I agree that as long as you use common sense and vigilance, you shouldn’t find yourself in a troublesome situation. There’s always the random chance that you will get mugged, but for the most part if you look like you know what you are doing and stay confidant, people will leave you alone. I also always make sure to have a messenger bag across my front as a day pack, so it’s never out of my site — it doesn’t allow anyone to pickpocket me or to snatch it off me.

    • Daniel says:

      Hi Emily—thanks for the comment. I agree with you regarding flying. It’s an unnatural act to strap yourself into an aluminium tube and throw yourself through the sky. Hence, a little anxiety is totally normal—at least I feel the same way. As long as anxieties and fears don’t get in the way of everyday life, I think that a little anxiety can actually help sometimes!

  8. Fear is the killer of all things. You can just as likely get hit by a bus leaving your safe home as you could get hurt traveling!

    So leave the fears behind and just go!

    • Daniel says:

      Agreed, Marina! The risks don’t change but our perceptions of them do — that’s what’s so strange about travelling out of country. Of course, once on the road, they ebb and flow and then begin to recede when a certain amount of comfort with becoming a vagabond is achieved!

  9. Tango Lucy says:

    Its a shame that so many people stay in one country all there lives because of fear of the unknown and fear for their safety. Great article!

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