Travelling Safely: Before You Go

| August 27, 2009 | 9 Comments
This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Travelling Safely

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 FearBefore You Go,Urban Bright—City Safety TipsTips for a Safe Night’s Sleep, and Personal Safety Products. Have any tips that didn’t make the lists herein? Please contact us!

A long-term trip abroad is always an adventure—only one thing is for sure, it will be full of surprises! A little advance planning, however, will improve the chances that all those surprises are pleasant ones. To ensure your trip is as hassle-free as possible, certain precautions should be taken before departure. Some tasks, such as obtaining passports or visas, may take considerable time, so begin preparations well before your travel date. In today’s article, we consider advice that pertains to enhancing your safety while abroad.

safetwarnings Travelling Safely: Before You Go

The best way to have a safe trip when traveling to unfamiliar places is to do your research first.

The best way to have a safe trip when you’re traveling to unfamiliar places is to do your research first. Travelers should familiarize themselves with their destinations, both to get the most enjoyment out of the visit and to avoid known dangers.

Let someone know

Particularly if you will be away for an extended period, it is a good idea to leave your itinerary, complete with phone numbers and addresses, with someone at home. Writes Ellen Singer at SlowTravel:

It’s a good idea to have someone at home acting as your contact. Keep this person apprised of where you are and how you can be contacted as well as any changes in your itinerary so that if something happens your steps can be traced back.

While Ms Singer’s article focuses explicitly on solo travel, her advice is applicable to everyone, whether travelling with a partner or in a group. On an around-the-world trip, however, this isn’t always practical. Regardless, make an effort, as maintaining contact with somebody at home that can advocate for you is an important precaution. Often, all it takes is a quick email, SMS or phone call.

You may be having a great time on your trip but neglecting to contact family and friends can often cause stress and anxiety. Each year, state department the world over field thousands of calls from worried families who have not heard from loved ones overseas and are concerned for their safety. Bottom line—don’t forget to call your mom!

Check the safety of your destination

Before you depart, seek out the official position of state departments. But keep in mind that while a travel warning is applied to an entire country, it might pertain to a single remote region—that’s why it’s often a good idea to check multiple sources for varying perspectives. Doug Lansky in his book First Time Around the World writes: “The UK Foreign Office website is more likely than others to specify the volatile area when they place an entire country on warning”. Lansky recommends that travelers cross-check with Canada’s consular affairs department, Australia’s Department  of Foreign Affairs or the United States’ State Deparment.

Even if you’re not a citizen, the state departments above provide travel conditions in more than 180 countries around the world. Their travel information reports cover general conditions, such as crime levels, types of crime, regulations, information on local embassies and emergency assistance, health conditions and entry requirements. Where appropriate, these travel reports include warnings highlighting conditions in countries deemed ‘unsafe’. These warnings are important, as insurance companies generally will not cover losses that arise because you did not follow the advice of a government travel advisory—it’s best to check your policy’s wording to see what your insurer’s underwrier will and will not allow.

Many of the state departments help keep you up-to-date on the safety and security situation abroad through daily ‘travel updates’, e-mails that summarize new warnings. Check out Canada’s consular affairs email offering here. As a supplement to the state departments listed above, we recommend World Nomads, they offer the latest up-to-date security briefings on hundreds of countries. You can sign up for their service here. Remember, it’s not a good idea to rely on guidebooks for travel advisories—even the most recent editions get out of date quickly.

Make copies of important documents

You’ve likely come across this travel tip before. It’s a very good idea to photocopy all of your important documents—passports, visas, tickets, credit cards, drug prescriptions and other critical documents. It will be easier to replace the originals in the event you lose them.

Leave a set behind (with someone you trust and can reach easily when abroad) and stash the other set somewhere separate from the originals—some backpackers like to stuff the photocopies in the bottom of their packs and forget about them. If you’re traveling with a companion, it’s a good idea to each take the other person’s copies. Regardless, you should consider putting them in a resealable bag, such as a Ziploc, to protect them from the elements (and beer).

If you can’t be bothered to carry copies around then, then at the very least, you should consider jotting down serial and identification numbers in your travel journal. However, if you’d like to avoid carrying around copies of documents, you would do well to consider storing copies online so you can retrieve them while you’re on the road. If you lose your documents, a copy will always be available for printing and viewing.

The technically savvy among us will be happy to hear about a couple of programs—one from ISIC and the other from Lonely Planet. These programs are great because they allow you access to your information from any computer connected to the Internet (or in the case of ISIC—a touchtone phone). These solutions are secure because they employ encryption; therefore, you’re the only person who can access your information. Both of these services are based on the eKit platform—so are essentially similar .

  • Telesafe. ISIConnect offers ISIC members cyber storage for their valuable documents. It’s called ‘Telesafe’ and it’s a great alternative to photocopies as it provides secure virtual storage. You can retrieve documents via e-mail or touchtone phone anywhere in the world. What’s great about this service is that you do not require access to a computer should you need to retrieve your documents—you can print a copy using a touchtone phone and a fax machine.
  • Travel Vault. Lonely Planet offers a service similar to ‘Telesafe’ called the ‘Travel Vault’ which also allows you to store the details of your vital travel documents. What’s more, you can authorize Lonely Planet’s customer service to access them for you.

Alternatively, you can create your own free ‘travel vault’ by scanning your important documents, saving each document as a .jpg or .gif file, and then emailing those files to yourself at a freely available webmail address (we recommend Google’s Gmail owing to its ease of use and storage capacity). Ensure that the documents you emailed to yourself came through properly and store them on the server (ie don’t delete them—save them into a special folder). This option may not be as secure as some of the aforementioned services; however, it is free and should suit most people.

Of course, you’ll only ever need the copies of your documents if something is stolen. However, you’ll be glad you have them. Replacing things like rail passes, credit cards, airline tickets or a passport can be difficult when starting from scratch. Having a copy helps to substantiate your identity in the absence of the original documents. Bottom line, it helps to smooth the replacement process along.

Travel Insurance

One in five independent travellers go abroad without taking out insurance, according to Ipsos MORI, a leading market research company in the UK and Ireland. Nearly 50% of those who encountered problems while abroad admitted they should have been better prepared. The most common problems experienced were falling ill (13%), missing flights (9%), being robbed or a victim of a personal crime (both 6%). Younger travellers—those more likely to take risks—were twice as likely to get ill (27%) get hurt (14%) or become caught up in a civil disturbance (13% against a 5% average).

While an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, it’s still necessary to protect yourself in the event of a mishap. No amount of vigilance and common sense can protect against the unforeseen (refer to our recent article, Travelling Safely: Antidotes to Fear).

So is travel insurance really necessary? You should consider purchasing travel insurance if you can’t afford to cover unexpected medical and emergency costs at your destination. So, unless you’re independently wealthy, the answer is an unequivocal “yes”. If travelling long-term, travel insurance is a must. If something were to go wrong while you are abroad, the costs can quickly mount—rescue and repatriation costs, surgery and ongoing medical treatment.  Consider a policy that includes emergency medical evacuation coverage. If adequate treatment is not available at a local hospital, you would be transferred to the nearest adequate medical faculty. Moreover, travel insurers can help facilitate payment, and act as an advocate so that you’re not overcharged.

Choosing the right of type of coverage is outside the scope of this article, but it’s something that we will touch on in the future. Various types of protection are usually (but not always) included in a travel insurance policy. Be sure to consult your policy’s wording—it indicates whether your travel insurance covers what you may be assuming that it does. Policies and insurance firms differ in what they cover so be sure to ask. A good place to start your research is with World Nomads.

Document your possessions

Doug Lansky, in his book First Time Around the World, A Trip Planner for the Ultimate Journey, offers up the following gem—advice we’d yet to come across in our travels:

Before leaving, give yourself an extra hour or two at the airport and aska customs agent to document your possessions on a free docket. That way no border guard in a less-developed nation can accuse you of buying those items (your iPod, camera etc) in their country and try to extract a duty free from you.”

To make things easier, you can register certain items before you depart—including watches, cameras, laptop computers, firearms, and CD players—as long as they have serial numbers or other unique, permanent markings. Of course, each countries customs rules differ, so check with your state department before you depart!


Yes, the wonders of travel never cease for globetrotting adventurers. Although many trips run smoothly, sometimes there are rough spots along the way. The best way to avoid surprise turbulence is to be prepared! If you have any additional safety precautions that should be undertaken before departure, please don’t hesitate to share them with us in the comment stream!

Further Reading

  • First Time Around the World, A Trip Planner for the Ultimate Journey: Loaded with the very latest travel information, including all you need to know about round-the-world tickets, this pre-departure guide will help get your ultimate journey under way. This guide begins with a 16-page, full-colour, things not to miss photo section with suggested itineraries, details on what to bring, when to go, how much it will cost and which vaccinations will keep you healthy.
  • World Nomads: Recommended by Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, World Nomads travel insurance is available to people from over 150 countries and is designed for adventurous travelers!
  • US Department of State’s Tips for Travelling Abroad: For detailed information about steps you can take to ensure a safe trip.
  • Telesafe. ISIConnect offers ISIC members cyber storage for their valuable documents. It’s called ‘Telesafe’ and it’s a great alternative to photocopies as it provides secure virtual storage. You can retrieve documents via e-mail or touchtone phone anywhere in the world. What’s great about this service is that you do not require access to a computer should you need to retrieve your documents—you can print a copy using a touchtone phone and a fax machine.
  • Travel Vault. LonelyPlanet offers a service similar to ‘Telesafe’ called the ‘Travel Vault’ which also allows you to store the details of your vital travel documents. What’s more, you can authorize Lonely Planet’s Customer Service to access them for you.
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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+.

Comments (9)

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  1. Grace Bethel says:

    Some good recommendations here—especially like Doug Lansky’s advice regarding documenting your possessions at customs.

    As a public health nurse, I’d add that it’s a good idea to allow a month ore two to meet with your doctor for advice about medications and immunizations.

    This is especially important if you’ll be travelling long-term (for example, around-the-world) and even more so if you will be in remote areas where public facilities are substandard. You’ll also need to confirm that boosters or new immunizations are not needed.

    To your list of important documents, you should add copies vaccination records and bring them along on your trip.

    • Daniel says:

      Thanks, Grace—your suggestion certainly fits as a ‘safety’ precaution. Appreciate it. Travel safety’s not always the ‘sexiest’ topic, but it’s certainly worth revisiting every now and then!

  2. Trisha says:

    Great advice! I would add that whomever is your “at-home” advocate should also be clearly told when they should expect to hear from you next, and what amount of leeway is acceptable before they start alerting the authorities. If you fall into trouble, you wouldn’t want someone at home waiting days – or worse, weeks – before they pick up a phone.

    This is especially important for anyone traveling alone, but applies to all travelers – crime or disasters befall couples & families just as it can for solo travelers. A cell phone with international roaming (or better still global satellite service) may seem pricey but is cheap in comparison to risk depending on where your travels take you. A quick text message each day (or even morning & night) can give everyone peace of mind that if the worst happens, help can be quickly dispatched.

    • Daniel says:

      The cell phone is a good suggestion, Trisha. And one we hadn’t considered before because it was logisitally difficult (and expensive). But with prices coming down and technology always improbing, checking in by email or SMS is cheaper and easier than ever.

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