Independent solo travel offers total freedom to get off the beaten track, but of course being alone can present some safety issues. Here are my tips for staying safe:
On the road:
Take long distance buses overnight. This allows you to arrive in the new place with the whole day ahead of you. If your bus is delayed, you don’t risk arriving at a sketchy bus station late at night. (See also Spending as Little as Possible for more about why I take overnight buses.)
When you are in transit you are an obvious target. If you are carrying your luggage, you probably have not checked into your accommodation yet and therefore any would-be thieves will know that you have your passport, credit cards and cash supply on you. Keep sharp and do not get distracted at these times. Stay in well-lit areas and ignore any ‘helpful’ local that appears out of nowhere offering assistance. Try and get straight into a legal taxi, that will take you to your door, but remember to agree the price before you get in! If you have your rucksack, sit in the back with it on your lap. You don’t want someone opening the boot at a red traffic light and pinching your stuff.
Talk to the taxi driver. They tend to know everything about their cities and can provide invaluable information about the place, and any rough neighbourhoods.
In your hostel:
Speak to the hostel staff about the local area. If they are from that city, they will know the places to avoid better than any guide book.
In a city:
Do not take tours. A large group of tourists, all unsure of where they are going, is a very clear target for any opportunist thieves. (See my post Spending as Little as Possible for more about why I don’t take city tours.)
I like to get a map as soon as possible, to walk to wherever I fancy and head off the tourist trail without getting lost. However, do not walk about with a map or guidebook in your hand, it screams ‘clueless!’ to anyone who wants to take advantage of that. Walk with purpose even when unsure of where you are going, and do not let anyone approach or distract you when you have your map out.
Do not have anything valuable in your bag or in large, open pockets. Your bag can snatched or opened without you noticing. Leave your passport, cards and most of your cash in a locker at your hostel. Carry a photocopy of your passport and only take enough cash for the day. Distribute it about your body: in an inside pocket, or ladies, I suggest inside your bra. If thieves cannot access your cash, it is harder for them to steal it.
I am always amazed to see people go to a cash machine and put the huge wad of notes and their bank card in their wallet, which they then put in their trouser pocket. This makes them a great target for any would-be thief that happens to be watching. Put the card and all the cash, except a few notes if you need them, into a money belt under your clothes. They are not attractive but they work a treat.
Also regarding cash machines, only use cash machines inside banks. When I arrived in Cusco (southern Peru) bus station directly from Bolivia, I went to a cash machine in the station´s entrance hall, right next to the taxi rank. As I got my card out I looked around me and saw lots of men milling about, looking thoroughly interested in what I was doing. I put my card away and did not withdraw any cash. Luckily I had swapped some Peruvian Soles for some Bolivianos with a traveller at the bus station in Bolivia, so I had enough local currency to pay for my taxi.
Do not display your wealth. Wearing a chunky watch or flashy jewelry in a developing country is likely to make you a target for mugging or pickpocketing and is a bad idea. Dress down
and do not draw attention to yourself. (See my post Spending as Little as Possible about displaying your wealth.)
Do not drink… that´s right, I rarely drink when I travel. We all know that alcohol loosens your inhibitions, which is a bad idea when you are by yourself. Even if you have made friends at the hostel, ask yourself: how long have I known them for? Can I trust them yet? You may think that you don´t need looking after, but you need to know that your group will stay with you all night, so you have someone to get home with. Also, outside of Europe (or maybe just the UK) barstaff don´t seem to bother with measuring shots, they just pour in as much booze as they want. So you may think you’ve had two singles when in fact you have drank two triples, and being drunk can make you a target.
Be wary of anyone that approaches you. I always seem to get random men coming up to me asking where I am from, telling me I have beautiful eyes, asking me if I am lost. It is not a compliment and after hearing it every day, you soon realise that it is a tactic. As a general rule I keep on walking or tell them to leave me alone (“que me dejes en paz“). They may be genuine in their enquiry but do not drop your guard or tell them you are by yourself.
A few months ago I contributed to a travel blog by Luke Durbin. You can read the article here. I have included some content from that interview in this post.