I meet a lot of people, online and in the real world, who are going on their very first backpacking trip ever. They are filled with excitement and anticipation, a sense that they are about to do something that will push them outside of their comfort zone and change their life. However, they are also filled with a bit of nervousness and apprehension – and I don’t blame them.
Going travelling for the first time can be nerve wracking and intimidating. Adults and the media (especially in North America) tell us that the big world out there is full of dangers. We hear stories of travellers being kidnapped, pickpocketed and mugged and we fear that these things will happen to us. This fear of danger can lead people to be so afraid of other countries that they don’t travel, or they keep their travels contained to “safe” destinations with self-contained resorts. This is a shame, because the world is an immense and amazing place and it is a lot safer than you might think.
I was scared the first time I went travelling, but I have learned a lot in the last 5 years of wandering the globe. Now, when I give advice about travel safety to first time travellers there is one very important point that I emphasise – and it’s something that you can do to keep yourself safe in every country in the world.
My Travel Safety Tip – It’s Really Simple
Here’s my advice:
Before you go somewhere, navigate your web browser to Google and type in “Common tourist scams in (Insert Destination Here).” Read the results.
That’s it. I don’t think you need to wear your backpack on your front or wear a money belt in most places (that just singles you out as a tourist), I think you just need to be informed as to what to watch out for – especially what is specific to your destination. Combine that knowledge with a little self-awareness and common sense and you will be fine.
For example, a common scam here in Buenos Aires is for someone to squirt a liquid that looks like bird poo on your back or shoulder when you aren’t paying attention. The helpful stranger will then alert you to the stain and while you are distracted looking over your shoulder at your soiled clothing, they will sneakily snatch your wallet.
If you had not researched this in advance you would probably fall for it. “Ah, what a helpful local person! Oh dear, that’s quite a stain. Whoops, where did my wallet go?” However, if you know this information it is a lot harder for the scammer to trick you. If someone tells you that you have bird crap on your shoulder, you will say “thanks for the tip” and keep on walking, keeping your hands in your pockets. Your knowledge protects you – scammers prey on ignorance.
A Great Example by Some Gullible Young Canadians
One of my best examples of this is a group of five young Canadians who I met while I was in Kandy, Sri Lanka. They were around 20-21 years old and were studying abroad in Singapore. How these fresh-faced travellers were still alive was astounding to me – they were sweet but so incredibly naive.
We started to chat over breakfast and my conversation with one of them went like this:
Me: So what are you guys up to today?
Her: We are going on a tour!
Me: Ah cool, what tour is it?
Her: Well, it’s not really an official tour. We met this guy at the bar last night and he is starting up a new tour agency. He offered to give us a really great deal and he and his buddy are going to pick us up in his van and drive us around to like, some temples and stuff.
Her: Yeah, it’s going to be super fun!
Me: Did he give you a business card? Do they have any reviews or a website?
Her: No, but they are just starting out so…
Me: Wait… so a random guy approached you late last night in a bar. He claims to have a tour agency but has no official website or reviews. He is going to pick you up in a van and “drive you around”?
Her: Well… when you say it like that it sounds a little sketchy…
Me: Yeah, no shit.
So I asked her whether or not she had Googled “Common scams in Sri Lanka.” The thought hadn’t occurred to her, so I did a quick search on my laptop. Within seconds I was reading out loud to her from this page.
“Many scams involve gaining your trust, then getting you into a tuktuk to visit some temple/“elephant festival”/handicraft shop or other attraction. Having driven you around for a while, you will be dumped in some remote and seedy part of town at which point the tuktuk driver will demand a wildly inflated fare for the ride.”
“It says tuktuk,” I said, “but I’m sure scammers do this with vans too.” Her eyes widened. She finally realised what she had agreed to and how sketchy it really sounded. Then, her “tour guide” called her to let her know that he would be a little late. She asked why and he eventually confessed that it was because he had to pick up his “business partner”… from jail!
After a panicked consultation with her friends, they decided to cancel the trip.
Now, of course there is always a chance that this Sri Lankan guy was legitimately starting up a tour agency and had been honest in his offerings. However, because he went about it in such a dodgy way I don’t regret discouraging those travellers from going with him. If he is really going to be a tour operator, he needs to establish a little more professionalism and accountability in his business.
The bottom line is that there are people who will scam, mug, rob and take advantage of tourists all over the world. That’s not a reason not to travel, it’s only a reason why you should study up beforehand so you don’t fall for it.
Knowledge is the Best Weapon Against Travel Scams
When it comes to travel safety, the very best thing you can do is to be informed. Read about your destination and know what to look out for. Find out typical scams and which areas of the city are best to avoid after dark. Ask people who have actually been there. Research, research, research.
So many people are fooled by tourist scams because they assume that “it’s just the way things are done here.” If you can arm yourself with the knowledge to know better and a dash of common sense, you will be vastly reduce your chances of being taken advantage of.
Have you ever been scammed, or narrowly avoided a scam on your travels? Let us know your stories in the comments!