Playing It Safe

Tout, scam, trickery, pickpockets, or downright theft—any one of 'em can turn a trip of a lifetime into a lifelong lesson. Here's how to avoid bad experiences.
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WHERE CHAOS REIGNS: Big, busy cities like Bangkok make for an easy landscape for travel scams—unless you know how to avoid 'em. (Nathan Borchelt.)
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When you start daydreaming about your next vacation, your thoughts might drift to a tropical beach, a remote trek with snowcapped peaks as a backdrop, maybe a faraway market swirling with exotic scents, bright colors, and fascinating people. But what you don't likely envision are the ways a trip can go wrong. And, hey, we respect that. We're glass-half-full travelers ourselves. But just in case, allow us to present a few travel-savvy techniques to make your next trip come off like a dream, not a nightmare.

Before You Go
As you plan, you'll probably read guidebooks, talk with traveler friends, and cruise the Internet to figure out flights, lodging, and where to go. While you're at it, investigate potential safety issues that affect your chosen destinations.

"If I'm going to a place that's dicey, I'll definitely read the guidebooks' dangers and annoyances sections," says travel writer Rolf Potts, author of Marco Polo Didn't Go There. Potts was once robbed in Istanbul by two men that befriended him—and then drugged him and made off with his wallet, passport, traveler's checks… The same scam, it turned out, was described—in detail—in the Lonely Planet guide to the city. Potts says now that he'd have never put himself in the situation to begin with had he read a bit more before landing in Istanbul.

On the Web, the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs offers tips for travelers preparing to take an international journey, including what documents you'll need, as well as country-by-country descriptions that include safety, health, and other information.

While the site can be helpful, the state department warnings tend toward the over-safe, Potts says. He suggests you cross-check these warning with guidebooks, websites, and reports on traveler message boards like Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree Travel Forum, where you can learn about places to stay, recommended guides, and areas to avoid from travelers who've just returned from your destination.

Travel expert and author of The Rough Guide to Travel Survival Doug Lansky heads to other countries' travel websites—one of his favorites is the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which he says gives travelers a better sense of whether problems are isolated incidents or countrywide issues. "In some cases, you shouldn't go," says Lansky, who has skipped spots overrun with rebels or in the midst of a coup. "But in many, many cases, it's fine." He also recommends comparing the government and local tourist websites for a more complete picture of the situation on the ground.

Once you've settled on your itinerary, give a copy of your planned schedule to trustworthy family and friends. If you finalize your trek once you're in Nepal, email or call your contacts and provide them with as much information as you can—your route, the time you'll be gone, names and info of on-the-ground contacts (tour operators, guides, etc.), and emergency contacts if available. If something happens—whether you twist an ankle on a trail or get lost, "the people who are going to stay on it are your family and friends," says Lansky.

And, Lansky cautions, don't simply rely on your cell phone. While they can be great travel aids, Lansky says, "cell phones can also be dangerous because they can provide a false sense of security." Even if you're heading out on a day hike, batteries can die, cell service can fizzle out—having a plan ahead of time will be a backup in case technology fails.

Also, when traveling overseas, it's always best to have a few copies of your passport. Lock the original in the hotel safe, then carry a Xerox copy and also upload a scanned copy of your passport onto your mp3 player. Better yet, email it to yourself so you can access the file so you can easily retrieve it.


Published: 10 Oct 2008 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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