During my travels to 30 or so countries, I learned lots of “do’s”; do pack at least two photocopies of your passport, driver’s license and medical card; do register with your embassy; do compare flight prices on Skyscanner to prices on Google Flights. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot out there about things you SHOULDN’T do when you travel. Here are a few lessons from my experiences abroad.
DO NOT leave your bags unattended.
I know your mother’s told you this one already – but it’s worth repeating. If you happen to come from a community where everyone leaves their doors unlocked and iPhones on the table at buffet-style restaurants, be mindful that your belongings may not be as secure in other countries or cities. Sleeping on your bags on sleeper trains (while locked and looped to handle bars), hiding your stuff in diapers on the beach if you’re alone (thanks for the tip, Anna Parsons!), and keeping your money and cards in a money belt UNDER your clothes (I’m talking to you, fannypackers) are all tricks you can apply to ward off pesky thieves.
Do NOT do, buy or deal drugs.
Apart from the obvious reasons not to do drugs (not that you’ll get any judgement from me), here are a few reasons not to do drugs abroad:
- You’re immediately making yourself increasingly vulnerable in the ALREADY vulnerable position of being a tourist. This means the odds of you getting gang raped, beaten, having your shit stolen, and other delights all jump exponentially.
- If you get in any kind of accident under the influence of drugs, your travel insurance will not cover you.
- The drug laws in some other countries are MUCH harsher than, say, Canada. A few years back, a US Navy Officer jumped to his death after a small packet of white powder was found in his pocket in Manila. In Bali, Lindsay Sandiford, a former legal secretary from England currently awaits death by firing squad for drug smuggling. Vietnam’s Department of Social Evils sentences anyone caught with drugs to hard labour, near starvation and torture. The list goes on, and it ain’t pretty.
- Unless you’re Lisa Ling’s sister, your government likely gives ZERO fvcks about your innocence abroad.
If you think getting thrown in the slammer abroad is akin to the good times had on Orange is the New Black or the last episode of Seinfeld, think again. Have a movie marathon night and rent Midnight Express, Brokedown Palace and Banged Up Abroad for a dramatized representation of how life in a foreign prison might look like.
On that note, do not break any other local laws.
Earlier this year, 21-year-old American college grad Otto Warmbier made international headlines after he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour for removing a propoganda poster from his North Korean hotel.
Do not fuck around with local laws. We are not exempt from laws just because we’re tourists. Playing dumb doesn’t always work. AGAIN, unless you’re Lisa Ling, Bill Clinton probably won’t make a personal visit to the country you’re in to negotiate your release with the head of state.
Do not get sh*tfaced drunk – but since you’re going to anyway, at least make sure you’ve got a designated sober friend around.
Oh yes, I’ve got a ton of reckless, stupid drunk stories from my travels abroad. Passing out on a lawn in Mexico. Being carried back to my residence in Hong Kong by a man from Colombia I met the day before. Swimming out onto a boat in the middle of the night with a German dude after a party. A few such situations could have easily resulted in me ending up as a story on 20/20. I just happened to be lucky.
Others aren’t so lucky.
Theft, physical assault, unknowingly/ knowingly committing crimes, sexual assault, injuries and death are already risks that come along with being drunk in your own country – that are multiplied while travelling. What’s more – most (if not all) travel insurance policies do not cover accidents or thefts sustained while under the influence. Those last tequila shots could end up costing you way more than a few bucks.
Do not have unprotected sex with strangers.
You really shouldn’t do this anywhere, but don’t let coming from a privileged country with an extremely low prevalence of HIV, syphilis and other lovelies make you lackadaisical when it comes to using condoms abroad. Don’t trust anyone’s word in this department, either, as not all STIs have noticeable/ immediate symptoms and physical signs.
Do not get into an overcrowded boat.
Not all countries have the same safety regulations, and many companies disregard regulations where fines are rarely given. For instance, the speedboats that carry passengers back and forth between Koh Pha-ngan – the Thai island famed for its full moon parties – have capsized on several occasions, killing inebriated partygoers on board. I was nearly sliced open by one such boat a few years back, when a bunch of us drunk full moon partiers clamoured to get on top of a 4 am boat back to Surat Thani. Fed up of people crushing me into the sharp blades of the boat’s propellers, I summoned all my strength and jumped backward into the crowd, elbowing the idiots pushing from behind. In that split second, the speedboat captain decided to turn on the engine – propellers and all – to get us to back away from the boat. I narrowly missed being sliced open by an inch and a split second.
This is how these boats operate. Don’t wait in an aggressive crowd, and DON’T get on a packed boat. Another one will come. A short wait could be the difference between your life and death.
Don’t forget to read travel advisories before visiting a foreign country.
Before travelling to Thailand for a second time in 2007, I decided to check out the travel advisory to Thailand published by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs on a whim. Maybe I was starting to realize that knowledge was power when it came to travel.
As I scrolled down the multiple advisories for the country, I came across this :
Deaths have occurred as a result of contact with poisonous sea jellies. There have been reports of sea jellies off Koh Pha-ngan.
Now that’s not anything to be too alarmed about – except I had spent no less than an hour, at night time (read: zero visibility), frolicking with a sexy Dane off the shores of Koh Pha-ngan just a few months before, at the supposed peak of jellyfish season. At the time, I also noticed that nearly NO ONE was doing the same. Maybe they had read the damned report.
The point is this: the more you know, the less unnecessary risks you might take, resulting in greater odds of coming home alive.
DON’T drive around – or ride in someone’s car – without wearing your seatbelt.
If you ignore all the rest of my advice and decide to listen to one thing I’ve said in this post, please let it be this (ok, this and drug smuggling). Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among tourists, and many as a result of simply NOT wearing a seatbelt.
Yes, there are places in the world where wearing seat belts is not common practice. When I visited Italy, my relatives made fun of me for wearing a seatbelt, dismissing it as something for babies. A few islands I’ve visited didn’t seem to enforce it, either. If it isn’t their thing, let them become the statistics – not you.
DO NOT take death defying selfies.
In the age of ever competing Instagram and Snapchat accounts, taking the ultimate selfie can be tempting. That said, you best recognize you’re not invincible. Just two years ago, a Polish couple crossed a safety barrier on a cliff in Portugal to take a selfie with their kids. The kids bore witness while their parents took one step back too far, plunging to their deaths below. Sadly, they’re just one tragedy among many.
Niagara Falls, Puente de Triana and Mount Merapi have all claimed the lives of selfie takers. Use your common sense. Don’t be an iPhone fatality.
Do not travel without insurance.
Travelling without travel insurance ranks as one of the riskiest things you can do while travelling. I did it for four months in Asia. Again, I was lucky.
From ear infections to jellyfish bites and car accidents – shit happens. Here in Canada, socialized healthcare means we rarely have to think about what we’d do to cover the costs of a medical emergency. We simply lineup at the ER, get triaged and the Canadian government subsidizes the cost of our injuries.
Not the case abroad.
Every week, more people claim medical insurance on their travel policies than any other travel-related claim, including lost baggage and trip cancellation.
Yes, in all likelihood, you’ll be safe. That said, if shit happens – do you have 10,000$ in spare cash to cover a broken limb? What about 20,000$ to cover pneumonia? Do you have over 1,000,000$ in case you give birth abroad? What about a similar amount to help your family if, God forbid, you die while travelling, and your body needs to be repatriated?
Though there are many travel insurance providers, nowadays, many credit cards now include travel insurance. In fact, you might be have reasonable coverage with your current credit card without even knowing it. American Express, Mastercard and Visa all offer comprehensive travel insurance policies on select cards.
Do not assume everyone abroad knows how to speak/ understands English.
The single biggest mistake I made before moving to Korea was not learning the language beforehand (you can read more about that here). As a result of listening to everyone who told me I’d be able to “get by just fine” in Korea WITHOUT speaking Korean, I managed to get lost in a grocery store, unable to communicate with taxi drivers and pretty much unable to communicate with the vast majority of Korean society.
Again – knowledge is power. It should be a given that learning the local language is indispensable when you actually move to a new country – but as a tourist, you can afford to spend a few hours learning the basics. Finding a bathroom, the consulate, or even finding out where a taxi stand is are all easily within your reach if you learn a few simple phrases.
DO NOT flash your expensive jewellery/ your wallet/ smartphone and camera equipment.
Flashing your wealth and touristy areas/ developing areas is a bad fucking idea, dude. Mexico, Costa Rica and Brazil are among some of the countries with the highest rate of theft among tourists; do not make yourself stand out with your MK watch and LV bag. Save those for Dubai or Hawaii.
Do not stay in dingy areas/ eat at broken down restaurants/ take sketchy transportation just to save 45 cents.
In many countries – especially developing ones – the standard between extreme low budget and midrange may be just a few bucks. For only EIGHT dollars more a night than Hanoi Party Backpackers Hostel where I’d have bunked in a shared room with strangers (could have been fun, but depends what you’re looking for), I stayed in a top five hotel in Hanoi. It also cost me about ten dollars to upgrade to first class on Viet Jet, saving me time and money on food (in Hanoi, you get access to a business lounge shared with the likes of Singapore Airlines, Emirates and more). In other countries, it sometimes costs only a few bucks more to eat in a safer area than wandering around in unknown areas looking to save 75 cents on the same plate.
A 45 minute Uber ride in Kuala Lumpur through intense traffic cost me about five bucks. Should I have walked it, feeling insecure and unsafe AF just to save a few dollars?
There are some things worth spending a few more bucks on. Your safety, at the very least, should always be a priority – budget traveller or not.
Do not bring travellers cheques with you.
I once had a confused merchant angrily throw my traveller’s cheques back in my face after accusing me they were fraudulent, “fake cheques”. I tried to explain what they were, but she had never heard of them. This wasn’t in Asia. It was New York City, ten years ago, when people still used them.
Travellers cheques are out of vogue. Ditch the cheques, and bring your credit card instead (use this as your main form of payment as much as possible). If you need cash, make one withdrawal from a local ATM. Worst case, visit a local currency exchange offices that isn’t located at the airport.
Do not ignore local customs.
From jail time to plain old bad karma, ignoring local customs is never a great idea (and kind of defeats the purpose of travel). In Korea, show respect by handling all monetary transactions with two hands. Remove your shoes before entering Asian homes. Do not wear revealing clothes in places of worship/ religious sites.
Do your research before you travel.
Do not venture off into dangerous areas alone in the dark to make an argument on behalf of feminism/ be a hero.
Do not walk the streets of Delhi alone at night to prove you’re a strong, independent woman. Do not publicly argue about your political views in places where women have yet to earn the right to drive by themselves.
Your political views and cultural beliefs are useless if you’re dead. Be smart. Stay alive.
Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.
Considering I’ve done nearly everything listed above, that doesn’t really leave a whole lot (except maybe eating dog meat and shark fin soup). Have fun!
What are some your lessons learnt from travels abroad? Share your stories below!