Travel Security: 4 Concepts You Need to Understand to Stay Safe Abroad

Have you recently considered how secure you are as a traveler?  You keep a money belt to hide valuables, but what about other types of security like cyber and payment?  Modern travel safety goes way beyond the physical aspects from the past.  This post discusses the full range of security necessary for minimizing risk abroad, including locational, physical, payment and cyber.International travel is typically a very safe and rewarding experience, but there are several ways of improving your security.  As full time travelers, we have felt extremely safe most everywhere in the world.  We can count on one hand the number of times there was a credible threat after visiting close to 60 countries.  This is in part because we always consider four essential areas of travel security.  While nothing in this post is meant to scare or deter you from exploring your next destination, taking the proper precautions can prevent avoidable risks anywhere in the world.

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1.) Locational:

This is the basis for travel safety, as most problems can be avoided by staying out of unsafe areas.  Maintaining situational awareness is an essential part of understanding your surroundings.  This involves being keen to unusual behaviors and making a habit of scanning your environment.  While it may seem basic, trusting your instinct when something doesn’t seem right will help you react quickly and get away from a compromising situation.  Staying alert is essential, so avoid excess alcohol when you are in an unfamiliar area.

While out, know your route ahead of time to avoid looking lost or confused, and walk with purpose and confidence.  Be wary of unsolicited information offered on the street.  As always, avoid traveling alone when possible, especially after dark or in areas with few other people.  The two of us also use location services (Find My Friends on iPhone) to ensure we know each other’s location in case we get separated.

Finally, maintaining good travel insurance coverage is important for the remote possibility of injury.  You can learn more about Understanding Travel Insurance here.

Example:  We were walking through a park in India between the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort.  As we got further into this relatively remote area, a group of young boys started following and slowly spreading out around us.  Unsolicited, the oldest gave us directions which ensured that we went through the heart of the park and furthest from the street.  Regardless of how fast or slow we walked, they kept pace.  While there was no definite sign of problems, instinct told us that we needed to get out and move to a more populated area.  The benefit of a shorter walk was far outweighed by the potential risk of being in that secluded area.  Listening to your instincts, being aware of your surroundings and not taking unnecessary risks can prevent many issues.

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2.) Physical:

The easiest way to safeguard your belongings is to use preventative measures against theft.  Most criminals will go after the easiest target, so adding simple deterrents can ensure that you are not chosen.  Wearing travel clothes with secure zipper pockets, carrying theft resistant bags and adding a wrist leash to your smartphone can prevent pickpocketing or snatching.  Keeping a small lock to secure luggage or other items can deter an opportunistic thief.  We always keep our bags within reach on buses, planes and trains which requires us to pack light.  We have heard of instances where people hide in the cargo hold and rummage through luggage.  Keep a separate carry-on with valuables if you are forced to store or check bags.  You can learn more about our Minimalist Packing here.

It is prudent to keep cash withdrawals small and carry only necessary amounts and essential cards and identification.  Spread money into two or three places on your person or in your packs, and keep any larger bills in a separate place from your spending cash.  Also, look for safe accommodations.  We have gotten into the habit of using the search feature on travel or booking sites to find guest reviews including language such as “theft”, “robbed” or “stolen”.  As an added measure, we carry photocopies of important documents as one method of backup.  We supply passport copies to hotels when required and keep our physical document on hand.

Example:  While walking around Lima, Peru, a spray of mustard suddenly ended up on our clothes and backpack.  There was no food around and we were utterly confused until someone standing nearby held out a napkin and offered to hold our bag while we wiped off.  If we had accepted, this would almost assuredly have lead to our backpack being stolen.  Keeping all valuables in one place means that one theft can lead to a total loss.

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3.) Payment:

ATM fraud has become a major issue in many countries, and falling victim could mean the loss of your card and full account balance.  Before using an ATM or other similar machines, check for tampering and give the card slot a good shake.  Most criminal skimming devices are quickly placed over the reader and will easily come off without much force.  Also look around the area and machine for suspicious cameras which get installed to capture card and PIN numbers.  Keep your card number hidden with your hand while inserting into the machine, and cover the key pad while entering your PIN, even if there is no one else around.  For added peace of mind, maintain a low account balance and have your bank lower your ATM withdrawal limit, which will minimize the potential for loss.  You can learn more aboutdetecting ATM skimmerson How-To Geek.

Choose ATM and credit cards with added security, which can be found on many that are intended for international use.  For instance, we use the Capital One Venture credit card which in addition to favorable exchange rates and no international transaction fees, includes several valuable security features.  For one, the card number is located on the back to protect against photo and video capture during a chip transaction.  In addition, each family member’s card under the account has a different sixteen digit number which prevents all cards from being compromised simultaneously.  Individual cards can be instantly turned off or on from the mobile app, and can be left inactive when not in use or away from internet connectivity.  We keep one of our two cards unused and turned off as a backup in case of card theft.  As an added measure, keep electronic records of card hotlines to quickly alert the company of any issues if necessary.

Example:  While traveling in Africa, our credit card number was copied at a restaurant and used for unauthorized purchases.  We were able to turn that card off from our mobile app and switch to the other backup card on our account.  Capital One express delivered a replacement card to our hotel in South Africa and refunded the fake purchases.

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4.) Cyber:

Staying connected while abroad has never been easier with broad access to wifi around the world.  Unfortunately, this availability also opens new methods for data theft, so protecting yourself online is now essential.  While traveling, avoid open wifi networks which are often found in public locations such as airports or parks.  These make it easier for criminals to steal information transmitted through the signal.  Also make sure to visit HTTPS (secure) sites, which encrypt all data transmitted.

As an added layer of security, use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) on any device used to access the internet.  These reroute the transmission through a country of your choosing while supplying a new public IP address.  The information sent is encrypted to prevent unauthorized access and keep from leaving data trails behind.  VPNs are also able to mask your position for access to location specific sites in areas which sensor internet access, or even for Netflix which has country specific content.  You can learn more about how VPNs work on BestVPN.

For financial accounts, use second level authentication measures to deter hackers from gaining entry to your online information.  Security questions and email confirmations are helpful, but for added security, see if your bank or financial institution can offer a security token.  These devices generate a unique temporary code that acts as a digital key for accessing your account, which becomes an additional required input for log in.  They are available in physical form or as a smartphone app.  You can learn more about two factor authenticationon Explain That Stuff and security tokens on Wikipedia.

Also, keep electronic copies of important documents (passport, insurance, visas, etc.) on a protected device and in an encrypted cloud service as backup.  Finally, activate remote locate and lock features for your smart devices so they can be turned off or erased if lost or stolen.

You can learn more about cyber security beyond what is covered in this post from these UC Berkley and IBM Security Intelligence articles.

Example:  The recent Equifax data breach in the United States exposed 143 million American’s private information to hackers.  This information is often used to answer security questions in second level authentication, and the release makes this barrier much less effective.  The use of a security token can guard against unauthorized access.

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How do you stay secure while traveling?  Tell us your thoughts on international safety and any special precautions which you take.  Also make sure to share this article with a travel buddy and help them be better protected!

Need more information to prepare for your upcoming trip?  Make sure to visit our Trip Planning posts, where you will find detailed articles on efficient packing, comparing travel insurance, pre-trip prep amongst others.

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