What To Pack
(Personal) Safety & Security
How should one address personal safety concerns while travelling? The issue is a somewhat complex one, but primarily a function of three variables: individual circumstances, areas of travel, and personal perceptions:
Individual Circumstances: Generally speaking, a woman is more at risk than a man, a weak person more at risk than a strong one, and a tourist more at risk than a local; these are things that we can do little about, other than recognize them as risk factors and adjust our expectations — and preparations — accordingly. Other factors are more under our control. People who appear confident, pay attention to their surroundings, and move briskly & purposefully are less likely to attract trouble than those who seem nervous, inattentive, confused, or aimless.
Personal Perceptions: Different people exhibit different levels of risk tolerance. Some are comfortable in (or give little thought to) quite risky situations; other see dragons around every corner.
… the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.
Additionally, there are powerful political and commercial forces that find advantage in frightened people, and we live in times when increased communication capabilities and decreased analysis skills make this an even greater concern than it has historically been. Few people these days take the trouble to educate themselves as to the true nature of any risks presented by the various scenarios that are being "sold" to them.
An example: the concerns that many have about terrorist aviation threats are, quite simply, irrational. If terrorists successfully hijacked and crashed one of America's regular commercial flights every single week, the chance of your being on a crashed plane at some time over the course of your life would be approximately 1 in 135,000. But your lifetime chance of being killed by lightning is about 1 in 35,000. So you are almost four times more likely to die due to a lightning strike than a commercial plane crash, even given (ridiculously unlikely) weekly hijack occurrences. The real danger — the one that you could reasonably be concerned about — is the drive to the airport: your lifetime chance of dying in a motor accident (based on 2003 figures) is about 1 in 83, a couple of thousand times more likely than even the greatly exaggerated hijacking scenario imagined above! In fact, you are three times more likely to commit suicide while abroad than be killed by terrorists.
The vast "security theatre" launched as a consequence of terrorism, costing untold sums of money and resulting in widespread disruption of the world's commercial air traffic, has caused a net loss in lives, by diverting people to more dangerous forms of transportation. According to a 2007 Cornell study, some 130 travellers died every three months (the equivalent of four fully-loaded Boeing 737s crashing annually) from traffic fatalities brought on by substituting ground transit for air transit.
I don't mean to imply that there are no risks associated with travel. There are. There are risks associated with every step — and every breath — that you take. But these risks are vastly smaller than many people choose to believe. If you are comfortable with driving to the airport, you should have no greater concerns about the remainder of your journey. Take reasonable precautions as with every other aspect of your life, but don't live in fear of nonexistent dragons.
I discuss quite a few safety-related concerns — from security pouches & cash management to whistles, flashlights, & door locks — throughout this site, in the appropriate sections. Here are a few that are not so conveniently classified, but deserve your attention:
- To the extent possible (you'll never manage 100%), attempt to blend in. The more you look like a tourist, the more you look like a target. If the locals aren't wearing white tennis shoes and "Georgia Tech" sweatshirts, then you'll be safer if you avoid them as well.
- Hotel fires are frightening things (and a much more likely cause of your demise than "terrorists"), yet most people who perish in them could easily have saved themselves. Knowing what to do (and doing it) in such a situation is the single most important element of survival, but the correct behaviour is not at all obvious; most folks, in fact, find it counterintuitive. So I can't recommend this too strongly: take a few minutes to learn how to survive a hotel fire!
- You are much less likely ever to be involved in a serious plane accident than a hotel fire, and even if you are, the odds in favour of your survival are actually surprisingly good. But of the people who have lost their lives in plane crashes, experts estimate that about 30% could have survived had they known how to handle the situation. If you'd like to become one of the more knowledgeable passengers, take the time to read how to survive a plane crash!
- "To make God laugh, tell him your plans." advises an old Yiddish proverb. Most problems can be avoided with forethought and preparation, and if acute appendicitis strikes in the back of nowhere, you'll be glad that you thought about travel insurance before venturing afar. Check your regular policies, which may (but often do not) cover you when far from home. If they don't, think about specific trip insurance to protect your health and savings. If you're under 35, your best deal can probably be found at STA Travel; pretty much everyone else will do better at InsureMyTrip.com, which gets quotes from multiple insurers with a single, simple form.
- Be especially careful when purchasing "antiques", as you may well be dealing with an art thief, museum burglar, or grave robber. Reputable citizens do get arrested for trafficking in stolen antiquities. Anyway, do you really need something more to carry? Take a photo of it.
- Understand the local currency thoroughly; a now-worthless 500-lire coin (below) can easily be mistaken for a €2 one if you're not paying attention. Practice identifying the various denominations (coins and notes), and making change. Fumbling with change invites people to "help" you (and themselves); it also draws attention to your tourist status.
- Learn useful local phrases. "Please", "thank you", and "excuse me" should go without saying, but you'll also find "Qif! Harami!" more effective than "Stop! Thief!" if someone grabs your purse in the Qasbah. Plus even a modest attempt to use the local language enhances your status as a "real person" — less of an outsider (and someone to be abused). You'll find some great tools for this in the "Destination" section of my TraveLinks page.
- Be ever alert for street scams. Most of these involve some sort of diversionary tactic (from a woman disrobing in public to prove to a "shopkeeper" that she has not stolen something, to a pitiful-looking mother with her baby begging for your help), designed to occupy your attention while someone else is relieving you of your valuables. Develop the habit of immediately putting your hands in your pockets whenever something "interesting" or unusual suddenly occurs (and keep your real valuables in your security pouch). Stay well away from any street gambling activity (three-card monte, shell games, etc.): they are sucker propositions. Terry Jones created an interesting forum site on street scams (now carried on under another name); even a brief reading of the many illustrative stories to be found there will prove eye-opening for most. And here's a street scam infographic that may also prove instructive.
- When abroad, know how to reach your local embassy. Should this ever be needed, it will probably be due to a lost or stolen passport, but it's also the go-to place in case of natural disasters or coups d'état. Some countries maintain special telephone hotlines for their citizens abroad (for example, the U.S. State Department can be reached at +1 888 407 4747).
- Be extra vigilant when navigating traffic in unfamiliar places, especially developing nations (where you can be six times as vulnerable as residents). Some 25,000 foreign tourists died in road accidents in 2009, and that number is expected to triple in the next two decades.
- Take particular care when in the vicinity of airports and train stations, especially in larger cities. These are very exposed areas, filled with confused/distracted people, and invite professional criminals. So research the layout of such places in advance (easily done online), know where you're going, and move purposefully.
Above all else, simply pay attention, and don't allow yourself to be preoccupied by that meeting you're attending or tourist site you're visiting. Even including New York City, there actually aren't that many places in the world where someone is likely to pull a gun on you, but there are plenty — particularly in tourist areas — where an unattended item placed beside your seat will quickly disappear. Remember that life is often what happens while people are poking their smart phones.
Should I Worry About RFID Identity Theft? Many contemporary credit/debit cards, passports, drivers' licenses, etc. incorporate an embedded microchip, used both to record information about the owner, and to transmit this information to special readers using RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) technology. This has raised privacy concerns, as it is possible for criminals to obtain the necessary readers that will extract this information from a (modest) distance. Consequently, the marketplace has been flooded with companies touting special wallets, sleeves, bags, and other paraphernalia claimed to block radio waves. [For do-it-yourself folks, a simple piece of heavy-duty aluminum foil will do a decent job of blocking RF signals. Even better — in fact, excellent — is one of those laminated anti-static bags that many computer components come in.] Should you be using such measures?
I don't. What these marketers carefully avoid telling you is that the information stored on these cards and passports is encrypted! So, like the information that banks exchange with their customers (and other banks), capturing it does no good unless the encryption technology can be broken. Is this possible? In theory, yes, given enough time and money. In practice, though, it is far easier for criminals to continue stealing cards and passports, rather than crack encryption technology that is used worldwide to safeguard sensitive information. If the bad guys ever do succeed in accomplishing this, they will attack much more lucrative targets than people's credit cards. And you will read about it on the front page of the newspaper, not in product advertisements.
Really, have you uncovered any credible reports of successful RFID theft from such documents? Ever? Of course not, but I'll bet you've seen plenty of ads for RFID-blocking products!
Luggage and Security
Luggage is inherently insecure. The hard-shelled variety is somewhat more tamper-resistant than the soft-sided versions, though most of the integrated locks that you'll find are easily compromised. And although zipper sliders can be locked together (with a hasp-style slider such as pictured at right, or simply by passing a padlock through holes in the slider tabs), this presents little deterrent to the knowledgeable miscreant; it will discourage casual pilferage only. (Not that this is a bad idea: even running a length of paracord through the zipper pulls on your daypack is a worthwhile step that can save you from an unpleasant travel experience.)
Such a locking mechanism, as it turns out, can easily be "spilled" — even with a hasp-style slider — as shown below: simply (1) grasp the fabric firmly on both sides of the locked zipper sliders, and (2) pull in opposing directions, perpendicular to the zipper track.
It's then an easy matter to (3) reach into the bag and remove all but very large items. Positioning the sliders at a corner of the bag facilitates the initial separation step, and also permits a larger opening.
With a coil zipper (the most common type), bag entry is simpler still: push the slider(s) all the way to one end of the zipper track, then press the point of a ballpoint pen firmly into the centre of the closed track, as demonstrated below.
This will separate the intertwining coils (without damaging them), making it trivial to open the bag fully by simply pulling the zipper track apart in both directions. Coil zippers are designed to self-heal easily, so can be restored to their original condition merely by pulling a slider backward (occasionally with a bit of help from you, holding the coils together), thus rejoining the halves. Both of these techniques, of course, are handy to know should you ever be stuck with a locked bag to which you have lost the key or combination, or that has become jammed or otherwise inoperable.
Shown at left is yet another zipper pull option; in this approach, the more common metal tab is eliminated entirely, and replaced with a loop of cord. Don't confuse this with the use of a cord loop to extend a regular zipper pull, making it easier to grasp (seen at right, with a loop in the process of being attached).
Eliminating the metal tab also eliminates any noise it might make rattling against the slider (which is why this style is often seen on military gear). It comes with a corresponding tradeoff, unfortunately, as it pretty much rules out any simple method of locking/securing the zipper.
The truly determined thief, of course, may well not bother with any of this, but simply cut (or otherwise force) the bag open. Fortunately, the one-bag traveller has less to worry about in this regard, security being one of the reasons for not turning over your belongings to the custody of others. But you won't always have your bag right at your side, so be aware of the possibilities, and act accordingly.
Personal Safety Items for Travellers
When it comes to "individual circumstances", I'm at the less risky end of the spectrum: I'm a six-foot male in not-too-greatly-deteriorated physical condition; I walk briskly, take stairs in preference to elevators, pay attention to my surroundings, and am familiar with basic concepts of self defense. (Like everyone else, though, I still look like a tourist when far from home.)
So I don't take personal safety into great account when packing for travel. But I don't ignore it either: I regularly use a security pouch wherever I'm likely to be recognized as non-local, carry a tiny but loud whistle, keep handy a small, high-powered flashlight (torch), make occasional use of a door lock in locations where room security is less than I would prefer, and bring along a full-sized carabiner when walking in dodgy areas.