Exploring the world can be a wonderful, exhilarating experience. But when things go wrong, most of us would do anything to get home to familiar territory. Sometimes disasters do strike no matter what precautions have been taken, but there are a few simple things you can do both to reduce the chances of something nasty happening, and to ensure you won't be in an unpleasant predicament for long.
Know before you go
Before you make a final decision about your destination, seek advice from your tour operator or travel agent about the safety and security situation in the region you are planning to visit. For independent travellers, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is a good source of information. The FCO produces regularly updated Travel Advice Notices and on a longer trip, it's worth logging on to check the current advice, especially if the countries you will be travelling to have a history of instability. Take a look at our Know Before You Go guide for more information.
Getting adequate insurance cover is essential, especially for gap-year and longer trips (6 months or over). Specialist insurance companies usually offer better value and cover than the average high-street agent. Any policy for gap year travel should certainly include:
- A minimum of £2 million of medical cover;
- Repatriation, including air ambulance, in the case of serious illness or injury;
- Adequate baggage and belongings cover;
- A minimum of £3,000 cancellation/curtailment cover, so you can get home if there is an emergency, such as a death in the family;
- A minimum of £1 million personal liability insurance, in case you injure a person or cause damage to their property;
- A 24-hour emergency helpline.
Look for insurers recommended by other travellers who have done a similar trip and have actually made a claim. All insurance policies require you to take as much care as possible to avoid personal injury.
Note that your cover may be invalidated if you choose to visit areas where the FCO advises against travel. Some insurers will cover you in these areas, but only for incidents unrelated to the reason for the advisory notice. For example, the FCO in February 2008 was advising against all travel to to the north and west of Timbuktu in Mali. Had you decided to travel there and had broken your leg falling off a camel, your policy might still have covered you. But if you had been kidnapped by a rebel group, it probably wouldn't have, because the risk of kidnap and banditry was the reason the FCO was advising against travel. It's very important to check these details with your insurer before you go.
Failure to declare an existing medical condition may also invalidate your policy. It's better to be up-front with your insurer. Paying a higher premium is preferable to being stuck in Azerbaijan recovering from a serious asthma attack. The FCO provides a special advice section on existing medical conditions on its website.
You should also make sure that your vaccinations are up to date, and that you have sought advice about prevention of malaria and other diseases that you may be exposed to in your destination country.
Be prepared for the worst
In all probability, your trip will be hassle-free, but it's worth considering how to lessen your chances of running into trouble. Robbery is the motivation for most attacks on individuals, so try to minimise the risks by making yourself less of a target:
- Don't flash your cash – avoid carrying a lot of money or drawing out cash from ATMs after dark;
- Keep valuable items (mobile phones, watches, cameras) out of sight, or consider leaving them at home;
- Don't travel alone after dark, or at all in an area known for robbery/pickpocketing;
- If you do travel after dark, try to avoid walking – a few dollars spent on a taxi could be well worth it;
- Be vague if anyone seems to show an unusual interest in your onward travel plans – they could be planning when and where to rob you.
Beware of scams, which vary around the world but often involve distraction and insistent offers to help or guide you. Lonely Planet's Thorntree forum is an excellent source of up-to-date advice about the latest scams. Most scammers will be petty thieves or con artists who want to swindle you but would stop short of actually using violence to achieve their goal. More serious intimidation and scams involving drink and drugs may well put you in serious personal danger. The golden rules are:
- Don't be distracted or lured into a situation or place where you don't want to be;
- Be polite but firm from the beginning;
- Act on your instinct – if you don't feel safe, get out.
What to do in an emergency
Once again, it pays to do your research. Find out from guidebooks, fellow travellers and local people what the best response is in the face of an attack or robbery. In some regions and situations it's safest to be passive but in others it pays to fight back, or at least to draw attention to yourself. Most guidebooks include a warning phrase in the local language - “help!”, “thief!” or “fire!” are all useful words to know. Even if you don't know the right words to use, drawing attention to yourself will usually bring people to your aid. Carrying a personal attack alarm is also an option.
What to in the event of injury/attack
- Contact the local emergency services if it is a medical emergency. Bear in mind that ambulance response times are measured in hours, not minutes, in many parts of the world, so seeking help from local people can be a faster way to get to a hospital or medical centre.
- Get in touch with the nearest British Embassy or High Commission. You can find the phone numbers out in advance on the FCO Find an Embassy pages.
- Contact your insurer and follow their instructions - be sure to record the phone number and policy number somewhere accessible
- Keep in contact with your family or close friends at home. It is often easier for someone who is in your home country to liaise with insurers etc on your behalf.
Looking after your possessions
You are probably more likely to lose your luggage on a weekend break in Barcelona than a boat trip down the Congo. Nevertheless, backpacking often involves sharing dorms, travelling on overnight buses and wandering through the less salubrious parts of town to save a few quid on the taxi fare. That presents its own particular challenges. If you want to know how to keep hold of your belongings, read on.
Passports and Paperwork
Your passport is probably the most valuable thing you will take with you on your travels. Keep it safe and on your person at all times when travelling. Waterproof pouches such as those produced by Aquapac are an excellent way to protect documents, especially if you will be in/around water a lot.
It's also advisable to:
- Keep at least one photocopy of the photo page in a separate, safe place;
- Scan in your passport's photo page and email it to yourself;
- Leave a copy at home with family/friends;
- Take another form of photo ID as a back-up;
It's advisable to do the same thing for:
- Vaccination certificates;
- Credit cards (though you should avoid scanning and storing these details in an email);
- Insurance details (policy number, name of insurer, emergency phone number);
- Letters of introduction and any other important documents.
If you lose your passport while abroad, you should immediately contact the nearest British Embassy or High Commission. Contact details are available on the Find and Embassy pages of the Foreign & Commonweath Office (FCO) website.
Standard replacement passports can be issued to British nationals in most parts of the world, but the time and the type of replacement will depend on the location and your particular circumstances. Emergency passports can be issued immediately but these are only valid for a single journey back to the UK. You can find out more on the Passport information pages from the FCO.
Valuables and Cash
The best advice is not to take anything of monetary or sentimental value that is not absolutely essential, and if you do take it, not to show it off or leave it unattended.
Cash is particularly vulnerable, firstly because it's easy to steal and, secondly, because many insurers will not include cash in your personal belongings cover. View our Comparison of the best cover for Backpacker Insurance to find out who will cover your personal money. To minimise the risk of loss or theft, take note of these tips:
- Don't put all your eggs in one basket, instead spread your money around your person/belongings;
- Stash some cash in hard-to-find places on your body and in your luggage. Put a single high-denomination note in a tiny plastic bag inside your shoe. If you're female, put some banknotes in with your unused sanitary towels – even thieves won't be inclined to look there;
- Forget money belts which are obvious to thieves and usually hot and uncomfortable. Instead, invest in a good pair of trousers or skirt designed with travel in mind, with lots of deep, zip-up pockets;
- Stick to one large rucksack/holdall and one smaller bag. More than two pieces of luggage is unmanageable and harder to keep track of;
- Where possible, avoid crowded areas like markets, bus stations and ports, especially after dark;
- Leave non-essential valuables in your accommodation (though see below for shared rooms in hostels)
Luggage on long journeys
On long journeys, especially overnight rail and bus journeys, you will often be separated from your luggage. To minimise the risk of theft:
- Keep the majority of your valuables in a small bag which you can keep with you. Avoid overhead racks and don't store your bag under the seat if you can help it – these are both easy targets for pickpockets .
- Watch your bag being loaded onto the bus/train so you have an idea where it is, and try to get a window seat nearby. That way you can keep an eye on the area whenever you stop.
- In rail/bus stations and when unloading or loading your luggage, try to team up with a fellow traveller and work as a pair. One person guarding the luggage while one buys the tickets will be much more effective than trying to do both things at once.
- Consider buying a padlock or mesh luggage cover to deter sneak thieves. Pacsafe produces a wide range of anti-theft devices particularly suited to backpackers. These include the eXomesh® cage, a lightweight stainless steel mesh which encases your backpack and protects it from knives and blades which thieves may use to slash your bag to get at the contents. If your bag seems like too much of a hassle, a thief is likely to move on to an easier target.
Out of sight, out of mind
Don't forget that you could have a financial problem at home, such as exceeding an overdraft limit or having your credit card cloned, while you are away. Tell your bank you will be going abroad and obtain an international number you can call in case of problems. If possible, provide a contact number and an email address so that you can be notified of any problems. If you are embarking on a lengthy trip, consider giving power of attorney to a family member or trusted friend. Find out more about this option here.
Shared Accommodation and Camping
Few people consider that fellow travellers are in fact often more likely to steal your belongings than local people. Don't assume that somebody in a similar situation or any Westerner is necessarily honest! Lockers are often provided in dormitories and shared rooms. Use them to store your valuables but don't assume they provide a high level of security, and always keep your passport with you. A padlock and lightweight adjustable cable lock can also be useful. As with trains and buses, often this simple deterrent is enough.
And if the worst happens?
If you lose or have belongings stolen while you are abroad, you should:
- Report the incident to the local police as soon as possible. Insurance providers will need to see a copy of a police report before they can process your claim, and many require the loss/theft to be reported within 24 hours. Check your policy for the details before you travel;
- In the case of a serious incident, or if you have lost your passport, contact the nearest British Embassy or High Commission;
- Inform your insurer and follow their instructions for making a claim;
- Keep in touch with your family/friends and let them know what is happening.
Making an insurance claim while abroad
If you are on a long trip, you may need to make a claim before you return to the UK. You can do several things before you go which will prove invaluable in this situation, should it arise:
- Gather all receipts, packaging and other proofs of purchase for the items you will be taking on your trip. If you don't have a record for all your items, you should take photographs and record serial numbers and any other distinguishing marks;
- Leave these receipts etc with a family member or trusted friend and ask them to act on your behalf in the event of an insurance claim (see also the item on power of attorney above);
- Give your proxy a copy of your insurance document, the policy number and the procedure for claims.
Remember that the vast majority of foreign travellers return unharmed, so be well informed and try to make sensible decisions but don't be paranoid!