What to do when you want to travel somewhere “dangerous”

Four years ago, I landed in Paris with a massive suitcase and naive fantasies of what my life would be like living in the City of Light. It was my first time living abroad, but not my first experience navigating life in a city.

When I told my family and friends I’d be moving to Paris, no one plagued me with safety concerns or told me it would be dangerous. Upon arrival, I felt strangely at ease wandering the streets alone. Getting lost in a new city always has a romantic quality to it. With every new neighborhood I visited, new flavors of life emerged. Unfortunately, some new places were not the most welcoming. I managed to stumble into an arrondissement that was not female-friendly, where I was stared down by groups of men and even followed.

But despite this, I still walked. I walked alone. I walked at night. I even accepted invitations from strangers to enjoy dinner with them. Even after hearing stories of friends being mugged or conned near the Eiffel Tower, I continued to feel safe wherever I went.

Why? Because I was cautious. (More on this below)

Two years later, I was traveling to Copenhagen and my family begged me not to go. Wait, what? Don’t go to Copenhagen because it’s...“dangerous”? What changed?

Their reaction was understandable.

Tragedy struck. Horrible attacks happened between that time. The landscape of travel in Europe changed and a hazy cloud of fear settled over seemingly normal activities like sitting in a cafe or leaving the airport.

In the wake of the West’s current political landscape and fears perpetrated by the media, the “danger” of traveling to certain places feels more amplified than ever. I see female travelers faced with concerns from their family members and friends about their safety.

If you’re traveling somewhere that raises major concerns for your loved ones, soothe their concerns by preparing beforehand.

Understand what you’re getting into

Did you spontaneously buy a plane ticket to Russia and now your family is freaking out because of recent events? Yeah, that might not have been the best move, but hey, let’s talk about what you’re getting yourself into.

What’s the current social and political landscape of your destination? Visit the the U.S. State Department website for risk updates. Be critical of these risk assessments though. The government has an incentive to be conservative with their travel warnings.

Ask colleagues who’ve traveled to your destination about common potential risks. If you don’t know anyone who has traveled to where you’re going, hop online. Facebook Groups, such as NOMADS or Digital Nomad Girls, are filled with tons of frequent international travelers who are eager to share their knowledge.

Find out if there are any common scams you should avoid or if there’s more serious violence going on in certain areas. Just remember, if you’re reading news about unrest in one city, don’t generalize--what’s happening in one part of a country, might not be true for the whole country. For instance, I had a friend in Turkey during the coup d'état attempt in 2016. Needless to say, her loved ones were freaking out, but she wasn’t in Istanbul. She was in a seaside town, away from harm, enjoying local customs and remaining cautious.  

Take care of safety details

Notify your embassy before you head out on your trip. For US travelers, you can sign up with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive important information from the embassy about safety conditions in your destination. Additionally, if something happens in the country while you’re there, the embassy will know to look for you.

Next, scan your passport, ID, and any credit cards you’ll be bringing with you on your trip. Keep a copy and leave one with a family member or friend. I ran into a traveler once who wasn’t allowed to fly to Bali from Thailand because his passport expired in 6 months. He had to be re-routed to Hawaii and have his friends email him copies of his birth certificate in order to renew his passport.

Lastly, if you have an itinerary and list of places you’ll be staying, email your list to someone back home. Give them the exact dates and locations of your accommodations. This way people will know where you are and how to get in touch with you in case of an emergency.

Knowledge, confidence, and how to present yourself

As with each of the previous tips, prepare beforehand by doing some research. Find out what you can. That way you have a better idea of where you’re going and what things will be like when you arrive.

Where are you staying during your trip? If you’re checking into a hostel or hotel, ask the staff for a map. You can have them circle unsafe places to avoid and inquiry about any common local scams.

Are you planning on taking a bus somewhere? Introduce yourself to the bus driver and tell them your destination so they know to look out for you.

Don’t fall victim to opportunity

In self-defense classes, there’s this idea of a Crime Triangle (it sounds kind of “woo-woo”, but stick with me). In order for a crime to occur, all three sides of the triangle have to connect. The three areas are:

Desire: This is the intention or motivation of a criminal.

Target: Anyone who appears to be an easy victim. Someone who is unaware of their surroundings and seems easy to overpower. By definition, this is a person who won’t put up any resistance.

Opportunity: The environment you’re in. Did you just enter a secluded area or a bad part of town? Limiting opportunities for crimes is about being aware of your environment and using your intuition to remove yourself from a questionable environment once you sense danger.

You only have control over two of these elements, but if you’re aware of how you present yourself and the environments you place yourself in, you can maintain a higher level of safety.

It’ll be hard to blend in with locals in some places that you travel, but you can lessen your appearance as a target by being alert and standing confidently whenever you’re walking alone. If you need to check your phone (believe me, Instagram can wait) or map, don’t do it on a busy street. Stand near a storefront or wall so that people can’t approach you from behind.

If someone tries to talk to you and you don’t feel comfortable, don’t worry about being an asshole and ignoring them. They might be a perfectly nice person, but if you’re unsure, you’re better off avoiding them.

During a quick trip to London, I was sick and wandering around Camden Town alone. A man approached me and tried to ask me to look at some cards he had in his hand. Wary of being distracted and caught in some pickpocketing scheme, I blew the guy off and kept walking. I circled back around later to find him happily chatting with a young couple. It turns out he was stopping people up to get their opinion on some music he was releasing.

Risk vs. Opportunity

Obviously, be smart about the destinations you choose to travel, but don’t let fear deter you from stopping there. You can only plan so much. There’s a potential risk in everything we do, but that’s how we grow.

Congratulations on the opportunity to travel. It may be nerve-wracking. It may drive your family and friends crazy. But it’ll change the way you see the world and hopefully leave you with a few stories for when you return.