Whether you’re traveling within the U.S. or to a foreign country, you should take extra precautions to stay safe. Distractions born of travel — such as taking in the sights, eating delectable food and exploring new cities — can increase your risk.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
These international and domestic travel safety tips will help you reduce your risk so you can enjoy your vacation and avoid trouble as much as feasible.
How to travel safely
Our safety tips include actions that can be implemented on the fly and ones that require a bit more preparation.
1. Digitize important documents
Your wallet or purse is filled with important documents that criminals can exploit. Leave unnecessary items at home (like your Social Security card) and make copies of everything else you would need in an emergency, like prescriptions, a backup credit card (so you can at least make a digital purchase in a pinch) and your passport.
Take a picture and upload them to a secure folder on the web. This way, if anything is stolen, you can easily take steps to reduce the damage that criminals can cause. You can easily call the bank to cancel debit and credit cards and request a new ID from the embassy. You can also use a secure digital vault system like 1Password or LastPass to store these documents.
2. Minimize how much cash you carry
It is important to have a little cash when traveling, but most retailers accept credit cards, even abroad. Not having cash minimizes your wallet’s value to a thief, and you can dispute unknown charges from a card. Just make sure to carry a card that has no foreign transaction fees when traveling internationally.
3. Look less like a tourist
The more you dress and act like a local, the less risk there is from criminals targeting you as a tourist. Adapting your style to that of the locals, walking with confidence and keeping maps hidden can help you blend in. When using directions on your phone, only look at it briefly while walking.
Further, familiarize yourself with the city and your route before leaving the hotel. If you do need to look up directions for an extended period, consider stepping into a store or cafe to do so, rather than staying outside.
4. Share your itinerary with someone you trust
Whether you’re traveling alone or with others, share your itinerary with someone you trust back home. Check in once a day to let them know that you’ve made it to your next destination or back to your hotel. These small steps increase your safety during travel.
It’s also wise to create and share a safe word so that family or friends would know if you’re in trouble, even if the conversation seems normal to someone else who may be listening. You can take this a step further and consider sharing your live location with a trusted friend or family member via your smartphone.
5. Research travel advisories for destinations
According to the U.S. Department of State, “conditions can change rapidly in a country at any time.” Its website keeps a continuous list of travel advisories in destinations around the world. While these advisories don’t always mean that you shouldn’t travel, they do help make you aware of the potential conditions you’ll find when you arrive, or areas to avoid.
Check the State Department website before making travel plans, and again before you depart. Somewhere that may have been safe when you booked your trip may have deteriorated since then.
6. Sign up for Smart Traveler Enrollment Program
The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, or STEP, is a free service from the State Department that allows citizens traveling or living abroad to receive the latest security updates. The information that you provide also makes it easier for the nearest U.S. Embassy or consulate to contact you in an emergency.
7. Notify credit card companies of your travel plans
Because you may be traveling to cities outside your normal spending patterns, let your bank know your dates and destinations of travel. Many banks allow you to notify them via your online banking portal.
This will minimize the potential of the bank locking your account due to perceived fraudulent transactions, which could leave you stranded.
Additionally, consider bringing a backup credit card.
8. Be careful with public Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi can open your devices and sensitive information to hackers. Using a VPN service is one of the best ways we know of to stay safe in an airport, when exploring your destination or at your hotel. VPN services create a secure connection to protect your personal information when browsing the internet or using web-connected apps on an open connection.
Security.org, a security product review site, conducted a study in June 2020 and found that just 31% of U.S. internet users use a VPN service for public Wi-Fi connections. That means almost 70% of public Wi-Fi users are at risk of being hacked
9. Get travel insurance
To improve both your physical and financial safety, consider purchasing a travel insurance policy ahead of your trip. This safety net is helpful in avoiding out-of-pocket expenses for emergency medical treatment, trip delays, cancellations or interruptions, lost luggage or evacuations.
Most policies will reimburse travelers for unused accommodations, transit or activities that were nonrefundable but had to be canceled for a covered reason. Similarly, if your luggage is lost by an airline or train company, you’ll likely get reimbursed through the baggage protection on your policy. Plus, if your policy has emergency medical coverage, you won’t be hit with a huge bill for medical attention overseas (where your U.S.-based health insurance is likely not useful).
Some credit cards come with built-in protections, whereas others don’t — in the case of the latter, you will need to purchase a stand-alone policy.
If finding ways to travel safely is your goal…
Now that we’ve shared some tips on how to travel safely, you can travel with more confidence and less risk. Though implementing most of these tips has little or no cost, they may take time to set up. Investing the time to increase your travel safety will be well worth it if you can avoid dangerous situations that can interrupt or ruin your next trip.
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Lee Huffman writes for NerdWallet. Email: [email protected]