Thinking about your physical safety is paramount before you head off on any trip. Take an unbiased look at who you are, your travel experience and where you are going. A couple of large strapping college boys can safely go to a lot of places the rest of us should avoid. Who you are should be considered on every level, from choosing your destination to where you stay, to what forms of transportation and experiences you can have on your trip. Unfortunately, lots of parts of the world are not very safe and nothing will ruin your trip and potentially your life like not thinking about your personal safety.
First, get your shots and prepare yourself for things like non-potable water and diarrhea. Find out if there are ticks, mosquitoes or fleas where you're going and protect yourself. Look into getting travel/medical insurance.
Second, do your homework. Places change, they become safer or more treacherous as the years go by. For example, New York is pretty safe now but in the 1980’s it was seriously dangerous. Similarly, parts of Mexico that were fine a few years ago are now bastions of drug violence. ‘Know before you go,’ will also help you to fit it, have a good time and help you to avoid becoming tourist targets.
Fitting in as much as possible with the habits of the local population is always a good idea. Going to Utah? Pack some moose hide boots. In Europe avoid the dreaded American white tenners with khaki walking shorts and a fanny pack. Sure you need to be comfortable but there are ways to look a little bit less like a tourist.
Please leave expensive jewelry at home, preferably in the bank safety deposit box. A few years ago in southern Spain people were being relieved of their fingers and hands on crowded streets for their rings and watches. I mention this not to scare you but to remind you that the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily operate along the same set of values.
The last two things that will keep you physically safe are to stay alert and always act like you know where you are going. Staying alert means NOT TIRED. Lets say your plane gets into Rome at two in the morning. It’s tempting to just forgo a hotel and try to stay up. This may be the best plan of attack for jet lag but bleary eyed and exhausted you might walk into trouble. If you find yourself in this predicament, stay in a well-lighted populated place until the rest of the world wakes up; then locate a safe place to put your stuff and rest. Staying alert to your surroundings should become second nature and doing this will keep you out of trouble. If you find yourself being followed either duck into a café or a store immediately and start talking to the person behind the counter in an animated way. Stay in your newfound refuge for quite some time. If this is not an option making a scene will sometimes disorient and scare your stalker and cause them to flee.
Always walk like you know where you are going. Looking at a map or your cell phone for directions on the street is like putting a giant X on your back. Pop in and out of shops to check your directions or to ask locals for directions. Also ask locals about crime. You can of course stop to look at things and take pictures but do this as you would with friends in your home town- deliberately.
In one word: take less. You can’t lose what you don’t have with you. Make sure you can easily carry all your stuff up two flights of stairs twice. Seems silly but it won’t when you come face to face with subway stairs. Bring at least two pairs of shoes so that you can change back and forth. Bring Band-Aids, earplugs and an eyeshade. Fanny packs and backpacks can be easily slit open and plundered. If you must bring them wear them in the front in all crowded places. Purses should have zipper closures, strong handles and fit snugly under your arm or across you chest. Wallets and purses should not be used for valuable things like your money and passport. Either buy a money belt for your valuables or sew what is essentially a small pillowcase out of lightweight cotton or Gore-Tex® for them. Make this little pouch at least one inch longer than your largest document. Then fold the pouch over to close it and safety pin it to the front inside section of your waistband. This is a trick I learned from some Chinese friends in Central China where pickpockets are very clever. Trust me no thief is going to get into the front of your pants without your knowing about it. Muggers might check for a standard money belt but they won’t probably think of asking for your pants pouch. Keep casual cash and maybe one credit card in a different wallet or purse for your daily purchases. Never send valuables through airplane luggage. Never leave valuables in your hotel room.
This is thievery of a different sort. In a lot of tourist destinations the locals have a game called ‘swindle the tourist.’ Planning and documentation will help. Take a copy of your reservation with you. Get and keep your paper receipts. When signing a credit card receipt make sure to write clearly and put in “.00” at the end of round transactions and circle them. Don’t let yourself be rushed or flustered (this is a common scam tactic). Should someone demand bogus payment, take the offensive. Demand to speak to their supervisor, be a pain in the neck. They have no right to swindle you! If a doorman is telling you to order table and bottle service just to get into a nightclub- start walking away. You will be surprised at how many times that table/bottle stuff disappears. Be aware, and always take care and your trip will be a wonderful experience.