“Your mother must be having a heart attack!”
“Why are you going there?”
“Are you insane?”
All of these are comments I’ve gotten about some of my travel itineraries. While it’s easy to deride other people’s concerns and lack of understanding of my travel dreams, it’s important to recognize that they do have a point. Travel can be dangerous, and although some of their concerns may be misguided, at the end of the day many locations I’ve been to have been hot spots for terrorism and political instability. But this doesn’t necessarily mean the country should be take off your itinerary. Many of these trips are incredibly valuable and worthwhile, if you take the proper precautions.
First and foremost, understand that danger is a matter of timing and relativity. Timing, because at any given moment a country may be more or less dangerous based on current events and relativity because what seems dangerous to some may be perfectly safe for others. For this reason, it is essential to keep up to date with the news in the country you plan to visit and do proper research on the actual cultural context of the place you are about to visit.
Before your trip
Research—Check the travel advisories from your country’s department of state and those of other countries to understand the real danger. As a US citizen visiting Egypt, I spent the months leading up to my trip checking warnings from the American, British, and Australian governments.
While the US usually releases general warnings, the British department of state will also often release maps of countries that show which specific areas are safest to visit. Also know what diplomatic support is offered in this country. As an American citizen, there are countries where no embassy is operational but where another country has offered to provide support to US citizens.
Plan—I’m definitely a proponent of keeping a flexible itinerary, but if you know a country you plan to visit could turn unsafe, it’s best not to risk it. Book trusted lodging, transportation, and activities well in advance to ensure that you don’t get caught panicking and open yourself up to risky situations. Having a firm understanding of what you are doing and where you are going is key to staying safe.
Budget—I’m also a big believer in budget travel, but there are some cases where spending the extra money will be worthwhile. If you know that a country you plan to visit will be dangerous for you, then try to work with hostels, hotels, travel organizations and taxi services with verified reputations, even if you need to spend a few extra bucks. The stress and risk it safes you will go a long way toward ensuring you have a great experience.
Even if you consider yourself a die-hard wanderer, booking some official tours and excursions can sometimes be the best way to safely visit all of the places you want to see. See tips about networking below to find other travelers to share some of these costs with.
Network—One of the main reasons I’ve been able to visit some of the more dangerous countries on my list has been knowing people who can operate there. In Egypt, I was lucky enough to have a friend with family there who supported us in staying safe, but for people without this luxury, there are still great ways to meet other people who are willing to help. Hop onto sites like couchsurfing or meetup. Even if you aren’t looking for a place to stay, many couchsurfing hosts are more than willing to walk you around their city for a day or give you tips, and meetups can help you connect with expats and other experienced travelers.
Understand your travel goals—know that some countries are simply not much of a party. “Dangerous” countries make great travel destinations if your goal is to responsibly learn about current events, history, and culture, but self-policing in these countries is essential. While for the most part, these countries can be perfectly safe, in my experience it’s when alcohol, drugs and poor decision-making get involved that people become victims of crime or begin to risk their safety. Do your best to keep your nose clean and stick to your priorities.
During your trip:
Pay attention-be aware of what people are doing and wearing, and if a local tries to give you tips, listen to them. It’s easy to try and tune out unwelcome interaction when you’re in a place that feels threatening to you, but often times people on the streets will have helpful advice for you. Remember that these people live in their country and are aware of the bad press it’s getting, and many of them want to correct this by preventing you from making stupid mistakes. Having spent a lot of time in countries known for their street harassment, I can tell you that it’s worth keeping your ears open for the occasional piece of useful advice.
Blend—dress conservatively, in ways that help you fade into the crowd a bit. Avoid flashy jewelry and ostentatious outfits and opt for more practical ensembles in muted colors. Remember that this isn’t so much about “passing” for a local, (even if you look like the people in this country, they can probably tell you’re not from the area) so much as it is about looking like somebody who knows the area and knows what they’re doing to make you less of a target for crime and unwanted attention.
After your trip
Become an ambassador—tell people about your trip! Consider starting a blog of your own or sharing your stories on Facebook. Answer questions on Tripadvisor and other travel sites and share your positive experience with the world to begin correcting some of the negative press your country of choice is getting. Many people in these countries still rely heavily on tourism and many people could benefit from visiting them if they felt safe enough to do so.