I realize that I have been very lucky when it comes to my travels. This article about a woman being sexually harassed in a cab in Cuba and what it did to her travel narrative has caused some waves in the travel industry and for better or worse I have nothing to add to the conversation from my own experience.
I like to think that I am not careless and there are a lot of things I don’t do because I am a woman but when it comes to every woman’s worst nightmare when traveling, sexual assault, I have simply been incredibly lucky. I once had a motorbike taxi driver in Bali grab my knee but that was the extent of it. I say lucky with full conviction because short of not ever leaving the house there is really not anything a woman can do to prevent sexual assault. And while I am writing this I realize that even never leaving the house will make you 100% safe.
While you can avoid the bad areas and the dark alleys, not talk to strangers, always take a taxi, never have a drink and dress like a nun – chances are shit can always happen but if you are lucky it won’t. And in any case, whatever may happen could happen at home so you will never ever hear me say that you should not travel. So yes, being safe as a woman on the road and at home is ultimately sheer luck.
That said when it comes to so many other safety issues on the road, there are quite a few things you can do to prevent those and be prepared should they still happen. I had yet to write such a post because I never consider myself expert enough. But as of last week, I have crossed the threshold of the holy trinity of travel fuck-ups: I now had my phone stolen in India, my passport broke in Mexico, and my credit card was skimmed in Bali. I also had my wallet stolen in Hamburg before which was ironic since I had just moved back there after living in Cape Town for 7 years and backpacking through Thailand for 6 weeks. I also had quite a few things happen while I lived in South Africa so I have a bit of experience with local police stations all over the world by now.
I have learned quite a few things at least in hindsight and I thought that would make me expert enough to share these experiences and tips with you. Hopefully, they will help you to prevent issues when you travel or at least help you sort them out quickly.
My personal Safety Tips for Travel
& What to do when things go wrong
My passport is my most prized possession not only for its stamps and correlating stories but also for the freedom it gives me. Germany regularly leads the top three of the best passports in the world and I cherish that.
With that, my heart also broke over my broken passport when I was in Tulum. A staff member at the hotel I was staying at gave it back to me in two pieces after making a copy – the laminated page had completely torn out. In hindsight, I have learned that passports are a lot more fragile than they seem and if your laminated page is already halfway torn, it might be time to get a new one.
What to do when your passport gets stolen or breaks?
- If your passport gets stolen your first step is to report it to the police.
- Your second trip is to the embassy or consulate of your country.
- I got lucky in Mexico as there was a German consulate in Cancun as I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to fly with my broken passport. Usually, a quick Google search will tell you where to find the nearest embassy or consulate. Most capital cities will have an office but also highly frequented tourist destinations like Cancun or Bali do.
- Call them to find out the requirements for an emergency passport. For me, that meant an informal appointment, a small fee, a passport picture and I was all set with a temporary passport that looked like a child made it. Keep in mind that if your passport gets stolen you will need a police report, luckily I didn’t since I still had the remains of my broken one.
- Also: an emergency passport is usually only valid for a couple of weeks and will only get you home. You cannot use it to travel to other destinations!
- It comes in handy to either have a few physical copies of your passport on you or a digital version which you can email to yourself. Especially if you still need to show your passport at hotels or such it is useful to have a copy at hand. And in case you haven’t memorized your passport number, it also comes in handy to have a copy when you go to the embassy.
- For longer trips, I always have some passport pictures on me. It just makes life easier as I don’t have to search for a photo box and chances are that I may need one for visa or such.
- Make your appointment to get a new passport asap. Most countries have an online system these days. Even in well organized Germany getting an appointment can take weeks so I was glad that I made one as soon as my passport broke.
- Get a second passport! If you are a frequent traveler like myself having a second passport (or a “dirty passport” as my friend from CNN calls it) is invaluable. Not only will that allow you to travel to places certain stamps may prevent you from (Israel and Islamic countries come to mind), it is also practical when you need to leave your passport at a consulate for certain visa which may take a couple of weeks. And of course, they come in handy when the other passport gets stolen. Needless to say, you shouldn’t keep them in one place!
Phone & Electronics
When I was in India two years ago my iPhone got stolen. In hindsight I was lucky because it was my secondary phone that I only took out for adventuring but needless to say – it was still a pain in the ass.
My friends and I arrived at the Amber Fort and while still holding it in the Grab it was gone when I got out. First, we used my friend’s account to call the driver back and since it is a pretty remote area it was actually the same car that returned just as we had planned. We took the car apart but the phone had disappeared and of course, the driver had seen nothing.
What to do when your phone gets stolen?
- Chances are if it was truly stolen, trying to find your phone via Apple’s “Find my phone” options are slim but it is worth a try in case the robber has a change of heart. But let’s be real, chances for such a miracle are slim so the first thing you got to do is block your SIM card with your cell provider and thus blacklist your phone. This way nobody can ramp up phone charges on your phone and even reselling it will be difficult.
- Disconnect your stolen phone from your cloud and all other devices.
- If you are using your regular sim card now is the time to ask your provider to send you a new card so you can have that waiting when you get home.
- If you have any kind of theft insurance for your phone you will need to go to the police station to get a report. If you don’t have insurance I recommend you save yourself the hassle. India like many other countries has tourist police stations which should make it easier for tourists to report a crime but from my experience, it is anything but.
- This might be controversial but I don’t really trust the police in most countries. Growing up in Germany where the police’s motto is “your friend and helper” I have come to realize that relying on the police to be your friend and helper is not a given. Having lived in South Africa for many years my few run-ins with the police confirmed that resources for both education and logistics are scarily scarce in the force. And I have also gotten the feeling that corruption and bribery are not just for politicians. That isn’t to point fingers at South Africa but has been my experience with various police forces all over the world. With that said, I tend to avoid asking for police help if possible and will ask a local friend to accompany me if I have to go.
- When my phone got stolen in India though I needed a police report for my insurance and after a rather long and pointless wait, I was told to literally change my story from ‘stolen’ to ‘lost’ when writing down what had happened. Apparently ‘beautifying’ of police reports is a thing. Luckily it didn’t matter to my insurance (they didn’t end up paying but for different reasons) but be careful what you sign for.
- Also, check beforehand if your insurance will accept a report in the local language or whether you need an official and notarized translation.
- Is travel insurance for phones and other electronics useful? When it comes to theft of any sort I have only had bad experiences when it comes to insurance companies. They always seem to find a sneaky way to get out of not paying i.e. left the phone in the car and driver took it vs. phone got violently taken from me. So you gotta weigh your insurance premium compared to the costs of a new phone. If you go for insurance make sure to read all the fine print.
- Have your phone’s IMEI number, as well as the serial number somewhere, saved other than in your phone.
- If you don’t need your phone for work as I do I highly recommend leaving your shiny new smartphone at home and rather take an old phone which you can live without in case it gets stolen.
Credit card skimming
I guess it had to happen at some point in my travel lifetime but I honestly never thought it would happen in Bali – my credit card just got skimmed. I only noticed because my card wouldn’t work when I was trying to book some flights online even though my balance was in order.
Upon calling MasterCard they told me that a security block had been put on my card due to suspicious ATM activities. Apparently, this can happen depending on the ATM you use and very little can be done as a consumer to know which ATMs are sketchy and which aren’t.
I was also told that they could remove the block immediately so I would be able to use my card again. Luckily the nice man at the MasterCard call center insisted on going over my latest withdrawals with me and that’s when it hit me – two withdrawals had been made which I did not authorize. I was in shock because not only had that never happened to me before but it was also sheer luck that I could actually prove when I had made my last withdrawal. I will admit that I am usually way too relaxed when it comes to my finances and never write down dates or amounts of withdrawal – bad traveler!
What to do when your credit card gets skimmed?
- Cancel your credit card immediately when you realize there are transactions you didn’t authorize. Duh!
- In order to get your money back, you will need to fill out a form which your bank will provide you with and time is of the essence here: do that as quickly as possible.
- Find out from your bank if you will need to get a police report for the credit card fraud. In my case, I didn’t need it as the card was not actually stolen but just skimmed (someone cloned my card at the ATM and must have observed me to get my pin code). Find out beforehand if you need a police report because chances are you will need to file it in the location where it happened.
- You may need to provide proof of onward travel so have your documents like hotel booking or plane tickets ready.
- Never give your card to anyone. Ever. This was the first lesson I learned upon moving to South Africa: if you are paying by card make sure you can see it at all times. Have the waiter at a restaurant or salesperson at a shop bring the card machine to you or go to the machine if it is stationary but don’t just hand over your card.
- Be careful when using ATMs. If you can use an ATM at an actual bank and be super careful when putting in your pin code. After my card got skimmed I found this article and was actually shocked at how clever credit card skimming is these days. Check it out, there are some good tips on how to spot an ATM that has been tampered with.
- Have more than one credit card with you and keep them in separate places when traveling. Make sure to have memorized all your pin codes and set up your online ID checks before. I have apps on my phone which basically ask me to confirm each online purchase I make through my phone.
- Check your account balance regularly online and make notes when you are withdrawing money. This way you will know sooner than later if suspicious activities are happening with your account.
- Inform your bank about your upcoming travels and get a direct contact number and name for your bank account consultant as well as for your credit card provider. I use Skype calling for international calls so it comes in handy when I don’t have to use a 1-800 number or such.
- Whether you use a debit or a credit card set a maximum withdrawal amount with your bank beforehand. This way the damage is limited should your card get skimmed.
What have I learned?
I was told yesterday that apparently, I have a very Balinese attitude of ‘oh well, it is just money it could have been worse and maybe I learned something from it’. I was quite flattered by this assessment – it seemed very unlike me.
I realized that while you will never hear me say ‘oh you are lucky that you just had your credit card/phone/passport stolen’ because I find these statements condescending and little help in such a situation, the truth is you are lucky. So this is my ultimate advice when your stuff gets stolen or breaks: once you have taken care of all the logistics and cried for a bit over the inconvenience to your Instagram followers and your mother, take your remaining cash and take yourself out for a nice glass of wine to toast to your good fortune of being safe – even if your credit card wasn’t.
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