Travel opens the door to all the wonders of the world, in all their glory. Unfortunately, travel can also open the door to a lot of unexpected risks and dangers, especially if you’re not prepared for them. We love to view our dream destinations through rose-colored glasses, but the best way to travel safely is to find out everything you can about the region you’re visiting — including the bad as well as the good. And while it may seem adventurous to travel spontaneously and embrace the unexpected, it’s far wiser to know what might await you and learn how to handle potential risks. Many of these risks — like theft — are scenarios we already face at home. But travel risks can also involve unfamiliar geographic conditions, sudden weather changes, or popular tourist scams. However, by doing your homework and taking the right precautions, you can enjoy your dream destination without exposing yourself to unexpected — or unnecessary — dangers.
Dishonest exchange rate offices abound in tourist areas, charging sky-high fees and paying a significantly lower amount than the daily rate. Likewise, airports kiosks are notorious for their high fees and low rates. For the best rates, look for an ATM that’s operated by your home financial institution. To avoid rip-off places, check online forums and reviews to find the most reputable exchange offices in your destination city. You can also exchange currency at your home bank before your trip, but be aware that for really large amounts, some countries may have limits on how much you can bring in.
Tornadoes and lightning attacks can seemingly appear from out of nowhere, so if you’re planning even a short hike, check weather conditions first. If lightning strikes unexpectedly, get out of wide, open spaces as fast as you can and seek shelter in the nearest building or car. If you’re traveling to cold-weather regions at wintertime, dress in warm layers, and don’t remove them until you’re indoors. In extreme conditions, even taking your gloves off for a few minutes to eat cotton candy at a snow carnival can result in a sudden attack of frostbite.
In many destinations, pickpockets are a primary cause of crime against tourists, so whenever you’re out, stash your passport, cash, and credit cards into a money belt you can tuck into your clothing. If you have a wallet, put it in your front pocket (never the back), and if you have a purse, keep it in front of you at all times. When dining out, keep your purse in front of you and within reach, and when taking public transportation, keep it secured in your lap.
Common travel dangers can include economic scams as well — and many popular tourist destinations are well-known for their abundance of “tourist traps,” run by storekeepers who charge astronomical prices for their goods. Unfortunately, price gouging is a common downside of travel; so before purchasing souvenirs or necessities, acquaint yourself with the local prices for these items. Often, you’ll find the same items a block away for half the price.
No matter how experienced a hiker you are, if you’re in unfamiliar territory, you can get lost — and it’s hard to maintain a cell phone signal in these areas. If you’re traveling in new territory, take someone with you who knows the terrain and who can get help if there’s an accident. For mountain travelers, altitude sickness can interfere with your vacation plans. The good news, however, is that many people acclimatize to the altitude in a day or two — and experts say you can help prevent altitude sickness by drinking a bit more water, avoiding alcohol and salty foods, and taking doctor-recommended supplements.
Identity theft is a problem for everyone, including tourists. Never flash cash, cards, or IDs where they can be seen, especially if you’re at a bank, exchange office, or ATM. Also, only use recommended, reputable internet cafés, and don’t access personal information or sensitive sites (like your bank account) from a public computer.
Hotels can bring unpleasant surprises — including unsanitary conditions, security concerns, and even rampant thievery among staff. Before booking a hotel, read the reviews and choose accordingly. Travel light, and lock all valuables (including your laptop when you’re not using it) in the hotel safe.
Natural hazards can include unexpected, potentially dangerous shifts in nature, such as avalanches, oceanic undertows, or wind shears. If you’re taking an adventure vacation where you’re skiing, hiking, swimming, scuba diving, or parasailing, be aware of these hazards and, when possible, check local conditions first.
While hiking, keep a lookout for signs of bears or wildcats — and if you happen upon an empty bear cave, leave the area quickly. On the river, watch for water moccasins and other poisonous beasties. In mountain, forest, or desert locales, snakes always pose a threat, so consider adding a snake bite kit to your backpack. In some areas, scorpion and poisonous spider bites account for many tourist's hospitalizations each season, so find out if any dangerous bugs are prevalent in your destination. Also, if you’re taking a beach vacation, be cautious of jellyfish or — depending upon your location — sharks.
When it comes to common travel dangers, perhaps the one we're most familiar with is the danger of drinking the water in a foreign country. Unfortunately, in some countries, the tap water (either from the source or through outdated distribution systems) is contaminated with bacteria, viruses, or parasites, any of which can send you straight to the hospital. Likewise, many street food stalls operate under unsanitary conditions that can cause food poisoning. In addition, travel can expose you to the same everyday physical risks you face at home — including falls leading to a sprained or broken limb. And you can always catch a bad cold or virus if you're anywhere around other people. To prevent these mishaps, be aware of travel advisories in your area. When you’re out, take sensible precautions to avoid injury. Also, consider investing in travel insurance, which can help you cover any unexpected medical expenses during your trip.