The news can make the world outside your own country seem deadly, but the reality is most places that most people want to travel, are not a lot less safe than staying at home in North America or Europe—as long as you aren’t an idiot. Here’s how to check whether somewhere you want to go is safe, for you.
Consider Your Risk Tolerance
Safe means different things to different people. Truly unsafe destinations, where even locals are always at risk, very quickly collapse into crisis. In the wake of the Syrian civil war, thousands of refugees left their homes because staying meant dying. Syria is, generally speaking, not a safe country.
On the other hand, Mexico City is a violent city. People are killed there every day. But it is still a functioning city of almost nine million people. If people didn’t die there every day, it would be shocking. And then again, people are killed in New York every day too.
Whether or not you consider Mexico City a safe place to visit very much depends on what you consider an acceptable risk and where in the city you plan to travel. If you’re going to wander around flashing hundred dollar bills through the poorest quarters of the town, you will almost certainly be mugged. On the other hand, the Roma and Condesa districts are filled with young professionals, students, and travelers. Don’t get too drunk in the street and you’ll be able to enjoy a wide collection of hip cafés and bars without any issues. By most people’s definition, that’s pretty safe.
Before reading any further, you need to think about what safe means to you and how it relates to certain kinds of risks. Some of the things to think about are:
- Physical violence. How concerned are you with the potential for violent crimes and muggings? These happen in a lot of cities worldwide, though tourists are rarely widely targeted.
- Pickpockets, scams, and break-ins. The most common kind of crime that targets tourists. Pickpockets operate in most major tourist destinations, scams are everywhere, and hotels and Airbnbs get broken into all the time. These crimes can seriously ruin a vacation, but won’t threaten your life.
- Medical risks. Are you vaccinated against the local illnesses? Do you need very specific prescription medications? Are you generally healthy and not worried about being too far from a hospital? If you’re okay with not having easy access to medical care, then you can travel to a lot stranger places than if you require the safety net of a modern hospital nearby.
- Security concerns. In North America and Europe, police corruption is rare. In lots of the rest of the world, however, five dollars worth of the local currency can go a long way towards making things easier. At the other end of things, autocratic governments and police states do exist, and if you break the law, you can find yourself locked in a very unpleasant jail cell with dozens of other people, waiting months for a trial.
- Travel safety. American roads and public transit are pretty mediocre by world standards, but there are worse out there. If you want to visit India or South East Asia, you have to accept that traffic laws are largely non-existent and that the roads are strangely high-functioning carnage. Are you okay driving a scooter in this sort of situation? If not, your trip to Indonesia is going to be confined to five-star resorts or crawling through traffic with a hired driver.
- Perceptions of your nationality. Cuba and Iran are both fairly safe places for me, an Irish person, to visit. The Irish Government is broadly neutral and has never engaged in a trade-war, actual war, or anything else with either state. On the other hand, for American and English people, there is some risk attached to visiting. Iran has recently arrested a British-Australian woman for flying a drone and is trying to swap her for an Iranian prisoner in the US. If I flew a drone in Iran, would I end up in jail? Maybe. But I wouldn’t be much use for political grandstanding and prisoner swaps.
Local Culture or Locked Away
There are safe, international five-star resorts in even the most objectively dangerous cities and locations around the world. You can fly into the heavily-secured international airport, get picked up by a heavily-armed driver, and be brought to a heavily-defended hotel complex—with a beautiful pool and spa. There, you can chill for a week then tell all your friends how much you enjoyed Baghdad.
You just won’t have seen an ounce of Iraqi culture.
It’s the same in Mexico (and India and anywhere else you care to mention). Go on an all-inclusive Cancun holiday, and you are likely to be safer than you are walking around your hometown at night, but you won’t have a single authentic taco. On the other hand, if you go to Mexico City, Oaxaca, Puerto Escondido, or lots of other “less safe” places, you will experience the local culture, at the cost of assuming some small risk to your person and possessions. This is the tradeoff you’ll have to make.
Once you’ve worked out how much risk you’re prepared to tolerate, you also need to start thinking about how little culture you’re prepared to tolerate. If you’re happy lounging by a pool, the entire world is open to you. But if your idea of a trip requires experiencing local living, then you need to be a tad more selective. Experiencing Turkish jail is definitely an authentic experience—it’s just not one I’d want to have.
Okay, now that you’ve got some idea of how safe you think safe is and what sort of trip you’re looking to do, it’s time to get objective.
Your first port of call should be the U.S. Department of State’s travel advisories website. They offer updated risk assessments and advice for pretty much every place you could wish to visit. Each country is assigned one of four levels:
- Level 1. Exercise normal precautions.
- Level 2. Exercise increased precautions.
- Level 3. Reconsider travel.
- Level 4. Do not travel.
Most countries fall into Level 1 or Level 2, and the accompanying briefing will give you a lot of information about why that country was assigned that level.
You should also search for the current news headlines in the destination you’re considering. If there’s political unrest, lots of crime, or anything else happening, it’ll give you a good idea about what’s going down. Just make sure to use international sources like Reuters or the BBC. State-run media and private propaganda outlets will rarely paint a true picture.
Next, look for articles from travel bloggers who’ve recently visited. They’re a great way to get an on-the-ground feel for what a destination is like. If you can, look for someone who seems to have a similar risk profile to you. There’s no point accepting my word that Bali is totally safe unless you’re also comfortable riding a motorbike through bad traffic on the left-hand side of a narrow jungle road.
Finally, turn to the traditional guidebooks like the Lonely Planet. Their content is updated less frequently than travel blogs, so they’ll give you less of an idea how things are right now, but they also have much more complete guides to the kind of precautions that are normally necessary to take.
Take Steps to Look After Yourself
No destination is completely safe. There’s a reason the lowest travel advisory is “take normal precautions.” If you wander around dark streets at night, drunk out of your mind with a full wallet and the latest iPhone, you’re going to get turned over, even in a place like Singapore. On the other hand, if you don’t act like an idiot and take simple steps to protect yourself, you can be safe in most places. Here are some ways to do it.
Consider travel insurance essential. While it won’t stop you being mugged or getting sick, it will help smooth over the consequences.
Get vaccinated against any of the local illnesses you can. They will actually stop you getting sick, and hepatitis is no one’s idea of a good vacation souvenir.
Don’t travel by yourself at night. Traveling solo is great, but if you’re wandering around a city late at night on your own, you’re much more of a target than a group of two or three. Make some friends or get a taxi if need to instead.
Don’t get too drunk, ever. If you’re out of your mind, anyone can take advantage of you. This isn’t just a travel tip; it’s a general tip.
Don’t carry too much cash or valuables, too obviously. A lot of staying safe is just not making yourself a target. Don’t leave a bulging wallet or high-end smartphone sitting out on the table at a café.
Don’t break the law. I know chewing gum is legal in Texas, but it’s not legal in Singapore. Respect local laws—even if you don’t agree with them. In the best cases, you have to pay a fine or bribe. In the worst, you get held on death row for a decade and then executed.
Respect local culture. Even if something isn’t expressly against the law, if it’s ingrained in the culture, abide by it. You don’t want to draw attention to yourself and antagonize locals by acting out. It will get you nothing but trouble. Plus, it’s just a classless move. You’re a guest in the country you’re visiting.
World travel is, for most people in most places, fairly safe and worth the risk—especially when compared to the risks of just staying at home. But still, you have to do your own calculations. I’m young with no kids, so I am likely more comfortable taking risks than someone who is raising three young children by themselves.