Travel Safety Advice. The Good, The Bad And The Downright Crazy.

Solo travel Sri Lanka

There is a huge world of difference between listening to reasonable, justified and expert safety concerns when setting off on your gap year, and listening to the often paranoid, overblown and sometimes downright crazy warnings that are out there. So which travel safety advice do you listen to? If any?

Travelling the world is generally safe, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t risks out there, and all travellers have to learn how to fully and realistically risk assess each part of their round the world adventure. It is important therefore to listen to some sensible and impartial advice on how to reduce any risk and keep yourself safe, right?

Well that depends on the type of advice you listen to.

What Travel Safety Advice Should You Listen To?

Reasonable safety concerns are important when you are setting off on your travels for the first time, but the problem is there is a lot of misinformation and scaremongering out there and far too many people listen to all the wrong advice.

There is so much incorrect and exaggerated information from the media, from friends, family and other sources that anyone who reads the wrong safety advice can needlessly allow genuine and reasonable concerns to develop into fear or paranoia that can ruin their travels or even stop them from travelling altogether.

The fact is the world is far safer than people believe. They just have to listen to the right travel safety advice.

It is important to know how to take safety warnings and precautions in context and weigh them up against the reality of the situation.

It may seem like a little bit paradoxical sometimes, as one of the most common pieces of advice I give out to the countless emails I get about travel safety is ‘relax, you’ll be fine,’ in an effort to counteract the level of fear mongering which many potential travellers are exposed to. Yet at the same time I know there is some risk out there, I know there are some reasonable steps you can take to reduce risk and I am a huge proponent of travel safety and having the right knowledge and skills to keep yourself safe and secure on the road.

I have a background in martial arts and self defence training, have trained both civilians and professionals in martial arts, hand to hand combat and personal security and have studied many aspects of crime and safety at an academic level. I have even written books on the subject. So I’m not exactly a stranger to knowing how important the correct knowledge, advice and training is in keeping you safe. But at the same time I also know how easy it is for people to blow things out of all proportion.

Should You Be Concerned About Potential Danger?

Solo female backpacker traveler safety

Yes you should. To an extent. Whether you are travelling or not you should arm yourself with the right knowledge, risk assess properly and prepare well, and that should go for any and every situation in your life. It is just basic common sense.

But you shouldn’t do is listen to so much safety information or horrific stories in the media of terrible backpacking incidents that it scares the living hell out of you. And you certainly shouldn’t be listening to too much of the wrong information that will just make you paranoid and overly concerned when there is no justified reason to be.

Let’s look at this objectively for a minute. Are there dangers and safety concerns that you should protect yourself against abroad? Yes, of course there are, just as there are dangers and criminal acts in your home country.

Is any given country to be considered dangerous and therefore to be avoided at all costs? Unless it is an active conflict zone or disaster area it is extremely unlikely.

Are you at risk of being a victim to any specific crime or incidents? Probably not statistically speaking, but there is always a small chance.

Are there ways to reduce that risk to yourself? Yes there is, with the right knowledge, the right preparation and in some cases the right training.

Reasonable Precaution Is Warranted. Fear Is Not.

So again, just to make sure the message gets across here, should you be concerned about travel safety? Well, concerned enough to prepare, yes. Concerned enough to drive you to fear and panic, definitely not.

The big problem is many people who are first time travellers or are dreaming about their first gap year or backpacking trip become far too paranoid about travel safety.

People themselves aren’t entirely at fault of course. There is such a tidal wave of bad advice, misinformation and downright scaremongering from a wide variety of sources out there that frankly it is easy to see why people get overwhelmed and panicked.

Just look at any news report or news channel and somewhere in the archives you will find stories of travellers going missing, being kidnapped, raped, tortured and murdered, sometimes but not always in that order.

Look at the official government advisories and you will see they immediately go into full on panic mode, change the light bulb to red and pull up the drawbridge at the slightest whiff of trouble. Any tiny little singular incident is enough to issue a travel warning and advise people against all travel, and those warnings last a long time, far longer than any credible threat.

Even your friends and family are just as bad! If you dare to mention that you are travelling to any given country then they will delight in telling you all the gory details of how you will die a horrible death or have all your possessions stolen the second you step off the plane.

Tell your mother you are going backpacking around the world and she will drop to her knees and beg you not to go because she heard from a friend of her second cousin twice removed that the country you want to visit is dirty and unsafe. Especially if you also happen to be a woman, because as we all know the world is a big scary place that women should never venture out into, right? We all know women in particular should never travel alone, right?

solo female backpacker safety

It Gets Ridiculous. Just Calm Down.

I mean seriously, how many times have you heard ‘don’t go there, it isn’t safe’, or ‘it’s far too dangerous for you to travel there!’. Usually these klaxon warnings are from a friend or a love one, or a fretting mother who is about to go into a nervous meltdown because her little darling just told her she was going travelling through Thailand for a couple of months.

For seasoned travellers, these warnings have become the white noise in the background as we happily buy our next ticket. We understand – even on an instinctive level – how overblown these warnings are. We know what safety advice to take into consideration for a realistic risk assessment and we know which ‘advice’ (and for ‘advice’ read mass panic inducing nonsense) to ignore.

The big problem is there are so many first time travellers or people dreaming of travel who don’t have the experience behind them to make that judgement and decide for themselves which safety concerns are warranted, and which are overblown and should be ignored.

Fact Vs Fiction.

The problem is many potential travellers listen to all of these scare stories and half truths and become paranoid, or take the actual facts and twist them in their own mind to such a level that fear is inevitable.

This leads to a wholly disproportionate response to what should be a sensible and reasonable level of preparation and knowledge, and it can ruin entire trips or even stop people travelling altogether.

Women in particular can fall into the trap of believing that they shouldn’t travel to certain places – or even at all – because women are somehow more at risk, in more danger, just by the fact that they are a woman. They aren’t of course, there is just so much media nonsense and societal stereotyping that perpetuates the myth that they are.

A recent conversation with a woman who said that she would love to visit India but declared in no uncertain terms that she never would because the country had the highest rape statistics in the world led to yet another debate where fact, reason and common sense would never overcome the entrenched mentality of erroneous self righteousness.

She was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that – as a woman – if she were ever to dare step foot in India she would certainly be accosted and raped.  She had a belief that the mere fact she was a woman meant it was unsafe for her to go to India at all. She kept throwing ‘facts’ at me such as ‘India is the rape capital of the world.’ Is it? Really? (A quick look at a few crime statistics proves that wrong). But nothing would dissuade her from that, not the absolute truth that the vast majority of women travel through India safely, unharmed and after having an amazing time, and certainly not the fact that India is far lower down the crime statistics list than countries such as the USA and UK.

I mean, what’s the point in letting little things like truth and fact get in the way of firmly entrenched belief or feeling?

It is a huge shame, because this woman will never see one of the most unique, diverse and culturally astounding countries in the world.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not in any way saying crime doesn’t occur. I’m not saying that terrible things don’t happen, of course they do. I’m not even saying don’t take reasonable steps to reduce potential risk, in fact I advocate for that! What I am saying is don’t fall into the trap of blowing relatively isolated incidents out of all proportion and allowing fear and paranoia to cloud what should be an objective look at the facts. Let’s just look at things in a little more context.

When you are looking at travel safety information or listening to safety advice, just keep in mind:  

  • Where is this information coming from?
  • Is the information from a reliable source?
  • Are you getting the full picture?
  • Is the information current or out of date?
  • Is the information about a specific, singular isolated incident or is it widespread enough to be considered a pattern?  

Just look at the information you are receiving in a little more detail.

Mainstream Media Never Gives You The Full Picture. Or Even An Accurate One.

The mass media is absolutely notorious for spreading fear and misinformation throughout potential travellers by salivating over every negative story and blowing it up out of all proportion. Bad news sells, good news doesn’t, it really is that simple.

According to the mass media at home, countries such as Cairo, or more recently Bangkok, have been painted with an image that would make people think that the population of the entire country is rioting, every street is on fire and the military are quelling the protesters with lethal force and targeting travellers and tourists in some form of scorched earth policy. What they don’t tell you is that any protests are usually limited to one or two small streets in a very large city, and that the rest of the city – never mind the rest of the country – is carrying on as normal.

The recent story of the death of the missing traveller in Malaysia is another perfect example. There have been so many speculative reports of what may have unfortunately happened to this man, but the truth is at the time of writing no one knows for sure, yet. I’m certainly not denying that whatever has happened is terrible and I certainly feel for the guys family. However, the reports have led to a surge in my inbox of emails all asking is it safe to visit Tioman island, is it safe to visit Malaysia even!

Yes, it is!

Juara Beach Ocean Tioman Island Malaysia

I mean is an island that has up until this point been considered relatively safe now a dangerous no go zone because of one unfortunate incident?

As terrible as this incident is, it is one isolated incident. Hundreds – thousands – of people visit Tioman island every single year completely safely and without incident. I even wrote a recent post espousing how amazing Juara beach – where this man has gone missing from – is. That fact still has not changed. I felt, and was perfectly safe there and would return there again in a heartbeat. The absolute vast majority of travellers who go there are completely safe and one incident – as terrible as it is for that person – is no reason to expect otherwise.

Sometimes Bad Things Just Happen, But It Is No Reason To Be Afraid.

Stories of terrible things happening to travellers – women in particular – are always picked up by the media and portrayed as if it was almost inevitable because they happened to be travelling in that part of the world. I mean what was that girl doing backpacking through Australia? How dare a woman go to India on her own? How dare that man decide to go off on that trek? The fact that these are often single isolated incidents, hyped up and seen as such a shock precisely because of their rarity and certainly far from the norm seem to be lost on most people.

The focus that they put on these stories distorts the whole picture and puts the fear of whatever God people happen to believe into them. There is no doubt that these incidents are often appalling for the people involved, and I am in no way wanting to detract from that or suggest that bad things don’t happen, but you need to remember that for every negative story the media reports on, they aren’t telling you about the hundreds and thousands of travellers who went to the exact same place, had a great time and arrived home perfectly safely.

The fact that these incidents are so shocking is because they are actually quite rare. We don’t get dozens of stories daily about backpackers going missing or being murdered do we? It does happen, just as crime happens at home, but a little perspective is needed.

Government Safety Advisories Are Always Over Cautious.

There is a general rule that if something bad happens in a small part of one town, then governments will panic, go into meltdown and an advisory will be issued against the entire country and will not be removed for at least a generation. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but no more so than half of the government safety advisories out there.

The recent protests in Egypt and the ‘Arab Spring’ in general are a huge case in point. When the protests began, the government advisories were so heavy handed that even now – long after any incidents have calmed down, people are still asking is it safe to go to Egypt. There was no mention of the fact that the protests were confined to a very small area of a very large city in an even larger country.

The more recent protests in Bangkok have seen the exact same thing happen again.

Look at any travel advisory, especially those written by the USA, UK or Australian governments, and one of the most common statements you will read is ‘there is a high threat of terrorism’. But when you look more closely you will find that there may have been a heightened threat in a very small province or region in some far flung corner of the country, and despite the blanket warning there is no more risk of terrorism in 99% of the country than there is in London, New York or Sydney.

There is a threat of terrorism everywhere, that is kind of the point of it! That doesn’t mean in the absence of a very specific and iminent threat that we should be afraid of it!

Most of the warnings that governments put out are there more to absolve themselves of any responsibility than give actual practical advice, and is not really applicable to the majority of travellers or situations. They are often overly negative, and issue do not travel warnings for the slightest thing. This has led to severe criticism of many governments – the US and the UK in particular – from many tourism authorities round the world, and even ridicule from many long term travellers.

This is a shame, and is potentially leading to a scenario where people will just start to ignore the advice, which is wrong too. Government advisories are important and they can provide essential information, but you have to read them carefully and weigh up what they are saying against reasonable common sense.

There is one caveat to this of course, is that where government advisories lead, the travel industry usually blindly follows. So if your government does issue an advisory against all travel to any given country, check that your insurance will still cover you for travel as often the insurance companies can use this as a basis to null and void any policy.

Reality Is Often Distorted.

Perceptions of any given place are very rarely accurate, and are often painted by people who have never been there or wildly erroneous statistics. Many people believe that countries in Asia, Africa or South and Central America in particular have the highest crime rates in the world, or that the entire Middle East is just full of terrorists waiting to target any innocent Westerner that happens along.

These are obviously ridiculous statements, but the problem is people believe them. Many potential travellers are often shocked to find out that the highest crime rates in the world are in fact in the very places most travellers come from such as the USA and the UK for example, and you are just as likely – if not more so – to become a victim of many crimes at home than you are abroad.

Consider The Source.

When you are getting this huge tidal wave of information and advice, it is really important you consider where you are getting this information from and determine whether or not the information is justified. More often than not it isn’t from the most reliable or expert source.

Family members and friends for example are perhaps the biggest source of misinformation. The advice may very well be coming from a genuinely concerned place, they are your loved ones after all and they do care for you, but you need to ask yourself do they really know what the hell they are talking about? With all due respect to your loved ones, ask yourself:

  • Are they in any way an expert on crime and policing, security, travel safety, personal or private security or self defence?
  • Have they even been to the country they are advising you on?
  • Have they been there recently?
  • Do they travel often and extensively?
  • When they travel do they travel independently through the entire country using local means?

If you can answer yes to all of these, then fair enough you should listen to what they are saying and take their advice. If however:

  • They have never even been to the country they are advising you on.
  • Are basing opinion solely on biased and seditious news reports.
  • Have only ever travelled to resorts on package holidays.
  • Are in no way an expert on crime and policing, security, travel safety, personal or private security or self defence.
  • They are your mum.

Then they aren’t exactly the best source of information for you to be accurately assessing the potential risk of your trip are they? And perhaps you should take that advice with a heavy dose of salt.

So What Information Should You Listen To Then?

All of it, is the short answer. Just put it in perspective and put it through that filter of common sense I know you all have.

When searching for general safety advice, you want to be looking to the people who actually know what they are talking about. Ask experts who know and understand the intricacies of self defence, crime or personal safety, ask travel bloggers or other backpackers who are in – or have recently just come back from – the destinations you are heading to, ask backpackers who are well travelled and are more than used to seeing the reality of what any given place is like. Look at official advisories of not only your own country but others also, and make a logical assessment of the facts they put across.

Whatever You Do Don’t Be Scared Of Travelling.

Being informed and being prepared is a large and essential part of staying safe on the road, but there is a reasonable point where you have to draw the line so you aren’t completely paranoid about your own safety or believing the hype that you are a huge walking target for every mugger, thief, rapist, kidnapper, murderer and terrorist!

Travelling the world is actually pretty safe. Seriously. The trick is to make sure you have the right information and the right skills to reduce any risk to acceptable levels.

There are of course times – and places – which genuinely present a risk to your personal safety or security if you travel there. Wandering into an active war zone for example may not be the best of ideas. Heading to a country but then specifically wandering around well known trouble spots or high crime areas is just asking for trouble. That is always going to be the case, and is even the case in your own home town or city at times. Danger or risk is not something that is wholly owned by and exclusive to world travel. But the truth is that provided you listen and heed carefully the useful safety advice and discard the rest, and make a reasonable risk assessment based on this information, then you have absolutely nothing to fear about setting off on your very own round the world adventures.

Think of the concept of travel safety as a suit of armour. The more layers of armour you have, the safer you will be. Discarding all the half truths and nonsense that scare the proverbial out of everyone, listening to the right safety advice and planning accordingly is just the first and perhaps most important layer.

Don’t be so afraid of what may happen that it stops you from following your dreams of travel.

After that of course, there are numerous layers of knowledge and skills you can add to that armour to reduce any risk to yourself even further; from the basics such as following sensible and reasonable safety tips or being aware of local travel scams, to the more advanced such as knowing how to recognise and evade potential safety risks or knowing how to diffuse potentially dangerous or risky situations. All of which I talk about here.

But my point is, if you let fear take hold of you, if you listen to all the bad advice out there, no amount of safety advice will convince you that you can be confident in your own safety on the road. Fear can completely ruin your trip and even stop you travelling altogether.

The more you travel, the more self confident you will grow, the more you will hone your instincts and learn to recognise and avoid the situations that could put you at risk before they happen, and the safer you will be.

The more you travel the more you will realise that yes bad things do happen out there, but the vast majority of the world is reasonably safe with the sensible precautions you yourself put in place.

The more you travel, the more you will also realise that the world is actually full of amazing, friendly people, and that it is actually a generally safe, wonderful and breathtaking place to explore.

But to discover all of that for yourself you first have to travel. So stop being afraid of backpacking the world independently, grab your pack and get out there! 

Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

Basic Travel Safety Advice.

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Excuse Buster Series Part 4: It’s Too Dangerous To Go Backpacking.

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Is Backpacking Around The World Safe?

Reassuring Parents About Your Gap Year Plans.

Solo Female Backpacker Safety Tips.

Solo MALE Backpacker Safety Tips.

The Reality Of Fear And The Truth About Travel Safety.

Travel Safety Advice. The Good, The Bad And The Downright Crazy.

We Need To Change How We Think About Travel Safety.

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Michael Huxley is a published author, professional adventurer and founder of the travel website, Bemused Backpacker. He has spent the last twenty years travelling to over 100 countries on almost every continent, slowly building Bemused Backpacker into a successful business after leaving a former career in emergency nursing and travel medicine, and continues to travel the world on numerous adventures every year.

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Posted in Travel Safety
28 comments on “Travel Safety Advice. The Good, The Bad And The Downright Crazy.
  1. jeanette says:

    This is really objective; it’s important to always consider the source of information. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. alliblair says:

    “For seasoned travellers, these warnings have become the white noise in the background as we happily buy our next ticket” Love that statement – so true! Great post, Mike!

  3. Emily Luxton says:

    Such a good post – and so true! So many people warned us not to go to Colombia – it’s not safe, there’s guerrilla warfare, tourists don’t go there, you’ll be shot by gang lords… All those warnings were ridiculous and completely unfounded. Yes, there’s still a small guerilla movement, but it’s somewhere deep in the rainforest so you’re unlikely to bump into it, and on the whole Colombia was probably one of the safest countries we’ve been to! With all travel, you have to be careful and not run risks – but I’m equally as careful when I’m out and about in London, where I live!

    • Totally agree Emily, there is often as much risk at home as there is abroad. Colombia has been very safe for travellers for a long time, but people still cling to that reputation it had a long time ago. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Bente Vold Klausen says:

    A great post, very informative. Safety is important and you should think about consequences. I also agree that so many people miss out the fun because they are scared. USA government are much more restricted in their advice then I find Scandinavian governments are. I am at the moment planning a trip to Iran and so many ask if that is possible. Of course its possible! And I will get the opportunity to see some of the worlds greatest historic sites.

    • I think the US government is absolutely mental when it comes to paranoid safety advice! The UK government isn’t much better but it has been improving slightly over the last few years. Iran is an absolutely stunning country, the visa process can be a pain, but it is so worth it! The biblical archaeology sites alone are worth the trip! I totally agree people have such a misconception about travel there because of what they see in the news, but I had absolutely no problems whatsoever. Thanks for the comment, and have a great trip!

  5. anemina says:

    My experience tells me that you should never be too concerned about safety issues – knowing about possible dangers is good, but worrying definitely takes the fun out of traveling – or holds you back from traveling altogether.

    • I agree on the whole about not letting worry or fear hold you back anemina, but I would say that you should be concerned just enough to research properly and take reasonable and sensible safety precautions. Then you can truly enjoy your gap year or backpacking trip without unnecessary fear or concern. Thanks for the comment I appreciate it. 🙂

  6. shussey27 says:

    Good post. Your right when I first started out travelling I was pretty naive and I was more interested in just getting out there then my personal safety. Now I am a bit more careful but it doesn’t stop me from visiting potential unsafe areas, and when I say unsafe I mean unsafe in the sense of it’s history and stories in the media which as your post correctly points out are normally over the top exaggerations of the truth.

    When we traveled to Myanmar earlier this year my parents flipped out as there had been a bombing in Yangon a few weeks before we departed. But in all honesty I had never felt safer than in Myanmar. It was safer then my old neighborhood in East London and there aren’t any warnings for there! 🙂

    • Thank you. Technically even London had a travel advisory against it for a long time after the 7/7 bombings, but life went on, travellers still came, and everyone was fine! Haha! I know what you mean though, I went to Myanmar about 8ish years ago now, before it had started to open up, and it certainly wasn’t the active warzone everyone was painting it out to be. There are of course a very few places where the risk outweighs the benefits of going at a particular time, but on the whole having the right knowledge, the right preparation and the right frame of mind can help you reduce the risk to acceptable levels and enjoy your trip safely, securely and with peace off mind. 🙂 Thanks for the comment.

  7. Rashad Pharaon says:

    Very true. What really got to me was the sheer number of posts warning us about Vietnam–the issue was the source was everyone, everywhere online. I guess people only post the problems, not the positive aspects. When we got here, it was 110% paranoia, and we’ve traveled quite a bit. At the end, your statement “the more you will hone your instincts and learn to recognise and avoid the situations that could put you at risk before they happen, and the safer you will be” is the hard truth.

    • That’s the thing Rashad, paranoia fuels paranoia, and for any traveller – especially beginners – it can be hard to determine what is the expert advice you should be taking notice of, and the paranoid nonsense that you should take with a grain of salt. The trick is to develop your own knowledge, instincts and skills in detecting and avoiding potential danger. (Incidentally apart from the odd vendor trying to vastly overcharge me, I had zero trouble in Vietnam!) ;D Thanks for the comment.

  8. Ahmed Mohamed says:

    Speaking of safety in Egypt, Currently its getting safer by the day and we can see that tourists are returning back to Red sea cities like Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada. The new government is doing its best to get back the tourism industry on track 🙂

    • Totally agree. There was SO much paranoia about safety in Egypt a few years back it was absolutely ridiculous. It just shows how easily misinformation can get blown out of proportion and get people panicking. I have spent a fair bit of time in Egypt and it is in general such a safe and fantastic country, there really is nothing to worry about, especially for package tourists who spend their time in resorts! Thanks for commenting.

  9. Kevin Wagar says:

    Great article! As my family travels we are often receiving comments about safety and concern from those we talk to, especially when Travelling with our children.
    We like to use it these conversations as an opportunity to educate and discuss the realities of safety along with proper risk mitigation.
    Thanks for the share and keep on Travelling!

  10. Sabrina Andrea Sachs says:

    I hope that lady who dreams to visit India but is too scared to do so, will change idea one day. I was also very scared and postponed this trip for years. But I’m here now and I’ve been travelling for three months all across the country. Well, it’s amazing and the horror stories we hear back home are obviously exaggeration! Great article! Thanks!

  11. AlexB says:

    Once again this is such an amazing post with real, sensible advice. It’s really refreshing to read a good balanced article instead of the usual extreme nonsense.

  12. Vicky Fitzpatrick says:

    I never thought of it like that but you are so right, so much of the safety advice is overblown, probably in the governments case to cover themselves. Its really important that travellers just don’t take these warnings at face value.

  13. theninjagypsy says:

    Fantastic post! It really is important to consider where the article is coming from and its purpose. Are they trying to get something from you or support an unknown objective? If so, then they may not be supplying with you accurate information but instead spun to fit the narrative. I love this post, and it is very educational for new and experienced travelers alike to learn where to get safety information!

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Hi, I'm Michael! I'm a former nurse turned published author and world travelling professional adventurer! I have spent over twenty years travelling over 100 countries and I want to inspire you to do the same! Want to know more about me? Just click here!

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