Posted by: Josey | March 31, 2009

Safety Tips for Traveling Alone

“When you get back from Brazil, I do not want to hear that you ventured out on your own while Jeff was in class. Those cities have a reputation for being dangerous for a reason: because they’re dangerous,” she said.

“Well, I won’t be held captive in a hotel all day for five days. I’ve traveled alone many times before; I’ll be fine.”

“São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are different. Seriously, don’t be cavalier. We love you TOO. MUCH.”

And I nodded and smiled at her good-intentioned concern. And cavalier I was not, but venture out I did.

The summer I turned 14, I decided to take dance lessons in a nearby town. Without a driver’s license… or a car… or, ahem, a chauffeur… that required solo trips on the Pace 212 public bus. Riding public transportation may not be anything out of the ordinary for many kids, especially in New York City where I live now. But I was a scrawny, sheltered suburban kid, raised on constant carpools and cutesy, white-bread cul de sacs. So my dad taught me how to “strut.”

The strutting lessons essentially entailed learning how to walk with a bounce in my step, a high chin and a very angry facial expression—John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever meets Dennis Rodman meets Punky Brewster—as in Fine, so I’m thirteen and on the small side. YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? And now, whenever I feel like there’s any imminent danger, I strut. It’s just one of the many precautions I take while traveling alone, and here are some others:

  • Get carded: Take a hotel business card before heading out. That way, if you need to flee a scene in a hurry, you won’t waste any time tripping over language barriers with taxi drivers. You’ll hand it over and be on your merry way.
  • If you need to tote a city map, rip off the neighborhoods you know you won’t need so it’s as small and discreet as possible.
  • Diversify your assets: Keep a small bill in your pocket to appease a mugger, but keep taxi money in your sock under your foot and carry your ID, credit card and the rest of your cash in a money belt under your clothes.
  • Always leave your passport locked up in the security box in your hotel room.
  • Limit your alcohol intake (note to self) and, alcoholic or non-alcoholic, always keep one eye on your drink to ensure that nobody’s tampered with it. (The only good Mickey on vacation is Mickey Mouse.)
  • Dress local: Before you leave, check out images of your destination… then pick what you pack as if you’re one of the people in them. Pay special attention to colors and fit.
  • Sentimental reasons: If you’re going to carry a digital camera (as opposed to a cheap-o disposable camera), be sure to download the photos off it before you leave. Better yet, if you brought your laptop, download the pictures off your camera after each day’s photogenic adventures. That way, if it is lost or stolen, you lose the replaceable thing, not the irreplaceable memories.
  • Always keep your backpack on your lap or, if it’s on the floor, wrap a strap around your ankle.
  • Don’t wear jewelry. Just because you bought your favorite earrings for $10 at a flea market doesn’t mean they won’t look valuable to someone else. In fact, when I was in Brazil, I didn’t even wear my wedding band. (“All the single ladies… All the single ladies…”)
  • If you think someone is following you, slip into a store and let the person pass.
  • When you make friends with locals, try to stick to those who can’t leave their post (ex: the server at the luncheonette).

When I studied abroad in Barcelona, my classmates teased me for the ever-present carabiner that attached my wallet to a front-right belt loop. “I get it, I do. But was the extra-large carabiner really necessary?” Molly asked. And fair enough, it may have been a bit much. But, in a city (that I love, but) that has a reputation for pickpockets, GUESS WHO NEVER GOT PICKPOCKETED—and strutted off into the Mediterranean sunset.



  1. Helpful tips, thank you very much!

  2. I’m currently entertaining the idea of traveling to Brazil alone… in general did you feel safe in Sao Paulo and Rio alone as long as you are smart about what you are doing, or would you not recommend it?

  3. Hi, Kelly–
    I believe there are very few places that are unsafe if you use common sense and good judgment at all times (emphasis on “all”). I absolutely LOVED Ipanema but, for example, when I went to the beach, I approached a big group of Americans and asked them if I could pretend I was with them. They said no problem, I pulled up my kanga and no longer looked like a target. At night, when I felt like I’d stumbled on a rough street, I hopped into a cab immediately–no hesitation. And so on…
    Hope that helps!

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