To compile this guide, we consulted safety expert Kevin Coffey, a career detective with extensive firsthand knowledge of travelers’ travails. During his decades-long tenure in the Los Angeles Police Department, he was a highly decorated officer who founded the Crimes Against Travelers Investigation Detail. Beyond speaking with Safety.com, he’s appeared on or been featured in The Oprah Winfrey Show, NBC, CNN, The Travel Channel and many other media outlets discussing the risks of travel.
The Most Common Travel Risks & Hazards
We all know a few horror stories about travel gone wrong, especially if we’re alone or with kids. As Coffey assured us, most travel problems are much less sensational than headlines would have you believe. Here are the most likely issues.
- Transportation cancellations and delays. Problems with flights, trains, taxis or any other type of transportation can cause a chain reaction that leads to more complex problems. You could end up with considerable unplanned expenses or stuck without luggage and lodging.
- Property loss. Many, many travelers have their personal items lost or stolen – luggage loses its way in the handling process; phones, wallets and books are often left behind in Ubers and trains. Pickpocketing and other petty thefts are also frequent.
- Sickness or health problems. “The #1 medical problem is tummy trouble. When you travel internationally you’re not prepared for food, spices, and sanitary issues. There can be a big issue with water, ice that hasn’t been purified, and sometimes fruit because it’s been rinsed with that water,” says Coffey. All of this unfamiliar flora and fauna triggers allergies and illness. Since we tend to relax the rules of everyday living while we’re on vacation, accidents and injuries happen too.
What To Do Before You Leave
Don’t overcomplicate transportation plans.
Keep in mind that property loss frequently occurs during transportation, so it’s a good idea to make your travel routes as simple as possible. The more connections you have, the more places you can lose things.
Beat-up bags? Replace your luggage.
Do all the compartments on your bag close securely? Does it stand up well to rough handling? Are all of the handles, wheels and tags in good repair? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then consider upgrading your luggage. If your bag opens and loses contents during handling, or if the handle bearing the bag’s destination tag falls off, there’s a good chance you’ll never see your stuff again.
Pro tip: If you’re tempted toward “smart luggage” with features like USB charging ports and GPS tracking, make sure to get one with a removable battery. Many airlines have banned non-removable lithium-ion batteries from checked luggage due to safety concerns. Do your research carefully or avoid this technology altogether.
Pack your checked bag as if you’ll never see it again.
“That way, if your luggage never makes it off the plane, the worst-case scenario is that you buy new clothes,” Coffey explains. “Keep all of your truly important items in your carry-on bag.” Make a checklist of necessities like medication, keys, identification, money and credit cards, glasses, phone and charger, and keep them on you during travel.
Lock up before you take off.
A visibly empty house is a welcome sign for burglars, so make sure to lock up and have a friend or neighbor keep an eye on things. Make it look like someone’s home by using lighting, asking someone else to bring in your mail, and maybe leaving a car in the driveway. Don’t forget to arm the home security system, either. To learn more, check out our complete list of ways to protect your home when you’re away on vacation.
Purchase travel insurance.
Travel insurance reimburses you in the event of common issues like trip cancellation, health problems, lost luggage or problematic delays. Cost and coverage depends on the level of protection and the policies you purchase and is scalable according to your needs.
On international trips, Coffey recommends coverage for cancellations, delays, lost or stolen luggage, primary medical, evacuation and dental. “When you travel overseas, you typically aren’t covered by your own insurance company until you get back home.” In this case, you have to pay up front and request a reimbursement from your health insurance company after. If you have medical travel insurance, you won’t need to pay up front.
Evacuation coverage protects you if you are hurt or sick during travel and you need to change locations to seek treatment. Dedicated medical transportation can be exorbitantly expensive without evacuation coverage. Lastly, dental coverage can usually be added to travel insurance policies for a very small additional fee, so many travelers consider it well worth it.
If it’s your first time buying travel insurance, ask your agent a lot of questions.Take time to understand what’s covered so you can react quickly in case of an emergency. And, accept a word of advice from Daniel Durazo of Allianz Partners, a leading travel insurance company: “Failure to submit proper documentation is the number one reason that claim payments are delayed.” Request and keep all documentation of any incidents.
If going abroad, check your cards and currency.
Credit card chip technology just caught on in the U.S., but Europe has been using it for over a decade. You might not be able to use a non-chip card at all. Contact your bank to verify whether or not your card will be accepted in your destination, if there are foreign or international transaction fees, and to place a travel notification on your account.
A few more personal administration tasks:
- Make a copy of your passport and travel with at least two forms of photo identification.
- Memorize important phone numbers.
- Contact your cellular provider to verify if your phone will work during your trip and how much the services will cost.
- Securely tag your luggage with name, contact information and destination.
What To Do During Your Trip
Wait until you’re home to post on social media.
It’s tempting to post that golden-hour Eiffel Tower selfie as soon as you take it, but hold off: it’s basically broadcasting that your home is empty. Even if you have tight privacy settings on your accounts, you can never be truly certain about who sees your posts. Many celebrity homes have been burglarized after broadcasting vacations to their followers.
Use cards over cash when possible (but make sure to have both).
Credit card companies offer fraud protection, but that’s not an option with cash. This is especially important if you’re booking an event, service or accommodation in advance. Scammers may promise entertainment or service with no intention of actually providing it. You may have to prove fraudulent transactions to your bank, so keep all of your signed credit card receipts and a close eye on your bar tab.
If your wallet or purse is lost or stolen, back-up money and identification can go a long way in keeping you comfortable and rectifying the situation more quickly. Once you’ve settled into your accommodations, store an alternate ID or copy of your passport and a little extra cash or credit card in the hotel safe or another secure, hidden place.
Language barrier? Grab a few copies of your hotel’s business card.
Communicating to drivers and asking for directions is much harder when you can’t pronounce the name of your destination. Keep a card in easy reach so you can ask for help without pulling out your phone or wallet. For more complex conversations, the Google Translate mobile app (free for iOS and Android) can translate text, voices and even images in dozens of different languages. It’s not as good as being a fluent speaker, but it will certainly help you communicate.
Spot the local scams.
“Most major cities outside of the US and Canada have a pickpocketing problem, especially in major tourist destinations: Rome, Amsterdam, London,” explains Coffey, indicating that there are many other ways that criminals take advantage of trusting travelers. “The friendship bracelet scam is huge in Paris,” he says, referring to a street crime where aggressive street hawkers “bless” an unwitting visitor by tying beads or bracelets around their wrist and then demanding (or sneaking) money from them as payment. Be prepared to ignore street hawkers and reply with a firm no when pressed.
Know your resources.
Know where the nearest hospitals are, learn the emergency number (911 equivalent) in the country you’re visiting, and write down the location and contact information of the nearest U.S. consulate or embassy, which provides assistance to U.S. citizens traveling abroad.
Helpful Travel Safety Gear
- Slash-proof backpacks. A good travel bag is comfortable to hold, carries a large capacity, and closes completely and securely. To further protect yourself from pickpocketers, choose a bag that isn’t easy to rip, tear or slash, such as this highly-rated anti-theft bag from Travelon.
- TSA-accepted luggage locks. These locks can be opened by the Transportation Security Association (TSA)’s master keys, so you can secure your suitcase during transportation without violating TSA rules against locking checked bags. For example, this small and lightweight double-cable lock can secure your bags and zippers closed in a variety of handy ways during transportation and in your room.
- Portable door jammer. Adding extra security to your hotel room door can help you rest assured that no one can bust in, even with a key. A travel-friendly door stop or door jammer is a good way to do just that.