15 Safety Lessons Learned from Terrifying Travel Experiences

girl with taped mouth

“Mitch, world travel looks like the shiz. I want need some adventure in my life. But let’s be real—is it safe?”

Great question, fam.

Finding reliable travel safety advice isn’t easy.

On one hand, you have the 5 o’clock news bombarding you with stories of riots, terrorism, and natural disasters—painting the “outside world” as a horrific, drug-infested fustercluck.

But on the other (cell phone-equipped) hand, a quick scroll through #travelgram shows a completely different story. The kicker? Many of those drool-worthy destinations filling your Insta feed are from the same “barbaric” countries seen on the news.

So which is it? Safe or dangerous?

Here’s my take. Whether in your hometown or across the globe, you’re going to find both good and evil.

Is traveling dangerous?

Yes…and no.

Yes, terrible things can happen. But as you’re about to see, most dangerous situations travelers face are preventable.

And the best way to prevent them?

Learn from other traveler’s experiences.

So sit back, relax, and soak up the (potentially life-saving) lessons. If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, you’ll know exactly what to do.

15 travelers. 15 crazy stories. 15 travel safety tips…

Let’s go…

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#1 – How questioning “authority” can save your life

“What sort of image does the word ‘kidnapped’ evoke to you? I bet it’s along the lines of someone in a balaclava rushing in, armed with a deadly weapon, tying you up and then forcibly moving you somewhere you don’t want to go.

Well, I was kidnapped in Nepal, and it couldn’t have been more different.

A man in military uniform boarded my bus with a gun, asked for my passport, and then ordered me off the bus. As a naïve 19-year old, unaware of the corrupt law enforcement in some countries, I did what I thought I was supposed to do—followed orders.

That lead to a brief car ride to an abandoned building, being locked in a room against my will, and a short while later, managing to escape.

I’ve since spoken to local friends and they’ve told me the man almost certainly wasn’t military, and the intention was either to sell me into the sex trade or extort my government.”

-Rhiannon of Wales to Wherever | Instagram | Twitter

Travel Safety Tips
1.) Never get in a car with a stranger, even if they’re in head to toe camo.
2.) Remain vigilant and trust your instincts. I was half asleep when he boarded my bus, and just went along with everything. In hindsight, I should have recognized that his military uniform was slightly paler than normal. I should have noticed he didn’t have a name badge. I should have demanded to see identification. I should have asked questions. But I didn’t. I knew something was off but didn’t trust my gut. And that one mistake could have cost me my life (or at the very least, my freedom).

 

Girl in a field in Nepal

#2 – What you MUST do before any trek

“Traveling solo requires a heightened level of cognizance and diligence while exploring, especially in remote locations.

While hiking Corsica’s GR20 trek on my own, I had prepared physically for the journey. What I hadn’t anticipated was the sense of isolation and dread I’d feel hugging myself to the side of a mountain, one slip away from a very bad day.

It was reassuring to knowing my husband was tracking my itinerary, awaiting my check-in calls, and could call for help if needed.

With my oversized pack strapped tight to my back on the sketchy edge of a rocky precipice, I distinctly recall saying to myself aloud, “You won’t die today.”

Never, on all the other treks I’d been on, did I actually believe I may not make it out. But that gnawing feeling we get in our gut is there for a reason—it’s self-preservation. Knowing our limits and when to call it quits can save our lives. Leaving with a sense of gratefulness, and many bruises, this lesson of my journey hit me hard.”

-Christa Rolls of Expedition Wildlife | Facebook

Travel Safety Tips
1.) Whether trekking alone or in a group, always give your itinerary to a third party so they’ll know something’s wrong if you don’t arrive on time.
2.) Know your limits. Listen to your body.

hiking Corsica’s GR20 trek as a solo female traveler

#3 – Don’t let a smile deceive you

“I was sitting near the back door of a crowded bus in Guatemala when a guy hopped on and squeezed next to me. At one stop, he was pressed up against me (nothing unusual; the bus was very crowded) and wriggled around a little. It seemed a little strange since we weren’t moving.

I looked at him and he smiled at me.

After a couple of minutes, though, he suddenly jumped off the bus. That’s when an alarm bell went off in my head. Why hadn’t he gotten off when we first arrived at the stop?

I put my hand in my pocket and, sure enough, my phone was gone. I checked the floor—nothing. I’d been pickpocketed.

I learned some valuable lessons that day.”

-James Ian at Travel Collecting | Facebook | Instagram

Travel Safety Tips
1.) Listen to your gut
2.) Don’t carry valuable in your pockets—especially in crowded areas. Consider sewing hidden pockets into your clothes.

Guatemalan buses

#4 – How to carry belongings the safe way

“I’ve heard of many travelers being robbed (and even injured) from the “snatch and grab”—when two people on a motorbike drive by and snatch a bag within reach.

The problem is the bike never stops. So if the bag straps don’t snap, you get rag-dolled into the road at high speed.

I once witnessed a girl get her bag snatched with all of her valuables—wallet, phone and passport. All gone in seconds. Thankfully she wasn’t injured, but it taught me a valuable lesson.

From that day forward, I always have my camera (which has sturdy, unsnappable straps) looped over my shoulder facing away from the road. This makes it harder to reach. I also make sure to carry it over one shoulder (instead of crossing my body) so if it’s snatched, I won’t be dragged along with it.

-Ben of Horizon Unknown | Facebook | Pinterest

Travel Safety Tips
1.) Be aware of how you’re carrying your bag (or phone or wallet or anything). Don’t make it easy to snatch.
2.) Organize your cash and bank cards strategically to minimize your risk.

Man hiking through ruins with camera

#5 – Be careful where you camp

“We were settling down late at night for dinner in our remote, secluded bush-camp in rural French Guiana. Suddenly, a car pulled up.

We were approached by two silhouetted individuals. My pulse rate immediately shot up as I made out the outline of their drawn guns in the dark. Realizing how precarious and dangerous our isolated camping spot was, we froze as the unfriendly shadows moved closer.

A yell echoed through the dense rain-forest. “Arretez”. A French word. The French police. Relief flooded through us.

In the dark, we saw the wary-looking cops take in our raised arms and my purple hippy shirt. They lowered their guns tentatively and started asking us questions in French. We explained that we were a group of British, Australian and South Africans. Slowly, they relaxed.

We showed them our passports and offered them food we were cooking. They promptly called off the second armed response unit that was speeding its way through the rainforest to us.

I’m not sure who looked more relieved after the armed confrontation was avoided. I don’t think the young police officers from mainland France get much action in the deepest, darkest corners of rural French Guiana.”

-Kirsty at World for a Girl | Facebook | Twitter

Travel Safety Tips
Camping in non-designated areas of rural South America—probably not the safest idea! Research local laws and safety recommendations before wild camping.

Kaiteur Falls, Guyana

#6 – A lesson on riding motorcycles with strangers

“I was on my first ever international trip in Vietnam.

After landing in Saigon, I took a bus inland to the Mekong Delta. Thanks to a flat tire, we didn’t arrive until midnight—exactly what I was trying to avoid. Fortunately, I found a motorbike driver at the bus stop who agreed to take me to my hotel.

Halfway through the drive, he called someone on his phone and then swerved onto a dirt track. I could see a village up ahead and wondered if this is where my valuables would be stolen.

I asked the driver twice where we were going. He didn’t respond.

He stopped in front of a small house and ran inside. My heart was pounding. Moments later, he returned with noodles and gestured towards his family inside.

I breathed a sigh of relief. Turns out, I’d gotten myself worked up for nothing.”

-Priyanko Sarkar of Constant Traveller | Facebook | Instagram

Travel Safety Tips
1.) Assess the situation before assuming the worst. Sometimes scary experiences on the road are just in your head.
2.) Always learn a few key phrases to communicate with locals in the countries you travel to.

Man fixing flat tire of bus

#7 – Don’t be an easy target (they’re watching you)

“Pickpocketing is rampant in Europe. So when I moved to Spain, I quickly learned the importance of being aware of your belongings. Never hang a jacket or purse on the back of your chair or set anything down next to you. If you do, you’re asking to have it stolen.

One weekend, I took an amazing solo trip down to Andalusia. My poor Floridian skin hadn’t seen the sun in months thanks to Madrid’s harsh winter, but Andalusia felt just like home.

I was having a wonderful, relaxing weekend, finally getting the vitamin D my body so desperately craved. I was walking through a busy square—phone in hand to take pictures—when a tiny voice in my head said, “Put it away.”

I ignored it. I felt so amazing. There’s no way anything bad could happen to me!

Then it happened.

I needed the bathroom and found a porta potty-like structure. I set my things down absentmindedly—jacket, phone, some brochures—but kept my purse with me (I knew better than to leave my purse laying around!).

Went to the bathroom, came out, picked up my things…and never saw my phone again. In southern Spain. Alone.”

-Jamie of Crashed Culture | Facebook | Pinterest

Travel Safety Tips
1.) Don’t ignore your instincts.
2.) Never separate yourself from your valuables. European pickpockets are good at their job. Assume they’re watching you, waiting for you to make a careless mistake. Don’t give them any opportunities!
3.) Take extra precautions when traveling solo.

Scenery in Andalusia, Spain

#8 – Protect your neck

“You always hear, especially traveling in certain places, to always watch your valuables. Rio De Janeiro is one of those places—and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

We’ve traveled a lot with zero problems. Perhaps we’d slipped into our comfort zone. Because one day while exploring Copacabana beach, a guy riding past on a bike swiped my mom’s cross necklace…right off her neck!

I was shocked. After all, he did it in plain daylight in front of several other people.

Thankfully mom was OK, no cuts or scratches, just very unsettled!”

-Cassie of White Sand and Cool Breezes | Instagram | Pinterest

Travel Safety Tips
Showing off jewelry (or any expensive item), and you’re putting a target on your back. You’re best off leaving all valuables behind. If you must wear jewelry, stick to costume jewelry that won’t attract the wrong attention.

Rio de Janeiro scenery

#9 – Fires, sinking ships, and king cobras

“Our Cheow Lan Lake trip was one of the most unforgettable experiences we had in Thailand. This 185 km2 big lake with emerald colored water encircled by pride limestone mountains and a lush jungle is something out of a dream.

We climbed cascades of waterfalls, hiked into the jungle, swam at sunset and watched the sun rise from our kayak. It was almost too good to be true.

But then, as we were about to leave our floating bungalows, a strong tropical storm hit. Almost synchronously, our designated boat started sinking.

After some anxiety-filled minutes, a wave of relief rushed over me as our boat was rescued from sinking to the bottom. That’s when the engine caught on fire. Yes, in the rain.

Despite our adventurous group, we weren’t too keen on swimming with king cobras. Uncontrollable nervous laughter started.

The one hour in which all this happened was the most nerve-wracking moment in all our travels.”

-Darja of DeeGees Life | Facebook | Instagram

Travel Safety Tips
1.) Research any excursions to mentally prepare yourself for what you’re getting into.
2.) When things are out of your control, sometimes the best you can do is simply stay calm. This helps you better assess the situation and not do anything counterproductive.

Cheow Lan Lake floating bungalows

#10 – Taxi Safety 101 – Hitch, hail, or call?

“We arrived in Windhoek at dinnertime, eager to start our tour of Namibia the next day. There were no restaurants nearby, so the guesthouse owner drove us to one and told us to return by taxi. Big mistake.

We probably should have been concerned when we saw two other passengers sitting in the taxi. But we’d been sharing rides with strangers all day on our way from Maun, Botswana, so it didn’t seem unusual.

Hitchhiking is a part of life here since public transport is often non-existent. Drivers stop regularly along their route to let passengers in and out, and the passengers pay an agreed fare for the ride.

But this driver took us to a dark, quiet street, one of the passengers pulled out a knife, and they stole everything we were carrying.

After the fact, we were told that in Namibia we should not hail taxis off the street and should instead use a dial-a-cab service.”

-Wendy of Nomadic Vegan | Facebook | Instagram

Travel Safety Tips
Travel safety tips vary by region. Always seek out local advice about the security situation. It may be that what you perceive as dangerous (hitchhiking) is perfectly safe, and what you perceive as safe (hailing a taxi) could be dangerous.

Etosha salt plain

#11 – Accepting help from strangers: Who can you trust?

“While visiting Italy, I learned a very important travel safety lesson that applies anywhere in the world. I was in the Milan Train Station trying to purchase train tickets from one of the machines. I had four small children around me, surely looking quite frazzled.

I set my backpack (with all my earthly possessions in it) on the ground in front of me to try and deal with the tickets. A nice looking young man walked up and offered to help. I politely declined and turned to finish at the machine.

That’s when he reached down and snatched my backpack! Luckily I grabbed it right as he started taking off and started yelling. He got scared and ran.

It’s sad we have to be so careful, especially when it seems someone is offering to be kind. Now I know to always be aware of my surroundings. Surviving train travel in Italy (or anywhere in the world) can be tough, but it’s important to learn these lessons.”

-Vanessa of Wanderlust Crew | Facebook | Instagram

Travel Safety Tips
1.) Be wary of help from any strangers. It’s not to say you should run away from anyone who comes near you, just use your best judgment and stay alert.
2.) “Link yourself” with your belongings when in busy areas. This might be as simple as stepping through the strap when you set your bag down so nobody can snag it.

Train ticket machine in Italy

#12 – What to do before every bus trip

“Travelling from Chile to Argentina, I accidentally boarded the wrong bus and ended up traveling a long ways towards the wrong town. Maybe not the most precarious situation on the list, but keep in mind…

…I knew little Spanish, had all of my valuables with me, and would have arrived at night in an unknown location (bus stations typically aren’t the safest places to hang out at night in South America).

Thankfully, I woman on the bus pointed out my mistake before it was too late. She explained where I needed to go, and I switched to the correct bus at the next stop.”

-Eoin of Dollys Quest | Facebook | Instagram

Travel Safety Tips
1.) Always confirm with the driver that you’re on the right bus when boarding. It’s an easy way to avoid serious issues down the road (No pun intended).
2.) Don’t be afraid to ask the people around you if you’re unsure. Most people are happy to help.

chicken bus

#13 – Google Translate: Helpful or dangerous?

“Iran carries a lot of mystery as a travel destination. I was part of the early wave of adventurous travelers who came to discover the land of Persia.

In 2016, I was nearing the border of Armenia and needed a short ride to the next stop. We decided to try our luck with hitchhiking.

Two Turkish brothers who spoke no English happily picked us up. Using Google Translate, we figured out the directions to our next stop. But we were a bit lost.

It was 9.00pm, so I asked to make sure he knew where we were going. He responded using short Farsi slang, which Google translated to, “I know your blood.”

We froze.

Then we started to panic. I literally was plotting ways we could jump out of the car. But I kept thinking, did he really mean that?

We decided to ask again after a few minutes. This time, he wrote it out in long-form Farsi, and it translated “I know where you live, I’ll drop you there.”

Relief.

These Turkish men were nothing but kind souls who went out of their way to help us reach our destination. They even invited us for evening tea the next day with their family.

Beyond this little act of kindness, here’s why I travelled to Iran, the land of unending hospitality (and why you should too).”

-Pashmina of The Gone Goat | Instagram

Travel Safety Tips
Technology is a useful tool, but don’t let it overrule your gut instinct.

Group of tourists in Iran

#14 – When “safe” places turn sketchy

“Last summer my husband, 5-month-old baby and I were strolling down the beach in Curacao—a supposedly “safe” country—at night. During the day, the beach was full of tourists. But as night fell, we were the only ones around (or so we thought).

Suddenly, two men appeared out of nowhere. They pulled out guns and proceeded to steal all our possessions, including our rental car.

To make matters worse, since the beach was off the beaten track (and we no longer had our car), we had to walk a long way in the dark to track down help.

Although we were physically unharmed, it was a terrifying experience. It’s diminished my trust in others and has made me more aware.”

-Shazia of ShaziaChiu.com | Instagram

Travel Safety Tips
1.) No matter how “safe” your destination is supposed to be, being alone at night is never a good idea. If you’re not in a public place, don’t be out after dark.
2.) Carry as few things as possible—only what is absolutely necessary. Lock everything else up in your hotel.

Mom and infant on beach in Curacao

#15 – A quick (and scary) lesson on ATM etiquette

“After traveling for 30 years without any incidents, I was robbed in Sarajevo, Bosnia. And worst of all, it was my own fault.

I arrived outside my Airbnb on a chilly November night. My host told me he’d arrive shortly and recommended I wait in a café nearby. Well, the café was full of men and I didn’t want to enter with my backpack.*

Instead, I opted for walking up and down the streets a little. It was 7pm, but it was already quite dark.

That’s when I noticed an ATM next to some small shops. There weren’t many people around but the area didn’t look too sketchy. So I withdrew some money, walked back, and decided to wait for my host in front of his house on a small dark street.

Suddenly a young guy appeared, waved a knife in front of my nose, and uttered one word: “Money”.

I instinctively reached into my handbag, pulled the money from my wallet, and handed it to him. It happened so fast I didn’t even have time to be afraid.

Fortunately, it was only $100 USD—not bad considering I had all my valuables with me.”

-Daniela of Digital Nomads Peru | Facebook

Travel Safety Tips
1.) Listen to Airbnb hosts’ safety advice. (If you’ve never used Airbnb, here’s a free $50 credit).
2.) Never withdraw money in lonely places at night (or during the day for that matter). Public places during the day are much safer.

Woman outside painted Bosnian building

Feeling worried yet?

If so, just remember: These stories aren’t normal. They probably won’t happen to you. (especially if you’re prepared and don’t let your guard down).

That said, travel is inherently dangerous. But so is life.

Do you avoid driving because you might crash? Avoid elevators because they might fall? Avoid eating because you might choke?

Of course not.

So why is travel any different?

With a healthy respect for danger (and some common sense), travel isn’t any more dangerous than the rest of life.

Just be smart.

It’s ok to be wary. It’s ok to be cautious. It’s ok to be prepared.

But letting fear prevent you from experiencing everything this wonderful world has to offer?

That’s NOT ok.

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14 thoughts on “15 Safety Lessons Learned from Terrifying Travel Experiences”

  1. Mitch, that’s a great article! Happy to have had the chance to participate 🙂 It was reading through the stories and think “ooooo, that’s rough” or “yup, been there or almost there” :D. Like you said, travel may be dangerous sometimes, but a lot of these things could happen in your home country as well. Hope these stories are more educational rather than off-putting for anybody considering traveling :). Great job!

    1. Thanks, Darja! You’re totally right. Crazy things happen everywhere—that’s life! The key is knowing how to minimize the odds of bad things happening to you.

  2. My husband and I traveled to Curacao in November with our 6 month old baby, kind of strange to hear about a similar family being robbed! Of course, we didn’t go out at night because our baby went to bed at 6. But we had heard about being targeted because of rental cars and were really careful. definitely good reminders to stay aware and educated in this post.

    1. Who would’ve thought that Curacao was such a hotspot for car rental thieves! Just goes to show you have to stay alert and take precautions no matter where you are.

  3. Yeh, lots of lessons to learn! You can fall down the stairs or walk out of your front door and trip over the step, so travelling isn’t necessarily more dangerous than staying at home. Life is inherently risky. We can each be conscious of the risks and react accordingly and we’ll all have safe journeys. Great advice Mitch!

    1. So true! And if life is inherently risky, I’d rather spend it traveling. By taking a few precautions, travel is no more dangerous than life in any big city – it’s probably safer!

  4. Great article, Mitch. Who knows – this might save somebody from some serious trouble one day. Somebody like me. 🙂 Thanks for writing & putting this out there.

    1. Thanks, man! I sure hope so! Just gotta stay alert, know what to look out for, and not get into strange cars with strange people in strange cities at night 😉

  5. Wow! This is a valuable collection of real travel experiences, it’s mandatory to accept the hard reality of traveling, as in, to see both the pros and cons before whatever we step into first. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Definitely! The best thing you can do to stay safe is to be prepared, know what to avoid, and how to protect yourself. Hopefully the stories didn’t scare anyone away from travel – that wasn’t the point. The point was to show how to learn from the experiences of others 🙂

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