Staying Safe While Traveling Internationally
Traveling internationally can be an incredible experience or a long-lasting nightmare. Asher Fergusson has tips to keep your trip on the incredible side of the scale.
See How to Travel Safely with Asher Fergusson for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.
Asher grew up in Sydney, Australia. He received a scholarship to do his undergraduate degree in the United States, where he studied business, journalism, and marketing. After he graduated in 2008, he got the opportunity to volunteer at a nonprofit in the Netherlands, which started him on his journey of traveling the world. He has been all over Europe, spent almost two years living in India, and visited more than 30 countries.
Asher has traveled solo and with groups of friends, and now as a parent, also with his family. He learned the do’s and don’ts of traveling through trial and error and his own horrible experiences. In the process, he started a travel website, asherfergusson.com, where he began sharing his tips to stay safe while traveling. He started with discussing India particularly, but now he talks about staying safe while traveling the entire globe.
The Four Essentials of Traveling
When traveling internationally—or anywhere, really—the most important things to consider are the fundamentals of life: Food, water, shelter, safety. The key is to do your research and know the cultural norms and what other travelers have experienced around those four fundamentals of life.
Food Safety when Traveling Internationally
The most common problems are dysentery or food poisoning, but all of these kinds of issues are avoidable. The most simple rule of thumb is to only eat piping hot cooked food or food that you can peel. Salads, juices, anything pre-cut, and anything that’s been in the open air has had plenty of opportunities to grow bacteria that your body probably won’t like. The heat of cooking kills those kinds of bacteria, amoebas, and other nasty things.
Asher doesn’t trust any old street food stall. Some people swear by street food, but one of his friends got street food in India, came down with E. coli, and died from it two weeks later. Most examples are not that extreme, but Asher prefers to only eat at really nice restaurants. A place that’s bustling is likely to use high-quality ingredients and not cut corners with the preparation. Avoid the all-you-can-eat buffets at any cost, and be very cautious of meats. Depending on how they’re handled, bacteria can quickly grow on meats.
Water Safety when Traveling Internationally
Water is more complicated because you can’t know if it’s safe or not. Boiling is an option, but it’s not always possible to bring your kettle with you. Bottled water isn’t great in terms of climate change or pollution, but sometimes it’s the only option. Asher highly recommends a good filtered water bottle—not a simple Brita filter, but something heavy-duty like a LifeStraw. He starts with filtered water that the hotel claims is safe, and then puts his extra filter on top of it.
Start with something you hope is safe, then assume it’s not and do your due diligence.Asher Fergusson
Understanding Cultural Norms
There are a handful of countries today that have steep penalties for being gay. Some have the death penalty, while other punishments include twenty years in prison, whippings, and other unpleasant things. Even showing affection in public can lead to trouble with the police. In Egypt, police get on dating apps to try and lure LGBT tourists to meet and then arrest them for trying to meet someone of the same sex.
In some places like Indonesia and Singapore, a perfectly legal prescription medication that you brought with you could be illegal and you could be arrested for possession. Asher recommends bringing documentation from your doctor that you actually were prescribed that drug.
Being a tourist isn’t always a defense in these kinds of situations. It’s essential to research where you’re going, understand the laws and customs, and be prepared for any issues that might arise. You never know what might happen when you get there, and doing your due diligence will head off many issues.
It’s all about doing your research and knowing the cultural norms.Asher Fergusson
A big cultural consideration, especially for female travelers, is dress code. In many conservative countries, like Muslim countries or India, there are rules for body parts women can and can’t expose. Exposing more skin than the cultural dress code allows will often bring attention from men who think this woman is available, which adds an extra layer of danger.
Some women think it’s a violation to follow the local dress code because they feel it’s wrong that the women have to be covered up. This may be true to you, but you’re going to someone else’s country. It’s better to respect what the locals are doing and be a respectful tourist, not an obnoxious foreigner.
You’re not necessarily saying you agree with the customs, you’re saying, “This is your country. I’m a guest here.”Asher Fergusson
Western International Travelers
Westerners can be pretty unprepared for international travel, often thinking they’re above the law. Americans especially feel like because they’re American, the rules don’t apply to them—it’s like the whole world is a secondary America. Everyone is out of their depth when they go to a new country, not just Westerners, but Westerners often don’t consider that the rules might be different in a different place.
Everyone is naive when they go to a new place, especially if they didn’t do their research.Asher Fergusson
Because people perceive Westerners as having inherent wealth—big wads of cash, expensive equipment like iPhones and fancy cameras—Westerners are popular targets for theft, pickpocketing, and scams. Western tourists make easy marks because they stand out like a sore thumb.
Avoid Getting Robbed or Scammed while Traveling Internationally
Looking like a tourist makes you a target. Telltale signs of being a tourist are:
- Seeming confused about where you’re going
- Stopping often to pull out your map
- Americans especially: Being very loud
- Not following the local dress code
- Carrying around lots of luggage, backpacks, fanny packs, etc.
The number one thing someone will try to get from a tourist is money. Pickpocketing is one way (and carries a lot of risk if a pickpocket takes your essential travel documents), but there are other scams. People may charge entrance fees for a “tourist attraction” that isn’t a real tourist attraction, overcharge on taxi fare, overcharge an entrance fee, or charge an entrance fee for something that doesn’t have one. The biggest way tourists are scammed is by overpaying.
Asher recommends being extra vigilant around any financial transaction. You can use your phone to double-check prices for many things in real time (discreetly, of course). You can buy tickets in advance for practically anything (GetYourGuide is one such site) which will prevent overpaying at the official entrance. Be wary of anyone selling tickets to anything on the street. It could be a good deal, or it could be a scam, and you have no way of knowing.
If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. That’s the most simple thing to remember with any scam.Asher Fergusson
Tips for Solo International Travelers
The biggest tip for staying safe in any country where you’re going by yourself is—again—do your research. There are many countries that just aren’t safe for solo female travelers, for example.
Never try to be nice as a solo traveler. People really can back off quickly if you put up your boundaries strongly and say no loudly. It’s simple, but it really does work.
Adding a doorstop to the door in your accommodation adds an extra bit of security in case someone has the key. Dressing appropriately for the culture is essential, and solo female travelers should never get too friendly with local men.
Avoid going out alone at night when possible, especially if you’re a woman. Don’t be distracted while walking alone on a street. Don’t wear headphones or have your head in a map or on your phone. That’s Traveling 101 for anybody, not just solo travelers.
Tips for Families Traveling Internationally
For families, one of the biggest concerns when traveling internationally (or even locally) is having good accommodations. Asher recommends a nice hotel. A solo traveler could handle needing to find a new place at 10pm, but when you have a baby or young children, you don’t want to be dealing with last-minute accommodation changes. In Asher’s experience, the best way to have a nice family vacation is to go to a nice resort and enjoy what’s there, avoiding most of the chaos of traveling around.
The other major consideration for families traveling is car seats. If you want to go anywhere safely, you have to bring them out of the hotel, put them in the taxi, take them out of the taxi, put them somewhere while you’re in the restaurant, amusement park, or wherever you’re going, and then do the same on the way back. It doesn’t mean you can’t ever leave the hotel, but it’s important to consider when planning your itinerary.
The Risks of Traveling with Airbnb
In 2017, Asher and his family—his wife and 10-month-old son—took a trip to Paris. They rented an Airbnb so they could have a kitchen and a spare bedroom. But when they arrived at their Airbnb, the entire place was filled with mold—the walls, the windows, and even the curtains.
Airbnb support wasn’t very helpful. Asher booked one night at a hotel, and tried to book a different Airbnb after that. When they got to that place, the guy asked for cash and then canceled the booking, leaving them with nowhere to stay and without that money. Airbnb said they couldn’t help because the transaction was off their platform, but recommended a different rental—hosted by the same person who just scammed them. He ended up at a nice hotel at a very steep price since the booking was last-minute.
Initially, Asher researched horror stories of Airbnb guests. Later, with some researchers from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, he helped analyze 127,000 Airbnb guest complaints. He found that customer service was a huge issue—72% of Twitter complaints were about customer service—and nearly a quarter of the complaints were about scams.
One of the big scams is called the Multiple Listing Scam, where someone lists the same property on multiple sites at multiple price points. If someone books on one site for a cheaper price and someone else books on another site for the more expensive price, they will cancel the cheaper booking and make more money—leaving the person with the cheaper booking with no accommodations. Other scams included misrepresenting the listing (for example, showing pictures of a gorgeous pool and when you arrive the pool is empty) or showing you a feature like a hot tub that actually costs extra on top of your nightly rate. Some people even reported their accounts being hacked and someone making bookings on their credit card. There were also reports of unsafe conditions, like mold and bug infestations. An article in Bloomberg discussed how Airbnb spent millions of dollars to bury these horror stories.
How to Use Airbnb Safely
Asher himself is very, very cautious about using Airbnb—he’s only used it once since his nightmare in Paris—but he does have some tips in case you need to use it for some reason.
His top tip for Airbnb is to never book a place with zero reviews. He looks for a minimum of fifty, but the more the better. Only stay at places with a 4.85-star review average or higher. Airbnb has a system where you review hosts and hosts also review you, so everyone tries to be nice to each other. If a review average is less than 4.85 stars, that means something went terribly wrong there multiple times, and it was bad enough that multiple people would risk receiving a bad review to report the issue.
Read every review carefully, almost like you’re in a murder mystery trying to read between the lines. There’s also a search feature where you can look for keywords. Asher’s favorite keyword to use is “but” to expose reviews that say things like “The place was beautiful but it was filled with cockroaches.”
Also check the host and see if they have multiple properties listed. If they do, read the reviews of all the properties. They may have a property with fake reviews to try and make them look good. Beware of “Airbnb landlords,” who tend to buy up entire apartment buildings and turn them into wannabe hotels and don’t tend to care as much about a bad customer experience here and there. If a price seems too good to be true, it probably is. A 10,000 square foot place with a luxury pool and a price of $250 per night should be suspicious. Asher recommends only using Super Hosts, which are supposed to be the most trustworthy. If nothing else, Super Hosts have provided a government ID to Airbnb, which makes it more likely that they’re at least a real person.
Asher’s Top Tip for International Travel
The one thing Asher says over and over again when it comes to traveling internationally is research. We have access to all sorts of knowledge at our fingertips with the internet. Find good blogs from real people, and check government websites for their travel advisories.
As a traveler, you are a target by default. Whether you’re a serious target, a mild target, or a friendly target, you have a target on your head as soon as you step off that plane onto a foreign country. Doing your research in advance, knowing what to expect, and knowing what your other options are if your plans have to change will help reduce that target.
Travel is all about experiencing new cultures and not worrying about everything that will go wrong, but instead enjoying what will likely go right.Asher Fergusson
And in most cases on most trips, everything will go just fine. Or at least, almost everything.
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