For the 50+ Traveler

As a full-time traveler who has visited 30 countries in the past 27 months, I can attest that even seasoned travelers need to stay aware.

We are in our third year of full-time traveling through Europe by motorhome. During this time, we’ve never had any cause for concern. We take the usual precautions for keeping our motorhome, and ourselves inside, safe at all times. But during a recent visit to Poland, my husband and I had a scary experience that saw us implement our pre-planned tips for personal safety.

Note: Poland has one of the lowest crime rates of all European countries and was in fact a country we felt very safe in during our eight-week visit. As a comparison, you are 68 percent more likely to experience crime in the U.S. than in Poland.

Here’s What Happened

My husband had his camera around his neck and a tripod in his hand. We were on a night-time photo crusade hoping to snap that once-in-a-lifetime evening photo.

As we were heading back toward our motorhome, I realized we had picked up a shadow. We changed direction; the stranger followed. He moved closer and we decided to split up. I watched as the stranger followed my husband.

My husband pointed at him, yelling "Go away, leave us alone, stop following us!” However, the man continued following unperturbed even though people had started to gather and were watching the scene play out.

As he approached my husband, I pulled out my iPhone and started photographing and videoing him. I’d learned that the possibility of being caught on camera can be a good deterrent. It worked and he left.

Thankfully, there was no harm done. However, our experience was a good reminder that it is important to know -- and be ready to implement -- personal safety tips before traveling abroad.

Nighttime in Poland.
Ruth Murdoch

1. Become A Chameleon

There are certain signs that tell the world you are a traveler. For us, it was the camera and tripod. Usually, it’s the way you dress. Shoes, in particular, can give you away when you’re traveling. Then of course there’s your accent and the language you speak.

An exercise we like to try: Sit down outside a busy cafe and see how many fellow travelers you can spot. Then work out what gives them away and indicates they aren’t locals.

Think about what you can do to become like a chameleon, and start blending in with your surroundings.

Also, put the map or cell phone away and walk with purpose -- like you know exactly where you are going. That’s how the locals do it.

2. Don’t Flaunt Your Valuables

Before leaving your accommodations, think about what you are carrying. Perhaps you can leave some things behind in your hotel. Consider limiting the amount of cash you are carrying.

If a handbag isn’t your thing and you prefer the hands-free feeling of a backpack, give some thought to investing in one that’s anti-theft.

Also be aware of how you carry and display your valuables. Cameras ought to be hidden out of sight, flashy jewelry shouldn’t be on display, and money and credit cards must be kept secure. Invest in a camera bag: Take your camera out only when necessary.

Wear costume jewelry while traveling, leaving your expensive pieces at home. Also, use a money belt or pouch around your neck, and reach for it only after surveying your surroundings. Try not to access your money in environments where prying eyes could be watching.

3. Sip Safely

One of the joys of traveling is enjoying the nightlife. That could be a meal out with your partner, dancing at a nightclub, or a few quiet drinks in the park with friends while watching the sun go down. Having a wee tipple should not stop you enjoying your travel destination.

Keep your drinking to a safe level and ensure that you have a responsible person with you who remains sober. Never drink to the point of inebriation when you are out in public; it could make you a target.

4. Pack Sacrificial Offerings

As a traveler, you will want to go shopping.

Buy a cheap wallet that holds small coins and a few notes only, plus a sacrificial, expired, or unused credit card. In traveler terms, it’s called a mugger’s wallet. It’s a fake: a decoy to limit your exposure that you can, reluctantly, give up without ruining your holiday. Use this wallet to buy small items in busy, open-air travel spots.

If it’s taken, you won’t have lost too much, and odds are your assailant will happily continue on their way.

5. Stay Alert

Being alert is the essential ingredient to keeping yourself safe while traveling. This awareness starts even before you leave your hotel. Decide where you are going, and plan what you will carry with you.

Consciously practice being aware of your surroundings. Are people walking too close or taking too much interest in you? Could groups of people pose a threat, or are you in a location that’s unlit or isolated?

Sometimes you may find yourself in an area that feels uncomfortable simply by mistake. You may have inadvertently taken a wrong turn.

To protect your personal safety, keep alert and aware. This could prevent you from ending up in a compromising location or situation. However, should that happen, your alert state will have you ready to react appropriately if you need to.

A ferris wheel in Poland.
Ruth Murdoch

6. Be Prepared For Change

If you feel there is someone following you, do not be afraid to change direction away from your intended route. After all, you can always get back on track later, once you are sure the danger has passed. If you are still being followed in your new direction but think it could be a coincidence, change direction again, and again, if need be. You will soon know whether or not you have attracted unwanted attention.

7. Plan Your Exit Route

As you tune into your surroundings, you’ll become increasingly aware of what’s going on when you wander around. You will know what shop or bar is open, where people are gathering, or what house had its light on. Maybe you saw someone sitting in a car who smiled as you passed, or you talked to the stranger walking their dog.

Any of those places or people can become your sanctuary. Make the most of those options by walking quickly toward your safe space the moment you feel threatened.

8. Beware Of Stranger Danger

So your alertness has kicked in, you have changed direction, you have a pre-planned exit, but a stranger keeps approaching.

This is when you kick it up a notch.

From a safe distance, turn and look at this person in the eyes. Stand your ground, point your finger directly at the perpetrator and start yelling as loud as you can.

Have a pre-planned script ready to go in your mind. Something like “Stop following me, leave me alone!” Put on the angriest, deepest, and loudest voice that you can possibly muster.

At this point, you have made your awareness known and you’ve mitigated the element of surprise. That is enough for most people to walk away and leave you to get on with your day.

9. Snap, You’re On Camera

If none of these efforts have had their desired result, this next tip has proven itself time and time again and will rid you of unwelcome attention.

No one wants their photo taken by a stranger, and this goes double for someone with unscrupulous intentions.

Pull out your phone and take a photo, or better, a video of the aggressor. The zoom feature on phone cameras comes in handy here to help you maintain a safe range.

Don’t worry if your phone battery is dead or if your phone doesn’t take photos at all. The other party doesn’t know that; just keep going through the motions as though you are taking their photo. These actions are often enough to transform your situation from one of danger to one of safety.

10. Words And Numbers To Save You

It can be tricky when visiting countries where English isn’t the first language, but it doesn’t take a lot to think about and learn just two words. These could be the most important words to keep you safe when traveling.

They are simply help and police. Use Google Translate to learn how to pronounce these two modest words in the local language, and use them if you feel threatened.

Where your personal safety is concerned, there’s only one phone number you need to know when traveling through Europe. The number is 112. This number is the universal phone number for the police and can be dialed, free of charge, in 50 countries throughout Europe.

Please don’t let this experience put you off visiting Poland, or any other European country for that matter. This situation could happen in your own city. Stay aware and learn and follow our top 10 travel tips for personal safety when traveling. Then prepare to enjoy trouble-free, safe, and happy travels.

Also, don’t be fooled again: Here’s how to avoid getting ripped off abroad.