Personal safety is a prime concern for women on the road, and this collection of tips and wisdom gives women the tools they need to be secure, confident travelers. Authors and world travelers Sheila Swan and Peter Laufer help lay to rest fears and provide guidance for women to travel securely anywhere in the world. This book includes helpful and entertaining anecdotes from other women.
—Francis Galton, Art of Travel (1872)
No woman needs go to such extremes today.
Las Vegas, winter. As usual, I was writing late at night while Peter dreamed; he writes in the morning while I sleep. The hotel was at the end of the strip, almost out of town—an adequate low-cost place. Outside the room, I sat in the corridor rewriting the notes I took during the day.
My bones were cold, sitting in the unheated hall. I kept my long purple wool coat on, a black angora beret on my head, and thick socks under my thin leather boots. With a drink from the bar, I was lost in my thoughts.
Security guards periodically walked back and forth, squawking on their walkie-talkies. This was Las Vegas—house security was in evidence even far from the famous casinos. I tried not to let them intrude on my work, but it was difficult, their radios were noisy.
“A woman,” one of them said.
I continued to write.
Soon there were two security men huddled down the hallway.
“Send a female,” I couldn’t help but hear one of them request over his radio. Now I was a little interested in what trouble they were experiencing. A rowdy perhaps, down the hall, on the casino floor? I began to write down what was developing around me for some future story.
Suddenly the two guards and a woman surrounded me, hovering over me. The woman looked menacing and her voice was demanding.
“What are you doing here?”
“Writing,” I said, looking now to see if they carry guns. “Why? What’s wrong? What’s going on here?”
“That’s what we want to know,” she barked back at me. “Are you a guest here?”
I said yes and began searching in my coat pocket for the key-card—just a strip of plastic with holes in it and no identifying hotel name or room number.
“What room are you in?” asked the demanding woman in a threatening voice. She, too, was in a hotel security guard’s uniform.
“It’s around the corner. I don’t know the number.”
“Don’t move,” she said. “What’s your name?” The three of them stood over me like the guards they were.
“Sheila Swan,” I said. “Sheila Swan Laufer. Look, whatever is wrong here, we can clear right up. I’ll just go over to the room. My husband is in there.”
“Don’t move,” was her response. One of the men was talking back and forth into his radio, saying my name. Irritation was combining with my surprise and initial confusion.
“I’m a guest in this hotel,” I said. “Whatever is going on here is ridiculous…”
“We’ll decide about that,” the pushy woman interrupted me. “Stay put.”
The guard talking on the radio looked up at the woman and reported, “No Lanfer here, no Swan.”
“No, it’s L-A-U-F like Frank E-R,” I said. “Peter and Sheila. Just go around the corner, first door on the left. He will be asleep, but he will answer. Please.” I’m not sure if it was the cold or the encounter, but I realized I was shivering, shaking.
“We don’t disturb our guests.”
“I’m a guest,” I insisted. “Just go over there.”
I sat there thinking and watching them. What if the computer failed? No Laufer would come up on their screen. Would I be jailed for vagrancy or trespassing, or just thrown out of the hotel? At least if I were just thrown out I could call Peter from a pay phone. For the first time in my adult life I felt completely trapped.
Now years later, as Peter and I finish this safety and security guide for women travelers, that Las Vegas encounter came back to me vividly, as a reminder that—especially for women—trouble on the road can come in the most unexpected places and from those strangers you tend not to regard with suspicion. In these pages we deal with all sorts of threats women face on the road: from foreign customs and prejudices, to potential rapists and robbers, from specific health and hygiene needs to the vagaries of dating fellow travelers. And while awareness of risk is important, equally important is the attitude you bring to it, and your own honest assessment of yourself as a traveler—strengths and weaknesses, nightmares and desires, past experiences, and dreams for the future. Safety and security are affected by real outside circumstances, but they can also be powerfully affected by your state of mind.
We hope this book will help women travelers find an important delicate balance: enough consciousness about safety and security to help you get home healthy and happy without raising your anxiety level so that the journey becomes an exercise in paranoia and avoidance of those things that make travel so rewarding, the unexpected, the new, the serendipitous.
The Las Vegas guard’s walkie-talkie squawked again with the message, “Yes. Laufer. Room 1221.”
“Oh. Are you Mrs. Laufer?” asked my captor. “Can you please show us your key? We’ll take you to your room.”
“I don’t need an escort.” I was angry.
Nonetheless the three of them followed me as I walked to the room and pushed the strip of plastic into the door.
“You understand, Mrs. Laufer, it is for your security that we make sure everything is safe here in our hotel.”
I shut the door, hard.
On the other hand, they were just doing their jobs, no malice intended; all the more reason for the experience to serve as a reminder to me of the tenuous nature of safety and security on the road.
A Bell Telephone System advertisement from the early 1950s quotes from a Reader’s Digeststory, “I was driving along a country road with four other women as my guests when a tire went flat. My heart sank with it, for my tire-changing experience was nil and the road was empty of aid. Pulling to the side, I hunted out the tools, remarking as I did so, ‘Not a man in sight, of course. What we need is an angel from heaven!’ Imagine our astonishment when a cheery voice from above our heads said, ‘I’ll be down in a minute, lady.’ Unknowingly, I had stopped beside a telephone pole at the top of which sat our angel—a line repairman.”
Of course even in the liberated twenty-first century most of us would still enjoy help with a flat tire, even if we’re tattooed with Rosie the Riveter and “We Can Do It” on our biceps. Why not? But the world awaits us with and without help, and plenty of us enjoy traveling alone. This book is designed to help make your trips, as one of my best friends and I say to each other, filled with days of smooth sailing.
The advice in these pages offers specific and tested tactics and techniques to help you travel safely and securely. In all aspects of travel there is an element of danger and the information in this book will help you assess and reduce the risks to your own personal comfort level. However, there is no substitute—and never will be—for your own awareness and instinct supported by on-the-spot observation and information gleaned from locals.
Before You Leave
Money and Scams
Dealing with Officials
Choosing Itineraries and Companions
Finding Your Scene
Encounters with Strangers
When a Threat is Real
If You Become a Victim
Using the Internet
Risk and Reward
Resources and References
Index of Contributors
Safety and security means taking care of yourself in all ways.
Being aware and careful is valuable protection
no matter where you go.
Before You Leave
- Pack a destination-specific medicine cabinet. Much of what we purchase over the counter can be difficult if not impossible to find once on the road.
- Make sure you do not pack more than you can carry comfortably for long distances. You never want to be forced to compromise your safety because your belongings are too heavy or awkward to lug by yourself.
- Photocopy credit cards, and ATM cards as well as passports, visas and any requisite health certificates and store separate from the originals. This will make on the road replacement quicker and easier and make it faster to notify the companies if your cards are lost or stolen so that you will not be responsible for any fraudulent charges.
- Use luggage tags that close over your name and address-hiding them from the view of would-be thieves and con artists.
- Leave a key to your house with family members, trusted friends, or neighbors. You may need them to go in and check on something while you’re gone. And, if you lose your own keys during the trip, you won’t end up locked out of your own house.
- Tear your name and address off any magazines you bring from home to read en route.
- Remember the buddy system. Even if you are traveling alone, you’ll find opportunities to meet temporary buddies.
- Choose your traveling garb carefully-not too revealing, unless you want to court random romantic attention. Make sure it’s comfortable for long flights and easy to release in cramped airplane toilet facilities. Shun logo tee-shirts as they make it easy for hustlers to make an approach that can catch you off guard.
- At the airport and at borders, seek out other women (particularly Western tourists) coming out of the country you’re headed for. Ask them for advice. Most women are happy to share information and knowledge, and these women are ideal primary sources.
- Even if you are lost, don’t look lost. Carry yourself as if you know what you are doing and where you are going.
Money & Scams
- Stand close when punching in your PIN or calling card number. Thieves work public places with binoculars.
- Stash your U.S. money and your foreign money in two different places in your purse so that when you reach for the local money no one sees a stack of valuable and attractive U.S. bills. The separation also makes it easier for you to differentiate between the values of the two currencies.
- Avoid the black currency market. Exchanging money illegally can land you in a dangerous foreign prison for years, or you can be swindled by a cheating money changer and end up with out of circulation and worthless foreign currency.
- When you go out, always carry enough cash for at least one direction of bus or cab fare and enough to make a phone call. It is also wise to carry a pre-paid phone card.
- Lock the car doors when you get in the car as well as when you get out of the car. It’s always more difficult to get someone out of your car once they’re in than to keep them out to begin with.
- Lower your tourist profile at gas and food stops. Hide guidebooks and maps under a local newspaper, or make a book cover for your guidebook from that same paper newspaper.
- Carjackers often operate in pairs. They are often armed and approach from both sides of the car when you are parked or stopped. Your best chance of survival (assuming you can’t escape with the car) is to hand over the car immediately, and run.
- There are thousands of highway crimes in the United States. Rest stops at night are particularly dangerous for single women. A cellular phone that is both visible and within easy reach is a good crime deterrent.
Dealing with Officials
- Take a moment to assess any order from an authority figure. Remember that some will be using their badge of office to try to take advantage of you and will consider you especially vulnerable because you are a foreigner and a woman. Try to be as matter of fact as possible and give yourself an air of importance that puts you on an equal footing.
- Your appearance can instigate unnecessary interactions with authorities. Dress and act conservatively.
- Expect, in some developing countries, that some rogue policemen may offer to drop serious charges against you for sexual favors. Take your chances with their criminal justice system-refuse politely but firmly-and face the charges.
- Try to manipulate where you pull over if a police car signals you to stop. Seek a locale with plenty of light and action such as a busy street corner or a gas station.
- Register in hotels with your last name and first initial. Do not advertise your gender with a Miss, Mrs., or Ms. title.
- Carry a business card from your hotel. That way, if you get lost you can show it to a police officer or taxi driver who can help you get back.
- Make a personal connection with the desk clerk or concierge. They are instant access to the local culture, and for the asking, you’ll find them eager to share suggestions, favorite sites and restaurants, as well as survival tips.
- Avoid spreading your clothes, toiletries, and belongings completely throughout the room. That way, if something goes wrong and you decide to leave quickly and ahead of schedule, you won’t be slowed down trying to find a journal or stray shoe.
- Check to make sure your prescriptions are properly filled.
- Know some of the warning signs that you may have picked up a parasite: diarrhea, constipation, joint and muscle aches, insomnia, teeth grinding, etc.
- Carry an extra pair of eyeglasses and a copy of your eyeglass prescription.
- Call the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers (716-754-4883) for a list of English-speaking doctors worldwide. They can also be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website.
- Your period may come unexpectedly and you ought to be equipped with enough tampons and pads to last through at least on entire period.
- Walk and act with a sense of confidence and purpose.
- Keep track of yourself and your belongings, especially in tourist-filled public places where one crook working in concert with another can distract you while the other lifts your valuables.
- You are not welcome everywhere. In some cases there will be no specific rules, regulations, or signs instructing you to stay out. You must see and sense the exclusion.
- Dress down, but not sloppy. Fancy clothing draws hustlers who figure the expensive attire must mean there is more of value available with a little effort.
- Don’t generalize; learn the specific subtleties of the region where you’re traveling. Islamic culture, for example, differs greatly from one country to another. You can’t go wrong in any Moslem country by dressing modestly in loose-fitting clothing that covers your arms and legs.
Finding Your Scene
- Try to stay at one hotel for a few days at a time. You’ll begin to make connections with people so that you’ll develop a comfort zone for the city where you’re staying.
- Pick a café near your hotel and take your coffee or tea there every morning. Stop by again for an afternoon break each day. In a day or two you will be recognized by the staff. You can get to know them, learn about them and their locale, and create a sense of belonging for yourself, so that if at some point you should need assistance, you are both familiar and credible to these folks.
- Your regular café also gives you an opportunity to leisurely observe the local women. From watching them you can quickly learn what passes for appropriate behavior, from clothing to public interaction with men.
- Take along your own interests and hobbies, be it weaving, birdwatching, etc. and find individuals and clubs who are engaged in the same activities. These connections can provide an introduction to homes and experiences in a safe environment.
Encounters with Strangers
- Most importantly, feel secure with your intuition. If you think you can read people well, don’t second guess yourself.
- If you are at a bar drinking with anyone you do not know well, keep an eye and a hand on your glass. Rophynol (also known as the “date rape drug”) and other colorless, odorless, and tasteless tranquilizers can be slipped into your drink. It is also advised not to accept glasses of punch at parties where you don’t know the host well.
- If you expect sex during your travels, remember that, depending on your destination, condoms may not be easily available. Some countries offer no condoms while others may be substandard for protection against sexually transmitted diseases. Check the expiration dates on packages and look for condoms that meet international standards and are so labeled with the code ISO 4074-1:1990.
- A good device to keep a new date from feeling that he can expect something from you is to insist on paying your own tab.
- Persistent unwanted advances usually will stop if you really ignore the person after once, and only once, saying no. The important part is not to respond. Do not be reluctant to reject anyone who seems threatening or pushy.
When a Threat is Real
- Guns, and even mace, are illegal in many destinations. There are other methods for self protection, such as learning a martial art. Remember that if you carry a weapon, it could be turned against you.
- Prepare yourself for the worst. Consider a rehearsal, in your mind or with friends and learn how you would react to a gun in your face or a knife in your throat. Many communities offer survival courses which include simulated danger, judging body language, and even weapons training.
- Noise is effective. Practice screaming before you leave home, and do not be afraid to make a scene. Loud whistles are another effective tool for scaring attackers and summoning aid. Make sure you can grab it easily and don’t have to dig it out from the bottom of your purse or backpack. Time is of the essence.
- If you are attacked, run away.
- If you are attacked and decide to fight back, do everything you can to hurt your assailant. If possible, tear your attacker’s clothing and other possessions to mark him for later police identification. Above all, make noise, lots of excruciatingly loud noise.
- Know your strengths and weaknesses. If you appear vulnerable to predators, you are more likely to be victimized.
- Elevators can be a vulnerable locale for a woman alone. If the door opens on a floor before yours and someone gets in who makes you feel uncomfortable, do not hesitate to get out. Similarly, do not get into an elevator if the passengers already inside seem at first glance like the wrong crowd. There’s almost always an emergency button to ring.
- Be wary about riding alone in train compartments, especially at night. At the same time, balance that concern by choosing your compartment companions with care. This requires snap decisions based on appearances, another reminder that your instincts are often your best protection.
- The U.S. State Department lists countries it considers dangerous for U.S. citizens and it is well worth checking with them to hear their latest warnings. These advisories are quite specific and could either help you government may advance you enough money to return home.
- The best advice under most circumstances is to try to generate publicity about your predicament if you are facing some sort of criminal prosecution abroad. Most foreign governments do not want to generate worldwide negative publicity about their country and its policies, especially if tourism, as is increasingly the case, is important to their economics.
- Within the U.S., your AAA or other automobile club card may be used instead of bail in many jurisdictions. Check with your club for details of what they offer where.
Sheila Swan Laufer has been traveling the world for fun and business since the 1960s. From camping in Latin America to luxury resorts in the Old World, from long-distance buses across the American South to first-class airliner seats five miles high, from quaint pensions on the Iberian Peninsula to five-star hotels in Oceana, she has experienced the extremes travel offers–taking notes all along the way.
Peter Laufer is an award-winning journalist whose career has taken him to many of the world’s most dangerous destinations. While researching his book Nightmare Abroad, he traveled around the world, stopping in twenty-one countries, interviewing Americans locked up in foreign prisons. Another of his books, Iron Curtain Rising, recounts his journey through Eastern Europe during the revolutions of 1989-1990.