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Five Gap Year Safety Tips

There is one question I get asked on a daily basis, ‘what can I do to avoid danger on my trip’ or a variant there of. If I could answer this in one or two paragraphs, I would copyright it tomorrow and retire…

The challenges which face travellers to almost any part of the world are so diverse, that even during our one day safety course I always wish we had twice as much time.

It is essential to adequately prepare during the planning stages for any trip and to consider the particular challenges at your planned destination(s), but there are some common rules which apply:

  1. Lower your profile and blend in – Blending in does not mean ‘going local’; don’t dress-up like a Maasai warrior, this will only make you stand out more. Lowering your profile is all about looking and acting confidently, you are always going to look like a tourist to local people, the key is not to look like the rich tourist new in country; the first 3 days in a new location are when you are at your most vulnerable. Make sure your backpack doesn’t look like it just came out it’s plastic wrapper for the first time that day, don’t display expensive (branded) clothing, expensive jewellery, cameras, phones, ipods, laptops or any other sign of overt wealth. There is a target on you as soon as you arrive in a new country, make sure that target is smaller on you than the next tourist…
  2. Respect – A word much misused in the UK, still has great meaning in much of the rest of the world and it is still the case that showing respect, gains you respect. ‘Respect’ offers you protection in many countries and being ‘disrespectful’ can place you at significantly more risk. Learn a little about local culture and defer to it, even if you don’t agree with it in principle; remember you are a visitor and a guest. Dress appropriately, cover up, avoid clothing with offensive / political slogans / military symbolism and observe local gender roles.
  3. Travel Health & Travel Insurance – Visit your GP or travel clinic up to 8 weeks prior to travel as some vaccination courses take 6 weeks or more to be effective. Do your own research so you know what questions to ask your GP; it’s never a bad thing to visit your GP before you go to a travel clinic as some vaccinations are free on the NHS. Travel insurance is a must, get adequate insurance for the activities you intend to take part in and the countries you intend to visit; the cheapest is almost never the best when it comes to insurance.
  4. Stay Clean / Stay Healthy – Vaccination and prophylactic drugs are just the starting point when it comes to travel health. When you travel make an extra effort to stay clean and healthy, wash hands vigorously more often than you usually would at home, keep your nails short, use antibacterial soap and avoid cross contamination between you and your food. Eating piping hot ‘local foods’ tends to be safer than westernised dishes (whose ingredients local chefs are often unfamiliar cooking with) and never use wet or damp eating utensils; often food is prepared in a safe manner, but the eating utensils are cleaned in contaminated water.
  5. Be Confident – This is probably one of the most important steps you can take to reduce your exposure to risk. If you look confident, people are less likely to see you as a target. Being confident also means making sensible decisions and sticking with them, not bowing to the considerable peer pressure (which if you do makes you look vulnerable) you might face from locals and fellow travellers alike. For example if you are being driven in a car or taxi and you feel unsafe because of the speed, don’t just hope for the best, say something or get out. It is your money paying for the ride, that means you are in-charge and they will do what you demand or not get paid. Sometimes it is just a misunderstanding, for example in some countries taxi drivers drive more quickly when they have tourists onboard, as they assume they are always in a hurry.

Source – Peter Mayhew is the Managing Director of Safe Gap Year who deliver Gap Year Safety Courses and provide expert advice on all issues of travel safety.

Date – 10th June 2011


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