Theft, accidents, and plain ol’ bad luck can happen at any time when you’re traveling. These essential travel safety tips for digital nomads will help ensure that you and your most valuable gear are safe as you explore the world.
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I’ve got to be honest and say out of all the places I’ve been to since 2016, the one place in the world I’ve felt the most unsafe is my home town of Auckland. But that doesn’t mean I let my guard down when I travel.
Common sense goes a long way wherever you are. Avoid dark alleyways at night, say no to the green kool-aid, don’t take pierogi from strange men in creepy vans etc. But apart from that, there are a few things that can make your life of full-time travel a lot smoother.
Essential travel safety tips for digital nomads
These are my basic safety tips for digital nomads, and anyone that’s thinking of making the transition to a location independent lifestyle – based on my personal experiences from 6 years of full-time remote work and travel.
TRAVEL SAFETY TIPS: BEFORE YOU GO
Research countries and cities
Part of being a digital nomad is the excitement of heading into a new country or city. You’ll probably be doing a fair bit of Googling around cool things to do and places to visit as part of this.
But make sure your research also includes the current safety of the places you’re going to. Civil unrests can be common in some countries, and you don’t want to touch down in Oaxaca in the middle of a protest, or Medellin in the middle of a political uprising (which literally just happened, and no I don’t like firebombs).
Also do a quick search for common local tourists scams. These can include fake tours, fake tickets, diamond rings, fake police, and dodgy tuk-tuk drivers. There are usually popular scams in every country, and some of them are quite clever.
You can Google your destination for common scams, so if someone on the street randomly squirts tomato sauce on you, you’ll be prepared.
Make a copy of your passport
This is super helpful in a whole lot of situations. Hotel check in, shops, scooter rentals, and other bookings generally accept colour scans or photographs of your passport or drivers license.
In Colombia, they require your passport in store when you pay for stuff with a credit card, so having a picture handy on your phone is ideal, rather than the alternative of carrying your passport around. And if you lose your passport, you’ll have a digital backup until you can replace it.
Scan or photograph your passport, driver license, international driver license, insurance policy, and any other important travel documents, and keep them safe in a folder on your phone and laptop. You can send copies to family or a friend as a backup too.
Buy a quality backpack
Congrats – your backpack is now your new home. And like any home, it needs to be roomy, secure, and waterproof.
Buying a good backpack is one of the most important things you’ll do on your nomad journey. It’s worth every cent of what you spend, so make sure you do your research on the right pack for your needs/size. Buy the best pack that you can realistically afford, because you might be travelling with it for a long time!
Consider getting locks for your bag
Locking your bag is important for crowded situations where thieves might be at work. Take a careful look at your purse, backpack, and daypack, and consider whether people can easily get access to pockets, zips, and compartments without you noticing. I recommend you start with a TSA approved cable safety lock. This means that travel authorities at the airport wont cut your lock off to inspect your bags.
Anti-theft backpacks are also a great idea when you’re travelling, as the zippers are often concealed, and they have theft-proof pockets. This makes you a difficult target for thieves and pickpockets, so they’ll turn their attention to easier pickings.
Get travel insurance that covers your digital nomad lifestyle
I started travelling with an insurance company from my home country. But that only allowed me a maximum of 12 months travel before I had to return home again, renew it, and start over. Not ideal when you live in New Zealand (aka 35 Hours Flight From Anywhere).
Digital nomad specific insurance is starting to become a thing now, which is a huge benefit for permanent travellers. If you’re in two minds about spending the monthly fee on insurance, trust me, IT IS WORTH IT. I’ve used it twice – once for my airport bag theft, and once when I was in Bali and the erupting volcano cancelled my flights and grounded me for an extra week.
Insurance will cover you in the event of natural disasters, medical emergency, and theft. If you die, it will cover sending yourself home and funeral expenses. If one of your family dies, or becomes critically ill, it will also cover your emergency flights home. And if you lose an arm or a leg, you could get some sweet compensation in the form of cash (but don’t go out of your way to do that).
As always, check each company’s policies very carefully so you can compare their pricing and features before making your decision. You’ll also need to cover any expensive tech gear such as laptops and cameras separately.
Always tell someone where you’re going
As you move around the world, make sure at least one other person on the planet knows where you’ll be at any given time. Even if it’s a casual YO DAWG IMA BE IN CANCUN FRIDAY, I’LL HOLLA BACK FROM DA POOL AIIIIIGHT on Facebook – at least somebody will know where you were going if something unexpected happens to you.
If you’re a person that needs to feel more organized and set your family’s mind at rest about where the heck you are right now, email them a run down of your itinerary, flight and hotel details, travel insurance policy details, and what you’re planning on doing. That way if you go off grid in the wilderness for a few days, you won’t have an angry search and rescue team ruining your peace and quiet time.
Don’t travel with anything you can’t afford to lose
The life of a digital nomad means sacrificing a lot of comfort and sentimental items. Want to take Mr Bigglesworth, your childhood teddy with you? Or the ring your grandma gave you before she died? Or your dad’s vintage moustache curler?
Stuff goes missing when you travel. It’s just one of those inevitable things. So think twice about the precious items you want to take with you. If you’re pretty sure you might die if Mr Bigglesworth ever got lost, leave him somewhere safe back home.
Keep your valuables with you in transit
My tech gear is my life and livelihood. Literally. So if it gets stolen or goes missing, I am up sh*t creek without a paddle until I can replace it.
When I’m in buses, planes, trains, ferries, taxis or Ubers, my most important stuff is always with me in my daypack. This includes my passport, laptop, a bank card, and my tech accessories.
Basically anything you can not afford to lose should be physically on you when you’re moving from place to place.
TRAVEL SAFETY TIPS: DURING YOUR TRAVELS
Don’t stinge on your accommodation if it puts you at risk
People often mock me for my frugal spending habits as I travel (we call it “being stingey” in New Zealand). And yep, I can be pretty stingey, because saving money is one of my top priorities.
The one area I don’t stinge on is accommodation. I’m writing this blog from Medellin – which was once one of the most dangerous cities in the world. It still has bad areas, and there are cheap Airbnbs and accommodation in those neighbourhoods. I prefer not to have more chronic anxiety than I already do – so I’d rather pay more to stay in a good neighbourhood where I feel relatively safe.
If I’m seriously worried about the area I’m living in, I can’t sleep, work, or even enjoy being there. So the joy of being location independent goes right out the window. If you’re torn between a budget hostel in an area that feels dodgy, or a more expensive one in a nice area – go with your gut and spend the extra cash.
Be vigilant with your cash and credit cards
This is technically number one in my list of travel safety tips for digital nomads, and for travellers in general.
It’s smart to carry multiple bank cards when you travel. Debit cards such as Wise or Revolut can be easily locked from an app or replaced if they get lost. I merrily leave cards in ATMs on the regular when I’m tired, stressed, or in a rush, so I’m really glad these new cards exist for nomads.
I make sure to only transfer what I need for a day out onto my Wise debit card. This means I can get cash out and pay for stuff during the day, but if it gets skimmed or stolen, I only lose a small amount and not my entire life savings.
When I’m not using my card, I toggle off all the payment functions on the app so it becomes unusable to strangers. It’s a little paranoid, I know, but I’ve had two instances where I lost my card and somebody tried to run them online and at a store for thousands of dollars.
Make sure your cards and cash are always spread around your main backpack, daypack, and on yourself. This means if one of your cards or bags get stolen, you’ll still have a way to access cash. We currently carry (let me count) – 8 credit and debit cards between us. Which should be plenty as long as I don’t use any of them in an ATM after a 10 hour+ flight…
Be careful using ATMs
I always try to use the cash machines inside banks, supermarkets, or malls if possible. Somewhere with more security, and cameras gives you a bit more peace of mind when it’s time to get cash out. As nomads, we’re often charged high bank fees, so to avoid that, it makes sense to take more cash out at once. This means we can be a bit of a moving target for ATM sneak thieves.
Street ATMs can often have skimming devices on them, together with professionals lurking around waiting to catch a glimpse of your card PIN as you’re typing it in. Always check that there’s nothing odd-looking in the ATM card slot before you insert your card. And make sure nobody is standing a little too close to you when you’re making a transaction. Card skimming technology is getting smarter, and people don’t need your physical card anymore to access your money.
Be cautious about using your phone in public
Crowded tourist spots, bustling markets, and busy streets can be some of the best places to get those Insta-worthy shots. But they also make you a prime target for thieves.
I’ve seen these guys in action in Barcelona. The lady standing right next to me pulled her (nice, new, fancy, shiny, gold) phone out of her purse and lifted it up to take a photo of a building. What I can only describe as a human blur occurred and she was left standing with her hand in a phone shape – but her phone was no longer there. It was kinda impressive. But also very sucky. She was devastated, as her entire holiday memories were now speeding down the back streets of Barcelona – unlikely to be seen again.
If you need to use your phone, make sure you’re discreet about it, and keep it safely tucked away when it’s not in use. Alternatively, you can buy a cheap burner phone to take out with you at night or to busy places, so it won’t matter if it gets stolen.
Try not to look like a wealthy tourist
Tourists tend to stand out for miles in a city due to their regulation tourist clothing, giant cameras, selfie sticks, and shiny bling. As a nomad, it’s a good skill to be able to fly under the radar wherever you go to draw less attention to yourself.
Ditch the flashy jewellery, watches, and high-end branded gear in favour of clothes and accessories that won’t be coveted quite so much by would-be thieves. When you’re overseas, some vendors will also try to charge you more if you look like you can afford it, so it can be beneficial on many levels to look a little less fancy when you’re moving around.
Be (a little) wary of new friends
99% of the people you meet when you travel are awesome. But keep that cynical inner voice handy for the other 1%.
Strangely over-friendly people you just met might send up some red flags in the back of your mind. Don’t ignore those. There are skilled scam artists out there waiting for the unwary traveller – so don’t let that be you. Avoid talking about money, details on where you’re staying, or showing a brand new friend that new Macbook Pro you just bought.
We chatted to a couple in Cancun that seemed nice enough, but very soon they wanted to Paypal me some money, and then have me Paypal it back to them because of something-or-other-that-was-really-complicated. Stuff like that is a NOPE. So walk away.
This is mostly a cautionary point to make you aware of what some people are up to, so don’t let it freak you out too much. Take your street smarts with you on your travels, and go out and meet new people and have fun!
Don’t leave your drink unattended
Apart from strangers drinking your unattended beverage in places like Norway, where it costs about $50,000 for one beer – it’s dangerous to leave your drink alone on a table, even briefly. Drink spiking is universal everywhere.
In Medellin, it’s a common tactic for some women to spike men’s drinks so they can steal money, phones, and credit cards when they pass out. So don’t think this is a women-only problem.
Always stay with your drink, and avoid taking free drinks from strangers too – unless you can clearly see it being opened, mixed, or poured.
Watch what you eat and drink in new places
Giardia in Costa Rica. Angry stomach parasites in Chiapas. The Pharaohs Revenge in Egypt. Travel is fun! Diarrhea and vomiting, not so much.
Do your homework on what you should and shouldn’t eat in every new city, and your intestinal system will thank you. Your partner will thank you too. And whoever is staying in the next room.
In many cities, you can’t drink the tap water. And if any tap water should splash onto that salad you’re eating, or the fruit you just grabbed from the markets – there could be a lot of squirty unpleasantness in your future.
Apart from that – please try the street food! I see so many forums telling travellers not to touch it, but honestly, touristy restaurant food can be equally as dodgy. Street food is the beating heart of every country, and it’s as delicious as hell.
My rule of thumb is to only eat at food stalls that have a good turnover of other people eating there. If there are two carts or stalls next to each other selling the same thing – and one has a queue, while the other doesn’t – there’s a reason for that. Always go for the street food that has a good local fan base.
Make your health a priority
Getting sick means you can’t work at an optimal level (or at all). And no work = no income for digital nomads.
Health should be a #1 priority for you. Make sure you have an necessary shots and vaccinations before you land in a new country. Check on the CDC website to see which vaccines are recommended or mandatory for the places you’re intending to travel to.
Dengue fever and other mosquito-borne illnesses are common all over the world, and many of these have no vaccine – you just need to be vigilant about not getting bitten.
Outside of getting ill, make sure you factor in plenty of sleep, nutritious food, relaxation time, and exercise into your daily schedule to make sure your brain and body stay at peak performance levels.
Keep one eye on your bag
Watching your belongings all the time is a massive pain in the butt, especially when you want to have a relaxing swim at the beach, chill out at a bar, casually throw your bag down at a cafe, and suchlike. When you’re out, you’ll typically have your phone, credit card, and cash with you. You might also have keys to your hotel or Airbnb, sunglasses, and other stuff that you don’t really want to lose.
But thieves around the world are watching, and like I said – they are fast. That’s how they make a living, and they’re pretty good at it. They often work in teams or families, so once something is snatched, it will be quickly passed to the next person until it’s out of sight.
The only time I’ve had a bag stolen was at a small airport while I was waiting for my flight. I had my arm looped through the strap, but took it out momentarily and turned away for like 5 seconds, and when I turned back, the bag had gone. It had my passport and plane ticket in it, along with bank cards, cash, clothing, and my iPad. So let’s just say I wasn’t going anywhere on that day 😒
You can avoid theft like this by always staying vigilant about your bag, wallet, and the contents of your pockets when you’re in a crowd or on busy streets or public transport. Always keep a firm hold of your bag, or loop it around something like a chair leg, your own leg, or use an anti-theft backpack to give you more peace of mind.
Wear a helmet
If you’re hiring a bike or a scooter to explore a new city, always always alwaaaaaays wear a helmet when you ride.
I’ve seen many upsetting accidents involving cyclists and scooter drivers, and the ones that weren’t wearing a helmet….yeah…not such a great outcome.
Helmets not only give you a better shot at surviving if you mess up on the road, but also if another driver unexpectedly runs into you. Traffic and drivers can be super crazy in certain places in the world (looking at you Colombia and Mexico), so take the necessary precautions and stay as safe as possible by wearing a helmet.
Tip: DO NOT, FOR ANY REASON, SMELL THE INSIDE OF YOUR RENTAL HELMET 🤮
TRAVEL SAFETY TIPS: TAKING CARE OF YOUR TECH
I’m including this in my list of travel safety tips for digital nomads, because tech is literally going to be your livelihood once you’re on the road. So you need to ensure you can do you work, get paid, go out, and repeat – without any hassles.
Use a mobile hotspot
When you’re a digital nomad you’ll need to make sure you can always get fast access to the internet from wherever you are, whenever you need it, because during your travels – you still have work to take care of (sad trumpet sound).
With a mobile hotspot you can cast a wireless signal for other devices to connect to when you’re on the move – such as your phone or laptop. You can then connect your device the exact same way you’d connect to any other wifi. So if you get stuck with less than ideal internet at your hotel or Airbnb, you’ll always have a backup plan.
Keep your laptop secure with a VPN
Data security isn’t something I worried too much about until I went to the Running Remote conference in Bali. I listened to an expert giving advice on travel safety tips for digital nomads – with specific advice around cybersecurity. That was an eye opener.
Turns out it’s really easy for people to sneak around inside your laptop and get personal information, passwords, bank details, details on the clients you work with, and a ton of other stuff – without you realizing it.
While we enjoy the benefits of getting free wifi everywhere, digital thieves are enjoying it right alongside us. That’s why it’s important to use a VPN where you’re on a public or weak security network.
A VPN is a virtual private network that gives you online privacy and anonymity by creating a private network from any public internet connection. This essentially means that when it’s switched on, nobody else can access your laptop remotely.
There’s also a handy upside to using a VPN. When you travel, you might notice that certain websites are blocked in your country. For example, in Cuba there are over 1,000 websites that you can’t access, including news and media sites, cultural and religious websites, and popular communication tools like Skype. With a VPN, you’ll be able to skirt around these website blocks and access these pages like normal.
Back up your data
Now that your data is safe, it’s time to think about backups. The two main options are external hard drives, or cloud backup software. There are pros and cons for each of these, but they’re so affordable you could easily get both.
External hard drives and flash disks are what most people use. The obvious downside is that they can get corrupted or damaged during travel, and you can lose them – which means losing your data too. But they’re also small, light, and you don’t have to pay ongoing monthly fees for your backups. My choice is to use a flash drive, mainly to protect the eleventy billion photos that are on my laptop. I recommend the SanDisk 128GB memory card, and Seagate portable 2TB hard drive.
Buy a GPS tracking device
Last, but not least in this guide to travel safety tips for digital nomads, is a GPS tracker.
Your phone probably has has a pretty decent GPS built into it, which will serve you well in most cases. But if you’re concerned about getting lost in the mountains or kidnapped in cartel country, a dedicated GPS tracker might be a good investment for peace of mind. You can buy these for your luggage, your daypack, or to slip into your pocket – which makes you and your belongings easily findable from anywhere in the world.
GPS luggage trackers are kind of fun, because you can hide them in your gear and see where your checked in bags are at all times. Why are you in Tokyo…but your backpack is in Istanbul? Who knows! But at least you can see where it is.
And that wraps up my list of travel safety tips for nomads
The news and social media is full of travellers and nomads getting mugged, scammed, and drugged every week. But your news back home is probably the same. For all those news stories, there are thousands of other people who never have any issues with travel. So don’t let that deter you from a nomadic lifestyle!
All of these travel safety tips for digital nomads come from over 6 years of full-time travel. I hope they’ll help open your eyes to a few things you may not have thought of, and help you prepare for an exciting (and trouble free) nomad adventure 🙂
Any basic travel safety tips for digital nomads that I’ve missed, or that you personally recommend when travelling? Let me know in the comments!
Rachael is a full-time digital nomad and freelance copywriter for B2B and SaaS companies. She’s worked with brands like Unbounce, Biteable, Datacom, Viddyoze, and Owler.
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