How To Deal With Sketchy Situations & Unsavory Characters While Traveling

In This Post: What to do when you find yourself in a not-so-secure feeling spot while on the road, and practical ways to feel safer in sketchy areas.

Traveling is fun, adventurous and exciting. When people post about it online it’s all #wanderlust and #amazing…not #abjectfear or #thoughtimightdie.

But the reality is traveling can be a bit distressing. And by a “bit distressing” I do mean terrifying. From potentially rabid stray dogs, to sketchy border crossings, to unlicensed taxi rides, you encounter situations and people that are scary.

Most people are not inherently malicious or harmful. Most stray dogs don’t have rabies (…well actually many of them do). Most taxi drivers haven’t predicted your arrival and been plotting to kidnap you. And 9 (OK, maybe 9+) times out of 10 walking in a dark alley will not in fact result in your murder.

But it doesn’t matter, because these situations all produce the same feeling — fear. Maybe even abject fear. The #1 question I get asked when I tell people about my travels is “don’t you get scared traveling alone?” And the answer is yes, of course I do. All the time.

Scary things happen during travel. Here’s how to deal.

How To Avoid ” Unsavory Characters” While Traveling

During your travels, it’s inevitable you’ll encounter unsavory characters from time to time. You know, sketchy people. Hecklers. People hanging out in shadowy alleys. People who grab your hand and ask you how much your jewelry costs. People who stand a little too close on an empty subway. People who follow you even when you’ve made clear you don’t, in fact, want to be followed. People who repeatedly question if you’re really traveling all by yourself while smiling creepily (and perhaps even toothlessly).

It can be hard to figure out who is just saying hi. Who is just trying to sell you something. And who may have something more nefarious in mind. To make matters worse, when you’re scared and your emotions take over it can be equally hard to remain objective and determine if you are being reasonable or a tad (lot) irrational. While there are no hard and fast rules, these are the types of people I try to reduce my interactions with:

  • People Who Make Weird Comments. A friendly person says hello. A sketchy person says hello. Then asks you if you’re alone. Then asks where you are staying. Then follows you through the market for 20 minutes. Then asks you again if you are alone. Then touches your arm. You get the idea.
  • People Who Follow You. No one should follow you anywhere for any reason, especially if you’ve made clear you don’t want to chat/buy something/be friends. If someone is persistently following you, use caution.
  • People Trying To Sell You Something Illegal. Such as drugs. This is obvious, right. Probably best to say away from people trying to get you to do something you shouldn’t be doing.
  • People That Are Very Drunk. While many people become more friendly when drunk, some become more aggressive or less attuned to social cues — like you politely declining to chat or follow them.
  • People Who Are Out Very Late. In deserted areas. While there are some pretty cool alleys and other isolated spots around the world, and staying up late isn’t a bad activity in and of itself, probably just don’t hang out at deserted remote places late at night alone. I mean, come on.
  • People Who Make You Feel Uncomfortable. There are times your stomach suddenly drops and instinct screams, danger! You may not even know why but you feel uneasy. At these times, you should listen. The saying is go with your gut, and when it comes to traveling you should listen to your gut. And literally go. As in walk away quickly. Note: This also applies to packs of rabid dogs, in which case you should walk away very slowly.

How To Handle Sketchy Situations

Acknowledge Unsavory Characters and Keep Walking

An annoying fact of travel is harassment. The casual whistle. The aggressive “compliment” yelled at you from a car window…even when you haven’t showered in 4 days and are wearing a stained baggy sweatshirt from the 12th grade. It happens. And happens with increased frequency when you travel, especially when you’re 1 a girl 2 alone 3 clearly foreign (I’m talking about having blonde hair, here) — or all three. I’ve adjusted my strategy for dealing with this over the years. While I ignore comments yelled from afar, for more direct encounters I find replying with a quick smile or hello while I keep moving is the best method. This acknowledges the comment, but indicates I have no intention of stopping – aka no interest. The acknowledgement generally appeases the commentator without providing an opportunity for further engagement, whereas I find ignoring people often produces an angry, aggressive or persistent response (remember that pesky person following you I mentioned in the section above?). I also like this method because more often than not, people are just being friendly (or maybe annoying, but not malicious), so it allows me to still remain friendly and polite.

…And Walking

The best way to deter a pesky person is to keep walking past them. No matter whether you understand what they’re saying or not, body language is universal – walking away and shaking your head no is a clear sign you’re not interested in whatever potentially shady activities they are trying to enlist you for. So increase your pace. Turn around. Cross the street. Avoid the alley. Walking a few blocks out of the way won’t kill you. But a scary person might (although probably not). 

Act Confident

The trick to succeeding at most things in life also applies here. It’s essential to act like you feel safe. Even if you’re so scared you’re about to pee through your travel underwear. Even if your palm is wet with sweat and you have a death grip on your cellphone. Pretend you feel secure. You’re always more of a target if you look even moderately scared, lost, or confused.

Don’t Wave Devices, Diamonds, Or Wads of Cash

It seems obvious, but I’m repeatedly shocked by how many people I see waving selfie sticks with $1,000 iPhones loosely attached, brandishing diamond ring-adorned hands, and rifling through large bills in the street with reckless abandon. Unsavory characters are often simply opportunistic people trying to rob you, so don’t give them a reason to approach. Secure your valuables and keep them out of sight. And, if you really need to check your device, sort money, polish your necklace, whatever, duck into a store or hotel lobby before you do so.

Remain Vigilant

If you’re aware of your surroundings, it’s less likely you’ll mistakenly walk into a dangerous situation. You don’t need to be actively worried, but it’s always good to be alert. My sister and I refer to this as “constant vigilance,” or more frequently “constant V.” (Creative, I know).

Stick To Busy Streets, Especially at Night

Don’t walk in deserted areas at night. Don’t walk alone at night. Don’t walk in deserted areas while you are alone at night. Safety in numbers, right? Right! If you’re traveling alone you may think you have no other options. But you have options! Make friends at your hostel. Walk very close to random people on the street. Find a nice looking family and pretend you’re with them. Seriously, it works (I do this all the time). You probably wouldn’t walk in a deserted alley alone at 3am at home, so why would you do it on the road? No really, why would you.

A Final Note

I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t talk to strangers or avoid deserted areas. Some of the best travel experiences occur off the beaten path and in remote areas devoid of tourists. Obviously, not every person is bad or sketchy and traveling proves quite the opposite; the majority of people are surprisingly kind and helpful.

The goal of this post is to provide some practical tips on what to do when you cross paths with a not-so-wholesome individual or find yourself in a not-so-secure feeling situation, because whether or not we like it or want to admit it, it will happen. People harass other people. Some areas of every country are dangerous. And criminals do exist. This is true no matter where you are. It simply becomes more true when you travel, especially to places where you stand out.

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