How Do You Know When a Place is Safe?

Let’s talk about safety and travel.

A lot of people have opinions on where is and isn’t safe to visit. When I decided to visit Colombia back in October I was treated to everything from wide eyed states to earnest warnings about kidnapping and drugs. I was confident in my decision but the reactions started to even make me nervous. My fears were unwarranted: Colombia was beautiful, amazing and full of wonderful people. I felt safer there than I did in many other parts of South America.

It’s not the fault of those well meaning bearers of caution. There are just a lot of misconceptions and false information floating around.It can be really hard to assess the safety of a location using only second-hand information. You have to sift through the rumors, the warnings and the opinions to try to figure out the actual level of risk in a given place. That’s why companies often hire corporate travel management firms to assess risk for them.

You though, probably have to make your own judgements. So how do you know when somewhere is really safe? Based on my experiences with Colombia I know what doesn’t work:

It’s not from the rumors

When I first told people I was going to Colombia I heard all kinds of uninformed comments from jokes about cocaine to sincere warning about kidnapping. The thing was: nobody who reinforced these negative stereotypes about the country has ever been there, or maybe even known anybody who had been there. They couldn’t cite a recent news report or a first person account, they just had these ideas gleaned from movies and stories from 15 years ago.

Now I take these stories with an enormous grain of salt unless I’m hearing an actual first hand account.

It’s not from the movies

This may seem like a no- brainer, but think of how many people are spooked of hostels because of the movie Hostel. Well a lot of these people also apparently saw Colombiana or Mr. and Mrs. Smith and are now convince that Bogota is some sort of hot steamy crime haven full of hit men and drug lords.

Bogota is in the Andes. It has an altitude of 2600 meters, a kilometer higher up than Denver. Hot and steamy is is not: I spent six weeks there and I don’t think the temperature got above 70 degrees. The rest of the movies are just about as accurate.

 It’s not from statistics

Stats are good but you still have to look at them critically, not sensationally. For example, last year Bogota reported 1608 murders. That seems like quite a lot of murders- but consider that this is in a city of 7.5 million people. The majority of them occurred in Ciudad Bolivar, a shady neighborhood you almost certainly wouldn’t visit on your trip.

In comparison, Bogota has a lower murder rate than New Orleans, Baltimore or my own hometown of Washington DC, and nobody freaks out when I want to go to those places. Probably because they know I’m not going to go wandering around Anacostia late at night with my wallet on display. I wouldn’t do that abroad either.

So how DO you gauge safety in a new place? It’s an art, not a science. You have to look at the complete picture: What’s going on in this country right now? Is it effecting tourists (sadly many countries are far more dangerous for their own citizens then they are for visitors)? What does your gut say? Do you personally feel secure visiting this place?

The last one is crucial. Everyone has a different comfort level. I know people who have traveled to Iraq, to Somalia, to places I would have to think really hard about before going. Personally I felt fine visiting Colombia and Ecuador, but put Venezuela on my no-go list. Based on what I’ve read, and from talking to people who have been there, it was not a place I felt comfortable going.

But I also met people who went to Venezuela and thought it was really neat. Just like I met people who got held at gunpoint in Barcelona or in Brazil or yes, in Colombia. It’s a gray science. I think in truth there’s no such thing as “safe” and “not safe.” There’s just different levels of risk that need to be managed.

How do YOU decide if a place is safe to visit?


26 thoughts on “How Do You Know When a Place is Safe?”

  1. I think ignoring other people’s scaremongering is the biggest tip. I got a lot of raised eyebrows and stories of danger when I told people I was going to the Balkans. The minute I said Bosnia people saw in their mind’s eye the news coverage of the war. Ok there is still some violence around Kosovo and lots of unexploded mines in Bosnia itself, but I did my research. I knew not to wander off into fields or off country lanes so as not to blow myself up, and not to start airing my opinions about the breakdown of Yugoslavia in a local bar. Other than that it has come on a long, long way from the 90s and I knew I was completely self, and I felt it when I was travelling.
    Research and a gut feeling is an important combination. Keeping an eye on the news is important as well, so you can skip around places that might be hotting up!

    Great post 🙂

    1. Definitely agree. I had the same reactions when I went to the balkans and I STILL get those reactions when I tell them Bosnia is one of my favorite countries.

  2. Very well written post. I have also encountered my fair share of raised eye-brows and scoffs at my destinations. None were warranted. I went to Thailand – and we all know its a wonderful place – but in 2010, while I was living there – it erupted into Civil War. It wasn’t NEARLY as bad as the news made it seem. In a city as large as Bangkok, the situation was so isolated that I heard about events on the news as well – not first hand! So I agree – its a grey-zone topic!

  3. I agree. I am headed to Ecuador in August, alone, and I’ve had a lot of people look at me like I’m crazy. BUT, I did my research. I have read travel reports from many others who have been there as well, including yours! I’m not worried at all.

  4. I think it’s a good idea to get in touch with people currently visiting that location and/or expats living there. (Travel bloggers are typically a helpful bunch! 🙂 ) That way you’re getting the outsider’s experience on the area, which as you pointed out, is often safer than that of the locals.

    1. Definitely agree- expats in particular are great wells of knowledge on what is and isn’t safe in their city.

  5. I always say to my friends and family that bad things happen everywhere, and I don’t want to live my life in fear of “something” happening. Plus, the scariest moment I ever had traveling was in Italy, a country that most people (including myself) think of as safe and wouldn’t hesitate to go to. I’m currently living in South Korea, and I hear a lot of “aren’t you worried about North Korea?” I say I’m not, and that the potential for terrorism exists in every place in the world–including the U.S.!

  6. I definitely agree. My dad thought I was crazy to move to South Korea – he actually said “why do you want to move to the most dangerous country in the world?”. But I did my research, read blogs and talked to people living there (also, kept an eye on the news) and decided to go anyway. On a day to day basis, Korea is VERY safe. Much safer than living in DC! Of course the situation with North Korea is unpredictable, but then again the same patterns have been occurring for about 60 years now.

  7. I like how you pointed out to look at news and statistics ‘critically but not sensationally’ – when you don’t know all the details it’s easy to let your mind assume the worst.. I have never felt unsafe in Thailand, nor ever though I would, and while admittedly I’m a bit blissfully ignorant of the local news here, there have been several major/freaky/horrific killings in the area surrounding my hometown in just the past few months…and no one is saying it’s dangerous to visit Seattle 😉

    I’ve joked with my Mom that if something happens to me I would rather it happen abroad while I’m doing something I’m interested in and feel most alive – I don’t think she’s appreciated that mindset much, but it’s true.

  8. After I read the news and my state department warnings/reports/hysteria I go with my gut feeling. Safe is relative too. Is Cch NZ really safe? Daily the quakes continue. You’re backpack is safe but your head isn’t so much if you’re standing under a building for the next big shake.

  9. Ah Steph, this is a great post and I know exactly what you mean. People freaked out when I told them that I was moving to South Korea due to sensationalist media reports detailing an imminent war between the Koreas. Those reports were around in 2009, they’re still around in 2012, and still no war *touchwood* I’ve yet to go to a place safer than Korea.

    My family were a little worried when I went to Turkey, but had nothing to back it up with. My dad freaked out when I told him I’d be flying out of Beirut and wound up quite glad when I flew home from Turkey after cutting my trip short due to a horrible bout of sickness and generally being fed up.

    Everyone makes statements based on preconceptions sometimes, but generalising a whole country? Nuh-uh. As for my personal comfort level – war and kidnap zones are a no-no (sorry, Afghanistan and Nigeria), as are countries that I’ve heard a lot of negative reports about (no Venezuela for me, either). Plus North Korea. Not until there’s a regime change (as you saw on my FB status the other day!)

  10. Hey there!
    This post definitely got me thinking about my own experiences abroad and here at home in NYC or Toronto (both are home for me!) I’ve travelled in the Caribbean and in the Middle East and there were instances where having your guard up and being cautious came in handy, but like you mentioned in your post, the same can be said for many parts of the US. This was a great post subject, thanks for sharing your thoughts 😉

  11. I’ve had people freak out when I tell them places I’m planning to visit, too. It’s nice that they’re concerned about me & other travelers, but it really bugs me that amazing places get bad reputations that keep people from visiting and experiencing them!

    From my experience, the best way to judge whether a place is safe for travelers is to ask someone who has lived there as an expat or visited for a long time. People with a lot of travel experience usually know best!

  12. This is a great post! I recently have been in touch with 2 people who have gone to countries that are known for being extremely dangerous – Colombia and Mexico. Both of these people had wonderful experiences. Although the news tends to dissuade us from traveling to certain locations (and they do have legitimate reasons sometimes) we all need to do our own research. Crime happens in little towns in the U.S. as well, but sometimes our perception of what is safe and unsafe is skewed.

  13. Been having these sorts of discussions with travellers a lot lately as I’m travelling in the Middle East. It’s hard though when the scaremonger is your own mother! I feel terrible ignoring my own mother’s advice, but she is such a worrier!

  14. Hiya,

    I agree wholeheartedly with this post. I am from Northern Ireland and grew up there in the midst of the Troubles in the late 80s and 90s. I have since moved away and when I tell people where I am from, they always have lots of questions about how dangerous Belfast is. I have cousins who are studying in England who asked friends to come and visit Belfast and their parents wouldn’t let them.

    I find this funny because I always think of Northern Ireland as being relatively safe – yes there has been civil unrest and I do remember the bombs and the scares – but I personally have never been directly affected by the Troubles and rarely feel unsafe there – I feel much less safe in London.


    1. Really interesting insight! It is kind of similar situation, the darker past is still polluting people’s impressions.

  15. Hi Steph, I love love the fact that you use Colombia as an example for this post. I am Colombian, but have been living in the states for 12 years now. I hate it when i tell people where i’m from and the looks I get sometimes in their faces. I write a little bit about that subject in this little travel blog of mine I started a few weeks ago.
    I’m a little fish out here but thought you might find it interesting.
    Anyways, Love your blog, love your style.
    keep up the good work!


  16. I agree with you. It’s really no such thing as the “safe” and “not safe” place right now. It’s just about your guts and how you will manage the risk in getting there. I think before you decide to go to such place, you just need to research about the place. Note down the places that’s not that safe to travelers and the places that’s safe. We really need not to look at the place as a whole, you try to look at it inside because you maybe surprised what a small town in that place can offer you that you cannot see in other places.

  17. Just came across your blog today and am enjoying reading it. This piece struck a particular chord with me as I went to Eritrea in April and had exactly the same experience with friends and family telling me not to go because it’s too dangerous, that I would get shot or kidnapped. I did my research and found that it’s one of the safest countries in Africa for tourists and particularly for women. Like you say, it’s far worse for the natives than visitors. My mum even told me she’d spoken to refugees who said it’s not safe and I shouldn’t go. It turned out these particular refugees were from SOMALIA! I wouldn’t consider going there at present. When she asked the actual Eritreans they said I should definitely go.

    I had a wonderful time, felt completely safe wandering round Asmara on my own, the people were absolutely delightful, and I would recommend to anyone to do your research and make your own mind up.

    I’ve been to Lebanon and Libya in the past and was due to go to Syria last year but cancelled for obvious reasons. I saw a wonderful travelogue on Burkina Faso and thought that looked amazing, but when I researched it, I found that the risk of kidnap by an Al Quaeda related group is actually quite high there, so I put that one on hold. Obviously other people choose to go there – like you say, it’s a matter of assessing the level of risk and then deciding whether it’s right for you, not anyone else.

  18. Beautiful photos. It is always nice when people cover good experiences to remind people that travel is about experiences. Use your head, stay out of dangerous situations, and treat people with respect. Stuff will happen any where in the world. You can not live your life in fear!! Beautiful photos by the way!!

  19. I think that some of the most exciting adventures are to some of the locations a little less traveled. I lived in Costa Rica, and now in Nicaragua. Everyone talked about being robbed, hijacked, yadda yadda. For the last two years I have not had a single problem. I don’t wave around my wallet, carry around my MAC, nor wear a $3000 camera around my neck, thus I am left well enough alone. More people need to be encouraged to simply just take general precautions, then live their life to the fullest. Check out some of my travel adventures as well on my site!! I just got back from working with SLOTHS!! Tons of great photos!

  20. Its frustrating when people use their preconceptions to try to talk you out of travelling. I’ll be going on study abroad to Mexico soon and when I tell people the majority of them tell me that I shouldn’t go as I’ll probably come back in a body bag.

  21. I go with my gut. If I have a bad feeling, I leave. If that isn’t possible, I pay whatever it cost to stay in a nice hotel until I can get transportation out of the city or country.

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