Where Are We Really Safe? Thoughts on Safety at Home and Abroad

Chicago, Illinois

“Random attacks cause concern in Chicago.”

“New mob attack reported.”

“Mobs of teens thought responsible for four assaults.”

“7 arrested in mob action.”

These are all headlines that have graced the pages of Chicago newspapers in the last month and, after 10 years of living in the city they normally wouldn’t merit a second glance (sad, I know). But these headlines caught my attention more than usual because they weren’t referring to traditionally crime-ridden neighborhoods like Englewood or Garfield Park.  Nope, they were referring to a series of attacks by groups of teens in what most people consider one of the safer areas of Chicago, as well as one of the prime tourist destinations – River North and the Magnificent Mile.

Which made me wonder, where are we really ever safe?

I travel solo fairly often and it isn’t uncommon for people to ask me about how safe I feel while traveling.  It seems there is something about going overseas that just seems a little scary, especially when traveling alone.  When I first headed to Europe in 2001, I never left the hotel without my money and passport stashed securely in a hidden pouch looped around my neck.  I was diligent about not taking out my money in plain sight and was extremely careful in everything I did – possibly to the point of paranoia.

On that first trip to Europe, I acted completely differently than I did on any previous trip within the United States, whether to Chicago (before I lived here), New York or Los Angeles.  There was something about traveling to the Big Apple or Hollywood that just felt safe, even if I probably stood out as a tourist almost as much as I would anywhere in Europe.

The notion of some place being “safer” than another can be misleading. A lot of people asked about how safe I would be when I visited Egypt in 2008, while no one was really concerned about my trip to Spain a few years earlier. Yet less than a year after I visited Spain, terrorist bombs killed nearly 200 people in a Madrid train station that I frequented during my trip.

Egyptian market
Or am I safer while traveling?


Anything can happen at any time and any place.


  • I have never been robbed while traveling. But I had my wallet and Blackberry stolen right out of my purse at my workplace last spring – while I was standing just five feet away with my back turned.
  • I don’t personally know anyone who has been mugged while traveling, but I have a friend who was held up at gunpoint just a block from her home in the early evening in what most people would regard as a “safe” neighborhood in Chicago.
  • I’ve left my wallet in a taxi twice here in Chicago.  Not only were neither returned to me, but on both occasions, someone used my check card within an hour of me leaving the cab. On the other hand, I left my backpack on a bus en route to the Budapest airport 2 years ago and not only did someone return it to the airport lost & found, but everything was intact, including my iPod, cash and credit cards.

Now, I am not saying Chicago is horribly unsafe. It’s not. But I am questioning the fallacy that somehow we are necessarily “safer” at home than when traveling.  If anything, I think it can be easy to become complacent at home and let our guard down.  My wallet and Blackberry were stolen when I left my purse unattended for no more than 2-3 minutes while at a work event.  That’s something I would never do while traveling.

Michael Hodson of Go, See, Write said it well:

“I don’t have statistics, but I bet that you aren’t much more likely to be a victim of crime in most of the places I will go to on this trip as I would be in New York City or Miami or Washington D.C. In fact, statistics might even show the opposite, I very well might be statistically safer in 95% of my trip that I would be if I instead had moved to Manhattan, but I do know that – you feel a hell of a lot safer at home.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take safety into consideration while traveling.  It can be a fine balance, especially if you are new to traveling outside of your home country.  You don’t want to completely let go and fall victim to “Vacation Brain” but you also don’t want to be so overly paranoid about safety that it overshadows the rest of your trip.

I think it is always worthwhile to be familiar with any State Department warnings and the current political climate in your destination.  Reading up on common scams is valuable as well – Lonely Planet guides can be helpful for this, but also check out How to Stay Safe and Avoid Common Scams in Europe on The Savvy Backpacker – it is wonderfully thorough.

Above all, whenever you are out and about – at home or abroad – be aware of your surroundings and trust your instincts.  If something feels wrong, it probably is.

For some great safety tips for traveling (some of which apply equally as well when you’re at home), check out:

Addressing Solo Travel Objection #1: Ten Safety Solutions – Solo Traveler

Solo Travel Safety: 10 Ways to Blend in When You Can’t – Solo Traveler

10 Lines That Say You’re Getting Hustled – Travels with a Nine Year Old

Like Jane Austen But Not: The Single Gal’s Guide to Traveling Asia – Travels with a Nine Year Old

Traveling Safely – Hole in the Donut

What do you think?  Are you more diligent about safety at home or when you travel?  What are some of your best travel safety tips?


34 thoughts on “Where Are We Really Safe? Thoughts on Safety at Home and Abroad”

  1. I agree with everything that you are saying, yet I do think that being abroad is a bit different. For example, in San Diego I know what neigborhoods to aavoid at night. When I first moved to Madrid I didn’t know this right away. When I was travelling in Budapest I certainly didn’t know this.

    In San Diego when someone approaches me I can say to them, “Hey back off,” and if it doesn’t work I have stronger words I can whip out. If someone bothers me in Korean it may take me longer to fumble out my words.

    In San Diego I don’t stick out as a foreigner who will probably have more money. In Cambodia I do.

    Otherwise I totally agree that with some common sense ( http://eslcarissa.blogspot.mx/2012/10/is-it-safe.html ) travelling is just as safe as being at home.

  2. Have you blogged about your experience pretending to be Canadian in Egypt? That’s one of my favorite stories about things not being the way you might think. (Who would think that Egyptians wanted to protect Americans?)

  3. It reminds me of that oft-cited statistic that most car accidents happen within a few miles of home. Maybe we let down our guard more when we’re in familiar surroundings, although that still doesn’t explain the incredible kindness you experienced from complete strangers returning things to you in other countries.

    When my college band was going to tour England in 2004, we had prepared “Stars and Stripes Forever” as an encore. We were warned by school administrators to make sure we received permission to play it before each show, because Americans were hated across the world and we didn’t want to stir up any trouble with the locals!

    One of the first shows was in an outdoor plaza in London, right around lunch time, and I’ll never forget the old man who stood up toward the end and shouted, “Play Stars and Stripes Forever, Steve (the director’s name)!” Later on, the band played at a disabled veterans home where an old woman arrived late, came over to me, looked at the program, then whispered in a panicked tone, “Oh dear, have I missed Stars and Stripes Forever?” I smiled and let her know that if she made sure to give a standing ovation at the end that she’d get to hear it.

    Maybe the most valuable thing to be gained from traveling anywhere is the opportunity to break free from whatever the powers that be want to sell you as truth and find out what life is really like through encounters with real people.

    1. Awww, yay, my brother commenting on my blog! thanks! 🙂

      I think it is a complete misperception that Americans are hated abroad. People may hate American politics and policies (and I certainly heard plenty about that when Bush was president) but I have rarely experienced any outright hostility to Americans as individuals.

  4. Hm I was thinking about the same thing when I decided to go to Mexico and everyone’s answer was it is too dangerous there because of all the news. But then, I told my mom to check out the news back home about my home country, Slovakia,and the news were the same bad as those about Mexico. So I guess, we just should be careful wherever we go.

  5. Good to find another Chicago travel blogger. I have never had anything happen to me abroad, but in Chicago I had my phone stolen from me on the Brown Line stop blocks from my home. It is best to be on your guard both home or away. The safety argument not to travel is ridiculous as you eloquently pointed out in this post.

  6. Great Post! If I had a dollar for every time I railed about the fact that crime here in the U.S. is completely blown out of proportion by the media. Does crime happen? Of course it does! But you still more likely to get hurt or killed falling in the shower or on the highway.

    Sadly, there is an element of our society that is so guided by what they hear on TV or by what they read in some dumb forwarded email. This is also the same crowd peer-pressuring people into a box because chasing their dreams is too risky.

  7. great post- definitely makes you think! For me, when I lived abroad in London I felt so safe. Would ride the tube by myself at all hours of the day and night but here in LA, I would never do that. Maybe I feel safer while abroad- or maybe it’s just being naive.

  8. I have never been robbed at home and up until my solo trip to Ireland in March, I had never been robbed while traveling. I left my hotel room for 30 second to get my bag down at my car in Belfast. 30 seconds later I had no cash. I do think petty crime like that is very common in Europe. I think the reason I feel safer at home is because I blend in here, I look American. Being abroad, I feel more unsafe because I always feel I stand out more. I don’t sound like everyone else. I don’t dress like everyone else. I guess in a way I think being a foreigner can make you a target for theft abroad, but as you say, theft can happen anywhere.

    1. Good point about blending in. I felt like I stood out a lot just visiting LA. But when I’ve been in Norway and Germany, I’ve been mistaken for a local (not so surprising since that’s my heritage). The thing that has struck me in the US is that, because we are so diverse, you never really know who is visiting or who lives here – I feel like there are few instances of tourists being targeted for petty crime like they can be in Europe or elsewhere.

  9. You know, it’s funny… maybe it’s because the US isn’t my native country (even though I’ve lived in Texas for the past seven years), but I feel less safe here than in many other countries I travel to for vacation. Egypt is the best example. I never feel threatened there. Do I feel like I could fall prey to a scam there? Yes. But actual harm? Not really. In Texas, it scares me that just about everybody has a gun. People drive drunk like nobody’s business. And crime rates are pretty high. I don’t even watch the local news because they freak me out.

    1. That doesn’t surprise me at all. Especially because the local media in most areas of the US focus on the negative – our newscasts and newspapers lead with all sorts of stories about crime that may make it seem even more prevalent than it actually is.

  10. Well said Katie, and this is something that really drives me nuts. And I blame media. I blame the local media for blowing everything that happens everywhere else out of proportion, and glossing over everything that happens at home. It’s all part of their economic strategy to keep people at home as opposed to traveling (a bit of conspiracy theorist in me!) Yes, there are scary things that happen all over the world, but they also happen in our backyards too, as you pointed out.

  11. Great article Katie. A lot of hits come to my site from people asking the same thing about Turkey. An unknown destination has the advantage for putting the fear factor into people but sometimes they need to overlook this.

  12. This was a fantastic post. I think perception has so much to do with how we feel safe. I know where the “bad” neighbourhoods are in my city, but like you pointed out just because you’re in a good area doesn’t mean your safe. I think it’s important to be aware and follow common safety tips, no matter if you’re at home or abroad. Great resources, thanks for the links.

  13. Thanks so much for the article, Katie…I’m a travel agent and I try to tell this to people all the time! Strangely no one wants to hear that their own city is not all that safe. Truly! They just concentrate on that one tourist, maybe 2 yrs ago, that was hurt overseas. It’s the old ‘ostrich with their head in the sand’ story. I wish there was a magic way to make this clear!

  14. Excellent post. For me, I find I’m a lot more aware of my surrounding when I’m travelling alone. Even when I meet new travellers for the first few days I’m wary of them, it’s just my protective instinct coming in. Especially when I start pulling out a cell phone, computer, etc. My antenna goes up whenever that stuff is out. That being said, yep, anything can happen at any time to anyone. And sometimes when something goes missing, time to upgrade!

  15. Great post, Katie. And really well-said. I think we do tend to be more complacent when we’re in familiar surroundings and around familiar people. But that definitely doesn’t mean we are safer at home than we are while traveling. I’m quite certain I was safer traveling solo around New Zealand than I would be traveling alone to downtown Youngstown, which is 30 minutes from my home (and is usually in the top 10 for highest murder rates each year).

    It’s often really just about the tricks our mind plays on us. People I talk to about travel often tell me they’re afraid of flying such long distances. And then I point out that they are MUCH more likely to die in a car crash while driving to work than in an airplane. It’s all about perspective.

  16. This is a great post because you are only saying the truth “Anything can happen at any time and any place.” I wish more people would understand that because I get the same questions too when people find out I am traveling alone and then mention the countries I am at. I was surprised my mom was understanding of that when I told her I was held at gun point in Costa Rica. She told me everything was going to be okay and not to worry because “Anything can happen at any time and any place.” My friends on the other hand wanted me to come home in a heart beat… I told them “Ummm we live in Houston, TX do you not watch the news???”. So yeah sometime I do feel safer on the road then I do in my own home city.

  17. Great post! When I went travelling in Turkey last year, I kept everything in a money belt around my waist but, now I think about it, I never once felt unsafe.

    Back home in the UK, I’ve had a few encounters that have shaken me a bit – yet, I never think of my safety there.

    Here in South Korea is the safest I’ve ever felt though. Probably because according to the local mindset, I’m the one who’s more likely to commit the crime haha 😉

  18. Really well-said! I try to tell this same thing to a lot of people who express concern over my traveling alone, but it’s hard to believe that going to some totally unknown place (where I stick out like a sore thumb) could be safer than staying at home… in fact, I sometimes have trouble believing it myself!
    When I first went to Brazil, I was completely petrified. I had to spend one night in Rio, and I hardly left my hotel room because I had hears so many horror stories and I was so convinced someone would try to mug me. Meanwhile, I had lived in Washington DC for 2 years prior to that, where quite a lot my neighbors and friends had been robbed or mugged (some of them at gunpoint), but, yet, I walked home at night by myself there all the time.

    1. Thanks Sally! I’m bad about walking home by myself at night too – it’s something I definitely would not do when I’m overseas but there are plenty of times when I do it here when I know deep down I really shouldn’t.

  19. Katie, I wholeheartedly agree with everything you’ve said. I’m a perpetual traveler who doesn’t even have a permanent home any more, and I feel safer overseas most of the time than I do in the U.S. In fact, the only problem I’ve ever had was in Hawaii, where I was robbed. All those third world, abjectly poor countries I spend so much time in? Never a single problem! But that doesn’t change the fact that I practice safe behavior when I travel, as I described in my Traveling Safely post that you’ve referenced above. I hope it will help many others as well; thanks for including me.

    1. Thanks Barbara! I thought your Traveling Safely post had some really good tips – and like I said, they are valuable both when traveling and good reminders for being diligent at home as well.

  20. I absolutely agree with this. The only thing I’d add is that I *do* feel more of a target in any country where I stand out as being foreign-looking. Not that it stops me from travelling to such places! I just feel I need to be — like you — more aware of my surroundings. A thief is going to pick an easy target whenever possible. If you obviously don’t look local to the area, then it’s best to at least look aware of your surroundings.

    1. Very true. One thing I realized is that I definitely do look out of place traveling to other parts of the US (just in the way I dress, not knowing where I’m going, etc.), but often don’t take the same precautions I would take abroad.

  21. great post and thanks for the mention! This is one of the topics that sort of frustrates me when talking to people and I am glad you took it head on.

    1. Thanks and you’re welcome – I thought your post on the subject made some great points as well!

  22. Sometimes I think I’m safer traveling alone instead of with a friend because I’m more aware of my surroundings. And doesn’t the US have some of the highest crime rates? (I could totally be making that up…) I agree with Michael about feeling safer at home, because that’s where you’re most comfortable. But it’s not always accurate.

    1. That’s very true about being more aware when you’re alone – you kind of have to be.

      And yeah, a lot of the cities here in the US have high crime rates. I used to always discount Chicago’s because I considered most of the crime to take place in “bad” areas of the city, nowhere near me. But now it’s starting to hit home a little more.

  23. Yeah funny, I tell this to all my family. I was in Madrid just a month before the bombings… yet no one back home thinks that Spain is a dangerous place really. I just looked up a travel guide for Bishkek on Wikipedia, and the first thing it says: “WARNING: Bishkek is currently experiencing political instability.” etc. Well, I have a ticket to the Bish for later this year, and I can’t wait!

    1. Yeah, I think Europe is sometimes lumped in with the US – it’s “Western” and somehow thus “safer” than places like Egypt or Kyrgyzstan. Funny about the Bishkek warning. Have they even had any problems lately? I haven’t heard much since the riots there and in Osh last year.

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