Browsing Posts tagged travel safety

traveling in Mexico

The Mexican gangs may not be busted, but Mexican tourism is going gangbusters.

Apparently 23.7 million tourists came to Mexico last year, up 3.5% from their previous record year in 2008. Yes, that was six years ago, so it’s been a climb up after a big drop, but a steady, fruitful climb in the face of tough circumstances at home and abroad. The vast majority of those visitors were from the USA.

I started this cheap travel blog back in 2003, when the word “blog” was still very much a novelty and I knew people still using AOL dial-up. Sometimes I like to go back and look at those original posts to see how much has changed. I may be reading the cues wrong, but it seems like in the past decade, travelers—especially Americans—have gotten a lot better about putting fear in perspective.

Ten years ago I wrote a post called How Safe is International Travel? It was spurred on by my father saying he and his wife were scared to get in an airplane to go to Europe so they were going to drive somewhere instead. That led me to ranting about how much safer you are in a plane than a car. But I was also addressing the larger issue of people watching too much TV news instead of getting the real story from more reliable sources. And not comparing the risk of where they’re going to the risk in their own home town. Fear of the unknown has a huge impact on travel plans.

But maybe, just maybe, it’s having less of an impact than it used to.

Last week I was at the annual Mexican tourism fair called Tianguis, and despite all the fear-mongering that goes on about my adopted home, Mexican tourism officials are very happy right now. They’re seeing steady increases from the traditional markets (US, Canada, UK) but downright dramatic increases from other countries, especially Latin American ones. Specifically, Mazatlan tourism is up 18% in three years, Los Cabos is up 25% in two years, Cancun/Riviera May hotels were running at nearly 90% occupancy levels the first week of May. That region alone hosted 36 thousand weddings in 2013. And on it goes with a dozen other destinations both coastal and in the interior.

Mexico travel fears

Sure, the Ciudad Juarez booth at that tourism fair had one poor lonely girl playing on her phone most of the time and you couldn’t pay me enough to be the tourism PR person for Tijuana. Overall though, considering all the inflammatory bad press the country gets and the constant news stories asking whether it’s okay to travel to this destination, no wonder the Mexican tourism industry is feeling fortunate.

Maybe travelers are getting less afraid of what lies beyond their borders. Just maybe they’re realizing that 81 total Americans killed in Mexico in an entire year–counting Mexican/American citizens in the drugs or guns trade—looks pretty darn good compared to D.C., New Orleans, or Chicago.

Next stop, Egypt…?

A while back I wrote briefly about the need to have backup plans for products and services you depend on while traveling. This was right after Google killed off its popular RSS reader and a bunch of people I know had their gmail account hacked—which of course affects all the other things that near-monopoly makes you sign up for with one single log-in.

In the tech world “redundancy” is not a bad word. You want redundancy in your servers, in your e-mail backups, in your data backups, in your power system. If the first system fails, you want to be able to keep at least the essential services running.

This same attitude should prevail in your long-term international travels. Things go wrong, always. It’s just a matter of when. That’s the nature of being on the road instead of in your predictable house and predictable job. So having a back-up for your primary services you depend on is essential. Here are a few to consider.

1) Multiple phone communication systems

I rely on Skype constantly on the road and living in Mexico, but it’s never a perfect solution. Sometimes the incoming calls to my US subscription number don’t ring through, sometimes the connection keeps dropping. So I’ve downloaded an app from Rebtel that gives me free international calls to anyone else who has it (gotta hook up the relatives) and if they don’t, the international calls are affordable with their rates: about half what the local telecom provider typically charges and about 1/10 what your U.S. mobile carrier will charge for international roaming.

I also use Movistar instead of Telcel in Mexico on my unlocked phone because with their prepaid plans, you can call the USA, Canada, or the EU for the same price as a call in Mexico. So no matter where I am and what happens, I can reach people when I need to. Yeah, I know, there’s Google Voice too. I’ve used it, but see the first paragraph above. I simply don’t trust they’ll keep any service now that’s not directly making them money and I don’t like them snooping on everything I do online.

2) Multiple Ways to Get and Spend Money

If you arrive in a small airport that doesn’t have an ATM machine, or it’s out of service, or it rejects your card (I’ve experienced all three) what will you do? If you lose your debit card, or a machine eats it, what happens next?

This one scares me more than anything as it’s a panicky feeling to arrive in a strange country and not be able to pay for anything you need. I’ve stupidly left a debit card in a machine and had to wait weeks for a replacement. I’ve had cards expire when I’m on the move. And once someone copied the data from my card at some point and went on a spending spree. So I had to stop using it until I got home and it was sorted out. Call us crazy, but between my wife and I we have four debit cards, more credit cards than that, and I try to carry some dollars or euros along if I’m not arriving at a large international airport.

No, we don’t pay a lot of fees. None of our bank accounts with the debit cards have fees and if you pull money from cash accounts at Fidelity, Schwab, or ING/Capital One like we do, there’s no ATM fee from them—just the local bank. With my Paypal debit card, I only pay $1 each time.

3) Multiple e-mail addresses

Do you trust that your e-mails are getting through? And that you’re getting all of them sent to you? What do you do if a friend tells you, “I tried to e-mail you, but it got kicked back.”

I get that message and send it several times per month. Reality is that every server has filters in place and most of them make loads of mistakes every day. Plus thousands of accounts get hacked every day by spammers and many people end up having to shut them down and start over. This is especially rampant with gmail and it can wreak havoc with your life. Have another address that you can seamlessly transfer to. Or maybe more than one. Plus you can keep a commercial one to use whenever a site makes you register to do anything. They’re free with any domain and places like Yahoo and Hotmail/Outlook.

4) Multiple Photo Backups

Canada family travel

I don’t want to lose this…

Nearly every day of your travels you are snapping photos. These are your cherished moments, your memory triggers, the images that you will share with grandkids someday. Don’t just take a chance that a single place to store them (physical or virtual) is going to be enough. The easier and more automatic it is, the more chance there is it will not be enough. Do you know anyone who has had their Apple account hacked? Search online for that phrase and you’ll hear some heartbreaking horror stories. Are all your travel photos on your laptop alone? Good luck with that if you have a hard drive crash.

You can buy a portable external hard drive that holds a terrabyte or more of data for less than $100 now. Or if you know you’ll regularly have a good internet connection you can get a cloud service like Dropbox, JustCloud, Mozy, Sugarsync, or Carbonite that stores that much for a monthly charge of $10-$20, less if you only need to store photos and a few documents. (Hint—it’s video that really hogs the storage space. If you’re not keeping that, you won’t need so much room.)

What redundancy systems do you have in place when you travel that help you travel with less stress?

backup service

This week Google announced that on July 1 it is shutting down the most popular RSS stream blog reader in the world, Google Reader. A whole bunch of you probably get to this blog from there.

alternative to Google servicesI’m sure most people who signed up for the service assumed it would be around as long as Google would, close to forever. But the company is chopping anything that’s not a profit center, so your calendar and Gmail could be next if you rely on them daily.

Which brings us to an important question: do you have a backup plan for products or services you use regularly when you travel?

* What’s your second way of getting cash if your debit card is lost, stolen, or eaten by a machine?

* What second or third credit card will you use when your first one is lost, stolen, downgraded (by credit limit) or copied by a cyber thief and disabled?

* How will you keep in touch with the important people in your life if you lose your phone?

* What will you do if Facebook shuts down or starts charging? If there’s a Twitter outage that lasts for days?

* What if Skype goes down or Google shuts down Google Voice?

* What’s your secondary e-mail address when the first one gets shut off or hacked? Do you trust Google enough to rely on gmail?

* Where are you storing all those photos you’re taking in case you lose the laptop, tablet, or phone where they’re stored?

I can’t say I’m 100% prepared for every scenario, especially considering I almost never buy travel insurance. And if Paypal goes under, I’m in big trouble since that’s how most advertisers pay me.

But if you spend 10 bucks on Nomadic Matt’s book you’ll get ideas on what to do on the money side (with specific recommendations).

As for me, stay tuned next week if you read this blog’s RSS stream somewhere because I’m dropping Google’s Feedburner like a hot potato this weekend. It’s been a long time since I trusted that company anyway and based on how they’re treating customers, I don’t have much faith that Feedburner is reliable for the long term.

There’s a lot of trouble in the world. But an expert on handling danger says almost every region is getting tamer for travelers.

Ummm, you probably don’t need to pack that.


If you watch Fox News every day, you’re liable to think the world out there is a super-scary place. Better buy that newly built home in a gated community and shut the garage tight.

Reality is much different. The current issue of Outside magazine has a great interview with Robert Young Pelton, who besides being a respected war zone consultant and author of The World’s Most Dangerous Places, apparently has a perforated metal business card that converts to a shiv. (Scarier part of that revelation: it’s never been noticed or confiscated by airport security. Anywhere.)

The whole interview is great, so go check it out, but here’s the killer exchange for would-be world travelers looking to reassure mom:

“People don’t believe me, but there aren’t wars anymore. When I first wrote the book, you had real wars, with tanks shooting at each other. Now there’s more democracy, less dictatorship. The first edition had 26 countries, and now I’m going to have a hard time covering 12 in the next edition.

A lot of these countries that used to be holy-shit, ass-puckering places are now sort of like, ‘Don’t go there,’ ‘Watch out,’ ‘Don’t go out at night.’

So yes, you should probably avoid Afghanistan and Somalia, present Syria and parts of Sudan. Walking into a drug gang inner city area is always a bad idea, but especially bad in Ciudad Juarez, Tegucigalpa, or Guatemala City. Walking down the street holding a cartoon of a key religious figure is probably not going to end well in countries where you can only see the eyes of the local women.

Time to Stop Acting Like Cowards

Otherwise, let’s finally bury the stupid idea that Canadians are safer than Americans so they have to wear a maple leaf on their backpack like it provides some kind of force field. Let’s stop publishing or reading articles about what women need to do to be able to travel alone without getting raped or killed. Let’s stop avoiding perfectly beautiful places filled with wonderful cities because 10 years ago there was something really bad on the 24-hour news channels. And let’s all make a pact to stop listening to advice from people whose don’t travel. Or those who think a Caribbean cruise balcony berth gives them the right to give you advice about State Department warnings.

I don’t think of myself as all that old, but I’m seeing Ankor Wat for the first time this summer because all three times I was in the neighborhood before there was a coup, a war, or a real threat of getting maimed by a land mine. Nobody in their right mind was going to Peru when I first started backpacking. Colombia, Guatemala, Eastern Turkey, Sri Lanka, and a few Stans were all on the “no-go” list for any sane traveler. There was a war in Croatia for Christ’s sake. Yes, that place where all the billionaires’ yachts are now docked. Bombs were going off regularly in Northern Ireland. Half of Africa seemed to be fighting at any given time.

Do your homework, yes, but if only 9 countries out of nearly 200 require some real paranoia these days, I think you’re going to be okay.

Watch for the 6th edition of Pelton’s book and don’t buy the old one to save a buck: it came out in 2003—when the world was scarier.


See the null page on (Here’s a fun exercise: put “travel dangers” in Google and see what comes up ahead of this. It’s usually something from Fox News.)

See Robert Young Pelton’s Come Back Alive site.

Coming to Barcelona? Bring a good money belt.

  • More people died in the U.S. last year from “accidental discharge of a firearm” than died in the whole world from airplane crashes.
  • Guatemala’s crime rate is higher than Mexico’s by a wide margin.
  • Eight of the top-10 worst cities for pickpockets are in Europe. (And all of the top 5.)
  • The top-selling beer in the world is not Budweiser—it’s Snow Beer.
  • “Budget” airlines Southwest and JetBlue have more legroom (average seat pitch) than British Airways, United, or Delta.
  • Turkey gets more international visitors each year than Canada, Mexico, Holland, Greece, or Egypt. Malaysia gets more visitors than Thailand, Indonesia/Bali, or Japan.
  • The U.S. stock market has historically dropped 6.5% in the year after a Republican wins the presidency, but climbed 9.1% when a Democrat wins reelection.

Surprised by any of those?

Our assumptions are shaped by many things: the people around us, where we get our news, the anecdotes we’ve heard, forwarded e-mails, what our parents taught us. Some people cling to these assumptions like a badge of honor, brandishing them in arguments like it would be blasphemy to expose them to factual scrutiny. There are whole TV networks and political campaigns that rely on this impermeable wall of assumption. Tell the right story and you know it will be believed by the base, real facts be damned.

Now here’s the really thorny issue to consider as you travel around the world. What would you believe about God or religion if you had grown up in a remote jungle in Peru? With the nomads of Algeria? In a devout Hindu home in a rural village in southern India? In a family that sent all the boys for a stint in the next-door Buddhist monastery in Thailand?

We are all shaped by the forces around us. The key to being a free thinker is to question why you believe what you believe—and determine if it’s real or something pushed into your brain by someone with an agenda.

 [Flickr photo by ponglest]