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Travel safety: Tips and advice for women travelling for business or leisure

By: Katie Roberts

Whether on a business trip or on holiday, there is a lot all of us, particularly women, can do to safeguard their security. Beyond petty thefts are violent and invasive dangers that no one wants to think about, yet it’s vital to guard against them. We asked Australian Fely Bowen, Regional Security Manager, Consulting and Training, Asia-Pacific at International SOS and Control Risks for her practical advice.

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Did you know?

Recent global statistics show that nearly 50 percent of all business travellers are female.

What troubles do travellers encounter in general?

By far the most common risks for both men and women are opportunistic crime and traffic accidents, rather than the well-reported incidents of kidnapping or plane crashes. Bag-snatching is a particularly big problem for women, followed by theft and sexual assault. Women tend to be targeted more than men, and this happens all over the world.

Obviously clothing choices are important, right?

Yes, this is part of the preparation for travel, and we ask people to research acceptable clothing in the country they are visiting – business colleagues can usually help. Err on the side of caution and dress more rather than less conservatively. Generally, anywhere in the world, a skirt to the knee and a jacket is acceptable business attire.

Be aware of cultural differences. In Ghana, for example, revealing cleavage is not considered sexual, but the thigh area is. A shawl is handy for covering up, especially in Asia, where you may visit temples and should show respect.

What do you advise women who are preparing to travel?

These five rules are applicable to men too:

  1. Know your personal profile: Understand that if you are a Caucasian visiting China, you will stand out, no matter how you dress. As a female you will stand out more in some countries, especially in business environments.
  2. Research the destination ahead of time: How are women treated and perceived in a business sense? Understand the culture of the place you’re visiting; for example, in Malaysia, men seldom shake hands with women. Knowing this means you won’t insult them or feel uncomfortable yourself.
  3. Be a hard target: Know how to conduct yourself. Know exactly who is picking you up from the airport. Carry your bag on your side that is away from the road, especially in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam where bag-snatching from motorbikes is rife. Wear a wedding ring, or have a made-up boyfriend story ready.
  4. Be confident and assertive: Ward off unwanted attention by radiating a self-assured demeanour.
  5. Stay calm: If something untoward happens – verbal or sexual advances, for example – it’s better to walk away, maintaining a confident assertive persona.

Tips for avoiding travel horror stories

Be careful with alcohol

A woman visiting London on a business trip had a few drinks with colleagues after work and left the pub on her own. A guy ran by and tried to grab her bag. She fought back, but he persisted and took the bag. She hurt her shoulder badly and still ended up with no money and no phone.

Advice: Avoid drinking in a place you don’t know, and ask friends to wait with you until you get a taxi. Fighting back is not recommended.

Double-lock the hotel door

An Australian woman visiting Kuala Lumpur on business neglected to double-lock her hotel door. A male member of the hotel staff came in with a key card and sexually assaulted her.

Advice: Always double-lock the door if possible, and travel with a rubber doorstop to wedge a door shut from the inside, so if someone does get in you may have time to call reception for help.

Keep room numbers private

A flight crew chatted in the lobby of their Milan hotel after check-in, swapping room numbers and making dinner arrangements. A bystander overhead the conversation and went to one woman’s room, pretending to be a crew member with a message. The woman opened the door because his words sounded legitimate, and was sexually assaulted.

Advice: It’s likely we’ve all had innocent conversations such as this and thought nothing of it. In a case like this, you should either ring reception to confirm that the visitor is legitimate, or ask the person to slide a message under the door. Unless you have ordered room service, you should not open the door.

What’s the best way for a woman to safely catch a taxi alone?

Get a taxi from the hotel, where the porter is not only likely to hail one from a reputable company but will often record the number plate. Text the taxi number to a friend. Ask the hotel ahead of time how long to expect the journey to take. Have the hotel business card (with its address in the local language) with you, and have the number of someone to call along the way; especially in countries where people don’t speak English. If you feel unsafe, get out of the taxi and get into another one. Always sit in the back!

What about airport pick-ups?

One traveller was collected by an imposter at an airport, did not check their credentials and was robbed. It’s not enough that a person has your name written on a placard: check that they know where you are staying and who made the travel arrangements. Get their phone number in advance, so you can call them to verify their identity.

Any tips for safety in hotels?

  • Stay on women-only floors, if they’re available; these are common in Japan, and increasing in number elsewhere.
  • Stay in international business hotels where access to rooms and lifts is usually by key-card only.
  • If you’re checking-in late at night and feel uncomfortable, ask someone to walk to the room with you and wait while you check that the peephole is covered, any inter-connecting door is secured and the windows are locked. Ask to move to another room if you have any concerns.
  • At check-in, ask the receptionist to write down your room number rather than saying it out loud. If they announce your room number in a loud voice and there are people around, ask for another room.

Any final tips?

Frequent business travellers in particular should guard against a false sense of security in places they know well. Though bad things happen to both men and women, women can be viewed as softer targets, and the impact of crime on them can be horribly worse.