April 23 2014

Travel Safety Tips (and the Risk-Reward Analysis of Adventure Travel)

The city of Nanaimo, with a lovely waterfront location on Vancouver Island, hosts one of the best-known bungee jumping sites in North America. The setting is stunning.

The bungee jumping platform sits in the middle of a bridge stretching over a canyon. Standing there, you’re surrounded by lush forest on all sides and the Nanaimo River is at your feet.

Well, 15 stories below your feet.

With only a rope around your ankles to hopefully contain your fall.

Bungee Jumping Nanaimo
Bungee jumping in Nanaimo. (Image courtesy of WildPlay Element Parks. Used with permission.)

Bungee jumping was not on my bucket list, but a friend I was traveling with wanted to do it. And Nanaimo was en route to our destination, so the stop only made sense. Of course I could have declined to jump, but I figured why not try it. Since I was already there, the marginal cost was low.

Thankfully, I hadn’t heard stories like this at the time. The subject of the story describes the harrowing experience and aftermath of having the bungee cord snap as she jumped 111 meters (more than double the distance of the Nanaimo jump) from a bridge over the Zambezi River by Victoria Falls. That she fell into a river rather than onto land saved her life, and fortunately she is here to tell the story.

But traveling is indeed dangerous, and doing stuff like bungee jumping while traveling greatly magnifies the risk.

Yet when I think about it, everything has risk.

  • Sitting on the couch watching TV and eating nachos all day is risky – to your health.
  • Investing your hard-earned money is risky – the investment may lose value.
  • Not investing your money is risky – inflation erodes its value.
  • Driving your kids to school half a mile away is risky – over 80% of car accidents happen within 20 miles of home. Granted that’s because most of one’s driving occurs locally, but the point is that you are vulnerable whether at home or afar.

It’s not a matter of whether something is risky – because everything is risky – but of whether the risk is worth its reward. Don’t evaluate risk in isolation.

If bungee jumping is on your bucket list, does the gratification of fulfilling a life’s goal outweigh the (statistically small) risk of plunging to your death (or being forever maimed)? That’s for each individual to decide, but the decision should weigh both risk and reward.

Those who find travel rewarding usually have proportional tolerance for its associated risks.

But here’s the thing: risk can be manipulated. When you find ways to lessen a risk, the scale tips further in favor of the reward.

With that, may I offer some suggestions for mitigating travel risks.

Physical risks

Pack light. The less you have to lug the more easily you can maneuver and the less vulnerable you appear to pickpockets.

Be prepared. Research the destination and carry or download a map (but use it discreetly; don’t advertise that you’re in unfamiliar territory) so you have a sense of where things are. You’re less likely to accidentally wander into seedy parts of town, and more likely to notice if a cabbie is taking the “scenic route.”

By the way, if you ever have to dispute a cab fare at the end of a ride, make sure all your bags are out of the trunk first.

Lock the suitcase left in your hotel room while you’re out. It only takes a second and deters sticky fingers.

Be aware and undistracted. Riding on a subway line where pickpockets operate (which is most lines serving major tourist sites) isn’t the best time to watch cat videos on YouTube.

Likewise, don’t fumble needlessly with your belongings. In the land of pickpockets, you should be in control of your stuff at all times. If you’re holding a cell phone and need your camera, secure the phone first (in a pocket or purse, not in your other hand) then get the camera – with both hands. Likewise with your wallet, a drink you’re holding, and anything else.

Avoid potentially sketchy situations. If I’m traveling alone I’m not going near a red light district at night even if it’s the city’s big tourist attraction. I might miss out, but the risk is not worth it.

Also when traveling alone, I’m very wary of strangers who strike up a conversation with me. My default assumption is that they’re up to no good. That’s not to say you can’t make friends while traveling – I’ve met some lovely people that way. I’m fine initiating a conversation with a stranger because the random odds of me choosing a shady character are low. But if a shady character is targeting me, the likelihood that they’ll start talking to me is very high.

Digital risks

Use a wallet with RFID-blocking technology.

Secure sensitive data. I’m by no means a digital security expert, but it’s simple enough to avoid storing personal files on your laptop and tablet. My files are kept with a cloud storage service, and if my device is stolen I can detach the files from it remotely.

Financial risks

When out sightseeing, only carry as much cash as you’ll need for the day and leave the rest in the hotel safe. Distribute it (and your credit cards) among different storage locations (shirt pocket, pants pocket, purse, money belt, etc.).

If you’re traveling with someone else, further distribute your cash and credit cards amongst yourselves. That way if one person is pickpocketed not all is lost.

Buy travel insurance. While I already have health insurance and my credit cards offer travel coverage, I still want insurance that specifically covers issues arising outside my home country. Premiums vary (so shop around) but are generally very reasonable. My most recent policy cost $42 for a 16-day trip – totally worthwhile compared to the risk of a huge medical bill if something goes wrong.

Fortunately I’ve never come close to needing medical evacuation, but it’s another reason for travel insurance. If my life is on the line I don’t want a med-evac company refusing service because they’re unsure whether my regular health insurer will pay them.

However, I personally don’t buy trip-cancellation coverage as I’m willing to take my chances there. I’d definitely consider it for an expensive trip, but much of my travel is free or almost free thanks to miles and points.

Back to bungee jumping

If your risk-reward analysis of “adventure travel” compels you to go for it, great! But at the same time, do what you can to lessen risk. As it pertains to bungee jumping, that might include:

  • Choosing a quality operator. Does their equipment look well-maintained? (If I see a frayed cord I’m not entrusting my life to it.) Do they charge a reasonable (not overly cheap) price that doesn’t make you wonder how they stay profitable…in light of all the equipment they’re supposed to maintain?
  • Choosing a safe (or safer) setting. I was comfortable jumping in Canada – a modern country with advanced health care. While I’m in no way judging anyone else’s personal decisions, I wouldn’t have jumped at Victoria Falls (in Zambia and Zimbabwe).
  • Buying travel insurance – with med-evac coverage!

To summarize, I don’t consider risk inherently bad. In fact, risk-taking is often a pre-condition to reward-reaping. But why not stack the deck in your favor as much as possible.

P.S. If you’re prone to motion sickness be forewarned about bungee jumping. Like being carsick magnified a trillion times. I would’ve mitigated that risk – if I’d foreseen it.

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Posted April 23, 2014 by Admin in category "Destinations", "Tips

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