Ah safety, the topic nobody wants to cover but everyone needs to hear. You’ll get health and safety details pertaining to your host city during orientation, but it’s also important to cover ways to stay safe during travel. While you’re checking destinations off your bucket list and making memories that will last a lifetime, be sure to keep safety at the very top of your mind. In honor of National Safety Month, we’ve rounded up some must-dos to stay safe during your study abroad adventures.
#1: Tell USAC where you are going
Before you leave for any trip, it’s critical that you tell USAC where you are going, when you will be gone, and who you will be with. This isn’t to keep tabs on you or strip you of your independence (we love seeing our students thrive in the freedom and independence that study abroad brings!); it’s to make sure we can get in touch with you if something goes wrong. Prior to leaving on a trip, be sure to fill out the travel form located in your Gateway account. This will help USAC staff know where you are and the best way to reach you in case of an emergency.
And in the spirit of keeping people in the loop, check in with someone (a USAC student who isn’t on your trip or a parent back home) regularly during your trip. We recommend shooting off a text or email address at least once a day, or whenever you change destinations, to keep a paper trail of your journey.
#2. Notify the U.S. Embassy
As covered in our No-Brainer Safety Tips for Study Abroad, one of the first things you should do is register with the STEP program (this one is so important we had to say it twice). This allows the U.S. Embassy to contact a student in the case of an emergency at home or in your host country. It’s free and can be done online, so no excuses! While we hope that your study abroad is problem-free, you don’t want to be unreachable if something does happen.
You can learn more about the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) and enroll before you head abroad here. You can also sign up to receive alerts in places you’re traveling and document your travel plans to help the U.S. Embassy locate you if needed. Your parents or family can sign up as well to stay connected and in touch with the Embassy, as well.
#3. Use Verified Transportation
This one is big, especially while traveling. After a few weeks in your host country you’ll start to get the lay of the land and understand the ins and outs of public transportation. However, every country (and every city, for that matter) have different ways to get around. Do not ever get in an unmarked taxi, and always verify that your Uber (or Uber-equivalent) is legit before hopping in. Double check on your app that the driver, vehicle, and license plate match what is shown on your screen. Another great tip is to wait for the driver to say your name to confirm the ride is for you. Don’t offer your name first by asking “Are you here for Jeff?” Instead, ask the driver who they are waiting for. If they can’t confirm that they’re there for you, don’t get in the car.
Public transportation is less tricky in this way, but it’s still important to be aware of your surroundings. If you’re traveling alone (which we don’t recommend), avoid empty stations or getting off at stops in unfamiliar neighborhoods. Ask your hostel/hotel staff about the safest (and least safe) stops for tourists and stick to them.
#4. Be Cautiously Open
One of the beauties of study abroad is the opportunity to meet locals and international students from all over the world. However, be cautious of the people you meet. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t interact with locals whatsoever but be smart about it. Don’t give strangers any personal details (like your full name or the address of your hostel), and please don’t allow yourself to be alone with anybody that isn’t in your travel crew.
You might be waiting for your Lizzie McGuire moment, but don’t let that fantasy cloud your judgement. Don’t let your guard down completely or be too trusting with people you don’t know. Trust your instincts and excuse yourself from any person or situation that makes you uncomfortable. No explanation necessary.
#5. Travel in Packs
Use travel as an opportunity to bond with your fellow USAC students. Solo travel sounds glamorous and freeing, but the saying “there’s safety in numbers” was invented for study abroad students (okay, maybe not but you get our point). Traveling alone automatically makes you a bigger target for scams or bigger dangers, so grab some buddies and plan your trips together. Be sure to keep an eye on your friends and have them do the same for you. Just because you’re traveling in a group doesn’t automatically make you immune to trouble. Monitor each other’s drinks, watch each other’s bags, and keep an eye on your friends when you’re exploring the city. And when in doubt, establish a code word to use when you or your friends need help getting out of a situation.
#6. Be Health-Conscious
Whether you get a bug bite or eat something that your stomach doesn’t agree with, it’s important to take your health just as seriously during travel as you do at home and seek treatment when needed. Be sure to bring your medications with you when you travel, and it’s a good idea to carry a mini first-aid kit to take care of smaller ailments on the go. Pay close attention to how you’re feeling during travel and listen to your body (and monitor your mental health) during travel. It’s also a good idea to jot down a few common phrases such as “where is the hospital,” “I’m sick,” or “I need some medicine” to help you navigate healthcare in a foreign country. If you do happen to get sick during your travels or your study abroad you can use these tips to help get through it.
We know that safety isn’t a fun topic to cover, but it’s important to stay in control and keep yourself safe during travel. We could make 100 blogs on safety do’s and don’ts, but we’ll leave it here. If you have more questions about study abroad health and safety, visit our website, reach out to your program advisor, and read all of the pre-departure materials in your Gateway account.