Study Abroad Safety Tips

Image courtesy of Getty Images (US), Inc (United States)

Image courtesy of Getty Images (US), Inc (United States)

One of the things that you hear over and over again before you board a plane to a different country and continent is: Be careful! Everyone stresses the importance of being safe and aware of your surroundings, especially when in a foreign country. We all smile and nod our heads, saying ‘Sure Mom, don’t worry, I’ll be fine’ and then completely forget that very simple warning.

No one wants to think about the dangers that can accompany studying abroad and no one can fault that line of thinking. Before I went to Rome, all I thought about was everywhere I wanted to travel and how amazing the food would be; I never considered the fact that I was very much a target for petty crimes as an American college student.

American college students studying abroad stick out like a sore thumb. We are loud, obnoxious, have cameras stuck to our hands, and, for the most part, don’t assimilate very well…at least when we first arrive! We are sitting ducks for criminals and might as well be presenting ourselves on a silver platter for them.

My introduction to petty crime began immediately after my plane landed in Rome. Before the fasten seatbelt sign went off (whoops!), I was out of my seat and in the bathroom, re-tasting that delicious airplane meal that I was given for dinner. My nerves were shot and I was trying to calm myself since I was out of the United States for the first time ever…and alone. When I came out of the bathroom, everyone was standing up and filing off of the plane. Before I ran to the restroom, I had left my purse on my seat. I was blocked from getting back by everyone deplaning, but I saw that my bag was no longer where I had left it. Immediately my stomach dropped and I started frantically looking around. The bag held my passport, international cell phone, credit cards, and over 200 euro in cash. Luckily, I noticed a man across the aisle, leaving my row with my bag. I made eye contact with him and must have given him one hell of a death glare, because he immediately tossed my bag back to my seat. Welcome to Rome!

I was incredibly lucky this time around, but Lady Luck was not on my side a few months later when I traveled to Paris. I left Rome very early in the morning, with two other friends (Melissa and Agnes), on a flight to Paris. Once we landed at Charles de Gaulle, we boarded a regional train to downtown Paris. Having left our houses in Rome around 4:00 am, we were all exhausted. I remember sitting with my back to the end of the train car, so I could see the rest of the passengers in front of me. Melissa was sitting next to me, next to the window, and Agnes was across from me. Agnes had her purse sitting on her lap and, to this day, I can remember exactly how she had her arms looped through the handles of the bag.

Image courtesy of Getty Images (US), Inc (United States)

Image courtesy of Getty Images (US), Inc (United States)

After a few stops, a young man came onto the train. I saw him watching us, but was too tired to care or think anything of it. We pulled up to a stop and he slowly started walking towards the train door that we were next to. As the doors opened for passengers to exit and new ones to board, he ran up to Agnes, ripped her purse out of her arms, and jumped off of the train just as the doors were closing. A few passengers jumped up to run after him, myself included, but he was a professional. He timed getting off of the train perfectly and there was no way for anyone to stop him. As the train pulled away, we saw him sprinting down the platform and out of the station.

Words cannot describe that sinking feeling we all had after those doors closed. None of us had ever been to Paris or spoke French, and Agnes just had a bag stolen that contained her camera, cell phone, wallet (with cash and credit cards), and passport. Bonjour Paris! Thankfully there was another American traveler on the train who, seeing all of us crying and in shock, stood up and asked if anyone in the train car spoke English and French. A nice young couple traveling from the south of France came forward and became our saviors. They got off at the next stop with us and took us to a police station, where they translated everything for us. While at the police station, Melissa’s phone rang and the display showed Agnes’s number. There was a woman on the phone, claiming she had found Agnes’s bag and would like to return it. The police officer that spoke to her told her where to bring the bag and let us know that he would contact us when the woman arrived. After filing the police report, we thanked the couple profusely, and made our way to the hostel that we had booked for the weekend. I would love to say that this was the end of our misfortune in Paris, but unfortunately the best was yet to come.

After arriving at the hostel, Melissa’s phone rang again with a call from Agnes’s number. The woman on the other line was shouting in French, so we took the phone to a hostel employee to translate. The woman was not actually a woman, but the young man who had stolen Agnes’s bag. He told the hostel employee that if we did not give him Agnes’s PIN for her debit card, he would kill us. How could he do that? Well, our hostel information was in the bag that was stolen, so he knew exactly where we were staying.

I know that this story sounds like something out of the movie Taken. Thankfully, we were not actually taken (or killed) and we can laugh when telling the story now. We were able to book a hotel (since, again with our luck, all hostels in Paris were sold out that weekend) and did not stay at the hostel that weekend. The police and hostel workers both assured us that everything would be fine, but we just wanted to keep our peace of mind. For all we knew, the young man might have shown up, but I’m sure he was just bluffing. We ended up making the most of the rest of the weekend and seeing everything in Paris that we planned to see.

These are just two examples of things that happened to me while abroad. Thankfully, no one was hurt and the damage wasn’t permanent. However, at the time, they seemed like the most terrible experiences in the world. Theft and petty crimes happen all the time, all over the world. It is important to stay vigilant, but still enjoy your time abroad and not be paranoid! If you remember nothing else, keep in mind the following tips (they could save you a lot of trouble, and maybe even save your life!):

Look around! I’ve always been told that I’m slightly paranoid and those people who tell me that are probably right. I’m constantly checking my surroundings, grabbing my pockets to make sure my phone is still in them, and looking over my shoulder to see if I’m being followed. However, you don’t need to be paranoid to be smart. Rule #1: Always be aware of your surroundings!! If you know where you are and what kind of situation you’re in, you can be prepared for anything that will come your way. Along with that, make sure you trust your gut! If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. When I was sitting on that train into Paris, I saw the young man that stole Agnes’s bag get onto the train and I saw him watching us. I even saw him preparing to come towards us before he grabbed her bag, but I didn’t go with my gut instincts and I didn’t tell her to reposition her bag.

Communicate! Rule #2: Always let someone know where you are! A good rule of thumb is to make sure somewhere knows where you are at all times. Whether you’re traveling out of the city or out of the country, or even just going out with friends for the night, make sure at least one person knows your plans. If you have a buddy system, you’ll always have someone who will make sure you are where you are supposed to be. This is especially important when you’re out of your host country. When I was traveling throughout Spain during my fall break, I left a bar alone and didn’t tell my friends that I was going back to our hostel. I got lost and when I finally made it back three hours later, at the crack of dawn, they were already back and frantically wondering where I went. It was a stupid mistake on my part, but if I had just let them know I was leaving, someone might have come with me.

When in doubt, fake it! One of the first things that we learned when arriving in Rome was a surefire tip from our Program Director. Rule #3: If you’re alone, make it clear someone is waiting for you. Our Program Director always told us to pretend like we were on the phone. Now a little disclaimer here…don’t pretend to be on the phone if you’re walking around the city alone. That will just make you distracted and have others think you are as well. The time to use this tip is when you’re taking a cab home by yourself. Many cab drivers, especially in Rome, see intoxicated Americans (girls specifically) as easy targets. They can easily pull over and take advantage of the situation. The same thing can be said if you’re on a public bus or any transportation. I know it might seem far-fetched, but I have a very good friend that was sexually assaulted while riding a night bus home in Rome. Consider taking out your cell phone and pretend like you are talking to a roommate or host parent. Tell them where you are, how far away you are from home, and how long it will take you to get there. This way, the cab driver, fellow passenger, etc. will hear that someone is waiting for you. They might think twice about attacking you if it could be reported when you are late arriving home. Also to note, if you know the language of the country, make sure you speak that language when “on the phone”!

Research! If I learned one thing from my Paris experience, it would be Rule #4: Know where the U.S. Embassies and Consulates are in the cities or countries that you are traveling to. For a complete list of U.S. Embassies and Consulates across the globe, click here. If your passport gets stolen, this is crucial to getting back to your host country!!! Unlike the United States, you cannot use your license as valid form of identification to board a plane to another country. You also want to make sure you let them know as soon as possible that your passport was stolen so that it can be documented.

Be prepared! Make sure you cover all of your bases before traveling. Rule #5: Be prepared! If you have an international cell phone, make sure you put enough money on it to cover out of country costs. When you’re leaving the U.S., if you have international cash, make sure you store it all in different places (that way if one bag gets stolen, you still have more cash on hand). Carry your cash, credit cards, etc. in places that are only accessible to you. A good investment before going abroad are belts or around the neck wallets that you can wear under your clothes. It might seem dorky, but remember: safety above fashion! There is no such thing as being too prepared!

Studying abroad can, and should be, one of the most exciting times in your life! For most students, you are truly on your own for the first time, experiencing the world like never before. It can be very easy to get caught up in the excitement that accompanies your time abroad. Just reminder these few simple steps to save yourself a lot of trouble while abroad!

Katie's favorite Italian pastime: eating pizza! Katie Buonpastore studied abroad in Rome, Italy and is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree at the Catholic University of America. Katie is a marketing and social media intern here at Study Abroad Spotlight. If you follow us on Twitter, you’re probably familiar with her tweets! To learn more about her experiences abroad, check out Katie’s Spotlight!

Julie Pereira

Julie studied abroad in Rome, Italy. She has since graduated and is now working as a marketing coordinator for an online advertising start-up.

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