If you’ve seen the Liam Neeson movie “Taken,” you’ve got an accurate idea of exactly what to expect when traveling outside of the USA.
Okay, that’s not entirely true, but this tense film can serve as a useful cautionary tale about what not to say to good-looking strangers in different countries. Heck, you probably can’t even trust all good-looking strangers in your own country.
What that movie doesn’t really get into is the issue of taxi safety for student travelers. Now, the top ten security tips for student travelers included in this article do not just apply to student travelers, but given that students often travel for Spring Break as well as during the summer vacation, it is worth reviewing what you can do to keep yourself safe when using taxis abroad.
1. Real Taxi
This first tip is number one for a reason. As you travel in many countries, you will find that laws are either more lax or law enforcement doesn’t care to stamp on enterprising folks’ livelihood. In Brazil, you will often find ‘combis’ which are independently run, VW van taxi in which lots of people ride and the driver drops people off here and there. Everyone knows these exist and run, but really, they operate outside the law in many cases. Many combi drivers are genial and helpful, but you still need to be careful.
In countries like Japan and Taiwan, you will find that it is easy to confirm that a taxi is legitimate. There is a very structured way that taxis queue and are hired, and the taxi drivers themselves will keep those outside the law away from the taxi stands at airports and stations.
But in less developed locations, you need to be careful to look for the licensing documents, the official taxi markings, and the company that the taxi works for. If you don’t feel sure that the taxi offering you a ride is legit, go with your gut and give it a pass.
The second safest thing you can do to stay safe when using taxis abroad is to never be alone. Having one other person with you makes you far less of a target, and more people with you makes you all the safer. The danger, of course, in having other people along is that you have conversation and peer pressure as added dangers. Avoid this by establishing clear rules that if one person feels bad about a situation, everyone will leave that situation immediately and that when it is time to transition from one mode of travel to another, conversations which distract from the transition must come to an end.
3. Language Barrier
Now it is unlikely that you are people in your party will always speak the language of all of your destinations, but don’t worry; enough people speak English that you should be fine. This is particularly the case with taxi drivers abroad. These drivers, if they are legitimate and have plenty of experience (this is the kind of driver you want anyway), tend to speak enough English to interact successfully with their passengers.
To confirm that you can interact with your driver sufficiently, before you get in the taxi, stand on the passenger side of the taxi, wait for the door or window to open, and say hello. Then ask the driver if they speak English. If this is done successfully, tell the driver where you want to go and confirm they know how to get there. Also confirm what the fare will be, approximately. If the driver can do all this, you should be fine.
4. Money and Document Security
Usually you travel with a lot of cash or traveler’s checks. This is fine, but you don’t have to display all of it when you are going to pay for a taxi. Be wise! Divide your money up and put it in different places, such as a discreet money belt, in your sock (seriously), in a pocket, in a pouch that hangs from your neck under your clothes or anywhere else that is creative and discreet. Try to keep only just enough money immediately available and visible. This will keep others from targeting you as wealthy.
The same goes for documents such as passports. You don’t want to lose these or let them get stolen, so keep them on your person but out of sight. The only people who need to see your passport are officials at the airport or law enforcement officers. Hotel folks usually don’t need to, and taxi drivers absolutely don’t need to. Keep those passports out of sight and secure.
Number five is about not being flashy with money or your physical appearance. If you show up at a taxi stand with a gucci bag, bling shining from multiple fingers and other body parts, and wearing fancy clothes, you are either a celebrity with a guard or an instant target. Don’t be an instant target. Dress comfortably and don’t do anything that sets you apart from the other, savvy travelers.
It can be hard to focus on your taxi and driver when you are in a new country and surrounded by exotic and new sights. Try hard, friends. Be aware of what is going on around you and don’t allow yourself to be distracted by conversation, good-looking strangers, people selling things or anything else.
This also means you don’t let people bump into you. Taxi stands tend to be fairly crowded after an arrival, so pick-pockets do their work at these stands sometimes. If you have an unreputable driver working with a pick-pocket, you might be distracted by the driver while the pick-pocket too.
So be aware, maintain a nice radius of personal space, and know what’s going on around you and where people are.
7. Driver Condition
You need to know that your driver is capable of operating the car, understanding instructions, and communicating. So interact with him or her before getting in the car. Get him or her to help you with your luggage and watch the body language. If the driver seems unstable or shaky, they might have been drinking. If their words are slurred, more of the same. If you have a feeling that indicates the driver is questionable, why take a chance? Just move on to the next taxi.
8. Car Condition
If the taxi is dirty, either inside or out, pass on it. It’s that simple. The taxi driver uses this car as his or her money-maker, so it should be well-maintained. If the car is in less than excellent condition, the driver is not as focused on a smoothly operating car and a good experience for their passenger as they should be.
Don’t worry about being rude. You are a visitor to the country and you get to do what you want, within reason, due to your incomplete understanding of the culture. Give the car a thorough once-over. Tears, filth, parts falling off, dirty windows: all of these are red flags.
9. Destination Confirmation
Before getting into the car; yes, before, make sure the driver knows where you need him or her to go. Be sure the confidence they express is real and not feigned. Go with your gut, again.
This one’s simple!
10. Functioning Cell Phone
It might be somewhat expensive, but having a functioning cell phone at all times during your trip is crucial to your safety. Make it obvious that your phone functions and have it in your hand at all times when in the taxi. This is a nice way to show that you are ready for anything and can be a deterrent to potential attackers.
On top of having a functioning cell phone, be sure you know the emergency numbers in every country you visit.
This might seem like a lot to do or be aware of when taking a taxi as a student traveler, but rest assured that your safety is worth it. Why take chances when you can have a safe journey by following these ten simple steps? Stay safe, enjoy your trip, and be careful.