In the winter of 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. America and other powerful Western democracies recognized the new nation’s sovereignty, causing thousands of Serbian nationalists to take to the streets in protest.
The protesters would attack the American, British, and German embassies, as well as other symbols of Western interests — i.e. McDonald’s and Nike. America temporarily evacuated its embassy, and anti-American sentiment in the region seemed at an all-time high.
A few short weeks later, my friend Julie and I were making our way across the Balkans as part of a nine-day trip during our study abroad program’s spring break. We had plans to visit Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, avoiding Serbia and its potential risks altogether. Though the region seemed safe (and the riot would prove to be the height of unrest in the country’s capital), we didn’t want to risk it, especially with a State Department travel alert (less severe than a travel warning) in effect.
The journey through five countries in the region — starting in Croatia and ending in Greece — was a largely unstructured one. Julie and I didn’t have any buses or hostels booked ahead of time, only our 14-hour bus ride from Prague to Zagreb at the beginning of the week and our flight back to Prague from Athens at the end of the week. As a result, we didn’t realize until we had the ticket from Sarajevo, Bosnia to Pristina, Kosovo in our hands that we would need to make a stopover in Serbia for the trip.
Sitting on the bus that would bring us through Serbia, we had a serious discussion about whether we should just change our travel plans and find another way to Kosovo or skip Pristina altogether. Realistically, we thought that everything would probably be fine. But, in the six months I had already spent in Europe, I had never felt more like a young, privileged, potentially stupid American than in that moment.
We were the only women and the only Americans on the small shuttle bus, which would travel overnight across the border. Were my American optimism and arrogance getting in the way of my safety? Was I being xenophobic and reactionary? I was no longer convinced I knew the answers to these complicated questions. I felt unsure and small in my lack of worldliness, burdened by all the things I did not know and couldn’t begin to understand in that one, tiny moment.
In the end, Julie and I decided to take the bus through Serbia. All in all, it was a wonderful trip — one of my favorites, in fact — but my mind has often returned to that pre-bus departure moment.
In a world that sometimes feels defined by its unpredictability, are there things we can do as travelers to offset all of the things we don’t know about different regional contexts? Are there things we can do to help us understand when we are being paranoid and when we are being cautiously well-informed?
My Balkans trip was pre-smartphones (at least pre-smartphones in my life). In the subsequent years, technology has evolved and changed the way we travel. I am continually amazed and fascinated by the tools we can literally have in the palms of our hands to help guide us on the other side of the world.
This extends to the realm of travel safety apps. If knowledge is power, then these six travel safety apps may give you superpowers (or at least make you feel like you have superpowers) while traveling the world.
bSafe: Ward off unwanted attention
bSafe is probably the most comprehensive app I tested and has value both when traveling and at home. Using bSafe, you can alert friends that you are in danger with a one-tap S.O.S. button. When tapped, the S.O.S. button can be set to emit a siren and to start recording both audio and video that will be stored in a secure server.
My favorite feature of the bSafe app, however, may be the “fake call” feature. If you’re trying to shake a creep who won’t take “No” for an answer, you can use the app to fake call you, giving an excuse to get away. The bSafe app is partially dependent upon having a network of trustworthy, nearby friends to spring into action if you are in trouble, which is less helpful if you are traveling solo.
The bSafe pro version includes access to professional security services, which kind of freaks me out. (Maybe I’ve seen too many dystopian conspiracy thrillers, but needing mercenary armies to protect the populace doesn’t seem like a sign our civilization is heading in the right direction…) Thus far, the pro version of the app is only available in Sweden, South Africa, and Norway, though it will be available in the U.S. soon.
bSafe works for both Android and Apple devices.
TravelSafe: Keep emergency numbers handy
Emergency numbers aren’t the same everywhere. You’ve got your 9-1-1s, your 9-9-9s, your 1-1-2s. It’s hard to keep track. If you ever find yourself in a foreign country with the need to call the police, fire department, or an ambulance, there are a few apps that have your back.
For Android users, TravelSafe offers a database of emergency numbers for countries around the world. Bonus features include tip and exchange-rate calculators. If you pony up the money for the pro version, you also get local embassy details and the option to pin certain emergency numbers to your homescreen.
Smart Traveler: Locate the nearest embassy
When on the road, knowledge is power. Sure, it’s cool to bee-bop around with little schedule or plan, but it is always a good idea to know where your closest local embassy is in whichever country or city you are visiting. Luckily, you don’t have to figure it all out yourself.
For American travelers, the U.S. State Department has its own app called Smart Traveler to keep you updated on your nearest embassy or consulate. It also includes official travel alerts and warnings issued by the State Department.
Companion: Have a safe walk back to your hostel
Similar to bSafe, the Companion app allows you to have someone else virtually “walk you home.” If you’re feeling sketchy about walking back to your hostel or hotel, you can activate the app and have a friend track your movements via GPS.
Designed by five University of Michigan students with campus safety in mind, the Companion app will also prompt you periodically, asking if you are OK. If you don’t respond, it will alert your designated IRL companion — or, if you don’t have someone around, the local police.
Companion can also track if you’ve broken out into a jog or a run, or if your headphones have been removed from the phone’s jack, and can send out that information to your pre-designated friend, police department, or (in the case of college kids) campus public safety.
Companion is available for free on both Android and Apple devices.
TripLingo: Learn key language phrases
When in a crisis (or when trying to avoid one), communication is often key. TripLingo’s features include a phrase translator, language flashcards, and notes on a region’s culture. The app also has a specific “safety tools” feature to help with questions like, “How do you dial 9-1-1 in France?” and, “How can I tell someone about my food allergy?” Other travel tools include a tip calculator, currency converter, and free international phone calls while on Wi-fi.
TripLingo is available for both Android and Apple devices. It is technically free, but if you want the full language packs, you need to pay between $10 to $50.
ICE — A travel safety app for those with medical conditions.
Medical conditions shouldn’t keep you from traveling the world. ICE (In Case of Emergency) is an app that displays relevant medical information — such as medical conditions, medications you take, doctor’s contact info, and emergency contact info — as your phone’s locked screen. If something happens to you while you’re away from home, the information is displayed for good samaritans and/or EMTs.
The ICE app also includes translations for said information into 10 languages (Danish, Dutch, English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Spanish, Swedish, and Vietnamese). This means that, if you’re in countries where the people speak those languages, it will switch the default language to accommodate your needs.
It’s free for both Android and Apple users.
Question the things that make you feel afraid.
The more I live in this world, the more aware I am of the lack of control I have in it. As a woman, I don’t have to go far to be reminded of this fact. We are taught to be afraid, to stay at home, to never stray from the comforts and constrictions of the familiar.
But staying home isn’t guaranteed to keep you safe. The world and its many moving parts are more complicated than that. Staying home, however, can lead to an increased fear of the unknown. It can lead to an atrophying of that sense of wonder you get when something is beautiful and strange and like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
It’s OK to be afraid, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t challenge that fear. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek out the unfamiliar. The more I travel, the more I realize how little control I have in the big picture.
But that realization isn’t scary; it’s humbling. It makes me recognize the things I do have power over and makes me realize that, however far I go, I will never be alone. We are surrounded by empathy, by people who share our humanity and want to help. More than anything, more than any travel safety app, this sense of shared humanity is what makes me feel safe when I am on the other side of the world.