Digital nomad survival tips you can use anywhere (Part 2)

'Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.' ― Joseph Heller

scottevest market
Kevin Elgan/IDG

I just got back from Mexico City, which tourists usually avoid because they don't feel safe there. It's a shame, too. Mexico City is awesome -- and can be safe.

Three years ago, I wrote a piece here called "Digital nomad survival tips you can use anywhere." The column was based on everything I had learned (often the hard way) about how to stay safe while living and traveling abroad since 2006.

In the past three years, however, new tech has emerged that enhances safety even further. And I've learned a few new tricks as well.

Here are my best, most surprising new ideas about how to travel while protecting your money, property, health and life.

Take Uber or Lyft instead of taxis

Like most major international airports, the main Mexico City airport allows only licensed, authorized taxis to pick up arrivals. So it's pretty safe to take a cab from the airport.

In and around the city, however, it's possible that a random taxi might be a fake -- a honeypot for tourists. The crime goes down like this: You get into a fake or stolen taxi and the driver takes you to a dark street. An armed accomplice or two gets in, and they take you to ATMs and force you to withdraw money. They might even keep you past midnight so you can max out withdrawals for the next day as well. Once they've taken away everything you've got, they leave you on a dark street in a bad neighborhood with no money, ID or phone. These so-called "express" or "fast food" kidnappings peaked in Mexico City 15 years ago, but still happen occasionally.

Uber and Lyft are safer. Drivers can't commit crimes or even provide mediocre service and keep driving in the system. Anyone with less than a five-star rating is at risk of being deactivated.

Like most "sharing economy" services, both are reputation-based. So despite occasional headlines to the contrary, you're unlikely to get robbed or attacked by an Uber or Lyft driver.

When you use the app to call a car, you get the name and license plate before you get in. You can use the app to make sure the driver is on the intended route. Also: Uber offers something called "Trip Tracker" in the family profile. That lets family or friends track your ride in real time, and retain a detailed route thereafter. You can also share your ETA with anyone via text message.

cuba Mike Elgan

In the rare countries without Uber or Lyft, such as Cuba, you just hop in a stranger's car and hope for the best. (Here the author attempted a Photo Sphere inside a Cuban taxi in the middle of nowhere.) Everywhere else, you can take advantage of the reputation-based sharing economy for added safety.

It's important to note the safety value of being able to summon a ride to anywhere, rather than hoping that a cab will appear by chance.

Also: Uber announced this week that it will distribute devices called Uber Beacons, which are Uber logo-shaped lights that affix to the window. Passengers can set the color from the Uber app, making it easier to identify the right car. The company said nearly all Uber drivers will have Beacons by the end of next year.

Always keep your phone charged and connected

You can't get an Uber or Lyft, seek out directions, know where you are, make calls, text for help or information or use your apps if your phone is not connected to the Internet or has a dead battery.

That's why you should always carry a Google Fi phone for (cheap, flexible) connectivity and a pocket-size battery pack.

Also: Conserve battery power by turning off location, turning on airplane mode and use low-battery mode when you don't need these features.

Use Maps without a connection

Sometimes you travel outside mobile data coverage areas. You can, however, always have maps, directions, business information and directions. GPS location works directly with satellites, so as long as you have the map on your phone, you can find out where you are and how to get where you're going.

Google enhanced offline maps about a year ago, adding turn-by-turn directions and information about businesses, such as operating hours.

While you still have an Internet connection, open Google Maps on your phone, tap on the three-line "hamburger" menu icon and choose "Offline areas." Choose "Custom area." Pinch, swipe and zoom until the map shows the whole area you'll be traveling in, then tap "Download." Later, if you find yourself without a connection, you'll still have maps, directions and all the rest.

Bonus tip: You can set up multi-stop directions in Google Maps, including walking directions. Inexplicably, however, the app doesn't have a "save" feature for them. One wrong move -- a misdirected tap or swipe on the screen -- and you can lose the directions. To save them, simply share them with anyone via a messaging app from Maps' "More options" menu (this works even if you share without a connection -- the point is to save the directions, not share them). Later, if you lose your directions and don't have a connection, you can bring them back by tapping on the link in your messaging app.

The safest backpack is clothing

I always carry electronics with me while traveling. At a minimum, I carry my battery pack, charging cables, extra smartphone (for the Google Fi hotspot) and my mobile keyboard. Sometimes I carry Google Glass (hey, don't laugh -- how else am I going to take pictures like these?), an iPad, sunglasses and more.

I'm a big fan of SCOTTeVEST clothes, which are loaded with pockets. My favorite is a jacket called the Off The Grid Jacket, which has 29 pockets. It also compresses to take up very little space in my luggage.

In general, backpacks identify you as a traveler carrying expensive things. And they can be nabbed. It's far safer to carry stuff on your physical person.

AirBnB Experiences are safer

When you go places, you do things. Some of these things require special transportation, guide, and other resources, which have to be arranged somehow.

In many countries, this is informal, and happens through word of mouth.

While staying on a remote Central American island a few years ago, my wife and I wanted to visit a small Mayan ruin. Getting there required a boat trip back to the mainland and up a river. I asked a few local men who were hanging out at a store how we might arrange such a trip, and they told me: "Go up this street, turn left when you see a white fence, look for a blue house on stilts. Don't approach the house, just shout 'Fido' at the house." So we did. Fido shouted back when and where to meet at his boat the next day.

His boat was like a low canoe with an outboard motor, which died after we entered the mouth of the river. Fido tried to start the motor as the boat drifted back out to sea and the water churned with with fresh-water crocodiles (they love that tender, American meat).

Eventually, Fido got the boat going again and everything turned out OK. But clearly this isn't an optimal process for choosing which strangers you'll bet your life on.

AirBnB recently launched a better way to arrange activities like this. It's called AirBnB Experiences. Like AirBnB and other sharing economy services, Experiences is reputation-based, so you can know that the people you're dealing with are good at what they do.

Always use video surveillance

Home doorbell cams, like the Ring Video Doorbell, are a great way to add security to your home.

People assume that these are for homeowners to permanently mount as a replacement for a conventional doorbells. But who says you can't take it with you?

ring Mike Elgan

Take a Ring Video Doorbell with you wherever you travel. Here's the view of the author's door and stairwell in an AirBnB apartment in Marseille, France.

I take my Ring Video Doorbell everywhere I go. I attach it to the wall next to the door of wherever I'm staying abroad using something called mounting putty, which is a Silly Putty-like substance available at any hardware store.

I always rent AirBnBs with Wi-FI. I connect the doorbell to the Wi-FI network. Then, when my wife and I return from being out and about, I use my phone to check for motion-activated video of anyone who came to the door or who might have broken in. I also sleep better knowing that any motion outside will sound the app on my phone.

The only place this doesn't work is in Cuba, where home Wi-FI is illegal.

Note that you can also use a Ring Stick Up Cam for this purpose, but not the newer Ring Video Doorbell Pro, which requires an electrical connection.

Best of all, you can use one or two of these products to watch your home while you're a way, and use another to protect you wherever you are. All the cameras are viewed and controlled in the same app.

There are other comparable products on the market as well.

A last bit of advice

New technology and new products make traveling safer than ever. My best ideas for staying safe are easy, affordable and powerful.

One final word of advice: Visit Mexico City! It's an amazing place with a million things to see and do and the best street food in the world. And it's safe -- if you use mobile technology to your advantage.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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