It's unlikely you'll ever encounter more than a pick pocket during your travels. In fact in most countries, you're much more likely to be injured in a motor vehicle accident than be assaulted during a robbery. But it does happen and you should take precautions where you can.
My approach is simply not to be the most visible and valuable target. And in most places that just means not strolling around with an expensive camera around your neck.
Here are 12 travel safety tips to avoid trouble and recover quickly in the unlikely event of theft.
1) Carry multiple forms of money and keep them separated.
Bring a number of credit and debit cards, but store them separately, and not in your purse or wallet. In addition to local currency, have at least $100 of a world currency (i.e. - Euros or USD) as back up in case of emergency. This should be stored in the frame of a pack back or even under the cushions in the toes of your shoes. If one stash disappears you'll have the others to rely on.
2) Wear a money belt under your clothes.
Please no fanny packs. Buy a low profile money belt and wear it under your clothes. Don't access it while you're out and about. Use it for storing your passport and high domination bills.
3) Use a 'fake' wallet for daily purchases, or no wallet at all.
I keep a wallet with cash for the day and a few expired cards and IDs to fill it out. Any punk who wants it is welcome to it.
4) Back up your documents.
Scan your important documents such as your passport and travel insurance and email them to yourself. Paper copies are good too.
5) Create a contact list.
Keep a paper contact list including numbers at home, local embassy or consulate and the Department of Foreign Affairs emergency operations centre. It's also good to have the contact numbers for your credit cards and bank.
6) Learn some of the language and customs.
If you end up being left on the side of the road, far from the usual tourist circuit you'll need some basic language skills to flag down help. Just a few phrases can make all the difference. And being familiar with the customs will help you understand what's normal behaviour and what's not. Besides helping you spot and avoid trouble, this will make your whole trip more enjoyable.
7) Dress down and try to blend in.
Replace that TAG watch with a Timex. And if you're heading to a sunny destination try and find a way to avoid that fresh off the plane white glow. In some countries the best you can do is look like an ex pat that's been there a while. Review maps before setting out for the day or at lunch. Count the number of blocks between your destination and put the map away while out in public.
8) Travel with others, especially at night.
Going solo has it perks, but at night consider making a few new friends at your hostel and head out with them. If that's not possible, scout out a few restaurants for supper while you're out in the day.
9) Travel light.
Too many bags make you more visible during transit from city to city. They also make you slow should you have a need to move quickly. Ideally, I'd go with one carry on size back pack that I could keep with me on bus trips, but rarely do I get down to that size.
10) Keep a tidy room.
This might seem odd, but most thefts will occur at your hotel or hostel. A tidy room with everything in its place means you'll quickly discover if an item is missing. If you're room doesn't have a safe of locker keep everything in a locked bag. Sure it can be cut, but most thefts are crimes of opportunity.
11) Don't stand still.
Anytime you're standing still in public you're a target for pickpockets. So whether you're watching a street performer or engaging in conversation with a friendly local, remain aware of who's around you. When you're on public transportation there's no room to move, so stay especially vigilant.
12) Don't use an off the rack camera bag.
Thieves know the bags and target them. Instead use a regular backpack or saddle bag with a Crumpler bag insert. And if you really want the functionally of a specialized bag stay away from the most popular brands or pick a sporty model, or even better, check out Think Tank's Retrospective line.
I take the extra step of using black duck tape to cover brand names and generally make my gear look beaten up. And keep in mind, while you're in shooting mode with your eye to the camera it's very easy for people to get close to you. It's always good to head out with a friend. When I'm alone in a city I'll often use my point and shoot, especially in the less touristy areas.
If all your precautions have failed and you find yourself faced with a confrontation, don't resist. It may go against your instinct, but the assailant doesn't want your life, just your possessions. Give them up. Resisting can be fatal.
Near the end of my trip to Argentina an incident reminded me of how quickly things can go wrong. A French nature photographer went for a stroll after breakfast before his flight later in the day. He was taking photos in a park which I had recently visited. Thieves tried to steal his camera and he resisted. He was stabbed six times in the chest, dying moments later. The lesson here is simple. Don't resist. No possession is worth your life.
It's extremely unlikely that you will ever face a situation like this. Fear of these rare situations shouldn't stop you from travelling or from enjoying every moment of your trip. Just keep these simple precautions in mind and be aware of your surroundings. In all my travels I've only had one pickpocket attempt and I have never felt personally threatened. So get out there and explore!