I’m addressing my comments primarily to first or second time foreign travelers. I have by no means been to all parts of the world, just Europe and the Middle East as well as most of the US and Canada. But my first bit of advice is to imagine you’re coming from a small town, never have traveled before, and go to NYC or LA or DC for the first time. I have actually had more problems in US cities than abroad. But you do have that Dorothy moment of “I’m not in Kansas anymore.”
Pack as little as possible for destinations abroad, then unpack half of it. Unless you’re a millionaire, you’re going to be lugging that stuff everywhere you go, so think about airplanes, trains, ships, (all of the screening in between), and getting it to your hotel(s). If (I speak as a woman) you are going for a one-week trip to Europe, a basic dress or two with matching jacket, a pair of slacks that match (or skirt) and depending on destination shorts is all you will need. If you have a fancy thing to go to, make the second dress special, but still keep the jacket to one. Wear one pair of very comfortable walkable, airport-removable shoes and have a nicer version for meals and events (or flipflops for beaches). Again to quote Rick Steves, you can always buy more when there, without the hassle of extra luggage. Plus it will be new! One time of overpacking long ago was all it took to teach me the joys of one suitcase (and to use airline terminology, one smaller item). I also find that when I pack lots of things to wear, I only wear a small proportion of them.
Never pack anything you need in checked luggage. I NEVER check luggage unless I have to and 2 of the 3 times I have (despite being a very FF), it was not lost but ended up on different flights. That can make for serious inconvenience, as it did for me when I did not get the suitcase till the 3rd day of a five-day trip to Israel. If you do check luggage, do not pack valuables, cameras, medications, basic grooming essentials, and at least one change of clothes/underwear. I will always go with carry-on after my second of the two ‘wrong plane’ experiences, except that I had no choice recently because I was injured and flying through four airports. (And, of course, the suitcase ended up on a different flight and was only returned to me the next day.)
Fit in. I can’t emphasize this enough. There is real truth to the maxim of “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” This means learning basic phrases (available in almost all area guidebooks), which even mispronounced ingratiate you. If you are a woman older than 25, DO NOT WEAR sneakers but instead other comfortable shoes. This has been even more true for me in Europe than the Middle East. But when I was in Cairo I wore a hijab (head scarf) even though not required; I also did so in Istanbul (definitely not required). In Istanbul, I probably would’ve bought a burqa if I could have easily found one in order to fend off the carpet salesmen. They were ubiquitous, pushy, but not dangerous except regarding how much you spend and getting rid of them.
Pick local guides and cabdrivers carefully. For the former, ask the concierge; for the latter make sure they are metered cabs, which in many places are at cab stands. Negotiate the price before you get in. I read in one wrongheaded guidebook that in Athens you could simply hold up your hand in a forward salute. WRONG. One nice cab finally pulled over and the driver told me I should never do so as a woman alone, especially since I didn’t speak Greek. He told me to go to taxi stands.
If accosted as a woman, if you know any foreign language, scream or shout in it. This got me out of two situations in Italy and one in France. Scam artists think they have American tourists figured out, but not so much so for other Europeans. Gesture wildly. Yell polizia! Aiuta! Aidez-moi! loudly if you feel threatened. If you are in a place such as a park sitting on a bench, one of the tricks is for two men to sit down on either side of you. Grasp your belongings even tighter to you and leave immediately. Someone might also stop and say you’ve dropped something. Anything that seems like an attempt to distract you (from your belongings) probably is just that. Avoid swarms of children, who will often beg you for money. If you open your wallet, your camera or suitcase could be gone. Wave them off and shout if necessary.
Don’t be TOO cheerful. Americans are generally very well liked abroad (everywhere I’ve been), but we also have the reputation of always being cheerful and very polite. It is good to be polite, especially if you’re at the hotel, a nice restaurant, with a tour guide, etc. But do not speak to complete strangers – many will approach you offering help of some sort. Shake your head no or say no in the language or some other language and walk away.
Be very careful with ATM machines. Always notify both your credit card companies and bank if you plan to use cc’s or debit cards before you go. In Turkey, despite advance warning, they have had so much fraud that I could not withdraw money except through one of my credit cards. I was very angry at my bank when I got home since I had substantial fees as a result of cash withdrawals from credit cards. Many, especially in Turkey, are in public open spaces, and I actually chose to change money at commission points (which I never do) rather than using an ATM after the first time. Try to use the ATMs at banks or airports and always hold one hand over keypad as you punch in the code before withdrawing money (this happens in the US as well where spying devices have been put above keypads). But if safe and possible, DO use ATMs or credit cards for purchases because you get the exact exchange rate.
Prepare for your specific destination. Know where you’re going even if you’re taking a limo or cab. If a cab, negotiate the price in advance. Never, ever go for the guys inside the airport terminal who claim they will give you a great rate for a trip to e.g., Rome. They are ALWAYS more expensive than the regulated cabs. (And not nearly as interesting – in many places, including Italy and Egypt, I’ve ended up with a taxi driver who acted the part of tour guide as well for no extra charge). If you are going to a brand new place, consider arranging transfers in advance. I don’t usually do this, since it is usually much more costly, but I did so for Cairo and Tel Aviv.
Try not to use a map, at least obviously. While you will get some very helpful people, you might as well be shouting out loud that you don’t know the area. If you have to, duck into a doorway to do so. And if you do have a map, unless you are hopelessly lost, just say you don’t need help to those offering advice (nicely). I find in new places that plotting out where I want to go and how to get there while still in my hotel room is the best strategy and keeping a small map in a pocket if necessary.
Once in the hotel always lock all the locks when you are in the room. I also put a do not disturb sign on the outside when I leave and sometimes leave the television on. Use the safe provided for electronic devices, computers, jewelry and prescription medicines.
If you carry a purse, make sure you can put it over your shoulder and neck so that both hands will be free. This is even more true if you have a camera. I was reading up on Naples, IT recently and it said most Neapolitan women wear their handbags that way on a regular basis.
All of this is meant to ensure a safe, happy and wonderful trip, not to deter you from traveling the world. I have done so much of the latter in the past three years and it has enriched my life enormously. But evidently I have learned to give off the right signals – in France, old Frenchmen will complain to me in French about nasty tourists while Americans will ask me for directions in halting French. Sometimes you have to simply resist the impulse to be as nice as you would be at home, at least out in public. Observe not only your surroundings carefully but how the locals act and behave. I think in France and Italy, I have spent so much time there that I think I have an attitude that can be described either as aloof or contemptuous, which is good for a woman who travels alone. Even if you’re traveling as a couple or in a group, many of these same guidelines would apply.
Anyway, others please add your tips!