Digital Breadcrumbs and Solo Travel

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Nancy Grace isn’t the only one who worries about women who go missing.

I’ve hit the point in my years of travel (often solo travel) where thoughts of safety become a nagging voice in the back of my head.

“If I went missing on the road, would anyone know where to start looking?”

Reading stories like that of missing UVA student Hannah Graham don’t help quell my thoughts, although they do remind me that even when alone we leave a path of breadcrumbs in many places where we go.  In her case, investigators have been able to piece together bits of the last evening she was seen from her texts and security camera footage – little digital breadcrumbs that mark the trail to help begin the search.

When its a mystery of where/how to start in a small college town, how difficult would it be for someone to find me halfway across the world?

If I don’t make a conscious effort, it’s possible for me to go a few days without reaching out to my family or friends, especially when I’m traveling.  I’m sure any of them would tell you that they don’t think much about not hearing from me for a day or two.

That’s a worry on my part… as much as I like traveling without a tether or ties, I also wonder sometimes how long it would take someone to notice if I went missing.  Add to that the fact that I regularly encounter unusual circumstances in foreign lands and that I regularly engage with strangers as part of the overall travel experience.  It would be enough to make the timid stay home.

But some of my dearest friendships and relationships have started with strangers I talked to in a hotel club lounge or individuals who were tour mates in a strange city.  Others have come from meeting up with fellow travelers via prearranged dinners or happy hours planned via travel websites, sometimes with little knowledge about who exactly I was going to be meeting.  Heck, the first time I met my friend Gary Leff, before anyone knew him as the View From The Wing guy, he was just a guy with a FlyerTalk.com handle who picked me up at my hotel to meet others for dinner in Washington DC.  (Strangers on the internet don’t always equate to stranger danger… Gary turned out to be a nice guy!)

To me, those things that make travel fun seem to be “no big deal” as long as I keep a general awareness of my own safety and surroundings.

Yet many stories I hear cause me to pause for a moment and remind myself that bad things DO happen.  People go missing, have accidents, even just fall ill alone in hotel rooms.

I also have to remind myself that exercising caution when traveling along is not restricted to just women.  A couple years ago, a traveling friend of mine was slipped a “roofie” while chatting with acquaintances at a local bar.  One of those acquaintances helped him walk home and then robbed him.  The police were able to help him piece what had happened together thanks to his own digital breadcrumbs.  He was one of many to fall victim to “friendly guy or gal” at the bar.

I don’t plan to stop my solo travels – I already have to travel alone for business frequently so it is a necessity.  And sometimes I have adventures I want to pursue and my existing pool of travel companions lack the time, interest, or funds to join me.

Occasionally I just enjoy my own company.

Alone, on a solo three-week trip across New Zealand/Australia in 2009.

Alone, on a solo three-week trip across New Zealand/Australia in 2009.

But I also understand that family and friends worry – and not just due to stranger-danger, but because of international incidents.  I’ve grown used to (and greatly appreciate) the texts and emails after international transportation accidents – or in the middle of sudden protests or natural disasters – because friends are not certain whether I might be traveling to the effected area.  (They have good cause too – I was on my way to Tokyo when the earthquake struck in 2011 and I’ve had many other close brushes with major incidents over my travel years.)

My solution to helping reassure others – and also find subtle ways to track my movement – is to find ways to leave a few breadcrumbs as I travel – not only so I can reassure others about my safety but sometimes so that I too can revisit my path.  This becomes important when I take off to do things on a whim (as I’ve been known to do) – going on a snorkeling tour alone or deciding to stay out dancing with new friends I’ve just met.

Here are a few things that I do to leave “digital breadcrumbs” along my way.  Most of these are second nature and instinctive to me – I don’t travel with an elevated sense of paranoia – but they are things I consider when I’m alone.

1. Keep itineraries and set plans documented. 

I use TripIt to organize all of my flights, hotels, rental cars, and tour plans.  I also selectively share those plans with a couple key individuals who have access to them while I’m traveling.  If my plans change, I try to keep TripIt updated in real-time so there is a paper trail of my itinerary and plans.

TripIt allows for easy drop-in of itineraries and other items as “notes” so plans I make to meet up with someone new will include information I’ve decided is important.  (Example:  “Meeting Dave from FlyerTalk.com with handle XYZ at Conrad Hotel lobby bar at 7 pm.  Dave will be wearing a blue shirt.”) 

2. Use social media strategically.

The “food porn” pictures of food or cocktails I post on Instagram not only help me document where I’ve been (and perhaps make a few friends jealous back home) but they also are real-time clues to where I’ve been.  At home, I often will photograph a photo of a cocktail when out on a first date and label it with the name of the bar.  To my companion, I’m just the girl taking photos of her food.  To my friends, it’s a marker of where I’ve been.  And to me, hopefully its just a photographic reminder of a great evening.

I also try to check in via social media semi-regularly.  My family will usually reach out if I go an extended period of time without posting on Facebook, for example.  Again, I will sometimes tag locations of where I’ve been to be sure my whereabouts are generally known.

3. Email yourself.

I’ve been known to email myself details about plans both because I lose them and also because I want to be sure the details are there in case something goes sideways.  Similar to my tactic with TripIt, I will often try to keep plans and notes in my email inbox if they aren’t located elsewhere.  I’ve also been known to send myself an email when I’ve decided to go somewhere with new friends… just in case.  I like the thought of knowing that my family or authorities could read it if they needed to.  (I should note that the email account I use is one that could be accessed in the event of an emergency by a couple of key trusted people.)

4. Carry adequate power and keep your device charged.

Maintaining a good charge on a cellular device is important.  Should anything happen, that device and any location clues it provides may be an important link to knowing your whereabouts.  I carry extra external power bricks so I can charge in a low-power situation.

5. Be aware of security cameras.

A rise in public CCTV (closed-circuit television aka video surveillance) means that many things get recorded, particularly in public places.  If I’m meeting strangers for the first time, a hotel lobby or in front of a known public landmark may provide a higher likelihood of your whereabouts being noted should anything sinister come into play.

6. Check in after significant events.

After 9/11, my agreement with my mother is that I will check in with her after any kind of major incident to let her know where I am.  As well, it’s good to have a general check in plan with one to two people  when traveling alone.  Even something as simple as “if you don’t hear from me or see something on social media  every 24 hours, feel free to call – and if another 12 hours passes, please start tracking me down” can give reassurance that your absence would be noticed.

7. Maintain appropriate digital privacy.

Any tactic involving regular social media updates and location tracking is best if you keep the loop of individuals you are sharing data with inside a trusted circle.  I maintain social media accounts that are public as well as ones that are more private in nature and use appropriate privacy controls and settings for both.  For my own security (and that of the homestead), I very rarely blog about my whereabouts in real time and keep my movements on wider distributed networks a bit more covered.  (I also keep very little at the homestead that would be that interesting to thieves… my technology travels with me and my valuables are in a safety deposit box.)

I’d be remiss, as well, if I didn’t note that there are some individuals who go out of their way to NOT be found when traveling so digital privacy IS their strategy.  They do not want anyone to know where they are and want to leave NO digital breadcrumbs.  In that case, they would no doubt practice the opposite of my strategy.  And if they disappeared, it might truly be without a trace.

These are also not intended to be general “safety” tips – and I encourage travelers to try and practice good basic travel skills and street smarts at all times.

About Jennifer Moody

Jennifer is a management consultant and avid volunteer. Her career and volunteer duty travels have helped her log top-tier airline and hotel status annually for the last eighteen years. In addition, she embraces the opportunity to maximize her vacation time by planning extracurricular trips that have taken her to over 60 countries and 47.5 US states. Although she averages 200 days a year on the road, she loves to return to “the homestead” in her native Fort Worth, Texas where she enjoys cooking, gardening, sewing, needlepoint, wine, and cocktail mixology.

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