Keep Your Purse and Pack Safe When Traveling
Sometimes when we mention how much we enjoy traveling on our own in South and Central America, listeners reply with such statements as “Oh, I hear it is not safe and that people get things stolen all the time” or “My cousin went to —– after graduating from college and her purse was stolen twice.”
And, yes, people do get purses, money, backpacks, cameras, and electronics stolen, all over the world. And yet most people do not. Why is that? Perhaps they follow some safety guidelines and work worldwide. Over the next few posts, I will talk about travel safety, a topic that travelers always seem to gossip about. Maybe it all boils down to a few things: ignorance, carelessness, stupidity, and more. Since a lot of theft seems to happen while traveling on the ground at your destination, I will start with that topic.
In almost every city, there are professional thieves who spend the day on buses, ferries, subways, and other forms of transportation, watching for a likely victim. They are always there, you can bet on it. In Western Europe, many of them are reported to be children whose families have come from the former Soviet Union where stealing was purportedly a way of life. Plus, there are now pairs of thieves who travel on motorcycles, one driving, the other grabbing.
Here are a few tips:
Never carry more money than you are going to spend. And do not carry a wallet in your pants pocket, particularly not in the rear pocket. And the front pocket is not all that safe either. In a crowded bus or subway, a gang of thieves may surround you, acting like shoppers and commuters. Frederic says, “Just when the Paris Metro doors opened, I felt the wallet disappear out of the front pocket of my slacks and three guys ran off, in different directions. The Parisians looked at me like, ‘Another dumb tourist does not know the routine.’”
The good ending: Frederick was surprised to pick up his mail at home several months later and find his wallet, mailed back by the French police who had found it in a trash can outside the Metro. All credit cards and ID were intact; the thieves only wanted cash. He had, of course, canceled all the cards anyway.
Do not carry your passport when you are taking in the sights and shops of a town or city. If it is stolen in a foreign country, not only will you be without your identification, you will have to wait for a replacement, perhaps traveling to another city to file a request. Instead, carry a quality photocopy of your as you walk and ride around town, offering to return to your hotel and get it should an official require the original. (Of course, for some purposes such as bank transactions, you will need the original. It is wise to perform your banking and take the passport and any excess cash back to your hotel where it can be safely stored.)
Select apparel that has hidden pockets for money and other important items. Divide up your cash among different pockets. In Italy, his native country, Paulo knows the thieves will be watching him before he sees them. He keeps money for the bus in a front shirt pocket, money for coffee in the small bag he carries everywhere, but money for shopping or dating is in a hidden zipper pocket inside his shirt pocket. And his shirt pockets’ buttons are closed, making it more difficult for a pickpocket. When Christmas shopping, for example, he wears a jacket with a hidden zipper pocket inside the front pocket, plus a second hidden pocket inside the lining. “I can get tired and spaced out. I make it hard for these people to get much more than pocket change.”
Purses are an invitation to a thief, as are daypacks worn over one shoulder. Women are advised to keep their money in cloth travel wallets worn under the clothes, around the waist or the neck. Many women tell us they carry currency in the bottom part of their bras, keeping a small amount of money in a pocket or, even better, in several pockets. And, for a woman, a bright pink daypack is one a male thief may be less likely to steal and be seen with. Smaller black packs all look alike and hard to spot if taken.
Never, ever, ever, set your purse or day pack on the floor or hang it over a chair in a café or social area, unless you have it locked or attached to the chair with a carabiner. Thieves hang out in restaurants, ordering perhaps a coffee so they fit right in at their table, often sitting quietly, perhaps looking like businessmen. They will be watching you and, when your food arrives, they know your attention will not be on your bag. Beware.
You never know what new technique they will come up with. Perhaps they will shove a map at you, asking about a certain street. Underneath that map, their hand may be inside your purse or pack. Melody reported being embarrassed by a couple in a café who were passionately kissing and moaning at the table behind hers. She avoided looking at them, giving the lovers plenty of time to remove her wallet and passport from her purse.
Theft Due to Lack of Common Sense – Two Examples
Girls going out late at night. What is wrong with this picture? Two girls from Colorado visit Quito, Ecuador, a city known for its professional thieves, according to several guidebooks. Although there are plenty of police, they cannot be everywhere. The girls decided to visit a nightclub in a part of town that every guidebook said was unsafe after dark. Intent on having a good time, they wore very short skirts, brief tank tops, and high heels. Each carried a purse. After an evening of drinking and dancing, where they took pictures with their cameras, they decided to walk the mile back to their hostel. Guess, what? Their purses were stolen, full of money, cameras and other electronics, and passports. And the girls, who struggled with the thieves, were injured.
The apparel the girls chose, their visit to the nightclub, and the walk home would have been safe in their university in Colorado, but get real! Save that kind of fun for your home town. In a questionable neighborhood in a foreign country, these girls made poor choices. Their apparel alone brought attention to them, as did the purses hanging on their arms. They were fairly drunk when they left the club.
Thieves ride motorcycles in pairs; one drives, the other grabs. When the target resists, the thieves often apply more force, hanging onto the purse or pack and dragging down the person who is carrying it. This is a possibility to be avoided.
When going to a club by yourself or with one or two other girls, it is wise to dress more modestly than you might at home. Put in your pockets the cash you intend to spend. If you need a purse, take a small one you can tuck in your jacket or hold against you.
If you do drink more than intended, as the waiter or bartender to call a taxi for you. Make sure the taxi is a real one, not a private car that operates as a taxi from time to time. Have the cash for the taxi out and available. Take a picture of your passport information, but not your passport.
Being careless with belongings on public transportation.
We ourselves and a number of travelers we have spoken with bring up a prime example of theft due to carelessness or fatigue. This is a common time for mistakes and I will outline a few to give you some ideas on taking care.
When a traveler gets to a new city or new hotel, it is exciting to go exploring before you have done any reconnaissance. We ourselves have learned to avoid this. I do not know what it is, but before we get to know an area, we may be a bit spaced out. It is so common to put a day pack in a unsafe area, forget to see who is behind us, or even get off the local bus and accidentally leave a package, pack, or book on the bus. When it is your guidebook, it can get discouraging. If it is your day pack with your sunglasses, camera, and jacket, it gets downright frustrating because these are things that are costly and time consuming to replace.
One thing that helps is getting into a pattern of always having your pack or purse in a particular place such as your lap. Should you be traveling on a night bus and get to an unexpected toilet stop, leave nothing on the bus except your checked baggage. Travelers who are asleep might relish the chance to look through day packs and shopping bags.
Clumsy as it may seem, using a cable and a lock to attach your items to you is an excellent way to make sure you have them. Looping a cable through your belt loops and locking it to your pack may looks funny but it is very effective!
Always Remember Where You Are: In a foreign country where you stand out to the locals.
What have been your experiences?