In all my years of professional and leisure travel I’ve been robbed just once, pick-pocketed on a tram in Lisbon. Sure, I’ve been scammed, and lost things, and left things behind – but straight down the line theft? Just that one time.
Lucky? Maybe so, but I’ve also been pretty careful with my valuables and possessions while travelling, and learned a few tricks along the way.
So here’s how to hang on to the things you hold dear, while seeing the world.
By the way – don’t read all this and freak out. There’s no need to be unduly paranoid. Nothing’s going to go wrong on your trip. You’re just going to take some sensible precautions.
Get a day-pack – never let it out of your sight
Always carry a quality day-pack for the stuff you want to carry around – nothing too cheap, nothing that can be sliced open easily, something with internal pockets and plenty of space. Sling it across your front in crowded places and – really the only other rule – never, ever leave it anywhere unattended.
My bag goes with me to the bathroom, or just across the restaurant floor to pay the bill, or downstairs to talk to the hotel reception, or even walking down to the aisle to ask the bus driver a question. Why take the risk?
Don’t keep anything valuable in an out-facing day-pack pocket
Just don’t, even if it’s zipped up tightly. Everything will be fine, of course, and you won’t have anything stolen. Until the day you are pick-pocketed with ease. On a Lisbon tram, for example.
So – nothing other than pens or chewing gum in the outer pockets, OK? Not a bulging, money-filled wallet. Again, for example.
While we’re on the subject, this also applies to keeping your wallet in the back pocket of your trousers. Because that’s the last place a pickpocket would think of having a ferret around while you’re crushed up inside a London Tube, right?
Your wallet goes in your front pocket, along with the room key helpfully emblazoned with the name of your hotel and the room number. The room that you’re not in, on account of currently being on a London Tube, being robbed of your room key by a thief who might as well go and see what you’ve left back there. While you’re on the Tube, blissfully unaware.
Consider a money belt or pouch, under your clothes
Some people swear by them, others – including me – find them a bit cumbersome. It’s certainly true that having your passport, credit card and a stash of cash close to your skin at all times feels nice and secure. Personally, I don’t like having virtually to undress to extract a hefty bank note or my passport – and it seems to draw attention to myself in a way that looking through a bag or wallet doesn’t.
I think it’s down to personal preference. I’ve settled on a compromise that isn’t particularly recommended but suits my travel style – I do have a money belt, with passport and cash etc in it, which I keep in my day pack. I’m super vigilant with the day pack, as we’ve seen, but I can put my hands on all the valuable stuff with one grab inside the bag.
Of course, I’m stuffed if I lose the bag or have it stolen. Which is why I tend to do all the following things too.
Be prepared – have a back-up plan
Especially before a long trip, I put together a paper document – passport number, credit card contacts, phone/laptop/iPad serial numbers, travel insurance and bank emergency numbers – and stash it in the day-pack. I also email a copy to myself. And if I’m feeling particularly security conscious, I also print out a teeny-type version and keep it in my wallet.
All these precautions mean that if something does get stolen or goes missing, I can do something about it.
Listen to the locals
Guidebooks and websites can only tell you so much about how safe countries and cities really are – and their advice, in the end, is necessarily fairly generic.
So if your friendly hostel owner tells you that you should keep a tight hold of your bag in the neighbourhood, or that you shouldn’t flash your camera around, you should listen to them. Mostly, they’re not trying to unsettle you – they just want you to have a good and safe time.
Leave things in the safe and at the hotel
If your accommodation has a safe, think about using it for things you don’t need during the day. Notebooks that you wouldn’t want to lose? Tablet? Credit card? I often leave a spare $50 back at base too, just in case.
Hotels and hostels often want to hang on to your passport for a while when you arrive, so they can fill in the paperwork. If I’m there for two or three days, I usually just ask them to hang on to it – I’d rather it was in their locked drawer or safe for the duration than my backpack.
And if your hotel is the kind of place that says ‘leave your key at reception’, then do just that.
Buy a padlock or two
You’ve got your day-pack with you at all times, but you are going to have to put the rucksack or travel bag down at some point, and maybe even leave it somewhere – in storage, behind a counter, in a luggage compartment or on the rack-top of a packed bus. So lock it up the best way you can with some decent travel padlocks.
It won’t stop a serious thief, but it will make your bag look significantly less attractive than the lock-free bag next to yours that’s giving the seductive ‘come-hither’ look to an opportunistic villain.
Stay bright-eyed, bushy tailed and scam-free
There’s no point in taking in all these precautions if you’re going to fall for the first pick-pocket or scam-artist you encounter on the street. And there’s also no point in trying to figure out every possible danger or scam that you might encounter out on the street – you’d never leave your hotel.
So this rule is all about staying alert without letting it ruin your trip.
Mostly, you can take people at face value. That unfortunate beggar giving you a little bit of hassle is just an unfortunate beggar. That person on the street asking directions is probably just lost (and, by the way, could easily be you).
But the person standing very closely next to you at the newspaper stand? Or the person engaging you in conversation while someone else lurks behind you, right on your shoulder? Trust your instincts and move away quickly. The worst that can happen is that you’ve just moved away quickly from an innocent person. Or you may have just saved your wallet.
And finally…travel insurance. Seriously, you didn’t?
Look up ‘travel insurance’ in the dictionary. It comes right before ‘You got travel insurance, right?’ It’s the first thing the local police will ask, before they laugh their heads off if the answer is no.
Looking for more great Jules Told Me travel tips?
Doing your laundry on the road – I show you how to keep it clean
5 things you should never travel without – this list will surprise you!
Finding a great local restaurant – not always easy, here’s how
Here’s how to read your guidebook – who knew you needed tips for that?
Feature image, Beware of pickpockets by Jaan-Cornelius K, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
Sri Lanka Queen’s Hotel by Miran Rijavec, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Money American by 401K 2012, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Free Advice by Solo with others, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Padlock by Declan TM, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Police Inspector by West Midlands Police, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0