Travel Safety – Tips and Information

A pickpocket in action

A pickpocket in action.

That which does not kill me makes me stronger
Friedrich Nietzsche

Travel Safety –  avoid being robbed

For up-to-date government advice on unsafe areas

Americans: US Travel Alerts

Canadian: Travel Advice

Brits: Foreign Travel Advice

Australians: SmartTraveller

New Zealand: Safetravel

But note that Government warnings tend to be extremely cautious. Read the papers, watch the news, judge for yourself – travelling when things are a little hairy means fewer tourists, more room availability, less cost, more cool. Life is a gamble.

If you’re traveling to the USA and not an American citizen don’t forget that you will need to get an ESTA Visa Waiver if it’s your first time there.

Register your whereabouts when travelling abroad

Another useful service provided by FO, given the uncertainty in some parts of the world as a result of natural disasters or outbreaks of civil unrest, UK citizens may like to note an online service from the Foreign Office.

You may register the details of your trip and the person(s) travelling with you before your trip starts.

You can also register details of your family and friends so that they can be contacted in the event that you are affected by an incident whilst travelling. Visit your government’s site as above, there should be a section for registration.

Above all else the best advice is to get reliable Travel Insurance!

Some international incidents over the last few years

A Barcelona mug-pocketing

After several weeks of trouble-free touring Spain we found ourselves in Barcelona on our last night. A good dinner was followed by a wander around the ever-lively La Rambla and adjacent Barri Gotic districts, looking for atmospheric night action photos.

I was carrying a small wallet zipped into a pocket on the left side of my (rough) jacket and a compact camera zipped on the right side. My partner was walking on my left (in retrospect protecting my left side). I was carrying a couple of bottles in a plastic bag on my right (also in retrospect this made that side vulnerable as my right arm was not available to protect me).

On the way back to the hotel at about 11pm we took a direct route through the Barri Gotic’s narrow, quiet streets. Three North African youths appeared, unthreateningly and were about the pass by on my right when the tallest one popped over close, well into my personal space and said ” Cigarette señor? “.

I said “non”.

He then began to dance around in front of me, gently kicking my legs and joking in English “You can dance with me? Like this? “, kick, kick.

For a few seconds this continued and I walked on, trying to ignore him and his ankle taps, assuming he was drunk and playful.

He stopped and walked off with his friends. My partner suggested I check my camera. Sh**!

We turned and ran back to the guy, grabbed his sleeve and demanded my camera back. He took off at speed and we pursued him through the Barri, occasionally shouting at locals to stop the guy. Understandably, no one intervened and he disappeared.

And so, goodbye favourite compact camera, and worse, goodbye to a great variety of excellent Barcelona, Mijas and Tarifa photographs.

The Rambla police were sympathetic but confirmed that this event was a common occurrence in the area and by the same racial group. Later a local said that apparently there is some kind of law – Spanish or just in Catalonia we don’t know – that makes it impossible for police to charge a thief for stealing items worth less than €400.

Lessons learnt

– download any important pictures to a safe medium every day, or change the card for an empty one.

– do not carry a wallet into a danger zone, just a few notes and credit card (card in sock? )

– if travelling as a pair, keep any valuables in zippered pockets on your partner’s side.

– don’t take short cuts at night. Pick busy, well-lit roads, even if they are longer.

A Rome pickpocket

Pay special attention to your neighbours when in cramped, pushy situations like getting on to crowded tube trains. Smartly dressed young men are the most likely suspects and often work in pairs, selecting you before you board the train and spotting where you keep your wallet.

In a recent attempt one smart young man entered the metro car first, then ‘accidentally’ blocked the way in, causing a shoving confusion, giving his accomplice the chance to barge forward and dip a pocket. Unfortunately for them the pocket was sealed with velcro and the owner (me) was nervously alert with the hand hovering nearby – which caught a couple of strange fingers in flagrante delicto.
No further action was taken as an Italian metro car is not a good place to challenge a couple of desperate Albanians.

Traditionally thievery in Italy is blamed on gypsies and their fast-moving kids, though these days Albanian and Croatian illegal immigrants are a more popular butt of crime stories.

Padlocks on luggage passing through US airports

The US Transportation Security Administration demands that all luggage travelling thru/from/to US airports, whatever the airline, must be either unlocked or locked with approved padlocks. See the TSA website for lock listings.

If you use other locks baggage screeners may break the locks and will not accept responsibility for the damage.

Do not pack valuables in your bags!

France is a Gas!

Mobile Homers beware. French thieves have have been known to pump anaesthetic gas into camping cars, then robbing the vehicles at their leisure while the owners sleep through, waking to a headache and no possessions.

Prevention: a) install a gas detector b) only camp at official sites c) don’t go to France (but then you’d miss the sights, weather and food! ).

Eurostar, Gare du Nord, Paris

Beware ‘kind’ men offering assistance at the incomprehensible ticket machines at Gare du Nord station. They usually buy you unusable tickets and charge you a silly price. Make sure you have €uros change and don’t accept help from anyone!

Locking suitcases

Recent problems with an expensive combination lock on a suitcase were solved by popping open the lock with one twist of a screwdriver. And if I can do it, so can anyone.

Furthermore, on investigation, little mass-produced ‘travel’ padlocks that you can buy from travel carousels at airports and in many shops all used the same key. Thus any half-intelligent, thieving baggage handler/room maid would need to make only a small investment in a couple of popular keys (e. g. the ‘Go’ brand) to get access to many cases.

Moral: Don’t use combination locks and buy your padlocks from a locksmith beforehand, including a spare, and check they require different keys to open them.

Transport troubles…

Unlicensed taxis are occasionally driven by muggers and rapists it seems, a global development as unpleasant reports have arrived from Bangkok (Thailand), Cusco (Peru), Mexico City and Prague (Czech Republic) on the same subject.

The obvious solution, if you can afford it, is always get a cab from a taxi rank or hotel or at least hail one that looks official – with a sign on the roof. Check the driver’s photo licence. In Thailand get a taxi rather than the quaint but dodgy tuk-tuks.

Unfortunately crowded public transport in many locations is also a thief’s paradise – pickpockets can discreetly extract valuables even from zipped pockets on buses and trams, as Peter Thorpe of Staffs, UK discovered recently in Prague. He points out that you should be wary while waiting in addition to when aboard as thieves may note the location of valuables before boarding.

Safety should be high on the priorities list, even if it hammers the budget.

Moral: Official taxis and better quality hotel rooms will help preserve your valuables and more. . .

Thailand Special! Lovely, must-see country, culture and beaches but…

– Petty thievery is common in Bangkok, bigger resorts and small cheap hotels, so look out for your valuables, especially if you’re busy getting wrecked, so secure your goodies before a night on the rampage.

– Private long-distance buses have a terrible reputation. Thievery is rife on board especially during overnight trips and actively supported by many bus operators, including stowing a lad with a light and lock-picks in the luggage hold during the entire journey! Locks are no protection, keep all valuables on your body and beware when the lights go out! And/or take a bus from a government bus station.

– Also use a little common sense about going off to lonely places with friendly Thais, and do not take unmarked taxis, particularly women.

– Ensure hotel rooms are secured at night, sneak in thievery is common, especially in cheap hotels where locks are inefficient. Stick a chair or wedge under the door.

General travel safety advice for most of the world

1) Low Profile

Wear minimum jewellery, casual clothes and keep cameras inside a discrete bag when not in use. Try to relax and look like you belong there, which means plan your routes as much as possible in order to reduce time standing on street corners pointing at your map and screaming “rob me!”

2) Beware Danger Zones

Be particularly aware of your safety in crowded areas such as local festivals, markets, crowded tourist sites, railway and bus stations, and of course, on trains and buses. Frequently it pays to travel first class or hire a guide.

3) Stash your Cash

Avoid wallets or purses. Keep enough money for your immediate needs in your (button down/zippered? ) pocket, and the rest hidden on your body or, better, inside a *locked bag in a safety deposit box. Have different forms of funds in different places. Remember your air ticket and phone/laptop are valuable too.
*a little lockable bag, deposited at reception instead of the ubiquitous brown envelope provided in many lower class, third world establishments, will discourage the hotel receptionist from checking on your stash later, or using your credit cards to buy himself a new hi-fi system, or from removing the lower-level traveller’s checks.

4) Credit Cards/ATMs

– Ensure no one can see your credit card code number when you key it into an ATM (bank cash machine), or you may find a bogeyman has memorised it and will later steal your card and buy himself some new toys with it.

– If your card doesn’t reappear from the ATM, check that there isn’t a tiny foil loop blocking its exit – a device known as the Lebanese loop that allows the thief to retrieve your card later. The latest scam involves thieves putting a thin, clear, rigid plastic sleeve into the ATM card slot. When you insert your card, the machine can’t read the strip, so it keeps asking you to re-enter your PIN number.
Meanwhile, someone behind you watches as you tap in your number. Eventually you give up, thinking the machine has swallowed your card and you walk away. The thieves then remove the plastic sleeve complete with card, and empty your account.
The way to avoid this is to run your finger along the card slot before you put your card in. The sleeve has a couple of tiny prongs that the thieves need to get the sleeve out of the slot, and you’ll be able to feel them.

– Keep your card in sight at all times, even in shops/restaurants if possible. e. g. Follow the waiter the the till to watch the transaction being processed. On-the-spot card cloning is rampant. Destroy any carbon copies.
– Sign your card immediately you receive it.
– Destroy/shred statements/documents that contain your personal details/account details – don’t put them in the dustbin.
– take only the cards you intend to use so you can see more easily if a card goes missing.
– inform your bank of travel plans so a) they don’t stop your card in the wrong place b) they can monitor suspicious activity.
– Keep receipts and check against statements regularly.

Cities where you have most chance of being robbed

1: Kingston, Jamaica
“Crime against tourists is increasing despite government efforts. ”

2: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
“Crime levels remain high, exacerbated by police corruption and inaction. ”

3: Cape Town, South Africa
“Street crime remains serious and guns are a part of everyday life. ”

4: Mexico City, Mexico

5: St Petersburg, Russia

6: Buenos Aires, Argentina

7: Bangkok, Thailand

8: Washington, USA

9: Rome, Italy

10: Athens, Greece

Countries where Brits have most chance of getting into trouble or sickand asking help from the British Embassy, according to the UK Foreign Office:
– Thailand ( x5 more likely to die than when visiting India! ); India; Greece; Spain; Czech Republic (probable cause there: Prague Stag Parties! )

Generally problems are caused by cheap flights delivering visitors lacking in both preparation and travel insurance. Exotic journeys are serious business, be prepared and investigate places to travel and travelling safety!