Travel Safety Tips

Travel safety - pickpockets

Travel safety: a pickpocket in action

Travel safety examples and advice

Barcelona: Europe’s worst destination for travel safety

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.

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. So…petty crime/mugging/pickpocketing are rife in Barcelona, especially on and around the train from the airport.

Anon: My wallet was taken from my shoulder bag as I was taking my luggage out of the baggage hold of a bus en route to Barcelona. A few hours laters a friend  took a bus to the same bus stop and had her wallet stolen from her shoulder bag too!

Prepare yourself, especially at fresh-off-the-plane tourist train/metro/bus stops!

– after getting your bags from baggage claim put easily stolen items (wallet/camera/phone/passports) in your suitcase and lock it until you get your hotel.

– download photos of important data 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 (money belt? card/cash in sock/stashed in an inside layer of your clothing?). Keep all else in the hotel safe.

– 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.

– minimize flash clothing, jewellery, especially gold chains (and cameras!) around the neck and expensive watches. Buy a cheap watch beforehand, always useful, especially if it’s waterproof (for beach use).

Amsterdam: if you’re getting off at Amsterdam Airport underground station,  avoid the rush to the carriage exit. Stay seated and let the jumble of passengers and young pickpockets thin out before heading out.

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

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.

5) It’s your Bag

Never let go of your shoulder bag. When walking, it goes across your body, resting in front of you, or under your armpit, but not over your shoulder. When sitting, take it off by all means, but put your arm or leg through the strap. The same goes for your camera. When sleeping in a bus, train or vulnerable room, lock your bags up, and then lock them to something immovable. Bag snatchers are not uncommon in Italy, Spain, Portugal, France and Greece, in addition to more obvious places like Turkey, Peru, Brazil, Jamaica.
*a light bike chain & lock can be handy if doing a lot of train time. On trains make sure you can see your bag the whole time, especially when approaching a station, or have it locked down.
* some backpackers put light chicken wire inside their packs to protect against slash & grab razor merchants found in South America.

6) Speak the Language

Apart from making life easier, a small grasp of the language will also help you to develop protective relationships, to earn a degree of respect from lightweight thieves, and to slip into the background more easily. It’s smart to read up on local culture and traditions too.

7) Safety in Numbers

Travel in pairs/groups if possible. If not, be wary but not paranoid, of friendly local people. Most of the time they will be genuine.

8) Calculate it

Ensure that you recognise and understand the values of different local banknotes, especially in areas of high inflation. Work out how much you should get before you go anywhere near the change place. Carry a calculator and be seen to use it when you change money, even at official currency change shops. Beware of sleight-of-hand merchants, especially when changing money on the street. Count the money in your hand, and don’t allow him/her to recount in his hand!

9) Don’t take the Biscuit

Avoid food and drink offerings from strangers even if you’ve been sitting next to them on a bus for a couple of days! They can be drugged, a growing global habit, though especially prevalent in Latin America and South East Asia.

10) Driving crazy

Beware the flat tyre and the helpful locals who distract you with fast talking assistance while an associate surreptitiously rifles your vehicle. Especially a problem around Barcelona and Madrid, but also known in France and Mexico.
Southern France, on the other hand, specialises in smash and grab robbery, often on motorcycles or scooters. So keep your valuables locked in the glove compartment, check your tyres often, and never stop for anyone except police. If you have to stop do it in a busy well-lit place. And carry a quick (temporary) repair aerosol.