One sunny Friday afternoon in Barcelona, I was blithely walking down a busy street toward my hotel, pulling my roller carry-on suitcase, with my Furla tote sitting on top of it. A guy came out of nowhere, grabbed the bag and ran. Except I never let go. That meant he dragged me down the street. Despite my screaming bloody murder, the many people on the street just watched and did nothing.
I was not going to give up. My suitcase was nothing–it contained very replaceable clothes for a weekend. But my bag? It had my passport, my driver’s license, my credit cards. No way was I about to spend my weekend in Barcelona trying to get a new passport.
The guy finally let go, I got up, my bag intact (bravo, Furla!), and went back to my suitcase. I learned a valuable lesson: do not carry your valuables where somebody can snatch them.I’ve traveled around the world, and even hitchhiked in Africa, without incident except this. (Well, there was another time, also in Barcelona. We drove relatives to the airport there, which required two cars. Heading back home, I was alone, following my husband and kid in the other car. At an intersection, a big van rear-ended me. I honked at my husband, who didn’t notice, it turned out, because he was enjoying a chance to drive without me and had turned up godawful Euro-pop oldies on the car stereo. Anyway, I knew the scam–a woman driving alone in a car with French plates was a perfect target. The van driver would get out and while I was distracted talking to him, his accomplice would take my bag out of the car. This has happened to friends. So I ran the light, which by then had changed, and caught up with my husband’s car, too bad about any crumpled bumper on a 10-year-old Polo.)Here are a few tips to keep your travels uneventful.
Before You Leave
Make two copies of your passport. Give one to a relative or friend at home. Put the other in your suitcase and leave it at your hotel/AirBnB. If your passport is stolen, you can get a replacement more quickly. If you lose everything, including your bag (why I say to put the copy in your suitcase, because you aren’t going to put your passport there), you can call your relative/friend to fax or email the other copy. Do this also with your itinerary.
Have at least two cards: a credit card and a debit card. Your credit card is for purchases. Most credit cards come with protections in case of theft; debit cards don’t. Make sure you know your PIN, because in Europe, points of sale use chip readers. Your debit card is to withdraw cash at an ATM. Do not use a credit card to get cash! It will cost you a fortune in interest and fees! Have your card numbers someplace (with your passport copy) in case you have to call and report a stolen card.
Know your ATM limit and what the fees are for using your card abroad.When you make reservations, find about about the security deposit. For vacation rentals, some platforms deduct the security deposit in advance and reimburse you after your stay. This gives them the opportunity to make money on those funds that are in suspense. Fine, as a business model. But if you are changing apartments every three days over a two-week trip, and each one has a €500 security deposit, you could be near your credit limit and have far less available to spend than you might have realized. FYI: AirBnB doesn’t debit your account for the security deposit unless the host reports a problem within a certain amount of time after you’ve left.
Tell your bank where you will be traveling. I had been living in Brussels for a while and going to Paris on weekends pretty regularly when, late one night in Paris, my card didn’t work. I called my bank (I knew the number by heart–that’s another thing, either know the phone number or have it in your phone contacts, but memorizing is better–what if your phone is stolen?) and learned that they had detected unusual activity–that my card was being used in Paris. After answering all the security questions, they were satisfied it was me and took the hold off my card.Check your phone plan, especially for data. You need data for things like ride-hailing apps or GPS. You don’t want a nasty surprise when you get home. Check out this article. This article is a little old, but gives you a broad sample. Rick Steves also has advice, though his stuff on Carcassonne is so off-base I am not sure how much to trust it; maybe he’s better on tech.
Take out your passport only at airports and when checking into hotels. The rest of the time, leave it in your hotel safe or your AirBnB. It’s unlikely hotel staff would steal a passport–the ramifications would be severe, since electronic door keys show who entered a room and when. On the street, though, plenty of people would love to get hold of your passport. Don’t carry yours around. You don’t need it to go to a museum.
If you aren’t driving, don’t carry your driver’s license. Again, think of the hassle to replace it. Bring another ID. At a hotel, they will use your passport. What else do you need ID for? Maybe with your credit card, but it’s unlikely. Some countries (including France) require individuals to carry ID when in public. In any case, it’s smart to have something on you that says who you are in case you’re in an accident and can’t speak. Don’t bring other stuff–Social Security card, insurance card, etc. Make a copy of your insurance info and give it to your friend at home and put another copy with your passport copy. If you end up in a hospital, you might have to turn in paperwork to your insurer, but unlike the U.S., in France they will treat you first and worry about payment later. If you want to bring your insurance card, fine, but leave it with your passport at the hotel. Don’t walk around with it.
As I said earlier, credit cards tend to come with theft protections, but not debit cards. Even though I said to be sure to know your PINs, the problem is that many U.S banks don’t connect with the European system. This has two possible results: your card won’t work at all at some points of sale (this could be awkward if you’re out of gas or at a péage/tollbooth) or it will work but not ask for a PIN. That means that if your card is stolen, somebody can use it freely without inputting the PIN. Free money! From your account! Sometimes the receipt will ask for a signature, but salespeople don’t always bother to get you to sign, which is not reassuring either.Leave your debit card where you’re staying and take it out only to go to the ATM to withdraw cash. (See above–if they get your debit card and it doesn’t ask for a PIN, they can drain your account.) Use your credit card or cash for spending. Don’t carry all your cash on you. Just carry what you need for the day, with a little cushion stashed in a different place (pocket? shoe?). Leave the rest of your cash where you’re staying.
Other people have written about different bags and belts and other things for carrying your valuables safely. Never underestimate the creativity of thieves. I was in a crowded Brussels restaurant with a big table of friends. The chairs of one table touched the chairs of the next, with barely enough room for the diners sitting on them to breathe. Certainly, there was zero space to squeeze between the diners. A friend, sitting next to the wall, three friends next to her and four across, had her bag on the floor between her feet. It was stolen. Somebody had to have squirmed on the floor between diners’ legs to get to it. Somebody else I know was in a crowded bus in Nairobi, his billfold in the buttoned front pocket on his shirt. It was stolen. Another friend, a native Parisian, had her phone stolen from her bag on the Métro. I know of many backpacks and bags and back pockets whose bottoms were slashed, their contents falling out without the people being aware. BTW, if this does happen to you, check the trash cans nearby; often the thieves will take the cash and throw away the billfold. Finding yours could save you a lot of hassle.My experience with the purse snatcher was unusual. Most crime in Europe is sneaky and not violent. Somebody will distract you, often in a very pitiful way, like asking you to sign a petition for some worthy cause like deaf people or handicapped people, and they will appear to be deaf or handicapped and you will feel like a heartless creep for not simply signing your name. After going through this a couple of times, you give in. Then you turn around and discover your billfold has been slipped out of the banana bag you had been–and still are–squeezing under your arm, without you feeling a thing.
I don’t want to scare anybody; these tips also hold true for domestic travel. European and French crime rates are low. I live here feeling very safe. I forget to lock the doors; no problem. I rarely lock my car. Once, the Carnivore took out a big duffel bag out of the trunk of his car in the center of Carcassonne, and drove away, forgetting it was on the sidewalk. He came home (a 30-minute drive), realized his mistake and rushed back. It was still there, intact. Frail old ladies walk around with their handbags dangling. Little kids skip down the street toting baguettes and cartons of milk they had been sent to buy. I see people taking foolish risks, too, like leaving their phone or even a laptop (!!!) on the table at a café terrace while they went inside to use the bathroom. Yes, everybody around had the same instinct, to guard over it. But yikes. Il ne faut pas tenter le diable–don’t tempt fate.
Travel tips and secure bag recommendations welcome in the comments.