P1080787One 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.Half-timbered houseI’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.)Sunflower fieldHere 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.IMG_1018When 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.la cite vineyards 1Check 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.

While Traveling

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. roman tower from belowDon’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.IMG_0389Leave 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.cite panorama rightMy 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. Chateau of la citeIl ne faut pas tenter le diable–don’t tempt fate.

Travel tips and secure bag recommendations welcome in the comments.

cite pont vieux
Photos of Carcassonne and the vicinity.

34 thoughts on “Travel Tips: Keep Your Valuables Safe

  1. Excellent advice. I would change only one item: taking the debit card. Instead, take a Money Account card (available through your bank) which is NOT linked to your bank account. You simply transfer however much you want onto the card whenever and wherever you are. Then use the card at money machines or shops as you would a debit card. I use this all the time when traveling in the States or abroad. A simple transfer on my cellphone has my money always available, yet safe.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I also saw articles about prepaid debit cards, so the amount on them is limited. This one sounds like a good idea. There are new products out all the time; it doesn’t hurt to ask your bank for advice. But whatever you do, don’t rely on just one card.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This post convinces me of one thing — my decision to just stay at home is best! That way all I have to worry about is someone hacking bank accounts , stealing our identity or breaking into our home and taking whatever their evil heart desires. Beautiful world we live in but some of the people — yuck!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. All really good advice. I’m just amazed there is not more theft from women’s purses. Walking through crowded markets, I see women with purses and bags wide open, their wallets visible, walking and talking, totally oblivious. These are not always tourist. We have seen a bicycle ride by and snatch purse hanging on the back of a chair on a patio/terrace.
    It can happen anywhere in the world…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it can indeed happen anywhere. A friend back home was at a red light when somebody walked up to the back passenger door and opened it–she didn’t even see him until the door was open. He grabbed her bag, which was on the floor of the back seat, and ran off.


  4. Barcelona is one of the worst places in Europe for getting your bag picked and your advice to leave everything at the hotel or rental is really the best modus operandi – why carry stuff with you that you don’t need in any case?

    Something else to be aware of: do not leave anything lying around in your car!! If you’re going anywhere, either leave the things in the hotel or rental, or make sure that everything is hidden under seats or in the boot (trunk) of the car. If there’s nothing visible, thieves aren’t going to be tempted to break in. That’s not just if you’re travelling, but also for everyday life!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Even so, I’ve had only two hiccups in at least a dozen visits to Barcelona. It’s just that I’ve had zero anywhere else.
      Excellent point about stuff in the car. Even if it’s an empty bag, a thief doesn’t know until he has broken the window and taken it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent advice. The only thing I would mention is having good ID of your age if you are a senior. When I was in Madrid the ticket person at the Prado asked if I was over 65 and because I could prove I was with my driver’s license, I got in for half price.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. My husband had the same issue once when he travelled to China, they deactivated his credit card due to suspicious activity right when he tried to pay the hotel bill. After over an hour on the phone he managed to convince them it was him but it wasn’t easy and he almost missed his flight.

    We almost got scammed by some Americans trying to pass as tourists in Nice. They had a long sob story worked out, it was very believable. Luckily we caught on before it was too late.


    Liked by 2 people

    1. It can be hard, if you travel a lot, to remember to tell the bank, and then oops, it’s a place that sets off the alarms.
      I think I saw a movie about something like your scammers in Nice. I am glad you didn’t get taken.


  7. Dragged down the streets of Barcelona? You are one tough cookie.

    I use a debit/ATM card from my local credit union for cash and most spending, but I also have a major credit card on hand, secured in our room when we’re out and about. I keep a relatively low balance in my debit account, but I can manipulate the balance from my computer or phone (phone account access dependent on my touch ID), so that if someone acquires access, it’s not for much.

    My biggest gripe about my otherwise wonderful credit union is that they have flagged expenses on my card even when I have left travel information with them. Once Société Générale, my daughter’s bank around the corner from her home, ate my card at the ATM. I went in to the bank and told them, presented ID confirming it was my card, and they refused to return the card to me. My daughter knew the personnel there and intervened. No dice. I called the bank. They offered to send another card, but we were heading out to multiple cities on our itinerary. The card was lost for the length of our stay; we relied on my husband’s debit card.

    Both my husband and I have had our cards become inoperable in France and in Italy until we returned home. We’ve been fortunate not to lose both during the same excursion.

    I’ve lit in to my credit union once back home, and both pre- and post trip. They are fervently apologetic and vow that they will be on top of it. Yet in an excess of precaution, some mechanism again triggers a blocked withdrawal. I admit they do this only internationally and once per trip/ per card. To be fair, we have completed some visits unscathed.

    Is there a solution? I find ATMs within a bank entry hall more reliable than streetside. I am not keen on bringing more cards along. I know in a pinch I could go into a bank and get money one way or another. When travel is a way of life, we likely need to expect the unexpected and to roll with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yikes! Know your bank’s phone number by heart, so you can call immediately! The time difference is in your favor in a way. Definitely use the ATM inside vs. outside, where sometimes (even in the US…no, more in the US) people have opportunity to install cameras to see your PIN or tech to capture your card number and PIN. That’s good advice at home or abroad.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. I was at dinner with friends in New York years ago, and someone had her wallet stolen from the bag under her feet. I must have sensed something (good old Manhattan paranoia), because I said, “Where’s my bag?” and it was right there under my feet. But the single person at the next table got up abruptly and left. Quite a lesson in stealth.
    There’s a lot of chatter now about chip cards being vulnerable to electronic hacking. I carry mine in RFID-blocking slip cases or in a wallet designed for that. And always talk to banks and credit cards before I leave the country; even so they sometimes block things.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The little chips that go into a machine are very secure. Your card is useless without the PIN. But the RFID tech is another thing. My experience is that you have to actually touch the card to the POS reader, but I don’t know whether the wandering skimmers are stronger.


  9. Great tips! I’ve been doing most of these things out of pure paranoia for years, with the exception of leaving the cards at the hotel. I prefer to pay with cards when travelling and keep cash to a bare minimum. So always at least one card in hand.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Wow! What a mugging story. Well done with the iron grip. Where do I start, though, that passersby chose not to come to your aid? A whole other discussion … I must say, as I’ve not travelled internationally as much these days, your tips are a welcome reminder of sensible practices. In some countries (Brazil, for instance), the best approach is to leave all your valuables behind. Don’t travel with proper jewellery or carry nice things you’d hate to lose, which only attracts unwanted attention anyway. Travelling with cards is convenient but problematic with the variety of different types of eftpos readers you’ll come across. Even at home, I keep all cards with a readable chip inside those foil envelopes as there are mobile card readers that can skim your account (apparently) – there are larger envelopes for keeping your passport unreadable as now, they’re mostly chipped too.

    My 20-something-self would have scoffed at the precautions needed these days. When I was living on a Greek island back then, my passport lived in a shoe box on the counter at the Vespa hire place, alongside all the other tourists who’d left theirs as security! I’d have to go and retrieve it when my visa needed renewing, on the promise that I’d bring it straight back. Do I have any doppelgängers out there these past 25 years? So far, our paths have never crossed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, well, the technology for transforming your passport into a false one for somebody was different, back then, too. Lots more work. So there were fewer people ready to try it.
      As for valuables, imagine seeing people with stuff (shoes, bags, clothes, cameras) that cost not just a month’s wages but, for a camera, close to a lifetime’s wages. Of course they think, these people have so much, they won’t feel the pain if I take a little. Most poor people are honest–I have been chased down after having overpaid or forgotten something. But why make a display of the inequality?


  11. I’ve been kidnapped while traveling but never robbed!! LOL! All of your tips are so valuable. You’ve travelled to such interesting places. Yes! We should live near one another so we can catch up for a drink. xoxox, Brenda

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Great travel tips and advice. I agree with making copies of documents and itineraries (with contact info of people you’re staying with abroad) and leaving them with family/friends at home. I wrote a post about travel tips on my blog, too, but I need to update it to include that I recommend Travelon bags. They are stylish, RFID-blocking, and reasonably priced. Thank you for sharing your travel tips!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. What excellent advice. Having also travelled around the world (with no issues) we did meet people who had suffered like with attempted “grad” routines. The kids football at the cafe table was the most popular in Africa. Whilst the un-witting traveller picked up the ball to give back to the young footballer, his friend moved in to take a bag or a rucksack. Advice – always look the other way!!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Good for you for hanging in there! And thank you for the sound advice given. I thought that I was pretty wise to pickpockets as I had traveled about London for years laden down with a portfolio and bag without any trouble. However, at the end of a day in Florence I lifted my arm to take a photograph and was very professionally cleared of all cards and money. I had been through the markets earlier in the day, carefully guarding my possessions but at the end of the day my guard was down. They took my card straight to an upmarket gentleman’s outfitters and spent up – those Florentine thieves are very well dressed!

    Liked by 1 person

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