It’s a horrible feeling to be nervous and anxious about having your belongings stolen when you’re traveling. The feeling is very real and very common, and bag snatching and slashing are quite common ways of perpetrating theft. These things happen and I always try to take great care. Dealing with a different view of life and different cultures can also mean having to understand some of the thinking about morality and theft. For some places it seems it’s simply a part of life, and it may be perceived that you are the one who bears the responsibility for protecting your items. Hopefully this can be a hard lesson avoided by taking some simple steps.
Scan and Back Up Your Documents
I always scan a copy of my driver’s license and passport (image page and any relevant visas), email it to myself, and store it in the cloud on a service such as Google Drive. Send it to a family member who is not traveling with you as well, just in case. Do it for all of the passports of your travel group if you are a couple or family. And the drivers licenses of the adults. When I have arrived in a new country I will also take a photo of the visa and entry stamp and email it to myself. It’s good to do this will all your important documents, such as credit cards, resident IDs, insurance. It will make replacing them a whole lot easier.
Always Try to Be Aware
So how do I protect myself? A lot of it is just common sense. My thinking is that if you’re in a place where there are lots of people then there are likely to be thieves among them. It happens at home too, maybe not as often, but it can happen. So I try to remind myself regularly to be aware. In the age of selfies, that photo-taking time can be when we all let our guard down.
Often I will be going to markets where it gets crowded. So I like to make sure that it’s as hard as possible for someone to steal my wallet or passport. Public transportation also has potential for pickpockets. And remember that it is not just young men who are pickpockets. In some places it could be a group of women, little kids, or a mixed group of people who will bump into you or who will be standing close to you and cramming you in on a bus, while they try to steal your things.
Handbags can be snatched. There have been instances where the strap has been cut. I have seen slashed pockets on clothes and bags where people have had things stolen in crowds. These are thieves who know how to get at your things.
But I have learned a few different ways to make it as difficult as possible for them.
What Do I Do?
If I’m wearing a backpack I will usually move it so that I can wear it on my front before getting on a crowded bus or train. If it ‘s a large backpack then I’ll carry it in front of me. It might make my movements a bit slower but I can see what is happening with it. In some countries, such as the Philippines and especially in Manila, you even see locals doing this. It’s dorky, but you do what you have to do.
Avoid using a cheap backpack as they offer you very little protection. If you do have a cheaper backpack you should still be able to lock the zips and ensure that you do not have your valuables in the outer pockets, which are easy to access.
I never carry anything in my back pocket when I am likely to be in a crowded place. This is an especially bad habit I picked up in Japan, where it’s so safe you’ll see guys with full-length wallet protruding from the back pocket. But the world isn’t like Japan. Even when I go home to the US, my mother tells me to get over that habit. It’s just too easy for someone to take your stuff from behind, whether sneakily or simply by grabbing it and running. Carry your wallet in a front pocket, preferably one that can be closed or is reasonably close to your body, or even in a body pouch. Women with larger wallets should keep them in a safe handbag close against their body.
Gear that Can Protect Your Stuff
I strongly recommend considering an anti-theft backpack. These will have stainless steel mesh under the canvas making it impossible to slash into them. This mesh will also be on the straps so they cannot be cut. The zips are designed so that it’s easy to attach a lock, which will deter pickpockets. They’re more expensive than regular backpacks but they offer you much more security and they should come with a guarantee if something goes wrong with them. The cost will quickly be offset when someone take a blade to your bag and makes off with your iPhone or laptop.
There are also anti-theft shoulder or cross-body bags which also use the stainless steel mesh and have lockable zips. These can be handy for carrying a laptop, phone, wallet, and passport, pretty much the day out requirements for many travelers these days. They’re ideal for taking to your favorite cafe where you can catch up with friends online or plan the next part of your adventure. But you need to be aware of where you’re going and what’s happening around you until you get there.
Body pouches mean you have your valuable items (such as your wallet, cash, or cell phone) very close and this makes it much harder for pickpockets. Maybe not a cast iron guarantee but it will require much greater effort from your thieves.
I choose bags that sit close to my body to make them much harder to snatch from a passing scooter or motorbike. Using a bag that does not look too upmarket will make it less attractive as a target as well. Suffice it to say, high-end fashions are best avoided all around in poorer areas, especially if you are obviously not from around there.
Other Considerations, Scams, and the Like
If I’m traveling with cash I will store it in different places to ensure that even if I am to lose some of it then I will have more available. There are leg and ankle wallets as well as money belts available for carrying cash.
I try to find out about known scams or tricks used locally to steal from you. If you find a friendly front desk person at your hotel you could try asking them what to look out for, and maybe places where you should not go.
I do not flash around my money. I am careful not to show large amounts in public places. When I do change money I quickly put it away. I know I already do that in my ordinary life when I take money out of the ATM. I have also heard it suggested that if you are in area that is known for muggings you should carry a fake wallet with fake credit cards which you can throw at a thief before you make a run for it. I have not tried this and I cannot verify its effectiveness but it is an interesting idea.
I also think about how and when I use electronic devices. In Colombia they say ‘no dar papaya’ meaning that you do not give papaya, or show anything of value when you are out and about. It could be an iPad or a new mobile phone, or even jewellery. This potentially makes you a target. So by showing your new device you are inviting trouble. I recommend being cautious about where you use your phone, tablet or laptop in public if it is a newer model.
Travel should be an adventure and it does come with some risks. It is important to try to be aware of local issues and any current criminal activity against travelers. I have found that by being practical and sensible, and trying to make sure that I do not show my money or my devices then I just become another face in the crowd. By having a bag that makes it harder for a pickpocket or bag snatcher, then they are more likely to move on from you to the next potential victim.
Enjoy taking the local bus. It will be an adventure. Investigate those markets, they are usually fascinating places. And just remember to use sensible precautions to protect yourself and your belongings, and you can enjoy the positive experiences that come from travel.