20 ways to stay safe and prevent theft while travelling
Hey everyone! I'm back after a summer away and my batteries are recharged for the next huge 3-month-to-fluency language project, that I'll announce soon to those of you in the LHL email list (sign up on the top right to find out!)
I had a fantastic time, and will tell you how it went next week, as well as giving some updates on the accent project. But first, I wanted to get something negative out of the way…
After over ten years on the road, I had never had anything stolen from me despite visiting vastly different places, and getting off safer tourist trails to visit many places people would consider dangerous. But my perfect streak is over because my car was broken into when I was in California and my wallet (with several hundred dollars in it) and phone (very expensive Samsung Galaxy Note 2) were taken.
I never got mugged in Rio, drugged in Colombia, bugged in Egypt, swept under the rug in China or thugged in Eastern Europe, but I got broken into in the United States of America and lost well over a thousand dollars of stuff in the process. As you can imagine, this will be a retort that I'll continue to use when Americans tell me how scary the outside world is.
It can be prevented though!
As annoyed as I am about the entire thing, the truth is that it could have been prevented, if I hadn't let my guard down and been more cautious as I usually tend to be.
What happened was I had found a good deal online for Kitesurfing lessons in Oakland, drove there, parked my car at the shore in broad daylight on a public beach with people coming and going (sounds safe…), and left my stuff in the car so they wouldn't get wet. When I came back, the window was smashed in and all my stuff was gone. Luckily I had my passport, laptop, video camera and most other essentials in the Airbnb apartment I was renting. I left the keys of the car in the instructor's van, so at least the rental car itself wasn't stolen.
I've met people just after a burglary or mugging of some sort and while there are indeed plenty of cases of “wrong place and wrong time” that simply can't be avoided (although their likeliness can be greatly reduced; see below), when they tell me the story, I'm afraid I almost always have to say that it's more often than not their own damn fault. That was the case here too and it was definitely my fault that this happened, and it could easily have been prevented.
Here are some things that I typically do that had given me an entire decade of constantly moving to new places without anything getting taken from me, or other very dangerous things happening.
1. Always be aware of your things on your person or left behind you
I got into this routine when I started travelling and have made it reflex now that whenever I leave the house I tap my pockets to double check that phone, keys, wallet are there. When in travel mode, I always add in passport and ticket.
Everything else can be replaceable or can be sent on to you if found later.
You also should get used to Glancing back and double checking where you were. Whenever I've been sitting on a bus for hours, or leave an apartment I've lived in, or even a restaurant I've had lunch at, I do a quick glance over the space I took up and the ground to make sure nothing fell out of my pockets or is getting left behind. This auto-pilot glance back has saved my skin many times when something fell out, or I may be a few feet/metres away and do the pocket tap and realize my phone is missing and it's still on the table.
It takes some getting used to, but force yourself to do this every single time you change positions. Not just while you travel, but always in your daily life. These extra two seconds before I leave a place have made sure that I never leave things behind me carelessly.
2. Have a steal-me wallet/phone
For the entire last five years, I had been travelling with a wallet that I would go out with whenever in notoriously dangerous places. This wallet has an expired credit card, some “filler” cards, and about $10 cash. The reason I have this is as a decoy in my pocket in case someone was to ever aggressively demand my wallet. Fortunately, I have never had to give it away, and I wouldn't have it on me in most places, but I have felt more comfortable knowing that I have something I'd eagerly give away when pressed.
Of course, if you are ever at gun or knife-point and don't have a decoy or the thief wants more, just give away your normal wallet no matter what is in it. Nothing inside could possibly be worth risking your life over. However, you can save yourself some trouble by having that decoy.
While in Rio whenever I would be in less safe parts of the city, before going there I would also replace my SIM card out of my expensive smartphone and into a cheap 10 year old phone that can only make calls and texts. Once again, this is not something I'd lose sleep over having taken from me.
Also, don't put your wallet or phone in your back pocket. Whenever I see this, I feel like the person (male or female) is ASKING for it to be stolen. How easy is it for someone to run past you, swipe it and get away? They could even do this without you being aware of it. Front pockets or good purses are much harder to access without calling attention to yourself.
3. SEPARATE your sources of cash; never all in one bag or wallet
If all your sources of money are in your wallet and it gets stolen, you are going to be in a very rough situation if alone in a foreign country.
Luckily, credit cards have a system set up such that they can send you emergency cash when your card is stolen (but you have to be able to make an international call to your credit card company first). Rather than rely on this, why not leave the house with EITHER your credit card OR your ATM card, not both?
I almost always do this, but unfortunately the day I went to the shore in Oakland was not one of those days. Fortunately though, I always make sure I have a backup plan, and had several hundreds of dollars in cash back in my apartment. This kept me going until I found an alternative (rather than use the credit card system, I paypalled a friend and had him withdraw money from his bank for me). Having access to the cash back in the house made sure I was sorted and not under any pressure, but if I hadn't both cards with me, as I usually do, then things would have been much simpler.
4. Scan your travel documents as well as photocopying them
Among the things I had stolen was my Irish driving license. This can unfortunately only be replaced in person in Ireland. Luckily, I had scanned my license in advance and when I was back home I printed it out as well as the police report (the first thing you should do of course after things getting stolen is cancel your cards and file a police report as soon as possible). While I'm not sure if this would have been acceptable, in the off chance I was pulled over by the police they may have let me go on with as many details as possible, with the police report but still my driving license details, although in a rule-obsessed place like America I'd have to throw in lots of Irish charm if I had to pull that off.
Having a scan also sped up the re-application procedure for my card and let me access online details relevant to my car rental because I needed my license number in both cases.
Of course, I have a scan of my passport AND my entry stamps too in case that goes missing. A digital scan is much better than a photocopy because you can simply save it online (I use Dropbox) and not worry about it being among your things stolen.
5. Be sceptical of any strangers who are being a little too nice, within reason
When I was in Argentina, after my tango learning experience I realized that I hadn't taken photos of the downtown Bueons Aires area. I went down with my camera to snap some shots and after months of blending in pretty well thanks to adapting to local fashion sense and body language, that day I stood out like a sore thumb and obvious tourist.
Because of this, a strange thing happened. While I was taking a photo I felt something and looked down at the side of my leg and noticed what looked like bird crap. I looked up cursing my luck when suddenly, way too conveniently a nice looking couple appeared with a handkerchief at the ready and offered to wipe it off.
Now, if you aren't as cynical as me, you may have thought that this was the nicest couple ever, there to help you out in your time of need. This was not my reaction. The handkerchief was produced far too quickly and they went very fast to my legs, and alarm bells went off in my head that this was a scam to distract me with some body contact while they take some things off me. I refused their help despite their insistence, went into a restaurant bathroom to clean off the crap and saw that it wasn't actually birdcrap, but something that was probably squirted at me from a distance.
Locals later confirmed to me that this is actually quite a regular con used on tourists in the city.
Similarly, when I was in Rome some beggars followed me down the street, once again on the day I was out with my camera in tourist mode, and would only say “Please, please!” with their hands out. They started rubbing against me, which was a very good way to distract me, and then I felt my wallet starting to slip out of my pocket. I immediately slapped the hand grabbing it and yelled every Italian curse word I knew at them.
These were close calls, but unsuccessful robbery attempts because I am a little sceptical of people who get too close to me very soon, unless it's in a social environment in a culture where that's more common.
6. Stop looking like such a tourist!!
As I said above, the two times that I had an attempt to grab my wallet right from out of my pocket, I was kind of “asking for it” because I was walking around really obviously with a camera and snapping pretty buildings.
In touristy cities where you hear many stories of muggings, unfortunately it's generally because they have flip flops, shorts, a silly t-shirt, an SLR camera, a “fanny pack” and other such things that draw attention to them. Even if they wear less obvious clothing they may be walking around with an expensive looking smartphone, and I even had to insist that one of my Couchsurfers in Recife Brazil leave his Rolex watch in the house whenever he went out.
There are times when looking flashy works, but in a district of a city you are not familiar with is not one of them.
7. Do some research and ask locals where's safe
This is another mistake that I made myself this time. Oakland is right beside San Francisco, the city where you should “be sure to wear a flower in your hair”, so I simply didn't associate it with any crime. It turns out that it has the second worst crime rate in America after Detroit!
Not reading up on the area I was living in or visiting meant that I had far too high a sense of security. Oakland Police were so inundated with crime that they couldn't send a police officer to the scene (calling from the kite surfing instructor's phone) and told me to just drive home and file my report online.
When I have been in supposedly dangerous cities in the past, I simply make sure that I am not in any parts of them that are dangerous, and that I definitely don't walk alone at night near those areas. Or that if I am, I take extra precautions with my stuff, or leave it home where it would be more secure. I also make sure to read up the “be safe” sections of any guide books, Wikivoyage, or even better, just ask a local for their advice.
8. Get travel insurance
There are many levels of travel insurance that you can get. For me the no brainer is travel health insurance. Items can be replaced, but skimping on an important life-saving surgery absolutely cannot. I recommend World Nomads, or looking into if your credit card or current insurance offers good options on the road.
You can of course also get your stuff insured. While that would have covered the cost of my smartphone (and maybe the money stolen), because I travel so much and am street-smart enough to only have robberies like this so infrequently, I don't go for this option. If I was going somewhere with a very high crime rate, or travelling for a short period of just a couple of months somewhere it could be stolen, I would consider it though.
If you're travelling to the US, DEFINITELY get health insurance!!! It's shameful, but caring for people is a business there, and simple procedures can cost 10s to 100s of times the price it can be in the rest of the world (and you aren't paying for quality). Luckily, I've never needed to use my health insurance to date, but it's there if needed.
Rental car companies seem to have these kinds of break-ins covered by insurance as a default, since I got the cheapest option but didn't have to pay for replacing the broken glass in the car.
9. Get vaccinated and bring all medication with you
Once again, on health, make sure you have all vaccinations you possibly can get, in advance. If you have any medical condition, bring the medication with you rather than presuming you can find it over there.
It's also a good idea to leave a card with any essential info on it in your wallet. In some places, if you donate blood they give you a card that gives your blood type to save time if you are rushed into a hospital.
10. Make sure a friend is aware of your situation
I travel alone, but there are some people that I make aware of my itinerary, and check up with them. This way someone knows if you are in danger. Make sure to let a friend or family member be aware of your movements, or ideally someone in the same city who can “worry” about you if necessary.
11. Don't think with your groin
This one is for the guys; whenever a girl you meet on the road is being way too enthusiastic in flirting with you far too soon, then yes it could be because you are that sexy, but more often than not it's because she may be a prostitute (yes, even in an unassuming bar or nightclub) or part of some scam.
Luckily I've never been pulled into either one of those situations, but I have been propositioned more often than I care to recall when I could tell it definitely wasn't my dashing handsomeness, or irresistible Irish charm motivating her.
If you are looking for a girlfriend, just be social in general and meet her through friends that you make in parties and events.
Girls obviously have much more to worry about in this area, since guys in many places can be much more aggressive. In some cultures “No” definitely does not mean no, and it's actually quite normal for girls to say no to guys they like there, so that the guys try extra hard. This can be terribly frustrating when they are being persistent and not taking your turn downs seriously. So be sure you are with friends whenever possible, or look into details on recommended tips for female travellers wherever you may be going.
12. Don't drink or drug away your senses
One of the biggest causes of “I got robbed” stories that I've heard has almost always involved alcohol at some point in the story. Your senses are numbed, you let your guard down, and you are less aware of your surroundings. This is fine if you are in a familiar place, but if you lose track of your bag for just a few minutes because of this then it is there for the picking.
I don't drink, and yet I go out plenty and socialize all the time. I never lecture people to stop drinking, but I still think that it's a terrible waste of money to do it so intensively and often, and I think it's opening up so many avenues to problems that could have easily been avoided. Save doing drugs and drinking heavily for when you are with people who can take care of you when you can't take as good care of yourself.
13. Be respectful of local customs
The best way by far to bring attention to yourself is to be loud, obnoxious, and totally disrespectful of local ways, insisting that they should act like people do in your country. It's sad that I have to mention this, but too many people do force their own standards on people even when they are across the planet in their culture.
Try to be open minded that maybe you are in the wrong about the local customs.
By disrespecting the local custom you are much more likely to cause an aggressive or angry response, which could have easily been avoided.
14. Walk facing the traffic or on a part of the sidewalk that gives you maximum visibility of others
Another way people can steal your stuff is by zooming past you in a motorbike, snatching your purse right from out of your hands and then driving off into the sunset. This could just as easily happen when you have your smartphone or similar out.
As such, if in a country with a lot of motorbikes, I try to make a conscious effort to walk (not into the traffic obviously, but on the sidewalk) such that I'm going against the traffic and can see everyone approaching me. As well as this, be aware of those around you also walking because they know the area better and if they snatched your things, they could disappear into the crowd very easily.
15. Don't flaunt your possessions
I've already mentioned that clearly having a smartphone will draw attention to yourself, but now I can reveal the biggest mistake that I made that lead to my car getting broken into – my phone was visible in the coffee holder part of the car. A rookie mistake indeed! I didn't think and left it there quickly after I had signed the forms and the instructor called me over to hit the water.
It's why, when I came back, I saw that only my car (not the other kitesurfers') had been broken into. I essentially had a huge sign inside the car saying “stuff worth stealing in here; special offer today only! Just bring your own rock to smash the windows in and grab it while you can!”
For aggressive robberies, many stories that I've heard on the road involve the person telling it almost always calling attention to themselves with nice jewellery, expensive designer clothing (have you noticed that in my photos I still look like a poor teenager with a silly t-shirt and jeans all the time? There's a good reason for this…), smartphone of course, and any other electronics and such. Keep it out of sight!
16. SPEAK THE LOCAL LANGUAGE!
This should probably be rule number one, but I think one of the major reasons that I had a perfect ten year streak before having something stolen (which only happened when I was gone…) is because I don't go around shouting English at everyone. This really draws so much attention to you! Use of English is associated with rich tourists who are more worthy of robbers' attention.
By speaking the local language, you blend in so much easier. Even if you have an accent, you stand out way less than being that guy who insists on forcing locals to use English.
17. You get no break ins if you have nothing to break into!
This may seem like a bit of a misnomer, but if you have enough of a minimalist lifestyle to simply not own a car and go around using public transport instead, and not own a house with tonnes of stuff (HD TV, furniture, family heirlooms), but just be renting a place where you leave just a few things you own instead, then you can't get really get broken into in the same way. As I've said, the only things I own of value really are my laptop and video camera, both of which I can hide easily, or just take with me, if I'm away from my house for a while.
One reason that my things would never have been stolen from my car in Europe is because I never have a car to leave my things in, in the first place.
Of course, this leaves the problem of securing your things another way. I should have insisted on finding a safe and secure place to store my things when in the water (some areas have locks for instance), or simply just noted where I needed to go on paper and driven there without my smartphone, and been aware that Oakland is dangerous, so bring only a little bit of cash and no cards.
Essentially, by removing opportunities for your things to be stolen, they will simply be stolen less.
18. Make your information totally unstealable
One thing that I did do in this situation, is make it so that I only suffered a monetary loss when my smartphone was stolen. It's an expensive phone, but I actually lost no data whatsoever.
Most apps let you back up aspects of them to the cloud. As such, my contacts are on Google and synched automatically and I had all phone numbers I needed as soon as I got a replacement phone. I also take a lot of notes, but do so in Evernote, which is constantly backing itself up so I had all of them.
As well as this, my many weeks of photos taken of my holiday… were safely backed up to both my Dropbox account and my Google Plus account (this back up happens automatically every single time I connect to wifi).
Now, I did have my Gmail and other sensitive apps on the phone, so one of the first things I did as soon as I got home was to change my passwords for everything accessible from the phone. There may have been some residual offline stuff there, but if the stealer tries to log in, they'll be turned down immediately.
There are also several apps that help you lock out your phone from a distance or even trace it when stolen. Unfortunately, I didn't have these this time, but will in future.
And incidentally, in case you simply lose your phone, a good thing to do is to have the sleep image or away message include a “If found please call X / email Y for reward!”
19. Sometimes spending more money is worth it for some extra security
The day that I'm most vulnerable in having something of mine taken is the day that I'm travelling (about once every few months). I have my laptop, video camera, and many other things right beside me and the right distractions could have it all taken from me if I wasn't careful.
That's why, even though travel can be very cheap, if you can afford it just the day you arrive in a place, I would opt for options that cost money but give you much more security, such as getting a taxi instead of a public bus or staying in a safe hotel for your first night, instead of cheap and hard to find accommodation, while you are exhausted and jetlagged from the trip. When we are tired and unfamiliar with a place, we are much more likely to make mistakes!
I budget in this more expensive first day so that I have that extra buffer zone of comfort before I try to get into more authentic living, because then I can rest up easier and get my stuff to a middle location that's maybe close to the airport, so that I can figure things out before getting more complicated options to wherever I'm staying longer term.
20. Don't be superstitious
I was having a great summer, and someone suggested that this robbery was some way of the universe “balancing things out”. I don't think so at all. This happened for a very logical reason. If you try to understand the world systematically, then you will see that luck is an illusion, and that “things happen for a reason” is not a philosophical statement, but one of simple cause and effect.
So rather than check your aura, astrology reading, incidence of the number 13, or whether you've knocked on wood or prayed that day, focus your efforts on checking that you are in a safe area, your things aren't far too visible, that you're aware of your surroundings, and that you've otherwise made some sensible decisions. These tangible things will influence what happens much more than your psychic energy ever will.
Be safe, but don't be scared
I am out and about a lot and experience the world in so many wonderful ways, but I am as far from constantly fearing for my safety as you can possibly get.
The precautions I mention in this post are second nature to me now (most of the time), and that's why I've had such a good streak with just one major blunder (that wasn't even that big a deal; things worth money can be replaced with time).
If you say that my good streak was just being lucky, then keep in mind that where I'm from we say that every man makes his own luck. I travel smart, no matter where I am – whether I'm in America, back in Ireland or in Asia. Lapses in all of these precautions can happen, but by making them second nature, I've had a very safe and danger-free decade on the road.
Generally, the dangerousness of a place are exaggerated by the media or by biased stories, and it genuinely can be the fault of the person the crime happened to, as harsh as that may read. There are exceptions that really could not have been avoided, but more often than not, good planning would have made an unfortunate situation not have happened in the first place.
Because of this, I can be more confident and trusting in people when I am in situations where I know that I am safe, and I can be more adventurous and explore unknown places because I know that I've already taken the safety measures. An amazing adventurous life can be had by all without sacrificing your basic security.
“Shit happens”, and apart from ruining one of my Mondays, I dusted myself off and got back on track and had a blast the rest of the time, knowing that I had learned an important lesson and that it was way less likely to happen again.