I don’t mean to scare anyone off traveling. It’s really one of the best things I’ve done in my short lifetime. You can meet some wonderful people, see monuments and things that you might only see on a Google search, and overall develop an appreciation for other cultures.
Having said that, it is important to know that tourists are often targeted in foreign countries. I’ve seen and heard it happen everywhere. I’m not saying that just because you’re a tourist you will be a victim, and I’m not saying that these tips will absolutely 100% prevent you from it, but I would like to pass some tips along to my fellow wanderers to lower the chances of being a target.
Read on . . .
You’re going to look like a tourist. Someone once told me that in order to avoid the attention of potential thieves overseas, she would “blend in” with the locals. This logic doesn’t make any sense to me because my definition of being a “tourist” entails that you’re going out to see the sights (i.e. the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Times Square in New York, etc.). Most locals try and avoid touristy spots because of the crowds and congestion (at least I do). Even if you successfully find yourself in a crowd of locals, I’m thinking you’re going to have your head up and looking at landmarks and the bright lights, because, of course, that’s what you’re there to see. You’re going to stand out as a tourist anyway, and that’s what people looking for targets are going to notice.
Money. This is the main thing that you, tourist or not, may be targeted for. Be very careful in bringing large amounts of cash with you while on vacation. In my opinion, cash is the best thing to steal from someone because, unless that person is absolutely insane and records the serial number of every bill that they come across, it is virtually impossible to get back as soon as the thief makes off with it. They can spend it immediately and it won’t be traced. People don’t ask for ID when you’re paying with cash.
I understand that bringing cash on travels is almost unavoidable, especially in places like Europe where many smaller shops are still cash only. My preference is to bring a smaller amount of cash and use a credit card as much as I can while on vacation. Yes, I understand that credit cards can be stolen too, but in my experience, it’s a lot easier to deal with a stolen credit card than with stolen cash. If you need to bring a certain amount of cash with you, I recommend splitting it up amongst your belongings so that you’ll still have cash hidden away if one of your articles is stolen.
If you’re okay with carrying cash, be careful about how you handle it when you’re out and about. Don’t pull out a wad of cash and count it out at the market — you’re traveling, not starring in a rap video. I carry a purse with me and keep a small amount (no more than $50) in an easy-to-access pocket, and anything extra I have on me I keep in a closed inner pocket in another compartment of my bag. If use up the smaller amount, I’ll find a time to discretely pull out more for me to use. There are also some ingenious devices out there for you to hide money in, but the main thing is to avoid flashing a large amount.
Side note: One of my tour guides said that Asians are often targeted by thieves in Europe because many Chinese do not have credit cards and instead travel with large amounts of cash. I have not been able to confirm that this is a thing, but just something to think about if you happen to fit that profile.
Be wary of pickpockets. Nowhere did I see this more than on a trip to Paris and Rome. In fact, the Louvre in Paris has signs in a number of languages cautioning visitors on the abundance of pickpockets in the area. These signs are not always effective.
Know that a lot of pickpockets work in groups; be wary of strangers who attempt to distract you. They also can be young, so don’t let your guard down with children. One trick I’ve heard of is a group of girls who will approach you and ask you to sign a petition of some sort. While one girl distracts you with the petition, one or two accomplices will go through your pockets. I’ve also seen a trick in New York where a group will put on a street performance, and while onlookers crowd around, accomplices will circle the crowd and pick pockets. There are also those who work best moving through crowded areas where bodies are pushed together anyway, like a crowded street or train. Be aware of your belongings and if you think someone is moving too close, move away.
There are a few products I’ve seen that try and deter pickpockets. PacSafe is a brand that I know that makes “theft-resistant” products (I avoid the term “theft-proof” because if I can get into it, that means that others can). See a review I did of one of their backpacks here. There are also those generic neck pouches that work for a lot of people, but I find them a little cumbersome for my taste. I do know that if you tuck the pouches into your shirt, it definitely makes it harder for a thief to get to your stuff, but it’s also super awkward to reach down your shirt in the store to try and pay for your purchase. And I already have trouble making friends. Keep in mind that most thieves are looking for easy targets, so any extra work they need to do to get your stuff may deter them.
Hustlers are all over the world. I get it. Times are tough and people have to hustle to get their bread. I like to think of hustling as more of an annoyance than an actual crime, but I’d still prefer to avoid being on the losing end of a hustle. Again, lots of different ways to do it:
- I’ve seen people in Paris who will approach you in a friendly manner and tie a bracelet to your wrist. When you thank them and try to walk away, they demand payment, even though you didn’t ask for the stupid bracelet and thought they were just being nice. Most of the time, the unsuspecting victim will just pay the now-angry person what they demand, just to get away. I don’t know how to avoid this without being rude; I typically snatch my arm away from any stranger who tries to touch me and I will walk off.
- Since art seems to be a thing in Paris, I have also seen hustlers who will come up to you and start drawing your picture (without being asked), shower you with complements, and talk about how they’re going to be the next Picasso. Always Picasso. Like there are no other famous artists to come out of Paris. When they hand the picture (that you did not ask for) to you, they demand payment. I also don’t know how to handle this in a nice fashion; I typically just shoo people away.
- Street games are also something to be avoided. You know, the ones that ask you to find a certain card out of a set of three? Long story short, they’re fixed. Don’t get sucked in.
- I think this is more of insufficient advertising, but in Times Square in New York, there are a number of people who wander a certain area of the street in cartoon costumes and pose for pictures. Just know that you’re expected to tip them; some of them wait until after the picture to tell you this. I have seen similar costumed individuals around the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in San Francisco, but I don’t know if they have the same requirements.
Do not leave things unattended on or around your table, especially when seated outdoors. This is especially for cell phones, as I don’t see too many people leaving their wallets in plain view. One thing I’ve seen is people leaving their phone on the table while having their drink or meal outside and someone else on the street runs by and snatches their phone out from under their nose. While I’m sure this happens everywhere, the one time I saw it was in London. It’s pretty easy, if you work quickly, to snatch a phone and turn it over for cash. However, it’s not at all easy to wander around a foreign country with no phone, especially by today’s standards. I didn’t say impossible, just more difficult than I would like.
This also goes for bags, as apparently they are also snatched when left unattended. Sometimes thieves will employ distraction in order to make off with your things. I watched as a group of high school kids allowed a stranger to sit with them after a long day of shopping. The stranger chatted them up, then left, and soon after the kids discovered that a couple of their shopping bags scattered around their table had gone missing. This actually happened in a food court at a large indoor shopping mall in San Francisco, so this doesn’t necessarily have to be an outdoors thing. Either keep your bags wrapped around you or a leg of the chair or table to keep it from leaving without you while you dine.
Do not flash your valuables. Think of things from the thief’s point of view: You wouldn’t just go around holding up random people; you’re going to aim for people who are worth your time and energy. As a tourist, leave the flashy chains and other fancy jewelry at home. Keep a close eye on any smartphones or tablets you or the children have out.
Special warning for those who wear purses. Reconsider whether you want to travel with a bag that doesn’t zip or snap closed, and for the love of all that is holy DO NOT LEAVE YOUR PURSE OPEN. I see this all the time, with tourists and with locals. I know that it’s way more convenient for you to just reach in your open bag and pull stuff out as you need it, but know that it’s also easy for others to access your purse when it’s left open. It is so easy for someone to walk by real quick and snatch something out of your bag, namely your wallet or phone. I watched a lady snatch another lady’s wallet in this exact same manner in the middle of a shopping mall in Los Angeles. Keep your bag closed, in front of you, and close to your body. I’m a little extra and I always keep on hand on my bag, but that might not be necessary.
Also keep your bag on the side of your body that is facing away from the street. One of my aunts in the Philippines had her purse snatched as she walked down the street. The thieves rode by her on a motorcycle and snatched the bag right off her shoulder.
Edit: DO NO NOT LEAVE ANYTHING VISIBLE IN YOUR CAR. I grew up near San Francisco, and this has always been a huge problem. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a place where you don’t have to think about people breaking into your car, but it’s an issue in a lot of touristy places. Never leave anything visible in your car, even if the windows are tinted. It only takes a couple of seconds to break the window and snatch whatever is in arms reach. I’ve heard of everything from grocery bags to urns with ashes being taken from vehicles. Rental cars are often a target because it’s pretty easy to spot a rental car if you know what to look for, and it’s mostly tourists who make use of them. It’s best to keep your things locked up out of sight in the trunk, but if you’re in a rental car, I would recommend you lock your things up in your hotel room instead. A lot of tourists pick up their rental cars, lock their bags in the trunk, and wander the city for a day before checking into their hotel, but there is a possibility that your bags can be taken while you’re out — leave your bags at the hotel. If it’s too early for you to check in, see if your hotel offers luggage storage with the concierge.
Also really important — don’t park, lock things in your trunk, and then walk off. A lot of thieves sit and watch people in parking lots. If they see you lock something in your trunk, they’ll assume it’s of value and target your car when you leave. Make sure you have everything you’ll need out of the trunk (or lock up whatever you need to) before you park and leave your vehicle.
My main message overall is to stay vigilant while traveling (and even while at home). The best way to avoid being a target in my opinion is to prevent temptation. Feel free to share any of your own tips and stories down below.
Embrace your inner tourist. Enjoy the sense of exploration and wonderment. Just know what might be going on around you.