Traveling to another country for the first time can be scary. You’re not sure what expect or what the country’s customs are…what’s acceptable in one culture may be offensive in another. If you go on travel forums like TripAdvisor or Fodor’s, you’ll undoubtedly come across a comment (or many comments) about how someone got pickpocketed/robbed/scammed/harassed in some way.
|Photo Credit: iStock Photo|
While many people on the forums are helpful, there also always seems to be someone out there who will come sweeping in with over-generalized statements like “Don’t go to Rome! You will get mugged!” or “You’ll get scammed in Paris!”.
Sadly, people that are already unsure or nervous about traveling in the first place might decide not to do it because of (erroneous) statements like that.
For example, here is a screen shot of something someone wrote on Fodor’s Travel forum:
I am not saying that these things didn’t happen to the person who posted the above (but I am questioning the why and the how of it). I am also not saying that it doesn’t happen to a lot of people…it does. It happens in big cities like Rome, Paris, Barcelona, Chicago, New York, and in small towns as well – but the people that it happens to are in the minority. Just think of the millions and millions of tourists that go places and come away unscathed and happy. How sad for people that were thinking about going to Italy and now won’t because of the above comment or one like it.
I am mainly writing this post for exactly those people, because I don’t want one single person to miss out on the amazing things this world has to offer just because of some fool who claims everyone will be robbed if they go to Italy. I have been to various cities in Italy (including the much-maligned Naples) over the course of seven trips to the country. I’ve been to Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, Prague, Lisbon, London and several other places and neither I, nor my travelling companions (who are two senior-citizen ladies) have ever been mugged or had anything stolen from us. Nor have we ever felt in any danger, even when walking around at night. (I am knocking on wood as I type this since I am foolishly superstitious and don’t want to jinx myself.)
I want to take this opportunity to share with you some of the things that I have learned during my own travels and from other travelers and/or locals that have shared their advice, either online or in person. These are very simple things that I believe have kept me and my belongings safe thus far.
- Research before you go! This is such an important thing to do – and not just for safety reasons, but to actually find out about the place you are going to – but I am continually amazed at how many people don’t do it. There is a ton of information available to you both online and in books…READ IT. Not all of it, of course, but enough to educate yourself. Because pickpockets and scam artists do exist, you can learn what to look out for (like the gold ring scam in Paris or bus 64 in Rome). You can learn what areas of the city might be best avoided. You can find out how to handle the “gypsies” that are found near almost every tourist attraction. Aside from the occasional fear monger, travel forums/websites/blogs are filled with people who want to help other people – don’t miss out on the knowledge they are sharing!
- Always pay attention to your surroundings. Thieves will target you when you are distracted…reading a map, taking a picture, looking at a painting, talking on the phone, etc. Don’t make it easy for them – be aware of what’s going on around you at all times. For example, when you are snapping a picture, make sure your purse/bag is secure and closed and don’t ever set it down on the ground. If you are getting money from an ATM, scan your surroundings first. If there are people (or even one person) standing next to the ATM but not appearing to want to use it, find another one. Stand close to the machine and even cover the key pad while you are entering your code. Don’t stand around counting your money after it dispenses – put it securely away and move along. When I am traveling with my mom and aunt, and one of us is getting money, the other two “stand guard”, for lack of a better word. Could someone come up, knock us all down and steal our money anyway? Sure. But the more aware you are and appear to others, the less you will look like a potential target.
|Photo Credit: iStock Photo|
- Carry your belongings wisely. Men: do NOT carry your wallet in your back pocket. Even your front pocket is not the most secure – a money belt or pouch you carry around your neck and under your shirt is probably best. Ladies: you can also use those two things. But, if you are like me and not a fan of either of those, then use a cross-body bag and always have it hanging in front of you (or even under your jacket, if you are wearing one). While I’m walking, I always keep one hand on my bag. If you take public transportation, be especially mindful. Don’t wear a backpack or a fanny pack (though, seriously, you should never wear a fanny pack for any reason, whether you are traveling or not). If you want, you can get anti-theft bags made by a company like Pacsafe with straps that cannot be cut through, or wallets with RFID blockers. If you are at a café having a drink or a meal, do not set your purse on the ground or hang it over the back of your chair or put it on an empty chair next to you…especially if you are outdoors and at a table near the sidewalk. When I am at an outdoor café or a crowded restaurant, I actually put my leg through the bag strap and put the bag on my seat between my legs. Not the most comfortable, but I highly doubt anyone could get in it or take it from me.
|Photo Credit: iStock Photo|
- Carry with you only what you need for the day. Don’t carry around hundreds of dollars/pounds/euros, etc. Don’t carry all of your credit cards – carry one. That way, if you do get robbed, they will not get away with everything you have. Put your cash and credit card in a zippered pocket inside your zippered bag, making it as hard to get to as possible.
- Keep it simple. Don’t wear your fancy jewelry or obviously expensive clothes and accessories. I’m not saying you have to look like slob, but just use common sense and don’t draw attention to yourself.
- Go with your gut. If something about a situation feels funny to you, then disengage and move along. For instance, if you’re looking for a taxi and someone pulls up to offer you a ride in a car that has no taxi sign or doesn’t look official, well…don’t get in it. This is where your pre-trip research will help you. You can easily find information on what official taxis look like and where to find them (though sadly this doesn’t mean they may not try to overcharge you even if they are official).
|Photo Credit: iStock Photo|
- Go against your gut. Yes, that is the exact opposite of what I just told you, but hear me out because this applies to entirely different situations. For many people, including myself, it is our natural instinct to want to respond to people who approach us or help someone that appears to be in need. But while you are traveling in a foreign country, just don’t do it. Whether they are begging for money, asking if you speak English, trying to “give” you a rose or take your picture, asking for directions, asking if you dropped a ring, trying to get you to sign a petition for a worthy cause…just ignore them and keep moving. And I mean that very sincerely. Ignore them. Act like they do not exist. Why? Because the rose is never free. The picture is never free. We all know you didn’t drop a ring. Who cares if an American signs a petition in a foreign country? And while sometimes another tourist may legitimately ask you if you know how to get somewhere, oftentimes it’s someone trying to distract you while their partner steals your stuff.
A lot of this is common sense, I know. But sometimes just hearing it – and hearing that, with preparation and awareness, the odds are in your favor of having a safe and wonderful adventure – can help give you the assurance you need to take that final step and book your tickets!
Anyone else have any other tips or advice on how to stay safe while traveling? Please share in the comments below!
NOTE: I want to clarify that the places that I have been are mainly countries/cities that are very much “tourist-friendly”. I have not traveled to countries that might actually be a bit “trickier” for tourists, where there are often real threats of danger greater than being pickpocketed. Thus, keep in mind that my knowledge and advice in this post are limited in that regard.