Five Ways to Avoid Theft on Vacation

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Dark Alley (Photo: iStockphoto/Denis Jr. Tangney)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on June 22, 2010. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, baggage, currency exchange, destination, hostel, hotel, insurance, passport, Sarah Pascarella, security, vacation package.

"Once I was in the Middle East, and walking in a city with a colleague," says Craig Bidois, principal consultant, Fear Free, a New Zealand-based security and safety management firm. "A car stopped beside us and a lady got out of the car and asked me if I could change a larger note for a smaller one. Being a helpful person, I went to get my wallet out. My friend—also a security expert—realized what was about to happen and replied that we could not help. Her car was ready to go with a driver; I suspect she would have taken my wallet and [driven] off."

It's not unusual for anyone, even security experts, to be caught off guard while traveling. Whether it's a vacation or a business trip, it's important to stay alert and know your surroundings to avoid petty theft. Read on for ways to safeguard your valuables while traveling.

What Not to Pack

Before you pack even one item, do a bit of research about the local area to see if any safety red flags come up. "Crime occurs in all countries, cities, and towns," says Bidois. "Maybe you're going on a local vacation or to a remote area in another part of the world—the risk remains the same. Do some research about the location you are going to to find out what the safety issues are there."

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Armed with this knowledge, you can pack accordingly. Depending on where you're going, you may want to choose a body wallet over a purse, a backpack over a suitcase, or other similar tweaks to your usual attire.

The old adage of "when in doubt, leave it out" rings true for all types of trips, from domestic road trips to far-flung international vacations. Leave expensive jewelry, extra clothing, and other non-essentials at home, and forego anything flashy, brand-labeled, or attention-drawing. Not only will you know your valuables are safe at home, you'll also enjoy the freedom of traveling light and in a manner that will hopefully allow you to blend in with the locals.

"A person should pack light so that they aren't bogged down with having to carry a bunch of items with them," says Beth Whitman, founder of Wanderlust and Lipstick, a guidebook series and website for women travelers. "If they can act confidently and aren't fumbling around or looking lost, it's less likely that a thief will target them."

What to Bring

You may also want to invest in a few extra precautions for your bags. Whitman recommends a cable lock to tether your bag to something stationary, small zipper locks to prevent entry into your bag, and a bag with mesh or slash-proof panels to keep thieves from tearing it open and making off with what's inside. Just remember that TSA security requirements mandate that your bags are unlocked in flight, so be sure to bring the locks along and attach them to your bags once on the ground.

Additionally, make copies of all your important documents (passport, itinerary, reservation confirmations, credit cards) and give them to trusted family and friends before you leave. You'll also want to share copies of customer service phone numbers and emergency contacts. This way, in case your wallet and/or bags get stolen, you'll have backup to continue with your trip, honor your reservations, and have a means to get home.

Consider purchasing travel insurance to give you additional peace of mind while on vacation. Be sure to read your policy's coverage before you buy to verify that loss/theft protection is included.

Out Exploring

"You are responsible for the security of your possessions, no one else," says Bidois. "Most of us save up our hard-earned money to take ourselves and our families away on a vacation. We deserve to have a stress-free and enjoyable time away, [but] sometimes we let our guard down."

While you may feel the urge to relax and cut loose on vacation, staying alert and aware of your surroundings is your first and best line of defense. "Would you leave your house unlocked? Car unlocked? Money lying around your bedroom?" says Bidois. "You need to maintain basic everyday security measures."

Start by deciding what to have on you while you're out, and map out your route in advance. Your money, credit cards, and forms of ID should be in a secure place, such as a money belt that's worn close to your body or an interior jacket pocket. Avoid crowds or other touristy areas known for petty theft, pickpockets, and the like. And by having a general sense of the area and your route, you won't have to fumble with guidebooks and maps, which makes you stand out as a (potentially vulnerable) tourist.

"Be careful about people who approach you," says Bidois. "Many are con artists or worse ... Use your gut feeling. If you think something is not right, trust your instinct."

It's always a good idea to carry a dummy wallet on you, filled with loose change and a few small bills. A former colleague had a brilliant strategy of saving the fake cards that come with credit card solicitations and bringing those along in her decoy wallet. If you are held up and asked for your wallet, you can get rid of the dummy one, the thief will be none the wiser, and you'll still have your valuables.

Finally, stay sober. If you're intoxicated, you're much more likely to end up in an unsafe situation. Keeping your wits about you is the key to safety.

In Your Hotel

At check-in, request a room that's not near a stairway or elevator (to reduce foot traffic or strangers prowling around the easiest-to-access rooms), as well as one that's not on the ground floor. If the clerk announces your room number for all to hear, ask to be reassigned to a different room. Ideally, the check-in attendant should write the room number on your key envelope and pass it to you across the counter. Discretion can prevent theft.

Once in your hotel room, take advantage of all the locks you have. "A rubber door stop will prevent someone from entering your room," says Whitman. "Many hotel room doors in developing countries don't have additional locks, such as chains, so this little item can come in handy."

Sometimes, paying a little more per night can give you extra peace of mind for security's sake. "If you are a backpacker or staying in a low-grade hotel, you get the security level you paid for," says Bidois. "Generally, higher grade hotels have more protection measures in place ... but you still need to remain alert. I never leave the 'please make up my room' sign out—this signals you are away. I do leave the TV/radio on as a gentle background so it appears I am still in the room."

You may also want to use the hotel safe for your valuables, travel documents, and other pieces you'd like to safeguard. Check in with the front desk beforehand, though, to find out just how secure the safe is. How many people have keys to the safe? Who has access to the room? A few general inquiries can determine whether the safe is a viable option for you.

If You Do Get Robbed...

Unfortunately, even the most aware and alert traveler can experience a bit of bad luck. If you do get robbed, there are a few steps to take to make the best of a bad situation.

If you lose your passport or other identification documents, get in touch with the nearest embassy. Ideally, you will already have copies made that you can take along with you—this will expedite the replacement process.

"If it's valuables, definitely report it to the police so that they have a record of it," says Whitman. "If the police will issue a report, you might be able to get your insurance policy to reimburse you." Be sure to get a copy of the police report for your insurance claim.

Finally, while the threat of theft may seem frightening, it shouldn't be an all-consuming focus on your vacation. "Don't let fear put you off traveling around the globe to visit some amazing sites and meeting interesting people," says Bidois. "Just use common sense, appropriate humor, follow the local cultural customs, and be a little more alert than if you were at home."

Your Turn

How do you protect your valuables on the road? Share your expertise by submitting a comment below!

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