Protecting Yourself from Theft While Traveling

One second it was in my hand and the next it was gone. My phone had been snatched by a thief driving by on a motorbike and in, the split second it took me to realize what had happened, he was already a block away.

Up until this point I’ve been very lucky in avoiding having anything stolen during my travels. I take precautions, I hold on to my purse, I keep valuables in lockers when I stay in hostels. But in this moment I had my phone out of my bag, using the map to find a restaurant, and was distracted for the split second it took for an experienced thief to take advantage of my lack of awareness.

It sucks for sure. I have five more weeks of traveling left and have just lost my mobile maps, my alarm, my podcasts to get me through long bus rides (shout-out to The VeganAri Show!), and the ability to catch up with family and friends online when I’m out and about during the day.

Yes, there are bigger problems in the world, but it’s no fun to have your stuff stolen, especially when you travel.

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To help keep your belongings safe, here are 15 travel security tips:

Don’t do what I did – If you are in a crowded area or an area known to have thieves and you need to use your phone, have a look around first. Turn your body so that it’s harder for someone to come up behind you (ie face perpendicular to the road or main walkway you are on) and step out of the flow of traffic. Maybe hold your phone with both hands (and really hold it, don’t just rest it there like normal). Be aware of what’s going on around you and put your phone away as soon as you are done.

Carry a theft-resistant bag – Many female travelers prefer a cross-body bag because it’s harder to steal. If you go this route, choose one that sits higher on your body so it is protected by your arm and not swung around behind you (people can still get stuff out of it without taking it off of you). I personally prefer a bag that goes over one shoulder and can be held under my arm and with my hand on the strap. Whichever you choose, your bag should absolutely zipper shut (preferably with the zipper ending up towards your front, rather than back). If you’re worried about someone cutting the strap on your bag (which does sometimes happen), check out these cool theft resistant bags. If you’re going to use a backpack, put your valuables at the very bottom, where they are hard to reach. Guys, if you’re going to carry your wallet in your pocket instead of a bag, use your front pocket (never the back pocket).

Carry a lock – Many hotels and hotels include a safe for your valuables. Many of these will come with a lock, but not all of them. It’s always best to have a lock with you so you aren’t left with your possessions unsecured.

meKeep your valuables in one bag that you viciously guard – This one is up for debate, as some people think it makes more sense to keep valuables (especially cash) in multiple places so in case some gets lost/stolen you have another stash. But the reality is that it’s difficult to maintain full control of multiple bags. Any time you travel with both (buses, transport vans, airplanes, tours, etc) your larger bag will almost always end up separated from you. I keep everything important (money, passport, computer, phone, electronic cables) in my day bag. When I have both bags, this smaller one is on my front making it even harder for someone to get into. When I’m on buses or planes it’s in my lap or at my feet (never in the overhead bin). I keep it with me in taxies and I never let anyone else carry it. When I’m going out for a day, I transfer the things I need to my purse and lock the rest away.

Do keep valuables in multiple places within your one bag – Even when I only have one bag, I do split up cash into multiple places, including the inside zippered pocket of my backpack and the back zipper pocket of my purse.

Use your rain cover even when it’s not raining – Any time you are in transit or walking around with your backpack, use your rain cover. This makes it much, much harder for a thief to slip open a zipper and grab something out.

Skip the money belt – Money belts are supposed to be secure because they are hard to steal (being under your clothes and all), but they are not practical for anything you are going to need (like when you check in to your hostel and have to half undress to get your passport out…not cute). Other downsides include being super uncomfortable (especially in hot climates) and the sweaty grossness of the items inside if worn for too long (also especially in hot climates). Additionally, you put yourself at risk when you’re fumbling around with trying to get things in and out of a money belt subtly (you might set your phone or credit card down on a counter where it can be easily taken, for example).

Don’t use the seat back pockets – This is more to avoid losing things rather than having them stolen. It’s very easy to forget things you’ve put into seat back pockets, especially if you’re on a bus where you might have to jump off quickly.

Use the overhead bins opposite you – If you do put bags in overhead bins, don’t put them right over your head. Put them in the bins opposite you so you can see them.

Minimize the number of bags/items you carry – It’s easy to forget something if you need to collect up a half dozen things every time you get up to move. I carry two bags (a big one and a little one) and keep everything I’m not using packed up. Put your water bottle in a side pocket, put your headphones back in the zipper pocket when you aren’t using them, shove your sweatshirt in that front pocket thing to keep it handy but secured. I pack a purse for day use, but I don’t carry it separately when I have to carry my other two bags. My day pack has a sizable zipper pocket on the outside that contains all of my ‘purse-things.’ This is also handy because it’s right in front of me when I need to get to my wallet or chap stick. Even when I’m seated in one place (like an airport), I always stay packed up so I can easily get up and go without have to check around for random things. When you do this consistently, it’s easy to check yourself to make sure you have everything without having to run through a full inventory of items. 

Never take more than you can carry yourself – You are responsible for yourself and your things when you travel. Unless you have physical limitations (age or disability) that interfere with your ability to do this, you should be able to carry your own bags (all at the same time). Yes, this limits you on both number of bags and their weight, but keeps you control, which helps to prevent theft (and the general chaos involved with lots of luggage).

Try to carry small change – Not only are you more vulnerable to theft when you have your wallet out, waving around large bills, waiting for a taxi driver or street merchant to give you change, but you are also more susceptible to the person who ‘doesn’t have change.’ This happened to me in Hanoi with a motorbike driver who told me the ride would cost 40,000 dong. When we arrived, the smallest bill I had was a 50,000; he took it and claimed he had no change, not leaving me much choice other than to let him have it (the difference in this case was only $0.50, but it’s the principle).

Agree on prices before you get into/onto any form of transportation – Make sure you and your driver agree on the price of a ride before you take it. Preferably before you get in the car or on the motorbike, as they will sometimes take off before you agree, essentially trapping you. If you are taking a taxi, insist they use the meter. Also beware of local scams. One I’ve heard of here is a driver agreeing on a price of 15 but later claiming he said 50. If there’s any confusion, write it down or use your fingers to make sure you are on the same page (like one finger and five fingers to make 15, not the finger that conveys your thoughts on the scam).

Choose the top bunk – This is a personal preference, but I prefer the top bunk in dorm-style rooms because I keep my keys and phone (if I need an alarm) with me and they are harder to steal when they are six feet off the ground. Similarly, if I’m in a room with no locker, I put my valuables in my purse and sleep with my purse between my pillow and the wall.

Don’t get drunk – Yes, I know this is the highlight of many people’s travels, but you are much more susceptible to having your things stolen (along with other, worse, things happening) when you are intoxicated, for a variety of reasons. You’ll be less likely to notice someone slipping something out of your bag, you might not notice if you are overcharged, you’ll probably be less vigilant about keep tracking of your belongings, and you might be the target of unsavory characters who notice and want to take advantage of your impaired condition. This is not victim blaming; it’s a recommendation to stay smart. By all means, enjoy your adult beverages, but keep it in check. And try to go out with people you trust (even if you just met them at your hostel) so you can keep an eye on each other.

Get Travel Insurance

I’ve always been wishy-washy about this. Sometimes I get it, sometimes I don’t. But eventually, despite your best efforts, something bad might happen. It takes some of the sting away when you have insurance to cover the cost.

Check out World Nomads for coverage.

Be safe out there!

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