Having your valuables stolen whilst on your gap year is one of many travellers worst fears. Fortunately there are a lot of ways you can outsmart thieves and pickpockets when travelling and ensure that your valuables stay exactly where they are supposed to be.
Millions of travellers head off on their gap years or backpacking trips every single year, and the vast majority return home safe and sound without any problems at all. Saying that however, theft and pickpocketing are serious crimes that many travellers do fall foul of, with the UK and Europe in particular being the worst destinations.
So it is extremely important not to become overly paranoid or fearful about travelling, but just as important to recognise that the risk – however small – is still present and it is a good idea to take reasonable, common sense safety precautions so that you can reduce the risk of becoming a victim yourself as much as possible.
Fortunately there are a lot of things you can do and steps you can take to make sure that your belongings are safe and that thieves and pickpockets don’t make off with your hard earned cash or valuables.
Being prepared before you go.
It is always a good idea to prepare for the worst and make sure you have multiple copies of any important documents such as your passport (email a photo or copy of everything you need to yourself so that you can get all those important details back if you do lose anything), and more importantly make sure that you have adequate travel insurance that includes a decent policy against theft and full cover for any electronics or valuables. Not every policy has this automatically so make sure you read the fine print.
When you travel it is so easy to become lost in the moment, to get caught up in whatever it is you happen to be doing, to be overawed by all those amazing sites you have travelled to see and engrossed in taking the perfect selfie in front of them, it’s natural. We have all done it and we are all likely to do it again.
The big problem is thieves and pickpockets rely on this inattentiveness to part us from our valuables.
Most theft is opportunistic, and if you have left your fancy smartphone or flash DSLR camera on the table whilst you are paying attention to something in the opposite direction then thieves won’t hesitate in grabbing them before you notice. Pickpockets will likewise rely on you paying much more attention to that awesome landmark or getting through that heavy crowd than you are to anything they are doing.
Developing just a little bit of situational awareness is absolutely key. It doesn’t mean that you have to be completely paranoid and think anyone who gets within twenty feet of you is out to do you harm, just practice being aware of your surroundings and of who is around you at all times.
Be aware of the tricks pickpockets and thieves use.
Professional thieves and pickpockets tend to work in predictable ways when you know how they do what they do. The particulars are always evolving and increasingly intricate of course, but the basics tend to stay the same. They tend to work in the same type of areas, employ the same tactics and use the same tricks, and knowing some of these can really help you be on your guard.
Popular tourist attractions, crowded areas and transit stations are usually the prime hunting grounds of pickpockets, as these are where the richest pickings of tourists are, they can enter your personal space quite easily without arousing attention, and are places where they can get away quickly.
Ironically pickpockets are also pretty prolific around those ‘beware pickpocket’ signs, because they will guarantee someone will instinctively pat their wallet pocket or check their bag, signalling to the pickpocket where their valuables are.
So if you are in any of these areas make sure you increase your alertness levels and are aware of who is around you.
Pickpockets and thieves also quite often work in gangs, and distraction is one of the common scams they will use to take your attention away from your valuables and allow an accomplice to pick your pocket or grab your valuables and make off with them.
This can take a huge variety of forms, a bunch of young women may approach a guy to chat him up, a small group may engineer a fight or scuffle right next to you, someone may bump into you purposely or brush something off your jacket, if you are sat on a train in a station with your bag next to you someone may bang on the window and point to something to grab your attention while their friend makes off with your bag. A small group of locals may hustle you in for a group photo with them, or a particularly horrible one is where someone may purposely spill a drink all over you and then make a fuss about getting you cleaned up.
The exact specifics always change of course, but a good rule of thumb is to be alert if a stranger or group of strangers are overly helpful, try to make contact with you or just get too close unnecessarily. Don’t be paranoid, just be aware.
Secure your packs and bags.
At some point during your travels you will not be able to be in contact with your bags all the time. You may leave them in the hostel while you go out sightseeing or you may have them on the seat next to you or the overhead shelf on the overnight bus or train while you get some shut eye (never allow the driver to put your bag in the hold underneath the bus).
In these instances padlocks, security nets and steel cable ties are an absolute god send. If you use a steel cable to tie your pack to something (even if it is you) then thieves can’t walk away with it, if you padlock the zip shut or have a steel net around your backpack, then they can’t get inside, it is that simple. And you should always carry a good padlock to secure your bag inside the locker or bin inside your hostel if you stay in one.
Secure your valuables.
If you are carrying a decent camera with you, then make sure that it has a good strap that at the very least goes around your neck (and under your arm if you can), and if you are carrying a bag or daypack then make sure the strap goes across your body or over both arms. This should go a long way to deterring bag snatchers as they can’t quickly and easily remove your stuff from your body.
Hide your valuables on you.
I never advise anyone to wear a traditional money belt (the ones that either go around your waist or around your neck for two reasons. Okay three. First of all they are horrible and uncomfortable and just end up soaked with sweat in hot or humid countries. Two, every decent thief or mugger who targets tourists or travellers knows that tourists will generally be wearing them, knows to look for them around your waist or around your neck (because that is how they are all designed), and WILL go straight for them. Three, the ones that hang around your neck can also be used to strangle you with, so why give a mugger a weapon to use against you?
However, there are alternatives.
Specifically designed for women, the WanderWave money belt attaches to women’s bras and sits just below the bust on the torso. It is far more discreet than traditional money belts and does not fall into the trap of being in the obvious spots thieves will look at (the waist and the neck).
Men too have options, whilst not as comprehensive as the WanderWave, there are actual belts with tiny hidden pockets perfect for a bit of cash, and clothing with an array of hidden pockets and pickpocket proof zips.
Separate your valuables.
The old saying ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket’ is perfectly true. Instead of carrying around a vast wad of cash, all your debit cards (and emergency credit card), your passport and your phone in one easily accessible pocket, simply spread them about a bit.
Break up your main source of cash, have some in your wallet or purse, a smaller daily amount in your pocket, a secret stash carefully hidden away in your pack, and do the same with your cards too. Don’t keep your emergency only credit card with your debit card, in fact have a spare debit card just in case and hide that in your pack too!
That way if the worst does happen and you lose something, then at least you have only lost a portion of what you otherwise would have.
Always have a back up.
Closely related to that last tip is always, always have a back up. Have a second card, a secret stash of emergency cash in both local currency and maybe some GBP or USD (which can both be exchanged easily). That way if something is stolen you aren’t completely screwed.
Don’t stand out and don’t advertise your stuff.
Thieves, muggers and pickpockets are like predators. They will search out the weakest and most obvious prey and then pounce.
So if you swan around festooned in expensive jewellery or a massive watch, paying for things with that huge wad of foreign currency you carry around and showing off your expensive new camera, smartphone and laptop that you just have to display in the coffee shop so everyone knows just how cool and important you are, then quite frankly you deserve to be targeted!
You may as well just carry around a huge neon sign saying ‘I’m rich, steal my stuff!’
Blend into the crowd, look like an ex pat rather than an obvious tourist as much as possible, leave any superfluous gadgets or bling at home and try not to draw attention to yourself.
I know all of this sounds pretty simple and straightforward, and that is because it is! Reducing the risk of theft or pickpocketing is all about using a variety of tools, camouflage and techniques at your disposal to reduce your risk little bit by little bit until it is as low as it can be. Nothing is ever 100% safe, but by using these tips and tricks you can at least ensure that your travels are as safe from pickpockets and thieves as they can be and that the odds are well and truly in your favour.
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This article was written in partnership with WanderWave. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.