We’ve all heard it before: The dreaded story of your friend’s friend who got her phone and wallet stolen by pickpockets on her first day of a European vacation. Pickpocketing in Europe is a real issue, and the individuals who target tourists for theft are skilled professionals.
In my years of traveling, I’ve never had anything stolen or pickpocketed, likely due to a combination of luck, blending in, and vigilance. Here are a few hacks that I use to protect myself from getting my valuables pickpocketed by malevolent strangers.
Don’t Use Pockets
Don’t put anything in your pockets! Ever! Pockets are simply too easy for thieves to access and empty.
Avoid Crowded Places
If there’s a really crowded subway car, and you know that you won’t be fully able to pay attention to all your belongings, just wait for the next one. There’s too much risk involved in thick, jostling crowds. Aim to visit popular tourist locations in the early hours of the morning. There will be fewer people there, and you’ll be able to fully enjoy yourself with less stress.
Secure your Bag when Not Wearing It
When you want to relax but are still in a semi-public place, like a restaurant, bus, or airport, never leave your bag on the back of your chair as you would at home. To avoid pickpockets in Europe, it’s best to not leave your bag behind you ever. Someone can easily lift it off of the back of your chair before you notice anything. Many women wrap the strap of their bag around their ankle, and keep my food solidly on the floor, but if you’ve seen the pilot episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, you know this isn’t foolproof.
Instead, carry a carabiner or lightweight dog collar in your bag. These small closures can be used to clip your bag to your seat, chair, or table and prevent anyone from easily being able to remove your bag.
Safety Pin your Zipper
But when you’re wearing your handbag on your shoulder, make sure the zipper is zipped shut in front of you, not behind. If you leave it behind you, you’re keeping an easy entrance for pickpocketers to open the bag a tiny bit to pull something out. For backpacks, which are difficult and uncomfortable to face-forward, safety pin the zipper pull in place when you know you’ll be in a high pickpocketed area of Europe like a train station in Rome, a crowded market in London, or the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
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Choose a Slash-Resistant Bag
If you have a bag made from thin material, a pickpocketer can easily cut through the bottom. Remember, these people are professionals and have thought of everything. Thankfully, travel product designers are as innovative as thieves, ad a variety of cute slash-proof travel bags are available.
Use a Phone Wrist Strap
Some travelers think holding their phone will prevent theft, but many travelers in Europe have lost tech devices to a snatch-and-run style theft in which the thief snatches a phone and runs, usually with the help of a getaway driver. Instead, I use a wrist strap. Wrist straps to hold phones while traveling fall squarely into that category of “if it looks dumb but works, it isn’t dumb.” By tethering your phone to your body you reduce your risk of being targeted, and if you are targeted, a slippery phone is more likely to slip out of a thief’s grasp than to break the strap.
Skilled pickpockets rely on people standing or sitting still to complete their work- pickpockets in Europe and other destinations tend to avoid a moving target. To reduce your likelihood of being a target, while standing still in high-theft areas (again, like train stations and public transportation) rock back and forth, sway side to side, or tap your feet.
Put your Back Against a Wall
This is one of my default crime-prevention methods when I am traveling. Every tourist needs to consult their phone, return a text message, or check a map now and then- and those moments are when we’re most vulnerable to pickpockets. If you need to be distracted from your surroundings for a moment, find a wall, place your bag between the wall and your body, and lean in. As a backpack wearer, I know this is the safest way to spend a few minutes with my phone in public without making myself a target for theft.
Listen, prevention is the #1 to prevent crime. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a tourist, but standing out as a tourist is like advertising a welcome sign to pickpockets. Leave flashy jewelry at home, don’t bury your nose in your phone open to a maps app, and avoid using backpacks that look crisply new or expensive. Blending in requires some effort to not stand out.
Situational awareness is a phrase researchers use to describe how people can maintain focus, conversation, or gaze out the window while remaining keenly aware of what’s going on around them. vigilance doesn’t mean you’re hypersensitive to threats and constantly scanning your environment, it means you’re alert to your surroundings and not hyperfocused. If you tend to find yourself lost in thought or highly focused, choose to position yourself in public accordingly. Sitting on the back row of a bus or with your back against a wall in an airport can help make staying vigilant easier.
Use a Cross Body Bag
I’m a big fan of bags with cross-body straps. Unlike a purse that can be snatched off a shoulder, cross-body bags deter attempts at theft because they are securely attached to your torso. For extra security, keep the bag in front of you, and keep one hand on it, especially when you’re on public transportation, in a crowded tourist area, or in a crowded bar. Try to ensure the bag has more than one method of closing (like a zipper and a snap, or a buckle and a zipper). By having multiple closures, it takes a little more work for a pickpocket to get into your valuables.
Ditch the Money Belt
Nothing puts a target on your head more than a money belt. Please. Professional tourist thieves can spot the bulge of a money belt and are experts at accessing this location where they know you’ll store belongings you cherish most, like cash, credit cards, and documents.
Don’t Leave Your Belongings on the Table
All it takes is a bit of intentional commotion, a major distraction, and a deft thief and your phone, wallet, or bag may go missing. Belongings unattended on a table may even tempt casual thieves to commit a crime who would not otherwise. It’s so easy to get your stuff stolen if you leave it out in the open for thieves to spot, so pack it down deep in secure places.
Final Thoughts on Not Getting Pickpocketed in Europe
It’s important to realize that you can take all of the right measures, and still be a victim of a crime while traveling anywhere, even in Europe. All it takes is someone grabbing your handbag and taking off running. You may slip up and a thief might take advantage of the moment. It’s okay. You’ll survive. Don’t let it stop you from enjoying your vacation.
Be smart, be aware, and trust that over time you’ll get to a point where personal safety is just second nature, and you won’t have to think about it anymore.
If you do find yourself pickpocketed in Europe, here are the next steps:
- Contact the police department. They may not be able to do anything, but if you file a report and something does turn up, they’ll be able to return it to you immediately.
- If a serious crime occurs, contact the embassy.
- Call your bank and credit card companies right away to report any missing cards.
- Do not panic, get to a safe space, and engage in some serious self-care.
- Pro tip from my day job in the mental health field: get your heart rate up intentionally. Some research suggests this helps our bodies clear stress hormones and return to a calm state.
Lynli Roman’s unique approach to travel is informed by decades of experience on the road with a traveling family and, later, years spent as a solo international traveler. When she’s not writing about Seattle from her Pike Place Market apartment, Lynli writes on-location while conducting hands-on research in each destination she covers. Lynli’s writing has been featured by MSN, ABC Money, Buzzfeed, and Huffington Post. She is passionate about sharing information that makes travel more accessible for all bodies.