Although most trips end without incident, if you travel long enough, and far enough, the odds are very good that eventually, you will encounter theft or another crime while traveling.
Solo travelers taking their first solo trip may be targeted if unprepared and unaware, but even digital nomads, who spend months or even years at a time on the road traveling to international destinations, can fall victim to travel crime. Statistically speaking, it’s only a matter of time until a bag is stolen, a backpack is slashed, or a phone is picked up while attention is distracted.
Because of this, all travelers should have a backup plan of what they’ll do if essentials, like a phone, passport, money, or luggage are stolen or missing.
One way to prepare for the potential of theft before you ever leave home is to imagine hypothetical situations. Thinking through “What would I do if…” might seem dark, but it’s actually a great way to set ourselves up to be empowered and be able to cope if we do find ourselves the victim of a crime while traveling.
With poor planning, you could end up wasting days of your vacation at an embassy or having to cut your trip short in order to get home. With good planning, however, you’ll have a plan in place so that you can continue on with your trip mostly interrupted – and be able to form a travel memory of resilience and adventure rather than defeat.
In this post, I cataloged a few different options for ways to prepare for the potential of theft, pickpocketing, or slash-and-grab crime of the kind that is common in popular tourist destinations like Rome, Paris, London, Hong Kong, New York City, and just about anywhere else that tourists congregate.
How to Prepare for Theft while Traveling
1. Bring at least two credit or debit cards and store them separately
The likelihood of all your luggage and belongings being stolen is much lower than the likelihood of losing just a purse or a wallet. Because of this, it’s a good idea to keep a credit card in each of your bags. Hiding a credit card in your suitcase liner can be a great way to conceal that valuable item even from someone rifling through your luggage.
2. Hide some cash
If you look closely, you’ll probably find a compartment perfect for secretly stowing away some bills just in case you need them.
In the event of a robbery, having some cash on hand will ensure being able to get a taxi to a police station or airport, contact someone back home, or get a meal or place to stay when you need it.
Good hiding places for cash money while traveling include: under the insole of your shoes, behind the identification card on your suitcase or backpack, or even the liner of your coat (this one may require a few rudimentary stitches with a needle and thread)
Generally, you don’t need to worry about changing your money into the local currency when you travel. In the event that you need to use your emergency money, you may be able to spend US dollars or get transportation to a currency exchange to pay for the ride. Keep these bills in good condition, though- some money exchangers won’t take very worn, torn, or dogeared bills.
3. Photocopy the front and back of your credit cards
Today, locking a credit card in response to theft or fraud is a simple as logging in via an app and toggling a switch – however, if both your credit cards and your phone are stolen you may find yourself unable to contact your credit card issuer.
A photocopy of the front and back of your credit card can be a helpful thing to carry along with your essential travel documents like your passport your travel insurance card. Having a photocopy of the back of your credit card means you’ll know exactly what number to call to cancel your credit card and get a new one expedited to you within a few days.
4. Email all important documents to yourself
If you don’t already, create a secure email address and email yourself a copy of all of your essential documents, including, for American travelers, the documents that a US embassy requires in order to validate your citizenship from a embassy located outside the United States (view that list here).
5. Carry secondary tech
While some travelers go as far as carrying a backup smartphone, you don’t need to carry two phones to ensure that you’ll be able to log into your email, online banking, and other essential services if your phone is stolen. Carrying a tablet or laptop can ensure that you’ll still have access to these resources- just be sure not to store your primary tech and your secondary tech next to each other or in the same bag- or they might be stolen together.
6. Set up a Google voice number to use for two-factor authentication
Many banks, email providers, and remote work employers required two-factor authentication to log in. Normally, being able to confirm via your phone number on file that the person trying to login via a tablet or desktop is in fact the person they claim to be is a valuable identity fraud protection step. However, if you’re a traveler trying to authenticate your identity after having a phone stolen, two-factor authentication can make it much harder to replace your stolen phone or credit card. To avoid issues with two-factor authentication while traveling, use Google voice.
By setting up a Google voice number as your second-factor authentication number, and then forwarding that Google voice number to your primary phone number, you’ll be able to log in through google voice and verify your identity via two-factor authentication even if you don’t have your phone.
7. Know your credit card’s benefits
Read the fine print of your credit cards before you leave on your trip. Many credit card providers offer an emergency cash service that covers emergency situations including theft while traveling. Your credit card provider may have more services than you are aware of to help you handle an unexpected travel theft.
8. Create a Western Union account
With a verified Western Union account linked to your bank, you can access cash for a small fee at thousands of locations worldwide. It’s important to note that verification of your identity, which is needed to use Western Union, may take a few days (so it’s something you want to set up before you ever leave on your trip).
Some common pickpocketing or travel theft scams you should be aware of include:
1. Overt pickpocketing – At common and major tourist destinations, professional pickpocketers take advantage of tourists distracted by the attraction or by their phones. To prevent this type of theft, keep alert. If you are a solo traveler that needs to take a moment on your phone, first find a wall that you can lean back against. Locating yourself against the wall means that your peripheral vision will cover all potential angles from which a pickpocket could approach (sandwich your back between your back and the wall for even more security).
2. Nighttime mugging – Being in a high crime neighborhood as a tourist after dark can make you a prime target for crime and the traumatic experience of being mugged by someone threatening violence. Prevent this through the liberal use of taxis or other safer forms of transportation. Although a half-mile walk back to your hostel or Airbnb might be an easy walk, choosing a cab or an Uber can be a safer decision.
3. Scams – Countless scams are designed to distract tourists in order to allow a second person to pickpocket them. This ranges from someone spilling something on you, bumping into you, or touching and grabbing your hand to force you to try and shake them off. Although professional scammers are quite good at their job, staying highly alert to your surroundings and avoiding, when possible, looking like an obvious tourist can reduce your likelihood of being made a target.
4. Passive theft – As travelers, we often assume that luggage rooms, cargo bays, and daytime hotel rooms are safe places to keep our belongings, but that’s not always true. In fact, housekeepers, fellow hostel guests, baggage handlers, and even other train passengers may rifle through our luggage while it is unattended. Splitting belongings between unsupervised baggage and baggage that we keep on our bodies, and using luggage locks like this one, can be an effective way to make sure that all of our valuables are not taken in one crime.
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.