Avoiding travel thieves

Last updated 10:23 30/08/2012

Having things stolen while you're travelling must be the ultimate downer.

When I was checking into a hostel in Prague yesterday there was this girl at reception talking to a Czech Republic police officer because she had had all her stuff taken from her room. She was staying in a mixed dorm room with people she didn't know, made the mistake of not locking up her gear, went out for the day and came back to find that her suitcase had been taken.

That sucks. Who else has been ripped off like that?

This girl impressed me for two reasons. One, she was not in tears. I know it wouldn't help, but if that had been me I would have been on the floor crying me a big old river, and wailing over the phone to people at home. Two, though she was gutted, she was willing to embrace the positive - the reception had been holding her passport for her, so she had that and her wallet.

I was talking to our Busabout tour guide later, and he said it happened all the time, particularly in hostels, and that's why he made such a point of telling people to lock up their stuff. People could just walk in off the street, blend in, and wait for an opportunity to walk into an open room. Another friend told us about having their wallet stolen from a common area at the same hostel, so it's something people need to be aware of.

I am probably too relaxed when it comes to security. I tend to assume that if my stuff is in a locked room, it is safe. 

So far, so good, nothing stolen. However, I am travelling with Nathan, who has a small case of paranoia about our room being broken into. It's usually a safe bet that he will have hidden or disguised anything valuable, that our bags will have the padlocks on them, and that the passports will be in the room's safe. I have continually mocked him for the over-the-top cautiousness, but since seeing that girl talking to the scary-looking cop, I've vowed to turn over a new leaf.

When I left for breakfast this morning, the only things not locked away were my toothbrush,  and my jandals (and they're actually getting pretty nasty - wouldn't be so bad if someone swiped them).

I am now embracing Nathan's mildly obsessive, better safe than sorry approach to travel.

Mildly obsessive, better safe than sorry rules:

- Padlocks on your bags that can also double as a padlock for hostel lockers in dorm rooms. I've always thought padlocks were more hassle than they were worth, but the whole combination lock thing reduces that. And hey, if you don't like the lock, you can go and add it to a bridge in Paris!

- Make copies of documents. Something that everyone says to do, but we didn't. Nathan's aunty in Colorado persuaded us in the end, and actually it is reassuring to have a backup copy of your passport for a worst case scenario.

- Split your money cards up. We carried our credit cards in one wallet for the first couple of months of our trip, then had that moment-of-fear day when we thought the wallet had been stolen. Since then one card is always left in our main bags.

- Don't hang bags over the back of your chair in cafes. It's apparently a convenient spot for sneaky snatchers to grab your things; I've had a couple of friends lose goodies as a result.

- Keep passports in hotel room safes. I think this is over-the-top, and, as we learned a couple of months ago, a good way to forget your passport - but, embracing safety, it can have the final place on the list.

Not a complete list, but it's a start. What else should people do to hold on to their belongings?

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split   #1   10:46 am Aug 30 2012

I have one of these: http://pacsafe.com/pacsafe-85l-backpack-protector and I use it whenever I have to leave my pack. It's a mild inconvenience, but nothing compared to having everything stolen. Best thing is I can loop the cable through something heavy, like the bed.

I keep a money belt. One of the geekiest things I own, but I'd rather be the geek than the cool guy trying to call his bank from Egypt to cancel credit cards.

Depending on where I'm going, I sometimes carry a door wedge as well. Locked doors while you're sleeping can only be trusted as far as you trust the staff.

When I sit down, I put my leg through my back pack strap. No one is carrying it without me knowing.

Camel packs are great for carrying important things. You can keep them in the bladder compartment (instead of a bladder) which is tight and usually hard against your back, meaning even if someone razors your pack, your passport and docs might be saved. Usually though, I keep my backpack across my chest.

viffer   #2   10:57 am Aug 30 2012

I would add, be aware of your hand luggage when out'n'about - like keeping your arm over your shoulderbag to make it hard for someone to bump into you in a crowd and dip their hand in. Also, be suspicious of strangers (this probably requires a bit of a mind change for Kiwis). On a bus tour, in between stops our tour director told us lots of horror stories about pickpockets, beggars, scams, etc etc., so we were more aware of the potential dangers than we might have been otherwise.

At Pisa, I had a party of East Europeans ask me to take their photo with an ancient-looking disposable film cameras (who uses those these days?), so although hesitant, I gave my camera bag to my wife to look after, while I took the photo. However, at Grasse on a later trip, I was quite happy to allow some friendly strangers take our photo with my camera - probably a 'no no', but they were not at all dodgy.

As for padlocking luggage - you can really only deter the casual or opportunistic thief, as most bags' contents are readily accessible with a knife along the zip, or the rings the padlocks go on can be easily broken with a pair or pliers or side-snips, or failing that, a bold thief could take the bags away to open at their leisure.

Rebecca   #3   11:00 am Aug 30 2012

When I first went backpacking I was madly padlocking my bag to immovable objects in dorm rooms to protect my stuff. I've since learnt to not take anything with me that I don't want to lose. A friend had her locked bag broken into in a hostel room - they managed to get the padlock off and put it back on again so she didn't realise until she noticed that her US $20 notes had been replace with $US 1 notes. I felt bad as I had put my money in the hostel safe (but I wasn't her mother!). I keep my money and passport in a safe or with me at all times and leave the valuable jewellery etc at home. I met a guy in Africa who worn two pairs of underwear and had his spare cash and credit cards in between the two.

fairybread   #4   11:09 am Aug 30 2012

Prague! So jealous! It's a stunning city - have an amazing time. Be keen to hear what you get up to there. Enjoy the tasty, cheap beer! (among the many other attractions, of course :-)

I possibly am a bit too 'lax about travel security too, but have been pretty lucky I guess. I did make a copy of my passport and left a copy in the zip-up 'lining' of my suitcases, and also one with my Mum back in NZ. Having a spare credit card would probably be a sensible thing, too. My Mum has hammered into me the importance of keeping my handbag close in case someone rips off with it, so I always zip it up and loop it round the leg or arm of my chair at a cafe, and use the long strap to wear it diagonally across my shoulders.

Lou   #5   11:18 am Aug 30 2012

I use a padlock on my backpack (and on lockers!) and use a bike lock to secure my bag to my bed. That way a thief can only steal my backpack if he cuts through the straps, which renders it a heavy waste of time. Worked great for me, had no theft issues. It's also a good idea to keep important stuff in your sleeping bag or pillow while you sleep if there's no safety box at the hostel or if you don't trust the staff (sad but sometimes that's the case).

Krig   #6   11:25 am Aug 30 2012

We stayed at a motel in Australia. Unbeknown to us, there was a weird double lock thing on the door. The same lock, but it needed to be locked twice!

We found this out of course after our passports, some cash and jewelry (surfer necklaces for my brother. Not so terrible) were stolen.

Walked into a ciggarette butt in the toilet and alarm bells went off staight away.

Thank goodness my mum was pedantic at the time. Cash and credit cards stashed in a bunch of different places. In a aincoat pocket underneath the bed. Back of a drawer (theif got in there). And top of the wardrobe.

An awful feeling to know someones been thru your stuff. Thankfully some honest lovely person found our passports on top of a rubbish bin and handed them into the cops. Somehow 10 years later I don't believe we'd be so lucky now.

"Depending on where I'm going, I sometimes carry a door wedge as well. Locked doors while you're sleeping can only be trusted as far as you trust the staff.

When I sit down, I put my leg through my back pack strap. No one is carrying it without me knowing. " ----> this stuff though, is brilliant! I'm saving currently for my OE and will defnitley remeber this!

Sarah   #7   11:51 am Aug 30 2012

I took a pacsafe handbag with me on my travels, the one that slings around your body and sits in front of your hip. No only did I always know where my bag was, nobody could grab it easily off me. On top of that that bag is designed with wire through the strap and mesh throught the bag to prevent slashing. There are no zips or pockets on the outside either for people to slip their hands into. As an added bonus it looked like a normal bag and could carry a camera, drinkbottle, wallet, even a small jacket. Best travel buy ever :) http://pacsafe.com/slingsafe-200-gii-anti-theft-cross-body-bag

Rebecca   #8   12:23 pm Aug 30 2012

if you forget your door wedge I chuck my large bag my the door so if somebody tries to come in its more difficult and they may even trip up. Hasn't the anti-theft-cross-body-bag got a clip on the strap? When I was in Barcelona there was a long line of tourists reporting their bags stole as the thief had unclipped the clip from behind when the tourist was standing watching street performers - just wanted you to be aware.

Christy   #9   01:13 pm Aug 30 2012

I've probably told you this story already, but we (all four of us) just hired one safe to put all our stuff in on the beach in India... I'm talking passports, cameras, cash, credit cards. Everything even remotely valuable as the huts we were in were practically made of flax - you could push them over with one hand.

Anyway - with those combination locks, if you turn the U bit 90 degrees away from the hole it goes into, push it down, and move the numbers, it changes the combination. One of us didn't know that and changed it by mistake.

Ended up with me sitting on a stool by the safes, spending about an hour starting from 000 and going all the way through every combination until I got it open.

Sigh... mostly, we are our own worst enemies when travelling :)

kathyt   #10   01:21 pm Aug 30 2012

I use the lock-a-bye bag, it is the only bag that has a built in locking mechanism so no padlock required...i never leave home without it!

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