Omni Traveller

Budget Backpack Travel in Europe

How To Avoid Getting Robbed While Travelling

In your hometown and when travelling, you always need to be mindful of personal safety. Let’s face it, life has some potential risks. Although we may feel comfy and safe even when on a trip, travel has always carried an ingredient of potential risk, and it always will. Lucky for us, in Europe and many parts of the world, the uncertainty is usually not physical danger, instead it is property theft.

A sign warning of pick pockets, in French

Warning: Pick Pockets (in French)
 Photo: Duncan Hull


North American travellers are more likely to experience pick-pocketing and other forms of petty theft. This is because North American tourists, backpackers, and foreign visitors often appear a little out-of-place (so they stand out), they are more likely to be carrying a lot of money, have too many credit cards, several bank cards, smartphone, expensive camera, iPod, iPad, or maybe laptop computer, possibly all at one time. Also, in the event the thief is caught, if the victim is a foreign visitor , it is very unlikely a visitor will be willing to stay around for a trial. Therefore, there are golden advantages for pick-pockets and petty thieves to target foreign travellers, especially rich North Americans.

In western Europe the chances of you getting mugged, stabbed, or shot is almost nil (except in Marseille, France, which has a major gang problem). Europe is generally extremely safe. But your chances of being a target for pickpockets in Europe is high.

But there are a number of simple tricks and some words of advice that can dramatically reduce your chances of becoming a victim.

First, whenever you see some type of commotion or disturbance in a European public place, always assume it is a set-up for a crew of pickpockets to go to work. Always take defensive action, step back, grab your backpack firmly, and get away calmly. See a beggar, see an old woman fall down some stairs, or anything unusual, always assume it’s a distraction for a pickpocket to slip in and grab something. Always be on guard.

 

Lock It Up

Use TSA approved locks. A TSA approved lock is a lock with the ability to be opened by US, Canadian, UK and other government border agents for luggage security inspection at airports. Using a TSA lock prevents the need for agents to cut open a luggage lock during routine security inspection. (Especially in the USA, they will not hesitate to do so.)

You should have your backpack locked at all times, and at the airport all checked baggage should be locked.

Another thing to keep in mind, standard padlocks for school lockers are too bulky and heavy to use for travel. The TSA’s are strong but much lighter and smaller, and don’t worry, they are strong enough to do the job. As with some standard locks, TSA locks come in various colors for easier bag identification at the airport (and for those that fret about colour co-ordination).

I recommend you carry three (3) metal TSA approved combination locks on any trip, domestic or foreign.

  1. Use one lock for your main backpack- placed thru two backpack zipper pulls,
  2. Use one for a day pack or a second compartment on your backpack,
  3. And the third for your carry-on shoulder bag and for hostel lockers.

 

Use Your Hostel Locker

Lockers in a hostel dorm room in Barcelona, Spain

Lockers in a Barcelona Hostel Dorm Room
 Photo: Oh-Barcelona

I know from experience that petty theft occurs in hostels. This is a shame because it is so preventable- you just have to lock things up. But a lot of inexperienced backpackers don’t think of precautions at all. That is never good.

Lockers are available for backpackers in many hostels. If a hostel provides you with a locker, use it. If you can’t fit your entire backpack into your locker, just put your valuables in the locker. As hostel lockers usually don’t come with a lock, you have to use your own. A TSA approved lock is all you need. Besides, the Master-type school locks are too large for many hostel lockers.

Never leave anything unattended in a hostel dorm, even if you’re just stepping outside for ten seconds. Some people will pounce on your iPod or wallet any chance they get, and there will be no way for you to prove who did it. You don’t really know the people you are sharing the dorm with, so it is in your best interest to be careful. Think of it this way: It’s best to avoid temptation.

Some large hiker backpacks that don’t have a way to fully lock it up. One option is to buy a large duffel bag designed specifically to go over a large backpack. This will close off all the pockets and openings providing only one way in our out that is easily lockable. The use of a duffel bag will make the backpack easier to handle at the airport. But on the down side, you’ll have to carry the duffel bag in order to use it and they are a bit bulky. So it may be better to just get a backpack that is large enough, and can be locked.

 

Pickpockets & Pilferers

Pick pocketing is a fine art in some parts of the world and you need to be on your toes to avoid being a victim. But there are a few things you can do to minimize the risk.

Be aware that a wallet, purse, and small bag carried over the shoulder are all easy targets for a pick-pockets. So, never put anything in them that you cannot afford to lose, that includes photos of a sentimental value. Expect that it will be stolen. Instead, buy and wear a money belt. This is very important. Place your passport, airplane tickets, railpass, credit and debit cards, driver’s license, and most of the money you are not using that day in the money belt, and a list (important names, addresses, phones numbers, email addresses, etc) and wear it under your shirt. Carry the money you expect to use that day in an inner shirt pocket- not in your pants pocket. Leave your wallet at home.

If you are not familiar with money belts, a money belt is a pocket with a zipper that fastens around the waist under your pants or skirt, tucked in like a shirttail. The money belt will be completely hidden from sight.

An alternative to a money belt is an inside safety pocket. Although it is unusual, sometimes a very good pick pocket can remove a money belt without the wearer knowing. However, an inside safety pocket is much more difficult to pick pocket. Whether you use a money belt or a inside safety pocket, take a plastic baggie to keep your valuables dry. Also, don’t use a belt pack or hip pack while in Europe, they are simply too vulnerable.

If you insist on taking your wallet, get in the habit of keeping your wallet in your front pocket rather than your rear pocket. This simple step can make it much harder to steal.

Frequently check the lumps on your pants to make sure your wallet, keys and what-have-you is still there. OK, I’m a little paranoid, but it’s a good way to make sure all is well, especially when in the middle of a big crowd.

Talking about big crowds, be especially alert when around a lot of people. This is where pickpockets prefer to work because it is easy to get close to people and “accidentally” bump into them while slipping out whatever is in your pocket. A friend I know tells me he always carries an out-of-date or closed old bank card to satisfy a thief so they’ll go away. This is a good tactic for especially menacing thieves such as packs of young males.

If you plan to go out with friends to a bar or pub, don’t bring valuables with you except for some money kept in an inner front pocket.

When you have your backpack or bags with you, hold on to them when around people, especially on a subway.

Also, never put anything of value in a checked bag at the airport. All essential items should always be in a carry-on bag.

When riding on a bus, it is best to take your large bag onboard with you but if it is too crowded, you will have to leave it in the storage bin under the vehicle. This is usually safe but keep an eye on it at bus stops. Of course, always carry your essential valuables with you onto the bus.

 

What to Do with Electronics

A camera, iPad or laptop is everyone’s concern when travelling.

The truth is a DSLR camera can be a major inconvenience to carry. If you’re not a professional photographer, do yourself a favor and leave your DSLR at home. They are big, heavy, bulky, a constant nuisance, and it will catch the eye of every petty thief you encounter.

If you must carry a camera, carry it in a bag. Work out a system to easily and quickly get your camera in and out of your bag whenever a photo opportunity arises. You can quickly get whatever photos you want and then quickly get your camera secured away out of sight. Another alternative is to buy a simple basic point-and-shoot digital camera, and dump your pics in your iPad at night.

An iPad is less trouble since it is so small, and it serves several practical purposes. When not in use, keep in a locked bag pocket, in an inner front pocket, or stow it away in your locker at the hostel.

A smartphone you may want to keep on you. But keep it in an inside pocket.

A laptop is an item that may be needed, or could be just another item to drag around on your travels. If you will only be a few weeks on a foreign trip, do you really need to carry a laptop? Unless you are a professional writer, a student doing research while travelling, an out-of-control gamer, or you have some truly important need for a laptop- leave it at home. If you do bring it on your trip, when not in use, stow it away in your locker at the hostel.

 

Backpacks

An item many might not consider as a major target for theft is your backpack. But everyone will notice a flashy, expensive backpack with a pricey brand names prominently displayed. That alone is a good reason not to buy it. Your backpack must be fully functional with easy access, lockable openings, it should be a muted color and look as inconspicuous and ordinary as possible. And keep an eye on it.

 

Stay Sharp

Most problems can be averted by taking simple caution. Make caution a habit and you should have a problem-free trip.

See another related article: How to Protect Yourself from Theft from Other Travellers.