Travel Safety Tips: How to Protect Yourself and Prevent Theft while Traveling

The colorful streets of the Candelaria district in Bogota, Colombia are also a hotbed of theft and can be dangerous after dark! Follow these basic travel safety tips to prevent theft while traveling.

A lot can go wrong when traveling abroad. Always follow these basic travel safety tips to protect yourself and prevent theft while traveling.A lot can go wrong when traveling abroad. Always follow these basic travel safety tips to protect yourself and prevent theft while traveling.

The colorful streets of the Candelaria district in Bogota, Colombia are also a hotbed of theft and can be dangerous after dark! Follow these basic travel safety tips to prevent theft while traveling.

For a practical traveler like me, there are loads of emergency worst-case scenarios to anxiously envision before traveling abroad. From injury, to kidnapping, to theft, a lot of disorienting things can happen in a foreign country. One thing that seems to scare a lot of would-be travelers is the possibility of theft while traveling. There are few things scarier than the envisioning yourself lost or stranded somewhere without the resources you need to get yourself home! And although everyone’s heard horror stories of being mugged and left stranded while traveling abroad, in my personal experience, most theft while traveling abroad is an opportunity crime: make one rookie mistake and you become an easy target. I was robbed no less than 3 times when I moved from the safe, friendly Midwest, to the big crime-ridden city of San Francisco. In my first 3 months I had my phone and ID stolen twice, and my purse stolen out of a locked locker at a gym (stupid cheap lock). I had a man attempt to mug me in broad daylight on a crowded street at 5pm in front of my office! Luckily, I wised up, and have not been robbed a single time since at home or abroad – and I know that if I am, I have a way to access money, insurance to replace my belongings or cover me in case of injury, a network of people who know where I am at all times, and copies of the necessary legal documents to return home. Learn from my mistakes and use these basic travel safety tips to protect yourself and prevent theft.

Basic Travel Safety Tips

  • Scan your passport, drivers license, and other important legal documents.

In case of theft while traveling or simply bad luck, you may find yourself in need of a replacement passport, which is much easier when you’ve got some identification to provide. Print out a copy of your passport and keep it separate from your actual passport. Upload the copies to a secure online location, like Dropbox. Send a copy to a trusted friend or relative – for extra safety to prevent identity theft, send them via a password-protected source or simply provide the password to your Dropbox. Don’t do it with an email titled “My Dropbox Password” or something obvious (online safety 101!). If you can manage it, leaving hard copies of your documents and your password with someone you trust (ideally, someone with legal Power of Attorney for you) is safest.

  • Keep your insurance information handy and send it to a trusted friend or loved one.

In the event of an emergency, you may not be able to communicate the specific details of your travel insurance – your insurer may require you to call before you can go to a hospital, for example – so have that information easily accessible, and provide it to someone who isn’t travelling with you so that they can help arrange care as needed. It would be smart to print something out and keep it with your passport.

  • Send out the dates, locations, and contact information for your travel to friends and loved ones.

This can be as basic as an itinerary that includes flight numbers and hotel names, or as detailed as a 200 page PDF detailing every place you’re going, every booking you’ve made, and your travel insurance information (guess which one we made…. Don’t worry, I also made a summarized version).  Include notations when you expect to be in or out of range of WiFi or phone usage. If your friends and family don’t hear from you when they expect to, they’ll be able to call or email as needed to make sure you’re safe – and if you’re missing, it can help speed up the process of finding you. If you’re veering away from your plans or you don’t make plans in advance, provide information as it is available. Going MIA while travelling is risky.

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  • Buy travelers insurance, ideally the same day you buy your plane ticket.

Traveler’s Insurance is a must-have for travel safety! It protects you in case of a medical emergency, theft, and even covers the cost of your trip if you have to cancel it or end it early for a covered reason, like a death in your immediate family or sudden illness. We use World Nomads travel insurance, and when you purchase it along with your ticket, you receive extra protections. Companies like World Nomads and Allianz offer variants of the same plans, so choose carefully: think about the activities you’ll be doing on your trip – World Nomads covers extreme activities, Allianz does not – and read all details to make sure you understand what you’re paying for: for example, no travel insurance will help you out in the event of a sudden war or terrorist act in the same city that you’re travelling in, and there are specific restrictions on what can be reimbursed in case of theft.

Curious how much a World Nomads travel insurance policy would cost to cover your next trip? Get a quote!

  • Keep your money in multiple locations, and always have an emergency credit card.  

We’ve stashed money and cards throughout our luggage, and left some at home just in case. Jeremy has a a money belt that is worn under his clothes. I have a handy bra pocket that clips under my shirt with my cash and credit cards (I also totally use this at home when I’m going out and don’t want to carry a purse, it’s the best). I also have a zippered passport pocket that can hold my phone too. And we’ve each got an emergency stash of cash and credit cards that stays buried in our backpack. This way, even if we’re robbed while out and about, one of us will still have a card and some cash! I keep a credit card in the zippered passport pocket; cash, another credit card, and my debit card stay tucked away in my shirt.

  • Use credit cards rather than debit cards whenever possible.

In my opinion, debit cards are not travel safety friendly. Most debit cards are not protected from theft, meaning that if someone is able to steal your card or card number and use it as a credit card – which doesn’t require a PIN – the cash they steal from your account is not replaceable. Debit cards are necessary when travelling abroad because most places require cash, but use it only when at an ATM to protect it from theft. Some companies will also place daily spend limits on your account or shut down your card if suspicious activity occurs: call your bank to determine what daily limit and what suspicious activity alerts you’d like to set up for your card. Whenever possible, use a credit card, which is fully insured. With a credit card, in the event of theft, you’re not held liable for the money spent on your card.

Gazing at fairytake Frederiksborg Castle outside of Copenhagen, Denmark in the winter.
I’ve stopped carrying purses with me when I travel – they’re too much of a target! Instead, I wear a locked backpack, like this one.
  • Don’t use your phone on a city bus, train, or while walking down the street.

Protecting yourself from theft while traveling means being constantly aware of your surroundings. If you’re zoning out on your phone, you’re not aware of your surroundings. Buses and trains that are frequently stopping to let people on and off are hotbeds of phone theft. It’s easy for an opportunity thief to snatch the phone out of your hand and bolt for the door, disappearing before you even realize what just happened. Same with walking down the street: your phone is like a target that is all too easy to grab and run away with. I learned this lesson at home in San Francisco, where a good half of my friends had multiple phones stolen, and someone attempted to steal mine while I was looking at Google Maps while walking down a populated street at 5pm (I fought him off, which I probably don’t recommend). 

  • If you need to check your phone while walking around, duck inside, hide in an alcove, or have a lookout.

My husband and I have perfected the art of guarded phone checking on the street: one of us looks at their phone, and the other stands guard, creating a barrier with our body and maintaining constant awareness of the street and the people walking by us. We try to look semi-inconspicuous about it, but whatever, I’d rather look like a paranoid dweeb than have my phone stolen. If no one else is around to guard you, duck inside or find a little alcove and turn your back to the street so that your phone can’t be easily grabbed from out of your hands.

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  • Don’t put your belongings down and turn your back.

 I learned this lesson  at home the hard way, too: at a bus station in Peru, we set our day bag (containing ALL of our electronics!) down on the seat next to us and turned away from it for roughly 30 seconds. By the time we turned back, the thief was halfway out the door with our bag! We got lucky and were able to retrieve our bag, but we’ll never make the mistake of looking away again, even for a moment. Always maintain eye contact with your belongings, especially if you have to put it down for a minute. When your back is turned, anything from sticky fingers pulling out whatever’s loose to the entire bag being stolen could happen. This includes absolutely everything: sunglasses, phone, purse, even your drink. If it’s not in your hand, keep it in eye sight!

We brought an inexpensive computer with us so that if we lose it, break it, or it gets stolen, we won't be out too much money.
We brought an inexpensive computer with us so that if we lose it, break it, or it gets stolen, we won’t be out too much money. Read about what else we packed for South America!
  • Be mindful of pockets and purses when in a crowd.

Pickpockets are most common in a crowd. It’s easy to bump into someone and quickly grab something without them noticing when everyone is bumping into everyone else. This is doubly true for a crowded bus or subway, when you can be standing elbow to elbow with hundreds of people. When you find yourself in a crowd, keep your hands on or in any pocket that you’re keeping something in, and over any openings in a purse. If you can, tuck your purse under your arm so that its opening is towards your body and inaccessible. And never wear a purse that cannot be zipped, fastened, or covered! Try not to keep anything in your back pocket – it’s an easy target. Pickpockets are looking for your attention to be diverted so that you don’t feel something being slipped out of your pocket or purse – don’t give them the chance!

  • Deter thieves with locks on your bags.

A determined thief doesn’t care if you’ve put a lock on your bag, but a casual or opportunity thief will go for an easier target. Whenever possible, lock your bag. If your purse isn’t zipped and lockable or doesn’t have a flap that covers its opening, it’s not good for travel – if someone next to you on a crowded bus can quietly slip their hand in your purse, they absolutely will. Backpacks and luggage should always be locked during transit, even when stowed away. As a bonus, having locks on hand will double as your locker security in hostels. We prefer non-TSA travel locks because it’s easy for thieves to get a TSA universal lock key, but if you’re checking your bag, you’ll need a TSA-approved travel lock.

  • Keep valuables on you at all times while in transit.

We’ve heard too many stories about a checked bag or a bag hidden away under a bus getting rifled through. So when we travel on a train, bus, or plane, we pull out all of our electronics, important documents, and other valuables, and keep them on us in a locked bag that we never let out of our sight or off our person. Even if our backpacks get rifled through, all they’ll find is clothing – the important stuff is safe with us!

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  • Don’t bring anything with you that is irreplaceable or that it would break your heart to have lost or stolen.

It’s so easy to have things disappear while traveling, whether it’s the scarf you left behind at a restaurant or the prescription sunglasses that fell out of your bag in a cab  (yes, those are both real-life examples from our travels. RIP, scarf and sunglasses). Don’t take anything with you that would break your heart to have lost or stolen (although some things can’t be left behind, like a good camera! Not a Nomad Blog has a fantastic article about how to travel safely with your camera, read it here.) Whenever you can, bring a cheaper version of your prized possessions: an older smart phone, travel-friendly wedding rings,, clothing that is cheap enough to accidentally lose, just in case. We left everything expensive or treasured at home, safe. Read about what we packed for South America here, and what we wish we didn’t pack here

I hope you found this list of travel safety tips useful! What are your favorite travel safety tips? Leave us a comment below!

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9 Comment

  1. THIS blog post could NOT come at a more perfect time! I am going to Greece & Italy this coming Friday for 2 weeks and then I am going to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Hong Kong at the end of the year… And I mean, these countries are KNOWN for sticky fingers. I bought myself one of those money belts to hide under my shirt… And I don’t plan on bringing anything expensive and beloved with me, that’s for sure – well, other than my lap top because I do need to get work done. But thankfully I will be in nice hotels and on a cruise so I think I will be A – OK!

  2. Emily Hassan says: Reply

    Hey Garcia,

    I love what you are doing and really admire you for it. Thank you for the awesome tips and keep doing what you are doing. I hope to study abroad soon in college or at least go to Mexico this summer and live in a damn hostel. Love you and hope you are having fun! Keep up the high spirits and don’t give up. Don’t you dare come back before that one year is over.

    Much love to both of you, Emily Hassan

    1. Jeremy says: Reply

      Emily!

      You should absolutely travel this summer or study abroad. Or do both! Hostels are amazing and soooo cheap. It gets pricier if you want your own room, but you can stay in a dorm with multiple bunk beds for less. We haven’t spent more than $15 on a dorm here. I’m sure Mexico is comparable, depending on where you go. A great resource for hostels is hostelworld.com. We also have a post about planning travel. It’s really in depth but helpful. Lia wrote it and that’s her specialty. Out of curiosity, where are you planning on going?

      We’re incredibly homesick, but no, we aren’t calling it quits. Our return flight is in February, followed by months on the road through America.

      Thanks for the kind words!
      Garcia

  3. Really great tips. I always do the card thing and have multiple cards in different locations and on me. I think making sure your access to money and passport is probably the most important thing whilst travelling. Loosing possessions wouldn’t be nice but assuming you have adequate insurance it won’t be the end of the world, just an annoying inconvenience.

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Very good points!

  4. I seriously hate money belts, although my husband uses one. I´m more or less paranoid depending on where I travel – for instance, putting baggage in the downer part of the buses in Colombia was always stressful for me! I have most of my important stuff in my purse (that wouldn´t cut it according to your rules ;-)) and have my hand on it 99% of the time – in buses and such, i usually hold it in my arms.
    I think being two people is very helpful of itself because there is always another pair of eyes watching!
    I recently started to cover my hand while I type the pin when paying with card as they have cameras everywhere and it´s easy to steal. I also have two cards in two different places and have a couple passport copies, even if my passport is safe, sometimes you just need those for other stuff, like applying for residencies and blabla.

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Purse or no purse, it sounds like you’ve got travel safety awareness down already! When I did use purses I also constantly had my hand on it, but I just got so sick of having to be one handed all the time 😛 Plus I’m too forgetful not to just leave it everywhere. Kudos to anyone who is responsible and patient enough for purses!

  5. I never wear jewelry when travelling, just a cheap watch, to avoid attracting attention.

    1. Lia says: Reply

      That’s such a good tip! We both have super cheap wedding rings so that even if someone does get the urge to steal them, the joke’s on them 😛

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