There is nothing worse than to get pickpocketed or mugged when you are travelling far away from home. Loosing all your cash, bank cards, driving license and ID can derail your entire holiday experience, make you hold a grudge against the city (and the country) where the incident happened and, in the most extreme cases, leave you with post-traumatic stress disorder and hinder any future travel plans you may have.
Unfortunately, I am speaking from experience here, as I was once violently almost mugged in the otherwise beautiful Barcelona. I had arrived late in the evening for a solo city break and after the airport transfer coach had dropped me off at the station of Sants, I got followed and then cornered in a quiet passageway of the local metro by a young man who tried to take off with my handbag.
In the struggle which followed (with him pushing me against the wall whilst trying to pull my bag away from my grasping hands), my handbag’s strap snapped, my bag opened and my valuables – wallet, passport, my very first smartphone and what-not – fell on the floor. The man then took off, leaving me shaken to pick my stuff and count my blessings. And although, seemingly, I didn’t lose anything, the truth is that for many years afterwards I suffered from symptoms of PSTD, ranging from getting easily angered by everyday situations to a complete unwillingness to travel anywhere by myself.
I still often revisit the incident in my mind, wondering what I could and should have done differently to avoid what happened to me. Analysing it all used to make me very frustrated, yet with time it also gave me some inner strength and instilled in me certain behaviours to help me try to minimise the risk of it ever happening again. For example, to this day I don’t like it if someone walks too close behind me and I would rather stop, turn around to see who it is and then let them overtake me, than keep ignoring them out of fear of appearing rude by looking at them.
I also try not to take for granted my feeling of foreboding and if a place or a sight don’t feel safe, I walk away as soon as possible, rather than hang around to see if my fears are unbased.
Take, for example, last week. I went to Padua in Veneto, Northern Italy for the day. Now, I do like Padua (or Padova, as they call it in Italian) very, very much. There is so much to do and see there and it has become my quick escape, an easy short trip on the days when Vicenza feels a bit too small. So, I hope the good people of this great city are not going to get too mad with me for mentioning Padua in this particular context.
It is just that on that day the city felt a bit different than usual. It felt very much on edge, like something was about to happen or like I had to watch my back. It was grey and drizzly, which undoubtedly was adding to the atmosphere of unease.
Then, in the market area I noticed several people who seemed to simply loiter there whilst keeping discreetly an eye on the mass of people who were shopping and going about their day.
A couple of individuals brushed too close to me (even though there was lots of space on the pavement for them to pass unobstructedly). And then, just as I was busy taking pictures of the magnificent astrology clock at the main square Piazza dei Signori, all of a sudden a smiling face of a woman appeared right by my nose. The lady was standing so close to me that all I could see was her face and her big toothy mouth. She called me ‘Sister’ in English and tried to talk to me.
Instinctively, I walked away as fast as I could without saying a word. During the day, I was approached a few more times by people begging. One girl, nicely dressed and in her late teens, even called me la disperada, which I took to mean ‘the miserable one’, after I refused giving her money on two different occasions.
I left Padua in the evening after an otherwise great day. Still, the dodgy (for a lack of a better word) encounters I had had were playing on my mind.
You know how sometimes something happens and then, all of a sudden, everywhere you look you come across little pieces of information or small coincidences all of which are somehow related to the thing which originally happened? Like, you think of melons for no apparent reason and all of a sudden you start noticing lots and lots of melons all around you?! It’s winter and no season for melons at all but you keep coming across melon references everywhere you look and pictures and videos of melons keep popping in your social media feeds.
It’s spooky and you have to do something to stop this sinchronicity chain. ‘Enough of melons!’, you shout and… Puff, the spell is gone.
So, I was caught in a similar spell, but instead of unoffensive silly melons, the things that were playing on my mind were rather much more serious – pickpockets, muggings, the dreadful feeling you get when you know something is not right. Then, all of a sudden, a number of posts in the several travel groups I am a member of started discussing pickpocketing incidents in different cities on different continents. People were being angry for having been a victim or a near-victim of a pickpocket. People were blaming the countries where this had happened to them. Other people were getting upset for their countries having been blamed for the pickpockets operating there. And then another person helpfully chimed in: ‘Oh, you know, all pickpockets nowadays come from Bulgaria and Romania…’
At which point I (being Bulgarian after all) saw red and seriously wanted to jump in the middle of the discussions and proclaim: ‘No, they don’t. Are you trying to blame Bulgarian people now for all pickpockets there are out there all over the world?! Ah, AH, AAAH?!’
But, you know, I didn’t. It would not have been helpful at all. It would have simply added fuel to an otherwise already unproductive thread.
Instead, I decided to share with you 28 travel tips and tricks to minimise the risk of being pickpocketed and/or mugged when you travel abroad. They are all based on common sense, on being prepared and being aware of your surroundings. These travel tips and tricks have worked for me in Europe and I hope that they will work for you, too.
Loosing your valuables is never a good experience and you don’t want to go through it. Instead, go out there, travel, enjoy your time abroad and keep your wits about you where your safety and your property are concerned.
1. Have paper photocopies of all your documents and bank cards and keep them in a safe place. Ideally in a hotel’s safebox or, when you are on the move, on yourself but in a completely different spot than your original documents. Another useful idea is to scan them and email them to yourself and a reliable emergency contact (parent, spouse or trusted friend). This way you can always access them, if you are in a pinch, provided there is an internet connection.
2. Check if your travel insurance covers documents and valuables lost due to pickpocketing or mugging incidents. Usually, documents are covered unlike cash. You may also need to obtain a reference or a crime number from the local authorities in order to be able to claim on your insurance, so make sure you know in advance how well you are covered and under what conditions.
3. Make sure that you download all photos and videos off your smartphone and/or your camera on your laptop/online backup service at the end of each day. Then delete the images from the device you used to take them. This way, if something happens to it, you will not loose a large cache of precious personal memories or beautiful professional shots.
4. Research your destination and take suitable precautions before you get there. I could have easily avoided the Barcelona incident, had I taken seriously the advice given in my guidebook. It specifically stated that the city was rife with pickpockets and petty crime and that a bag with a long strap should be worn across the body. Instead, I was too busy with work prior to my departure and didn’t spare the time to go and buy a suitable bag. I travelled with a small handbag with a short handle which, I thought, would be easy to keep tightly pressed against my body. Not so much when the person who has decided to attack you, approaches you from behind, grabs you (thus preventing you from turning around) and then starts tugging at your bag.
5. Don’t carry all valuables in the same bag and/or pocket. I am sometimes tempted to put a bank card and a bit of cash in my smartphone’s cover when taking a day trip by myself. Then, I think again and split them between three different pockets on my clothes and in my bag as it means that if I (touch wood) loose one, at least I will have the other two to get back home. So, yes, split and conceal. People, actually, get really creative here – from ladies stashing spare cash in their bras to men using their socks for the same purpose.
6. Look into special products aimed to deter pickpocketing incidents. There are many products out there, specifically developed to protect the occasional and the regular traveller. Do some research, read reviews and see what works best for you. A money belt? A looped scarf doubling as a valuables holder? A jacket with a large number of inside pockets? At the same time, don’t invest all your trust in just one such product. A wallet which you can attach to the inside compartment of your bag, so that it can’t be pickpocketed, won’t help you if your whole bag gets snatched.
7. Don’t stereotype. Pickpockets and muggers can be of any race and any nationality. I remember the taxi driver who took me to my hotel after the unsuccessful mugging in Barcelona. After I told him about it, he kept insisting: ‘Was he darker looking?!’ I didn’t know what to say. I am swarthy myself. This doesn’t automatically make me a pickpocket. I have heard of people being pickpocketed by gorgeous young things in expensive clothes. So, my rule of thumb is – if they come too close without there being a need for it, it’s my signal to get away, no matter what they look like.
8. Don’t wear your bag on your back. This applies both to small backpacks and bags with long straps designed to be worn across the body. It is very easy to unzip them and empty them of all valuables. I saw a Spanish lady once at Tottenham Court Road in London with her tiny cute backpack unzipped and empty with her not being the wiser.
9. And if you wear a bag with a long strap across your body, not only keep it in front of you, but also keep your hand on top of it at all times. As, once again, if someone stands very close to you or pushes right under your nose a fake petition to sign, you don’t know whose hands are handling your bag. Plus, a friend once told me about seeing a man seemingly hugging from behind a woman wearing such bag. What initially appeared to be a public display of affection was actually a pickpocketing incident, as the man unzipped the bag and made out with the girl’s wallet.
10. Be aware of your surroundings. Daydreaming is a lovely state of mind, especially when you are on holiday, but can make you blind to imminent danger. Look around yourself confidently and always give the impression that you know where you are going, even if you are simply strolling around enjoying the sights and culture of a new city. If you need to walk off a main (well-lit/full with people) street down a smaller one, have a good look first all along its length to see if there is anything you should be aware of or prepared for.
11. And be aware of the people around you, too. Seeing several times the same stranger in close proximity to you without an obvious reason for it, should raise a red flag in your head. Don’t ignore it if someone gives you an off vibe or gets too close to you once or several times. I could have prevented what happened to me in Barcelona, if I had not ignored the fact that the man who eventually attacked me, had followed me from the tourist office at the station down the steps to the metro, hung around me whilst I bought a ticket from the machines and then walked closely in front of me down the long passageways, only to suddenly disappear and attack me from behind as soon as I had taken a much quieter passageway leading to the platform.
12. Don’t walk and talk on your mobile phone. It makes you oblivious to what is happening around you. If you need to make or take a call, check a map, check your emails and so on, stop in front of a busy shop or even go inside a big department store and call from there. Alternatively, go to a coffee shop and for the price of a small drink, do what you need to do on your phone in the relative safety of its surroundings. You can also make a small purchase from a small private shop and politely ask the sales assistant there if they would mind you spending a couple of extra minutes inside to use your phone.
13. In the same line, don’t walk and eat. I have quite an interesting (I wouldn’t call it funny) story to share in this regard. As a penniless student in Sofia many years ago, I promised myself that if I passed a particular exam I was to treat myself to this very special and expensive ice cream. This was in the first years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall when new products in shiny wrappers had started to appear and they cost triple the price of whatever was available before. So, I quite fancied this ice cream. Anyway, I passed the exam, went out, bought the ice-cream, started eating it as I was walking around and just then I felt someone running fast past me. I looked at my hand and it was empty. A boy of about 15 was hurtling down the street holding my half-eaten cone. In a way I realised that, really, there are desperate people out there, ready to do the most outrageous things to get what you have, no matter how small and insignificant it is. By the way, when I say ‘don’t walk and eat’, I don’t mean that someone is going to pluck your half-eaten gelato or pizza slice or whatever from your hand. Just that, concentrating on your food, makes you less aware of your surroundings and someone may just as easily snatch your bag or your phone, if you hold them in your other hand.
14. Try to withdraw cash only from inside bank branches. If this is not possible and you are on your own, keep checking behind yourself during the operation to see if anyone is uncomfortably close to you. Don’t hesitate to cancel the withdraw and walk away. If anyone taps you on the shoulder just as you are waiting for your money to come out of the slot, fight the urge to turn around. Grab your cash and your card and walk away as fast as your legs would carry you.
15. Carry a bank card with only a small amount of cash in it. Transfer more money to it via online or telephone banking every night once you are back to the relative safety of where you are staying. This way, if your card is stolen by someone who had glimpsed your PIN when you withdrew money from a cashpoint, you won’t loose a big amount.
16. Don’t flash the cash. Keep some small change in the pocket of your jeans or other such easily accessible place and stash all large banknotes in a completely different spot. Tone down your jewellery and your clothes. Avoid obvious, brand items. It is nice standing out and being well dressed, but, when travelling, safety should come first.
17. Avoid leaving your smartphone, camera and/or wallet on top of the table in a cafe or restaurant. Especially if you are seating outside or if anybody can walk into the establishment off the street. Left unattended, valuables can be quickly swiped away by a person passing by, even if you think you hadn’t taken your gaze off them the entire time.
18. Know your weak spots. Mine is getting easily distracted when taking photos. Both of my hands are lifted up to support the camera, which leaves my bag uncovered and, too busy thinking of the perfect frame, I stop paying attention to my surroundings. As such, when I want to take a picture, I do one of two things: I either position myself against a wall, so that no-one can approach me from behind, or I stop in the middle of an open space (like an empty square), so that I have some distance between myself and other people and can see/sense them approaching.
19. Listen to your sixth sense (gut feeling, lizard brain, etc.). It sounds like a big hogwash, yet it can help you escape a potentially tight situation. You know that feeling of tiny uncomfortable prickles at the back of your head? Or when your stomach, for no apparent reason, seems to be tied in a knot? Apparently, this is our dormant sense of danger (a vestige of our prehistoric past) talking to you. Being modern people we have largely divested ourselves from it and often refuse to act on it out of social fear that we may appear silly or rude. Still, if your whole self is telling you to not go there or not to do something, it is a good thing to learn to listen to it.
20. It’s OK not to be friendly. We (especially women) have been conditioned to be friendly and polite. So, we feel like we have to stop and sign a petition thrust at us or we feel like we have to give some money to a little child begging on the street as his is, apparently, a hard life. When you are in unfamiliar environment though your safety and the safety of the people you are with comes first. If someone tries to engage you in a conversation you have no interest in, it is OK to walk away. If someone pushes into your personal space, when there is no reason for it, it is OK to grab your bag with both of your hands. It is OK to turn around to see who is behind you, then let them overtake you before you continue to walk. When you walk around a city you barely know, it is OK not to smile, not to make eye contact and to look unapproachable. And, if someone is really persistent, it is OK to make a scene and scream: ‘Police! Fire!’ or whatever pops into your head.
21. Don’t base your judgement on your knowledge of home. Prior to visiting Barcelona I had lived in London for years and I thought I had a very good handle on living in large cities. As I had never had any problems on the London tube and was regularly catching tube trains late at night, I thought the same would surely be applicable to Barcelona as well. My mistake! Cities, even within the same country, can be completely different. So, don’t let yourself be lulled into a false sense of security just because nothing ever has happened to you back home. If you are new to a place, always make sure that you know in advance how to get from A to B as safe as possible, even though it may cost you a bit more.
22. Don’t expect that everyone you ask for help, will actually help you. People may have serious reasons not to want to get involved, they may not see the situation from your point of view or, simply, they may not have been brought up to help others in need. I remember quite clearly a man with a seven or eight years old boy stopping to watch me struggle with my attacker in that Barcelona metro passageway. The man was laughing his head off and pointing me to his child. Apparently, he found the whole thing hilarious and in the process passed to his child the idea that whatever happens to other people around us is their problem, not ours.
23. Still, don’t let this depressing knowledge deter you from asking for help. Even if you think you may appear silly or they may not understand you. If you are in a tight spot or your sixth sense is ringing alarm bells in your head, walk into a shop, a cafe, a museum, anything that is open and has people in it and, depending on the situation, ask them to call the police. Also, see if you can walk next to a couple or another woman for a little bit or, if you are about to go down a deserted street, try to wait to see if other people will walk down that way first. Most people are kind at heart and wouldn’t mind helping you out in any small way they can. In Barcelona it was two Spanish students who helped me pick my stuff off the floor and calmed me down, then walked me up to the booth of the employee on duty. I am to this day very thankful to them.
24. If you are on your own with your child make sure you carry just what you need for the day and nothing you can’t take care of without losing sight of your child. When my daughter was very little, we would go for day trips and I would take my camera bag with me. Whilst she would nap in her buggy, I would lean on the handle of the buggy and take a quick picture of whatever caught my eye. When she started walking and running around, I stopped taking the camera with me. I couldn’t focus on both of them at the same time and my child’s safety was paramount to me.
25. If you are with your child and another person (partner, parent, friend), agree on a course of action if something happens to you. If (touch wood) you are caught in a pickpocketing incident, you may do something completely out of character in the heat of the moment. Like run after the person, become distressed, become paralysed with fear and so on. At the same time, you mustn’t loose sight and hold of your child. So, have a little chat with your travel companion prior to travelling itself and agree on a course of action if anything happens to you. In 9 out of 10 cases you will be perfectly fine, but if anything happens, you will have a blueprint in your mind and know which one of you will stay put with the child and which will try to deal with the situation as best as possible considering the specific circumstances.
26. Vote with your wallet. It may come across as a bit extreme, but choose not to go to places which are notorious as pickpocketing grounds and where, it seems, the local authorities don’t do much to prevent it happening. Unfortunately, I never warmed up much to Barcelona after that incident. In the years afterwards, I returned to the city twice and every time I was rather on edge. The last time that I was there (2009) I saw men in uniforms and accompanied by big dogs to patrol the city and its metro system. It looked like the authorities were finally starting to realise that the safety of tourists and travellers mustn’t be compromised. I also remember being in a park in Madrid in 2007, when all of a sudden at least a dozen of policemen appeared on scooters and in cars. They swarmed and arrested a man who had just stolen a video camera off the hands of a tourist. It looked like the city was sending a clear message to pickpockets. Unfortunately, one of the policemen we spoke to dejectedly said that all they could do is to keep the petty criminals for 24 hours and then release them back on the streets.
27. Be proactive. Legislation about pickpocketing needs to change. The attitude to pickpockets needs to change. We can’t simply continue to half-tolerate the fact that sooner or later we will get pickpocketed and sort of accept that this can happen anywhere in the world. The local tourist offices, apart from posting pretty pictures from their respective cities and countries on the internet in an effort to create some positively spun PR, need to address the pickpocketing issue head on and involve the local authorities and the local police in order to ensure a safe and pleasant experience to people who have paid good money to travel there. Travellers, who have been either a direct or indirect victim of pickpocketing, need to be vocal about this. They need to share the truth about what happened to them, without fearing that they will be branded ‘negative’. They need to press charges, where possible. Otherwise, they need to contact by email or on social media the local police and the local tourist office and make them aware that this is what is happening in their respective areas. I remember asking the Barcelona metro employee to call the police for me. Which he did, only to tell me that it would be at least three hours before the police could send someone to take my statement. And anyway I hadn’t lost anything after all, so what was the problem?! Once I got back to England, I wrote and sent a very emotional and strong worded letter to the head office of Barcelona’s police. I did receive a reply. Which was basically telling me that they were doing what they could and that they had bigger fish to fry. This happened close to 15 years ago. I haven’t forgotten it to this day.
28. Touch wood. Touching wood is a Bulgarian superstitious thing which I am very fond of. It basically means: ‘Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.’ So, don’t let your fears stop you from travelling and enjoying this colourful big world. Have fun, go out there, meet people, experience life. Hopefully nothing bad will happen, but, just in case, touch wood, be prepared, be aware and have a plan.
I hope that this extensive list with travel tips and tricks to minimise the risk of pickpockets and muggers will be of some help to you. It is all based on my personal experience and as such it doesn’t claim to be exhaustive and/or infallible in every single situation. Trust your common sense and be safe out there.
Share with me any personal travel tips and tricks in this regard and any personal experiences you may have had. It is a topic which is close to my heart.
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