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How to Stay Safe Traveling: Top Travel Safety Tips from a Cop

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Chances are you know someone who has been the victim of pick-pocketing or another crime while traveling. Sometimes even the most prepared travelers become the victim of a crime. While you cannot always avoid every bad situation, these tips can help you think about ways to stay safe while traveling and avoid looking like a soft target to criminals.

Police officers think differently than others due to their training and experiences. They are often more observant and always thinking about what to do should a bad situation come up.

I asked my husband to write this post in hopes that it keeps even one person from being the victim of a crime. After traveling together for the last nine years and learning his ways, I am much more aware of the situations around us when we travel.

This post includes travel safety tips for women, for solo travelers, for couples, and really for everyone. Keep in mind though that you must make your own decisions in a dangerous situation on whether you flee or fight. This information is intended to keep you from those situations to begin with. Think about and formulate a plan for what you would do before the situation comes up so you have a better idea of how to handle it if you do end up in that situation.

This post was written by my husband, a law enforcement officer in the USA. It is his first time writing for our blog.

***This post may contain affiliate links. Purchases made through these links earn us a commission at no extra charge to you.

The Spanish Steps in Rome, Italy, at sunset with the crowds
The Spanish Steps in Rome are a popular place for pickpockets

HOW TO AVOID PICKPOCKETS IN EUROPE & MAJOR CITIES AROUND THE WORLD

Most major cities have pickpockets and thieves. Rome is one city that is notorious for it, but it is just as prevalent in other major cities as well. Most people know someone who has had their wallet or belongings stolen.

Unfortunately, some of you have been victimized while at home or abroad on vacation. There are steps to take to avoid pickpockets in Europe or other places around the world.

One common suggestion to avoid pickpockets is the zippered belt type accessories. These can be an effective way to transport your money, but don’t open them in public. This can draw a lot of unwanted attention.

Another popular piece of advice is to separate out your money. This way, if you are pick pocketed, then the thief only gets a portion of your money. This advice comes from people who plan to be victimized.

People who take this advice are comfortable getting a portion of their money stolen and feel good about the fact that not all of it was stolen. This is not a great attitude to start with though.

View of a piazza in Rome at sunset
Stay on guard in big cities like Rome where pickpockets are common

USING A BACKPACK TO AVOID PICKPOCKETS

I carry a backpack when we travel. I usually don’t carry much money if possible. We keep it in the safe in the hotel room if needed and available. In general, we try to pay for everything on cards and not carry much cash if possible.

Since money, wallets, and passports are smaller items, many people carry them in the smaller portion of the backpack. These smaller pockets are usually at the furthest point from you. They are also somewhat accessible to people surrounding you.

Instead, I suggest keeping these items in the bottom of the large main portion of the backpack. If there is a laptop pocket, it is even better to keep them there. This will keep your valuables close to your body. If someone reaches into your bag at that spot, you should feel it.

Having said that, if you are in a crowd of people, subway, etc., carry the backpack in front of you. If you are traveling with someone, put it between you so that the other person can see it clearly at all times or holds on to it.

I usually keep a travel style lock on one zippered portion of my bag. This may draw attention to it, but it helps to consolidate and keep these items from being taken. A razor blade could be used to gain entry to the bag in spite of the lock, but that is why I keep it in front of me in a crowd.

With many backpacks, the laptop pocket does not go all the way to the bottom of the bag. This makes it even better if someone tries to slash the bottom of the bag and grab what falls out. Your valuables should stay in the bag even in this situation.

Looking out at Machu Picchu at sunrise
Looking out over Machu Picchu with one of our travel backpacks

CARRYING VALUABLES IN YOUR POCKETS WHILE TRAVELING

Never carry anything of value in cargo pants or shorts pockets. Also, I’m pretty sure no one should be wearing shorts or pants with cargo pockets, but nonetheless it is worth mentioning. A thief can easily reach into a cargo pocket and take your belongings without you realizing it.

Some people will argue that they have a zipper or buttons that can keep their items safe in these pockets. Both of these can be defeated with a razor blade or by skilled pickpockets very quickly and easily.

If you can, consolidate your valuables like your phone, wallet, and passport into one front pocket on your non-dominant side. Walk through a crowd with your non dominant hand protecting your valuables. This keeps your dominant hand free if it is needed.

Don’t clench your pocket with your hand, and don’t put your hand deep in the pocket. Doing this looks awkward and draws attention to that pocket. I usually keep my thumb in the pocket and pull the opening to the pocket tight. It should prevent a thief from gaining access to that pocket but not draw attention to it.

Crowds on the beach of James Bond Island
Keep your possessions close by in crowded areas like James Bond Island in Thailand

HOW TO AVOID LOOKING LIKE AN EASY TARGET FOR PICKPOCKETS

So far, all the techniques given prevent thieves from being able to steal your stuff. Let’s take it one step further with some steps to prevent a thief from seeing you as someone they could victimize.

Most of these thieves can only target one person in a crowd. Some work in groups, and I’m not taking away from that scenario playing out. In many cases, one thief will look across a crowd and find one person to victimize.

The thief’s choice can be based on any number of things. They might see a potential victim flash money when making a purchase. It could be based on a potential victim carrying an expensive or name brand bag or wearing an expensive watch or jewelry. They are also more likely to target a disorganized person who won’t realize a bag or belonging went missing until later.

Some of the people who work in groups will have one person cause a diversion with yelling, a mock fight, or anything else. Then the others will take advantage of distracted individuals to victimize them.

If you see or hear a disturbance, you should be aware of this and keep your belongings even closer than normal. Sometimes if you look around you can see others scanning the crowd rather than the disturbance. While the others looking around might be looking for a victim, they might also just be other travelers aware of the tactic like you.

There are also groups that play games on the street. They lure in tourists with a bet making you believe you could win big. The most common one involves three cups and a ball. They move the ball around under the cups and ask you to identify which cup the ball is under. You pay to play. If you get it right, you make money. If you get it wrong, you lose money.

Others in the group act like regular tourists and “pay” to play. They are the ones who win. If you play, you will lose. They remove the ball with slight of hand to make sure you are wrong.

Even if you just stop to watch these games, keep an eye on your belongings. Keep an eye on the crowd too. Other members of the group are pickpockets who steal from people watching the game. Don’t stop at all if you can help it. If you do stop, keep an eye out for yourself and your fellow travelers.

People walking the streets of Prague, Czech Republic
When walking crowded streets in places like Prague, be aware of your surroundings

HOW TO AVOID GETTING ROBBED WHILE TRAVELING

Another way thieves victimize people is much more blatant and terrifying – by robbing them. After watching multiple videos of people being robbed and working with victims during investigations, I hope this portion prevents other people from going through this traumatic experience.

Each person has their own skill set and level of confidence in those skills. It is up to you to decide when to fight and when to give in to a robber. Instead, I want to offer advice on ways to prevent this event from taking place at all.

Most robbers who threaten violence size up their victim and determine that the person is a soft target first. They are looking for someone who is weak, unobservant, and/or avoids eye contact.

They choose someone who is weak because they are likely to give up their belongings to avoid a conflict. If they do try to fight back, they are easy to overpower.

Unobservant people become targets because they are less likely to be able to give a good description of the robber. This makes it more likely that the robber gets away with the crime.

People who avoid eye contact often appear unsure of themselves. Don’t stare someone down, but acknowledge them with a nod and then look away. If you can send a non-verbal message, make it one that indicates you are not the right person for them to target.

Based on the above criteria, if you can avoid being a soft target in a crowd, you may not be faced with this event in your life. If you see a potential to be robbed or something feels off, seek refuge. This could be a hotel lobby, a restaurant or a well-lit area with higher amounts of foot traffic.

Do not return to your hotel if you feel like someone is following you. Instead, duck into another hotel or restaurant for a while until the person leaves. If they do not leave, notify someone who works there and call the police if needed.

The crowd on Champs Elysees in Paris in winter
Champs Elysees in Paris is always crowded, so avoid looking like a soft target

HOW TO PROTECT YOUR LUGGAGE ON A BUS OR TRAIN

When traveling on a bus or train, it is easy to become complacent. It is easy to trust those around you, especially once the bus or train is moving. Be aware that your belongings are not always safe, even when the bus or train starts its journey.

Sometimes you have to store your bag on a shelf or in a common area and then take your seat for transportation. Store items of value in a smaller backpack, purse, or bag. Keep this bag with you at all times. Thieves on trains can take a bag while you are not looking.

Even if you notice it’s been taken, the thief can quickly switch the bag with a similar looking bag or leave the bus or train or even conceal the bag in another bag that you won’t recognize when you scan an area for it. This can happen at anytime, but it is more likely to occur while the train is stopped. Stops allow thieves to grab and run.

If you are on an overnight bus, know that someone could rummage through your things while you are asleep. This is even more true if your bags are stored away from you but where other passengers have access to them.

A lot of these buses have storage under the bus to prevent this from being an issue. If you sleep on the bus or the train, keep the bag with your valuables close to you. I usually lock a compartment on my backpack with a travel lock, and then keep the bag under my leg or between my feet. You can also put the strap around one leg so you feel it if someone tries to take it.

Crowds of tourists at Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand
Crowds wandering through Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand

TRAVEL SAFETY TIPS FOR UBER, LYFT, AND TAXIS

Using taxis is common in most parts of the world. With the rise of services like Uber and Lyft, passengers have even more options to get around a city. However, these types of transportation still have risks to be aware of when traveling.

SAFETY TIPS FOR USING TAXIS

Hiring a marked cab in a major city in your home country is usually a simple task because the process is normal and we know what to expect. We know what is right, and we know when things are not normal.

When we travel abroad, we accept that things are different. The problem with this is that we don’t have a baseline for what is normal. We are more likely to accept a different way of doing things and assume that it is normal for the area.

People in other countries are aware of this and take advantage of it. In airports, a common technique is to approach people at the arrivals area and ask if they need a taxi. Some of these people will look official and some will not.

Most airports have an area for taxi drivers to line up and/or a line for people who want to hire them. If a taxi driver breaks these rules, a fight may occur or that taxi driver might be reprimanded by the airport or told not to come back.

The people approaching you at the airport are most likely not licensed taxi drivers. They try to undercut the licensed drivers and take business from them. Sometimes you can negotiate a better rate from these people. Sometimes saving a few bucks is not worth the risk through. The downside to it is the lack of a license and the lack of documentation that you hired the driver.

In the U.S., most major taxis have video cameras operating. This protects the driver from false accusations and passengers from becoming the victim of a crime. Other countries sometimes have protections in place for both drivers and passengers as well. Choosing to use an unlicensed taxi takes away those protections and is an unnecessary risk.

The view from the Spanish Steps of the streets of Rome at sunset
Watch for scams and pickpockets among the crowds around the Spanish Steps in Rome at sunset

HOW TO STAY SAFE WITH UBER OR LYFT

If you hire someone from an Uber or Lyft style of service to provide transportation, pay attention to the driver’s name, vehicle, and license plate. If you see a driver pull up to pick you up and you have not confirmed the tag, do not volunteer your own name or ask them if they are the driver by using their name. Ask them who they are here to pick up. They should have your name available on the phone that’s mounted to their dash.

Anyone driving by can tell you are waiting for a ride. People waiting for a ride check their phone, look at street signs, and then look at their phone again. If someone wanted to pick you up, they could easily do so, especially if you lead the conversation with your name or the driver’s name.

HOW TO STAY SAFE ONCE THE RIDE BEGINS

Whenever you hire a driver from any service, keep your navigation on your phone open if at all possible and track your route. This lets you know you are going the right way. Some taxis will take you to the location via a longer route to charge you more. If you have navigation open you can direct them back on course, but don’t point to your phone.

If you decide to give directions to the driver, have your phone screen out of sight or turned over. Give directions as if you have first hand knowledge of the roads. This may give the driver the idea that you know more than you actually do about the area and the roads. He may reconsider trying to take advantage of you if that was the plan. If you feel like you are in danger at any time during the ride, try to exit the vehicle when it is stopped.

The crowds on the beach at Maya Bay in Thailand
It’s tempting to leave your valuables and go for a swim, but keep an eye on crowded beaches like Maya Bay in Thailand

TRAVEL SAFETY & COMMON SENSE

The common sense rule is usually a solid one to follow to stay safe when traveling. If something seems wrong or off, it probably is. If someone is too eager or insistent to help you when you have already turned them away, then you probably don’t want them around. They most likely don’t have your best interest in mind.

Make a plan to stay safe before you leave for your vacation. Know where you will keep your valuables and how you will protect them as you travel. Keep an open eye on your surroundings and the other eye on your belongings at all time. Hopefully these tips help keep you from running into any bad situations in your travels.

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Travel safety tips from a cop

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