Vacations are all fun and games! At least, they should be. But we’ve all heard the horror stories—train bandits, lost passports and general travel fails. While you really never know what’s around the corner, there are a few precautions you can take to keep that mystery fun and adventurous rather than devastating and dangerous. Learn from the best and the worst of us: here are six vacation security mistakes and a few ways to prevent them from happening.
1. The Wandering iPod, and Other Tales
The world is full of very good, very professional thieves. Writer and traveler Ali Osworth recalls her experience with a pickpocket when she was living in Paris – she hung her jacket over the back of her chair while having coffee with a friend, and she left all her stuff in her pockets. Luckily she turned around just as the man sitting at the table behind her was lifting her iPod, and, with lightning-quick reflexes, stole it back from him! And though that makes for a great story, hindsight says the entire situation could have been avoided if she’d kept her stuff on her person the entire time, instead of letting it all hang out. Other things can happen when your vitals aren’t with you as well – artist Matt Cosby drove to Montreal for a music festival and locked his keys in his car — along with his wallet, cell phone, luggage, computer, everything but the multi-colored, crazy-person festival clothes on his back. Luckily the lovely folks of Montreal procured him a place to sleep while he waited for his early morning locksmith appointment, and — thanks to a nice note he left — his car didn’t get towed. But all of that could have been avoided by keeping his wallet, phone, and, yes, those wayward keys in an under-the-clothes money belt. For good measure, toss in your passport, a list of important phone numbers and addresses (don’t forget your country’s embassy!), some disaster/locksmith cash and a few coins (in case you need to locate one of those ole-timey pay phones).
2. Night Moves
When you’re sleeping on a train, you’re a sitting duck for someone to sneak up on you and take your possessions. The closer you keep your stuff (like in that under-the-clothes money belt), the harder that thief is going to have to work to get your things while you’re asleep. But train robbers, organized and very experienced train robbers, do exist. An anonymous study abroad student fell asleep in her seat on an overnight train, thinking it would be fine as she’s a light sleeper. But experienced something that many consider to be an urban legend – the next day, she woke up feeling like her head was full of cotton. All of her stuff was gone – camera, money, passport. Luckily for her, the thieves did leave the rest of her train tickets, so she was able to get back home. When she reported this to the authorities, she realized she wasn’t the only victim – a compartment of six people next to her experienced the same thing, and she was told by police that robbers sometimes use chemical assistance to make sure their targets remain in their out-cold state. Strength in numbers obviously wasn’t a deterrent, but police told her that compartments that lock and are made for sleeping are victimized less. The lesson learned from this study abroad student? Spring for a couchette (often six beds per locking compartment) if you’re in a group, or a private sleeping compartment if you’re alone. It’s more comfortable to sleep laying down, and MUCH more comfortable to wake up not in a chemical fog.
3. Scammers Gonna Scam
Ever been admiring the Eiffel Tower when suddenly you are tapped on the shoulder and asked if this is your gold ring? Does it take you a second to remember you don’t own a gold ring? It feels like for every traveler that exists there is a unique scam story – from “you broke my thing” to “wait, you thought this was free?” to “no, that’s the correct change,” it feels like there’s a million of them out there. Blogger Lehua Gray is an experienced traveler, but she had just landed in Turkey when something tested her adventuring acumen. “I handed the taxi driver a 50. He took it, then immediately handed me back a 5 and claimed that I had really given him a 5.” Unable to prove her story—or argue in Turkish—she had to swallow the loss. Scammers can scam, but that doesn’t mean you have to let them! “I should have declared “Here’s a 50!” while handing it over, and made sure I held onto it for a moment while it was exchanging hands,” explains Gray. If someone accuses you of breaking something, ask for proof. And if someone tries to hustle you out of money, you can always make a scene and melt into the crowd.
4. Lost In Translation
You don’t want to strike up a conversation with one of those scammers either, and it’s easy to accidentally do that when you look lost and ask some random people for directions. While it’s true that the vast majority of people you meet when you’re traveling are wonderful, there are also those who are looking for an easy target. Writer Eddie Nicalou was “totally lost in Madrid, with a 13:44 train to Toledo I was already running late for. I whipped out my map in the middle of a public square, stared at it slack-jawed, and started asking random passers-by where I was. A friendly local was happy to have a nice long conversation about where I was going — and his buddies were happy to rummage through my backpack while I was distracted.”
Plan ahead and carry along maps that make sense to you (yes, paper maps, something that doesn’t rely on charged batteries). If you have to ask for directions, ask a professional — someone working at the train station or airport, or someone working in a shop or restaurant. You’ve also got a better chance of finding someone who knows the area if you grab someone who is clearly comfortable there, like a bus depot worker.
5. Who Ya Gonna Call?
Probably not the Ghostbusters — unless you’re staying in a haunted castle in Scotland. If you’ve got an emergency when you’re abroad, you’ll probably need to contact that country’s police force or EMTs. But every country has a different way to respond to emergencies — did you know that in France when you’re injured, you call the fire fighters (les pompiers) even when your injury isn’t fire-related? So if you fall down the stairs at a restaurant and put your hand through a ceramic vase on the next landing, you’ll get stitches faster if your first call is to the pompiers. Pop quiz, how do you make that call? Don’t know? Supposing you do have a vacation security breach, getting in contact with the right emergency response as quickly as possible can improve the outcome and help bring your vacation enemy to justice! Do your research before you leave, or download an app like Help Call ($2.99).
6. Home Sweet Home
You want to stay in that haunted castle in Scotland, not return to a horror show. Protect your own personal castle while you’re away by keeping your whereabouts off of social media — yes, we know it’s hard, but you should be out enjoying your experiences anyway, not tethered to your phone! Letting the wide world know you’re away from home is a surefire way to invite a burglar in. Ask a neighbor to look in on your house, bring in your mail, and water your plants — that’ll make your house look occupied, even when it’s not (pro tip: bring sweets, wine and other delicious treats back as a thank you!). And don’t forget to install a home security system that can alert your local police to a security breach while you’re as far away from local as you can possibly be.
Have any travel horror stories? Share in the comments!