Tips for Traveling on the Cheap: Staying Safe

by heather

Barcelona, Spain

Welcome back to my Traveling on the Cheap Series! Today I wanted to cover staying safe. What’s this have to do with traveling on the cheap?

Well, think of how cheap you’ll have to travel if you lose your wallet and passport to a pickpocket.

Not fun.

If you need a quick catch-up, here are the rest of the articles in the series:

How to Stay Safe When Traveling: My Favorite Tips

I wanted to start out by listing a few of my own favorite tips that I use when I’m in a new city. I know these tips won’t be for everyone, but I’ve found them to be effective for getting left alone, even when we’re in a dubious place. I’ll then follow up with some great tips the experts recommend.

#1: Don’t Bring a Purse

Purses are so easy to grab off your shoulder. So, I never, ever travel with a purse!

Instead, I use a larger field bag (or messenger bag) that drapes across my body. This larger bag holds my guidebooks, water, and anything else I need.

It’s better than a backpack because if you’re in a crowd, you’ll never feel it if someone zips open your pack and starts grabbing stuff. And it’s better than a purse because it can’t be ripped off unless the thief is really determined.

#2: Don’t Wear Your Bag Street-Side

If you’ve ever been to Europe, or to any of America’s big cities, you’ll see a lot of people on mopeds, motorcycles, and scooters. And it’s smart…parking is at a premium in these places.

But these vehicles provide the perfect getaway car: thieves on scooters will zoom up, snatch your bag (without slowing down) and be on their way before you know what hit you.

So, don’t give them the chance. If you’re walking on the right hand side of the street, make sure your bag is on your right shoulder, facing the buildings, not the street. If you’re on the left side the street, then your bag goes on your left shoulder.

This makes it harder for thieves to spot your bag, and harder to rip it off.

Also, don’t ever ever drape your bag over the back of your chair in a restaurant. It’s so easy for people to steal a bag when it’s like this! Keep it in your lap, or on your chair (next to the small of your back).

#3: Don’t Wear Fanny Packs

Fanny packs scream “tourist”. They’re easy to cut off, and they put a big red target sign on your back. Don’t wear them.

#4: Don’t Wear Fancy/Designer Clothes or Bags

Thieves are constantly profiling the crowd.

I mean, think about it. If you were a thief who would you rather rip off: the wealthy looking woman with diamond studs and a fancy leather purse, or the broke-looking college student right behind her?

Obviously, the woman dressed to the nines is going to offer the bigger payout.

When I travel, I make sure I look like a broke college student. I wear clothing that helps me blend in. I carry a canvas field bag. I don’t wear any diamonds or other fancy jewelry.

I know for many people that takes some of the fun out of traveling. But for me, it’s more than worth it. I’ve never gotten bothered anywhere, and I’ve wandered into some fairly dubious sections of some cities.

Plus, it’s fun because it gives you a real “persona” to play with. Don’t want to be a broke college student? Then dress like a struggling artist, or a beatnik writer, or whatever. Just make sure you look broke and don’t stand out. I’m telling you, this is a great way to get left alone.

#5: Don’t Look Lost

Remember when I said that thieves and scamsters are always profiling the crowd? Well they are, and this is why you should never look lost.

Never stand on the street with your map or guidebook trying to figure out where you are. Go inside a cafe or restaurant, get a glass of wine, and look at your map there.

Also, pay attention to how you walk. I love people watching when I travel, and this is what I notice about most tourists: when they get lost, they walk slowly and hesitantly. They swing their heads around very obviously, looking for landmarks or street signs. If I was a pickpocket, these would be key signs that these people are easy prey. Why? Because they’re lost, which means they’re distracted.

Even when I’m lost, I make sure I don’t look lost. I keep my back straight and walk with purpose, like I know where I’m going and I’m in a hurry to get there. If I need to look around, then I lean against a wall like I’m about to take a phone call, and then look.

Is this over the top?

Some people might think so. But I believe it works.

6. Research the Scams

The Internet is a wonderful thing.

You can research the common scams you might run into before you visit any place, courtesy of the thousands of travel forums. This one on India scams is especially amusing.

For instance, a classic scam in Barcelona is two old women trying to sell you a rose at common tourist hot spots. One insists on you buying the rose, and she’s so adamant and loud you forget about the other old women, who picks your pocket.

Or, in New Orleans, you’ll hear this: Hey! I bet you $5 I can tell you where you got your shoes.

You: Yeah, right. You have no idea where I got my shoes. Whatever, I’ll take the bet.

Local: You got your shoes right here on Bourbon Street. Pay up.

Every city has different scams. Before you go, research what you might here so you know what to expect before you go.

Expert Tips for Staying Safe while Traveling

  • Want to buy food from a street vendor? MarketWatch suggests lowering your odds of food poisoning by choosing foods that are completely cooked. Fresh fruits and veggies are often washed with water out of the tap, which can also make you sick.
  • Before you travel abroad, make a copy of your passport and leave it with a friend or relative. If your passport is stolen, having these numbers will expedite the process for a new one.
  • Don’t use those passport/money holders that hang from your neck. Again, these things scream tourist, and those cords are easily cut. Money belts are uncomfortable, but they work. That being said, however, don’t let anyone see you using one. Keep small amounts of cash in your front pocket for purchases. If you need more, go to a bathroom to get it out of your belt.
  • Use a carabiner to keep valuables attached in your bag. For instance, if you have your camera in your messenger bag, then use a carabiner to clip it to the inside. That way if someone does reach in to snag it, it’s not going to go far.


Last Word…

I’d love to hear your own tips for staying safe when you’re in a new city, so please chime in if you have one!

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Tips for Traveling on the Cheap: Getting Around and Having Fun | The Greenest Dollar
July 26, 2010 at 12:50 pm
5 Cheap Vacation Ideas | The Greenest Dollar
July 26, 2010 at 12:56 pm


Jade @ Tasting Grace July 26, 2010 at 12:54 pm

These are great tips! However, I slightly disagree with the tip about purses. A messenger bag is good if that’s your style, but I think the key thing is to blend in with the locals (as is suggested by your other tips). I wear the same purse when I travel as I do when I’m home because I think to wear something else would pretty much scream “tourist”. And then the same logic applies abroad as at home: be mindful of your surroundings, keep a firm grasp on your purse, keep it zipped up, and avoid areas that look sketch (especially if you’re alone). But that’s just good practice, not only to avoid theft but also to avoid becoming victim to other crimes against women.

Attracting attention to yourself as a tourist can make you a target, but that aside, I think the chances of theft are pretty similar at home as they are abroad (taking city size, etc. into consideration). We just may feel it’s different when we are displaced.

heather July 26, 2010 at 12:58 pm

@Jade- Yes, the bag I carry is one I also carry at home. It’s not a huge “messenger bag” (like cyclists wear) but just a canvas field bag. I like it because I can drape it across my body…with my purse I can’t do that.

I do agree that the chances of theft are fairly similar everywhere. And you’re right, we are just more aware of it when we’re in a new place! Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment. 🙂

Mary July 26, 2010 at 3:18 pm

Sorry, Jade, I totally agree with Heather. Purses are super targets. They’re easy targets because thieves know they’re self contained little treasures. My favorite way not to get pick-pocketed (and has been very effective in places like Montmartre!) is a two layered jacket (like a Nothface). I simply put my valuables zipped into the inside jacket. You can’t pickpocket something you can’t get into!

Heather, your tips are right on. The one about wearing your bag on the side with buildings is new to me, and is one I will remember!

heather July 26, 2010 at 3:44 pm

@Mary- I love that 2-layered jacket tip! That’s a new one to me, and one I’ll definitely use. I have an awesome REI jacket that would work perfectly. Thanks so much!

hen July 27, 2010 at 6:55 pm

These tips are all really useful. I carry a messenger type bag when I travel without much worry, but if I find myself in a city that makes me a little uncomfortable, I clip a carabiner from a loop on my bag to a belt loop on my pants. If someone tries to cut my strap, they’ll be pulling ME along with it! Not always ideal with skirts though…
I fully agree with your thoughts on not looking lost. I try to carry a small map that isn’t too obvious that I can check every so often if necessary, but usually I map out the route before leaving my hostel. The best thing to do though is just go with the flow- discover more of the area instead of hopping from attraction to attraction!!

Jade @ Tasting Grace July 28, 2010 at 6:38 pm

I agree that the tips about a messenger bag and a two-layered jacket, etc. are great ideas, and if that works for you, that’s fabulous. Just in my experience, I would say it’s not necessary to say “never” bring a purse. For me, a purse has been fine whereas a two-layered jacket really wouldn’t work in cities in Thailand, or Costa Rica, or South Africa (where I tend to travel, it’s usually HOT), nor does it serve when going to the opera in Berlin. (And I find bags that drape across me are uncomfortable in my chest region :}, so my point is really about the matter of personal preference and comfort.) Even when I do take a purse, I don’t put everything in it, leaving some things back at the hotel, putting others in pants pockets, etc. Confidence, walking with purpose, knowledge of the particular city’s risks, pre-planning routes, blending in, and maintaining awareness at all times I think are at least as important (if not more so) as whatever you decide to wear. All that will help you avoid dangerous situations to begin with, whereas nothing you wear will stop a really determined mugger or thief.

But that’s just my personal opinion. And again, I do agree these tips are all great. If taking a purse makes you nervous, by all means, go with something more secure. I think the key to having a good trip is to find your own personal balance between comfort, security, and being able to enjoy yourself. While getting robbed can put a damper on your trip, so can being uber stressed out about safety.

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