A new type of post in a (potentially) continuing series of “how to” articles.
If you travel for long enough there is a nearly unavoidable fact that you’re going to lose some things along the way. This loss could be something that’s really your own fault such as the careless act of leaving your towel hanging on the clothesline while rushing to make your bus, leaving a debit card inside an ATM, or letting your socks dry a bit too close to the fire*. Theft, on the other hand, will never be your own fault.
In my own travels, I have been the victim of only two brief incidents of theft: having my bag broken into while away from my hostel and having my day pack cut open in a crowded dance party. In both scenarios, I lost several valuables. Thankfully, however, in neither scenario was I hurt or in a position where I had to end my trip. I have also met many travelers who have experienced their own incidents of varying severity in different places all over the world. This is not to say that the places in which these incidents occurred are necessarily dangerous or scary (theft can certainly happen in most neighborhoods) but the longer you travel and the more relaxed you become about your surroundings, the more opportunities you present for petty criminals. If you can learn the rules of keeping your valuables safe, you can significantly reduce the risk of becoming another story that people tell about why you should “be careful in X”.
Here are some of my own tips on how you reduce the risk of theft as well as deal with the unfortunate situation if it does happen.
Don’t bring anything you’d be devastated losing
Everyone has some material attachments. I’ve tried to let go of as many as possible, but even after minimizing my entire material existence down to 46 liters, I still have some. In my bag, this is pretty much just my journals; other attachments, I left safely in my parents’ attic. Items such as my laptop, while valuable, are only as valuable as the money that I spent on them. While I don’t actively try to lose any of these things, I told myself before starting the trip that there would be a chance that I’d lose all of them. And that had to be OK. The anguish I’d have to deal with if I lost anything just isn’t worth it.
And trust me, with less emotional attachment to your possessions, you’ll make a lot more room for the experiences of the trip that you came all this way for.
Buy travel insurance (and keep your receipts)
Although losing a valuable item shouldn’t end your trip, it is, of course, a big hit to your (likely) tight travel budget. Travel insurance may seem like a lot to pay for at the start of the trip but consider how much more you’d enjoy your trip if you didn’t start having a mental breakdown every time you had to store your bag with a laptop under the bus. Thef aside, travel insurance covers you for all kinds of medical emergencies or damages to your personal belongings as well. Unsponsored shout-out to World Nomads who is currently covering me through this trip.
As an additional point of advice, don’t forget to keep your receipts. It should be obvious to those more intuitive than me but, it’s very hard to prove to an insurance company that you owned something after it’s lost.
Make copies of all important documents
Passports, immunization cards, driving license. All incredibly important for travel, all unfortunately quite easy to lose. Having copies will allow them to be a bit more easily replaced and allow you to continue operating while you get the original documents back as well. Having digital copies as well as paper copies will allow you to be able to access them from anywhere in the world. Another favorite trick of mine is to keep a laminated copy of my driver’s license and passport with me at all times. I don’t like walking around with my passport but you never know if you might need some form of ID when you’re out and about.
Keep things locked or tucked away
Showing off your camera/watch/phone on the streets is asking for trouble. Think carefully about what you actually need when going out. The list of pocket necessities you’re so used to back home may be different now that you’re traveling. Are you with everyone you need to stay in touch with for your night out in Johannesburg? You can probably leave your phone behind. Are you leisurely wandering along the beaches in Rio De Janiero all day? Since time is apparently no object, I think that watch can probably stay in the hostel safe.
And when you do need to bring valuables along, make sure you have safe places to keep them. Pickpocketers are very good and a valuable looking bag draws attention to the valuables inside. Pockets can easily be dipped into without you noticing. I never thought I’d find myself wearing one, but a money belt worn under the waist of your pants is incredibly useful while walking through crowded cities. I keep a small amount of change in a single pocket as a decoy to pickpockets and for on street purchases to avoid drawing attention to while I have to dive behind my belt to get out my credit card.
Always travel with a set of locks as well. Most budget accommodation will have lockers for your to store valuable but it’s not common for every place to have their own locks. I have one for the locker where I keep my electronics, money, and travel documents and another which I use to keep the zipper on my bag secured.
Don’t panic and keep going
Even if you are the unfortunate victim of the world’s alternative shopping methods, do as Douglas Adams says: Don’t Panic. The unfortunate truth is that in many places of the world, once your items have been lifted off of you, you may not get them back. Nevertheless, it is always recommended to visit the local law enforcement and get a case on file. Even if there is only a small chance that they are able to help retrieve your items, you will likely need this case file for your insurance claim.
The next best thing to do is to move on. Maybe you need a day or two of shopping or arranging to get new banking cards but if you followed the rules, 99.99% of the time you won’t need to end your trip. It’s just a little speed bump on a long long road where the rewards far outweigh the obstacles.
And don’t forget: you are not what you own. The things you bring can make your trip better in many ways, but don’t let your possessions start possessing you.
*Some or possibly all of those things may have happened to me
P.S. Is there anything specific related to travel you’d like to know “how to” do? I’ve realized that not everyone necessarily knows how to find cheap accommodation and tickets or what it’s like to navigate a country where you don’t speak the language. If you have any ideas, comment below!