Better Than Travel Insurance: The Subtle Art Of Deterring Pickpockets

Oh no. Oh no. Oh NO

It’s always after you’ve been pickpocketed that you realise you did everything wrong. In my case, I put my travel wallet in my rucksack, then put the rucksack out of my sight in a public place – then lost myself and my awareness of my surroundings by writing a long email on my laptop. 

It’s a personal disaster because of the timing. I’m in a coffee shop in the German city of Düsseldorf, and my flight back to England leaves in less than 6 hours. But without my bank card, I now have no way to draw money out. I have 19 Euros in cash, and that’s it. The price of a train ticket to Düsseldorf International Airport? Unknown. I’m sweating.

But that’s not the worst of it. In my wallet was my boarding pass for my flight – and my passport. They’re both gone, and without them I have no way to get on the plane and re-enter the UK at the other end.

For now, I use my laptop to cancel all my bank cards. I then use my laptop to yell help! at one of my good friends and ask if he could loan me a bit of cash… 

Then, of course, I panic.

Should we keep urging vigilance during travel?
Should we keep urging vigilance during travel?

What follows is an absolutely desperate dash across the city to the British Embassy, in the hope that there’s still enough time for me to organize an emergency British travel passport (more expensive than a normal passport, yet good for one journey only), and pay for it using that money I’ve borrowed, and hoping my friend’s bank transfer works quick enough to get the passport issued so I can (hopefully!) leap onto the train and make it to the airport before the plane’s doors close. 

It’s one of the most stressful afternoons of my life – and I make it onto the plane, temporary passport in hand, with just minutes to spare. 

According to a travel insurance comparison company’s recent survey, you’re most likely to be pickpocketed in Italy, and specifically, in Rome. This is very relatively speaking, of course: the chances of having your possessions stolen as you travel is still very small indeed. Millions of people travel around Europe every year without falling prey to thieves (and apart from that one time in Düsseldorf in 2012, I’ve never again been bothered by thieves, despite many dozens of trips). The upshot: you’ll almost certainly not be pickpocketed.

But as that crazily stressful time proved to me, just one theft can start an avalanche of consequences that can quickly unravel your entire trip. So yes, let’s all assume it’s not going to happen – but what if it did? This is the reason for travel insurance (which you should always have), but on the actual day the theft is happening, you won’t care that you’ll eventually get your money back – you’ll be far too distressed and angry that it’s happened at all.

So, as highly unlikely as these events are, how can we make them even less likely as we travel the world?   

First, here’s the obvious tip that you’ve probably read a thousand times. Your wallet and tickets and passport always remain on your person, in a firmly zippable pocket. They never go in a separate bag, especially the type that goes onto your shoulders and therefore out of sight when you’re wearing it. Ten years on, I cannot quite believe I forgot this cardinal rule of safe travel. I was a dimwit. Everyone can do better than I did.

You'll have many great companions in W&A group tour.
You’ll have many great companions in W&A group tour.

Secondly: I reckon you will have a huge advantage over me back then. If you’re reading this piece in Wheel & Anchor’s weekly newsletter, you’re probably considering taking a tour – which will mean, you’re travelling alongside other fellow travellers. This will really help you stay safe. Thieves rely on inattention – and if you’re in a group, there’s an excellent chance that at any given time, someone’s eyes (even if they’re not your own) will be looking in the direction of your possessions. There is so much security in the kinds of numbers you get on an organized tour.

Speaking of which: if there’s someone suspiciously lurking near you who looks like they might be assessing when to steal your stuff, try to catch their eye, and make sure they can see you looking directly at them. The subtle signal this sends to a wannabe thief is, “Hey, since I’m taking a good look, I can now describe you perfectly to the police – so don’t even try it, buddy.” 

But here’s my favourite safety tip of all, because of how creative it is. 

In 2016, travel writer Shannon O’Donnell listed her best MacGyver-style travel tricks. Want to secure your belonging to the chair you’re sitting on? Always carry a carabiner clip. Hole in your pants and a sudden need to eject your iPhone’s Sim card? A sewing needle is just the ticket. And so on.

But the best was this: make your most valuable travel possessions look awful

I don’t mean to suggest you need to look anything less than elegant – just that if you have expensive tech like a really fancy smartphone or camera, it’s a great idea to spend some time making them look like they’re on the verge of being broken junk. Thieves tend to steal stuff that looks worth selling. If you make sure your stuff absolutely doesn’t, they’ll much more likely to pass on stealing it.

What this means in practice is cosmetically defacing your valuables. It doesn’t have to be real defacing – you don’t have to break or scratch anything for real. You just need to make the thing look like it’s semi-ruined. (Although, if you only travel with a relatively old piece of tech that already looks battered by the years, that certainly helps too. Leave your brand new tablet at home, take your old backup that still does the job.) 

Making your cellphone appear less valuable will help keep it safe
Making your cellphone appear less valuable will help keep it safe

Shannon suggests wrapping duct-tape (especially the eye-catchingly silvery kind) around your gadgets to make them look sketchy. You could also use cream masking-tape and write onto it off-putting things like “BATTERY BROKEN” and “WARNING, DOES NOT POWER UP”. You could even – and yes, this is getting a bit extreme – spatter some paint onto the sides of the device in a hideous-looking way, the kind that you wouldn’t have a problem removing when you get back home. And if your devices have protective, removable cases, why not buy a special just-for-travel case for them, and make that look like a worthless eyesore? 

(Similarly, nothing screams “you’d never sell this for much if you stole it” than a phone with a thoroughly smashed-up display – so why not get a protective stick-on screen, the kind you’d normally use to protect the factory-built one underneath, and carefully crack that “fake” screen up before putting it in place? Result: a phone that looks like it’s destined for imminent retirement!)

However you do it, sacrificing a little of your dignity to ‘junk up’ your gadgets is a trade-off that’s well worth making. The safety-related odds may already be heavily stacked in your favour, meaning your trip will go according to plan and all will be well. 

But it’s nice to know that extra level of protection is there, working even better than travel insurance, because – unlike me in Düsseldorf – you’ve done everything right.

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