Photo credit: Dailymail UK
You have heard the stories, seen the news, maybe even experienced it first-hand. Tourists to Europe are often targets of crime such as pickpocketing or worse. After having survived my exchange in Paris and various trips in Europe without having lost anything to crime (I think I was very lucky), I hope that my experience can contribute some wisdom to the elusive art of not getting robbed in Europe. As a Singaporean who has taken safety for granted, my advice might seem like common sense, but it is what I have learned to keep my things safe and sound so far.
1. Do not put all your eggs in one basket
This is a very important principle to keep your things safe. I assume that you will be carrying your passport, identification, cash, mobile phone etc. Some people prefer to carry more cash, and this would be a bigger problem. Of course, the easy solution would be to not carry so much cash in the first place, but what if you had to? If you had 2000 Euros on you, placing all of them in a single wallet is extremely risky since you could easily lose it in one smooth swipe.
Instead of carrying all your valuables in a single batch, be creative in how you can split it into multiple pockets, wallets, purses etc. An invaluable tool that worked very well for me is a travel money belt. I have been very lucky with my zero-robbery result, but my roommate had her entire bag stolen from her. Thankfully, it was because she was using a money belt that she did not lose most of her cash and her passport.
It works best when it is unnoticeable. An alternative is to use a neck pouch, though I personally prefer the belt.
Photo credit: Saddler, AAA Mid-Atlantic
If you are not always staying in a good hotel, you may not have access to safety deposit boxes. What I did was to only carry cash in my purse that was enough for the day, then stow most of the rest, um, down there. Whenever I felt insecure about where I was staying, such as a shared room in a hostel without safes, I would even wear my money belt to sleep. Knowing that you would not lose everything in a flash is very reassuring, and can help you to enjoy your trip (and sleep) a little better.
In an emergency when you do not own such a device, you could even consider hiding money in your shoes, socks, bras and so on. It might be funny and kind of gross but I hope you would agree with me: there is no shame for not being robbed!
You will still have to be mentally prepared to lose anything (such as your mobile phone) that you don’t place in your money belt, because even with all the hard work, we all know sometimes things can just happen. However, with your most important valuables safely kept away, you won’t have so much to lose.
Pro tip: To avoid embarrassing situations with metal detectors (such as airport security checks), don’t put any keys, coins or metal objects in your money belt. Trust me, I’ve been there.
2. Watch yourself from a third person’s perspective.
In my mind, when I am alert, I always try to imagine watching myself as a potential robber or con artist looking for targets.
Photo credit: Wikihow
Am I looking rich? Vulnerable? Stupid? Easy? Often I have observed how many other people neglect being “in the zone”. It is easy to forget to be alert when you are distracted, in a crowded place, in a hurry to get somewhere, or even enjoying a meal in a restaurant. Nevertheless, you should still make an effort to always keep an eye on your things.
My friends and I have remarked on multiple occasions about how someone we saw would ‘confirm’ get robbed, not in a mean-natured way but only because they seem like such easy targets, even to meek little girls like us. Engulfed in the beauty of cathedrals and castles, people keep wallets in their back pockets, parade their DSLRs and smartphones around, carry multiple branded shopping bags, and simply don’t seem to be aware of their surroundings very much.
Photo credit: Jing Daily
I’m sure you can imagine what robbers look out for in potential prey, even if you have never robbed anyone before. The best way out of the target profile is to act like a local. Even if you look ethnically different from the locals, you could at least act like you know what you’re doing. Be aware of the people around you and how you carry yourself.
It is important to be aware of preconceived notions as well. Unfortunately, Asian tourists have been stereotyped to have great propensity for luxury shopping, own the latest smartphones and carry big wads of cash. Also they are very savvy with selfie technology.
Photo credit: Ejinsight
Being aware of such preconceptions can help you assess your risks better. If you look East Asian, or are in a group of tourists, for example, you know that you are going to be targeted for carrying cash and gadgets around. When you are aware that you are an attractive prey, you would naturally become more alert and pay closer attention to where you keep your belongings.
Help your friends out too. It helps to keep an eye out for each other, and remind them whenever they get distracted.
3. Do your research
It helps to know exactly what risks exist in each of the specific cities that you are going to. For example, in Paris where I had my exchange, pickpocketing of tourists is so prevalent that there are announcements telling people to take care of their belongings inside metro stations and tourist attractions like the Notre-Dame cathedral, the Louvre, even the Eiffel Tower. If you hadn’t done any prior research, would you have known that pickpockets often operate in groups? Would you have known that many of them are women and even children? Would you know not to entertain anyone who approaches you with a clipboard, or not to say yes to cheery gladiators asking for a picture? Don’t walk into the lion’s den without knowing it, do your research.
A sign on the Eiffel Tower elevator.
You can save yourself from misfortunes simply by knowing what crimes exist in your travel destinations. Some cities are more dangerous than others, and some crimes could just be old tricks recycled on new visitors. I recommend watching Scam City, a documentary series which is more about scams rather than robberies, but still very useful. It features scams commonly seen around the world including notorious European cities like Rome and Prague, and I have even personally witnessed some of these scams happening while I was touring Europe. Learn how creative they can get with their scams, and understand that crime can lurk just about anywhere. Be aware, and beware.
It also helps to look up the area your accommodation is located in, especially if you are using AirBnb or staying in hotels that are not near the city centre. Also, do consider if your possible modes of transport (walking or public transport) are safe, particularly at night. Some areas in the same city can be more seedy than others, and often you can find such information in discussion forums on sites like TripAdvisor or Rick Steves. Staying in a safe area can greatly reduce your exposure to danger.
4. Don’t worry too much
If you tend to get paranoid to the point of being fearful and unhappy, it helps to remember that sometimes appearing like a kancheong spider backfires too. Locals don’t look nervous when they are on the streets or sitting in the metro, and neither should you, so relax your stiff shoulders and breathe. You don’t have to be so wound up that you sacrifice enjoyment. You’re on holiday after all and it’s your right to enjoy being where you are; nobody can take that away from you.
Yes, it is terrible that you have to be mentally prepared to lose some things on a joyous occasion like your holiday, just because the risks are high. But even if you do lose some things, it doesn’t mean that you are going to die or anything. Just because you lose your smartphone (choy) or your money (choy) or, heavens forbid, your passport (choy choy choy!), it is not the end of the world. Don’t let what happens to you or your friends take over your emotions, and don’t let the possibility of crime stop you from traveling! It might be a downer to lose your stuff, but letting the incident cloud your mood for the entire trip is just not worth it. Don’t let the thieves steal the good memories of your vacation. Let’s not forget that Europe is still very beautiful, and most of the people that you will meet are probably nice regular folks and not robbers.
Photo credit: Jayhawks Abroad
Nice regular Italian folks who are probably afraid of pickpockets too.
Photo credit: Italy Magazine
We are only human. We cannot be perfectly alert and 100% safe all the time, since there is no way to have fun if you’re always only being nervous about your things. Sometimes traveling just means you have to be prepared for the unexpected.
That said, we will not leave without putting up a fight. We shall not surrender. Fight on, fellow travelers!
How do you stay safe on travels? Got any better advice? Comment and share your tips with us!
Written by: Zhi Jun