One of my biggest worries when I first started traveling was the looming threat of pickpockets. What if I got robbed? I mean, what if they took my money? Or my passport?!? My friends and family warned me to keep an eye out for them. I went so far as to keep ALL of my documentation, money, cards… EVERYTHING in a money belt tucked into the front of my pants. Yikes.
By my third trip to Europe I had relaxed substantially. I kept my eye out for pickpockets but was not worried in the slightest of being the victim of a robbery. Messenger bag slung to my back, I waltzed around London and Reading without giving even a second thought to my belongings. Well, that certainly changed after my first couple of days in Paris.
As both of my companions were sick during our time in Paris in 2012 and needed some sleep, I chose to get up early one morning and take in the sunrise from Trocadéro, overlooking the Eiffel Tower, on my own. Café au lait and pain au chocolat in hand, I made the trek over to the Eiffel Tower and basked in the beauty of the slight. I then decided to wander the gardens at the Louvre to kill some time. It was early, I was sleepy and complacent. It was at that point that I put myself in a most compromising situation.
Without paying attention to my surroundings, I hurried across the street at a more or less deserted intersection. Unbeknownst to me, the girl busy playing with her cellphone (don’t do this, it’s dumb), I had walked right into the middle of a group of 10-15 arguing beggar children. You know the type right? Paper petitions in hand, these individuals attempt to distract their victims long enough to get a hand into a purse or bag before taking off. Unfortunately for me, this group seemed to be in the middle of a heated argument over who had the rights to the corner and were desperate to make a steal. Upon seeing me, one very distracted tourist, they acted. They quickly surrounded me, screaming in French, shoving their petitions at my chest while grasping at my pockets and bag below the papers. I tried to push them back, but each time I did they got closer and closer until they were nearly falling over my feet. Hugging my bag to my chest, I repeatedly yelled Non! at them until I was able to break away from the group and get the hell away from them.
Terrifying right? Luckily I was holding my cellphone, my camera was safe in a hoodie pocket and my wallet was buried deep in my bag. Had I not been able to break away, I would have likely lost those items. The good news is, I certainly learned a lot from this encounter of mine and haven’t been in a situation like this since. These are my top tips for avoiding being the victim of a robbery while abroad.
1. Always, always, ALWAYS be aware of your surroundings.
When exploring somewhere foreign, it is of utmost importance to be extremely aware of your surroundings. Had I actually done so, I likely would not have walked into such a volatile situation. Beyond avoiding a pickpocket, giving your surroundings attention is of utmost importance, especially for you ladies traveling solo. Be aware of your surroundings and take note of the people around you. If any of the above makes you feel uncomfortable, find somewhere where you feel safer and more comfortable.
2. Blend in with the locals.
Nothing screams “HEY! Over here! I’m a tourist! Come get me!” like a person dolled up in Hawaiian print shirts and fedoras, toting around a massive backpack and showing off their shiny camera. Do a bit of research into your destination and try to dress like the locals. Pretend like you’re just wandering around your hometown or city for a weekend. Store your “touristy” goods (guide books, cameras, etc.) in your bag when not being used. Flashing these types of things around will mark you as a target.
3. Take care with your bag.
Your bag is where you store all of your necessities. For the love of god make sure that it has a good zipper or closure on it and then hide your zipper. Make sure that wandering hands can’t just slide into pockets and find all sorts of goodies. When wandering around, carry your bag on the front of your person, not your back. A traveling companion of mine nearly lost her phone and wallet twice by slinging her bag to her back, purely out of habit. Take note of when people bump into your bag and keep an eye on it.
4. Invest in a money belt.
Yes, money belts are a pain. They are uncomfortable, annoying and a hindrance if you need to pull out your passport quickly. But those same qualities make it impossible for pickpockets to get to your most important traveling possessions. Store your passport, tickets, ID, credit card and some extra cash in here, just in case you lose your other stash of cash. Don’t be ridiculous like I used to be, but it is safe to keep an extra stash of money (and your passport) somewhere on your person.
5. Play dumb.
The normal routine for my beggar children horde is fairly basic. A pair of people approach a tourist and ask them (in English) to sign their petition for a cause. Once you reciprocate conversation, you’re hooked. At this point they will try to distract you and pull something off of your person. A neat trick that our Jaimie taught me during our last stint in Europe was simply to play dumb. We were approached by two beggars who spoke to us in English. Jaimie quickly replied “Ich spreche kein Englisch”, “I don’t speak English” in German. The women looked confused, but continued to try and converse with us in English. We refused to reciprocate and eventually they left us be. When you pretend to not understand what they want, pickpockets who rely on this routine will typically move on to an easier target.
It’s really not all that hard to avoid falling victim to a pickpocket. Keep a close eye on your surroundings, your pockets and your bags. Don’t be an obvious tourist and don’t play into any games that these people try to pull you in with. If you follow these steps, you should be fine!
I didn’t finish my story though. While my horde of beggar children were not successful in making away with something of value, they did manage to sneak something out of my bag without my noticing (until several days later). What was that thing, you ask?
Well, it was my French phrasebook.