Lonely Planet Writer

10 tips for preventing theft during travel

pickpocket2Travelers are often targeted by thieves - it's sad but true. On a regular basis we hear tales of pickpockets, scams, dishonest cab drivers, items stolen from hotel rooms and similar skullduggery.

When you're on holiday, you naturally want to relax, but letting your guard down can make you a target and have unfortunate consequences. On the other hand, going to paranoiac extremes can effectively quash any chance of fun, spontaneity, and discovery on your trip.

The community of savvy travelers on the Thorn Tree travel forum have been trading tips recently (see these discussions from the Central America & USA branches), and we've included some of the best below to help you keep your wits about you and your valuables safe during your travels:

1. Use a money belt...or don't
The money belt is often hailed as a travel necessity, particularly in places where pickpockets are common. Many Thorn Tree members are belt devotees, but others offer a few words of caution:

- Don't fool yourself into thinking that thieves don't know about money belts and don't have tricks to relieve you of yours.

- Because money belts are hidden, you can easily make a bit of a scene every time you have to retrieve something from it.

- Money belts may help prevent getting your pocket picked, but they don't do much to help you when someone is demanding money.

- People that don't use money belts adopt other stratgies, such as carrying only small amounts of cash at any one time, keeping cash in more than one place, or even carrying a dummy wallet.

2. Don't talk to strangers
Meeting new people around the world can be one of the greatest pleasures of travel, but it's not always wise to strike up a conversation with just anyone, particularly those that seem oddly eager to be your friend or spontaneously want to take you somewhere. One member says, "I keep an air of suspicion about any stranger that's overly excited to meet me and make conversation on the street - which is probably why I have no friends."

pickpocket33. Don't be a sucker
If it's too good to be true, run away: the underpriced gemstone, the incredible exchange rate offered by the man at the outdoor market, the attractive woman that just happened to spill mustard on you and wants to clean it off of you.

Another piece of advice: "Don't bring your credit card to any 'business opportunity' that takes place in a Ramada Inn conference room."

4. Don't act like a tourist
This can be a tall order, particularly when you are a tourist and your appearance and language skills make it difficult to blend in, but there are a few practical pieces of advice along these lines:

- Dress plainly when traveling, let someone else attract the attention of thieves. And please, ditch the bling.

- Be discreet when handling money. Don't repeatedly pat your wallet to make sure it's still there: you're just telling anyone who might be watching where to find your money.

- Avoid the temptation of setting your brain on "holiday mode." Relax and enjoy your trip, but maintain normal levels of awareness.

- Always act like you know where you're going (many of us already do this instinctively). Even better yet, actually know where you're going.

- It's best to keep your camera out of sight when not using it. Don't carry a massive camera unless you're an avid photographer and are willing to accept the risk (in which case you've probably done the homework on risk mitigation). Smaller cameras will suffice for most travelers.

5. Never leave anything of value in your hotel unless it's in a locked safe, and never leave anything visible in your car
Take responsibility for your belongings: they mean more to you than they do to your hotel. Trailheads and tourist destinations are favorite spots for car thieves, and rental cars are like large 'break into me' signs.

6. Trust your instincts
Never hesitate to cross the street, stop, turn around, do whatever is necessary to get away from someone who looks like trouble.

7. It pays to be big and mean looking, or to be traveling with someone big and mean looking
This isn't always a good thing (or even possible); invisibility is one step better.

8. When in Spain, avoid the "David Beckham Leg Jiggle"
I have no idea what this means, but I assume you'll know when it's happening to you.

9. Dubious advice you probably don't want to follow

- 'If you see someone starting to come at you, burst out yelling something like 'BGHRWARHBAHL MUHAHA' and run away. You'll almost definitely startle them enough to get a head start.'

- 'Most common pickpocket, little old ladies neatly dressed. Tourists are dumb and will just shout at some old broad trying to lift their wallet. Push her in front of the first moving vehicle.'

10. Probably the single best piece of advice:
Never travel with anything that you cannot bear to lose.

What are your best tips for preventing theft while you travel?

[Photos: Beware of pickpockets! by J-Cornelius; Poipet - Beware! by MsNina; Tourist trap by stargazer95050]