Harlan Hague


Alexa sat down at her restaurant table. She and her new friends had just moved through the buffet line, and they were talking about tomorrow's schedule. The city sightseeing tour would fill the morning. But what to do during the free afternoon? One woman suggested the British Museum. Another thought they should save museums and art galleries for rainy days and go shopping instead.

Alexa thought that an excellent idea. She reached for her purse on the floor at her feet where she had placed it before going to the buffet line. It was an unconscious gesture, something she had done hundreds of times before, because that was where she always put her purse.

It was gone. Passport, money, plane ticket, credit cards, ATM card, everything. Gone. It was the first day of her first trip to Europe, the beginning of a glorious, long-anticipated, nineteen-day tour, and she was devastated.

Two days later, Laura and two friends decided to have coffee before going to bed. It was late, but the hotel coffee shop was still open. It had been an exciting day, and they were reluctant to end it. They talked for an hour.

They agreed finally that it was indeed late, and they must get to bed. Tomorrow was also to be a full day. Laura reached for her purse. She had put it on the floor, with her foot touching it, exactly as she had done a thousand times before. It was gone.

These two purse thefts illustrate the necessity for another sort of preparation for a trip to Europe.

By all means, before you leave home, learn all you can about the places you will see during your journey. Advance study always enriches the travel experience. The "other" preparation is equally important. Learn what you can do to avoid the unpleasantness, for some the trauma, of theft that can mar a travel experience.

First, consider wearing a money belt or pouch. Alexa did not have one and lost everything. Laura was wearing a money belt and saved her passport and cash. Her plane ticket was in the purse, and she lost it.

If you find a money belt uncomfortable, as I do, try a pouch that hangs around the neck under your shirt. In any event, decide what you want to place in the unit, and examine it before you buy to be sure it will carry everything comfortably. If buying by mail, be sure there is a written return guarantee.

Any belt or pouch should be large enough to hold passport, credit cards, ATM card, excess cash and plane tickets. Include travelers cheques if you are among the few who still carry them. In your wallet or purse, carry only as many travelers cheques and cash that you expect to spend that day. All these things can be replaced, but it is a nuisance and wastes valuable time. If you lose them outside a large city, It may be virtually impossible to get them replaced without a long delay.

If you should lose a passport, replacement will be much faster if you have two extra pictures and photocopies of the passport pages showing essential information.  Keep the pictures and photocopies separate from your passport.

Carry a list of identification numbers of other important documents, such as airline tickets, credit cards and bank cards. Give a copy of this list and the passport data to your spouse or friend to carry. If you use travelers cheques, keep an accurate record of cheques cashed. Keep this record and the initial travelers cheque purchase documents separate from the uncashed cheques.

Be sure your possessions are covered by insurance. Perhaps your homeowners policy or personal articles insurance covers baggage. If not, consider any of a number of trip policies. Do an internet search for "travel insurance", or consult your travel agent or the leader of your tour group.

Once in Europe, some simple precautions will protect you and your possessions. Put cameras and other valuables in the hotel safe when you are not using them. Lock all belongings in suitcases when you go out during the day. This will prevent petty theft. At the Imperial Hotel in London, my tour members lost a number of things from their luggage and dresser tops before they learned this lesson.

An officer of the local police station's Hotel Theft unit told me that this sort of theft is all too common. The luxury hotels, he said, have good security. The less expensive hotels don't need it. The middle-cost hotels, particularly those identified as tourist hotels, those that need security the most, he added, have little or none.

The manager of the Imperial Hotel coffee shop, where one of the above-mentioned purses was stolen, indeed became quite defensive when the theft was reported to him. His response was something like, "There's nothing I can do about it. This is a public place. Anybody can come in." (The other purse was stolen at the adjacent, affiliated President Hotel.)

Each time you leave your hotel, be sure to take with you two essentials: a city map and a card or brochure showing the hotel's address and telephone number. This is especially important in non-English-speaking countries where you do not speak the local language. If you become lost, or if time is short, or if public transportation is confusing, you can show the card to a taxi driver. Walking or riding public transport is more fun, but if the need arises, don't hesitate to take a taxi. They are not excessively expensive, but even if they are, it is money well-spent.

On the street, put your small camera in a front pocket. If you carry a larger camera,  wear it and your purse over your head and under an arm. In a crowd, pull them in front of you. In the same situation, the man should put his wallet in a front pocket. Be especially alert when there is a commotion of some sort--a scuffle on a subway platform, horseplay on the street, a shouted greeting in a cafe. It is a common ploy to divert your attention while a cohort goes for your valuables.

Be suspicious of anyone walking fast or running toward you, or a motor bike or scooter running near the curb. Better, don't walk near the curb. It is best to walk near the wall or shop windows, with your camera and purse on the side toward the wall.

Sitting anywhere in public, whether in a crowd or alone, keep an arm through the loop of your camera and purse straps, preferably in your lap. They are a nuisance, and you'll drop pasta on them eventually, but at least you will walk away with your possessions instead of a trauma. Don't hook purse or camera on the back of your chair, don't put them in an adjacent chair, and never, never put them on the floor.   Break the habit before you leave home.

It is a biological fact that an abundance of any species attracts predators, whether the species be field mice, jackrabbits or tourists. For the last-mentioned prey, this is particularly true at entry points, such as London and Amsterdam, where travelers have not yet learned to be wary, but the rule applies elsewhere as well.

All this is not to say that you should stay at home. Europe is, in a relative sense, safe. In spite of the disturbing necessity for this "other" preparation, Europe is immeasurably worth the effort.

Remember that the predator--hawk, coyote or thief--always goes for the easy mark. There are plenty of them around.  If you will take simple precautions, you will almost surely avoid loss.

Caveat and disclaimer: This is a freelance travel article that I published some time ago. Some data, especially prices, links and contact information, may not be current.


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