4 Travel Rules For Not Getting Robbed

April 12, 2015

Some veteran travelers probably think I’m paranoid. Full disclosure: I’ve had my camera stolen in New York City. No, no one mugged me or anything. Rather, I was eating a Magnolia cupcake in the lower level of Grand Central Station and had my Canon set on the table to my right. Anyone who knows me is aware of how much a cupcake aficionado I claim to be, and it’s entirely possible I was so engulfed in the experience of biting into that delicious double vanilla frosting for the first time that I wasn’t paying proper attention to my camera. Either that, or I left it behind by accident. In any case, when I returned it was gone, and with it my pictures of the city.

Despite this and rare occasions of being cheated abroad, however, I’ve been very fortunate in my travels. My bags have only been misplaced twice by airlines in the dozens of flights I’ve taken (inexcusable by American Airlines in Port-au-Prince, but understandable by United when I was pushed to a later flight with thirty minutes’ notice). I’ve never been arrested abroad or at home or even been detained by anyone in authority. I’ve never been mugged or had my pocket picked; you could attribute this to the fact most of my time abroad was lived in Japan and Korea, but I’ve also spent my fair share in Peru, the Philippines, Italy, Thailand, and Haiti.

Travelers can’t do much to ensure their bags arrive where they’re supposed to, but hat tip to Justin Ross Lee for suggesting buying a starter pistol and declaring it at check in. To avoid the authorities, it’s best to research local laws before stepping foot on foreign soil; more than a few visitors have been caught off guard by lèse majesté laws. In regards to keeping your money and belongings safe once you do arrive, I follow my own system, and it’s worked for me. Some of these rules may seem fairly straightforward, others perhaps too rigid to enjoy travel. Do what Tim Ferriss does: compartmentalize it, and enjoy the ride.

1. ALWAYS lock things up, ESPECIALLY IN A HOSTEL

As much as I’d like to believe in the goodness of all people – and I generally do – that goodwill doesn’t extend to trusting my Macbook and wallet will remain safe if I leave them alone for even a few minutes. Believe it or not, there are people around the world who check into hostels for the sole purpose of stealing; such despicable individuals are on the same level as thieves who pilfer from carry-on bags on international flights. All you have to do is leave something tempting for them to scoop up as you run out of the room, and even if you think you’ll be back in a moment, that’s it. It’s gone.

And in case you’re thinking you’d be exempt by staying in a decent hotel, think again:

Even in hotels in reputable areas, I lock up or hide my valuables. This isn’t really an indictment of people who work at hotels, but rather just a simple calculation of temptation. Leaving a US passport or cash in plain sight forces workers or even a layperson to ask the question: what could I do with this?

2. NEVER get drunk

Yep, I’m sure to win over a lot of people with this one. Nevertheless, I can count the number of times I’ve gotten tipsy with one hand, and I’ve never gotten to the point I can’t remember what happened the night before. I enjoy a glass of wine or a pint with the best of them, but I’ve never seen the appeal of reaching a level of drunkenness at which you’re no longer in control of your actions or making memories.

Case in point: my first morning on Boracay I met a fellow Texan with two huge cuts on his hand. Seriously, I honestly thought he should go back to Manila or some large hospital for stitches. When I asked what happened, he replied that he had been drunk last night and didn’t remember a thing, just woke up with a bloody hand. Come to think of it, my first days in many countries have involved encountering people and hearing about their drunken escapades; in Japan, my AEON trainer’s friend was still healing after slipping while walking home at night and getting hit head-on by a car.

While alcohol can certainly lead to physical consequences like the ones I’ve mentioned, secondary to that is getting your wallet lifted after passing out on the street or leaving yourself vulnerable to a scam (just watch the intro to Better Call Saul, episode 4).

3. ALWAYS take all your bags with you

The only time I might be willing to risk leaving a bag at my table in a cafe or restaurant when I run to the bathroom is in Japan. Even those two minutes away is enough for your livelihood to disappear, and just not worth the risk in almost any country. And this is where some of my fellow travelers and I might butt heads, because my advice is inconvenient and distrustful of the general population. Imagine heading to the airport, stopping in a cafe, and lugging all your bags into the bathroom just because you’re paranoid.

Well, I’ve done it, and I will continue doing so.

This is where a partner comes in handy. My most recent trip to the Philippines was with my lady friend, and we looked out for each other. I usually pack minimally for the beach, knowing everything I carry may be stolen when I’m in the water. But this time, she was there to keep a watchful eye on our belongings as I jumped in. Because I do trust her, I felt very unburdened that entire trip.

4. AVOID dealing with those in authority as often as possible

My feelings on the police, particularly those abroad, are well known: when it comes down to it, you’re better off just running from the scene (if you haven’t done anything) than being the clueless foreigner who can’t defend himself in the local tongue. In Thailand, it’s common practice for police to request bribes during traffic stops. In the US, the police aren’t much better, but we label it as civil forfeiture, not robbery:

I suppose some might consider this more of a scam than robbery, but what else would you call it when you’re conned or coerced to give money to someone who can shoot or imprison you with little oversight? Thankfully, I haven’t had too many dealings with those in authority where a bribe is “necessary”.

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