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I still remember this day like it was only yesterday… My first big trip to Europe – arriving to Madrid on a Friday night, eager to see the city with its beautiful architecture, narrow cobblestone streets, and colorful local living.
On the first morning, my boyfriend and I woke up very early, ready and excited to start our sightseeing journey. We got to the city center of Madrid around 8am in the morning only to discover that all the cafes and local restaurants were still not open.
We walked around for almost an hour and the only thing that offered any kind of food and coffee was a local franchise of McDonald’s. So without much options and running low on our energy reserves, we had to go in. We quickly found a small table located in a corner, nicely tucked in between a window and two parallel partial walls.
Since I took my seat facing the restaurant, I put my handbag right behind me on a small window sill. While my boyfriend went out to get the food, another couple came in and sat down on the right side of the opposite wall, which was just next to the main entrance. This couple’s table was directly parallel to our own. On my left side, there was another table which was standing farther away, where the wall, that was next to me, ended.
A woman sat down behind that table and while she was on her phone, she quickly turned and asked me something in Spanish. Since my Spanish skills were pretty nonexistent, I leaned in forward to politely let her know that I was very sorry, “Pero, yo no hablo Español“. My boyfriend returned a few moments later, and the first thing he asked me was where did I put my handbag. “Relax”, I said, “I have it right here”. “Where?”. “Right behind me, you see…here”, and when I turned to show him the bag, I was shocked to realize…that it was gone. And so was my passport with it.
So this was supposed to be a nice little story about one wonderful week in Madrid and Barcelona, but on it’s very first day it quickly turned into a nightmarish two-weeks journey through hell.
In this article I am going to share with you some tips on how to avoid becoming a victim of potential pickpocketing, and having your vacation completely ruined as a result. Even if you think that you already know ‘everything’ that there is about safety measures as a tourist – read on!
Pickpocketing in Europe – 5 Safety Tips:
The most dangerous and openly vulnerable places are all the modes of transportation: buses, trains, metros, trams, trolleys, and so on. You always have to be extra-careful with your belongings while taking one of them.
One of the tricks that pickpockets often employ is surrounding their victim in a group or standing by too close. Once the moving vehicle makes a sudden “jump” or a turn, they would ‘fall’ on their victim as if by accident, while quickly emptying the pockets or even slashing the victim’s bag and removing its valuables. Of course, the person never even realizes what’s going on… until it’s too late, anyway. This is one of the oldest tricks in the book.
The only way to protect yourself is to always have your belongings in front of you, where you can secure them with a palm of your hand. For men, it means having your wallet in the front pocket of your pants, and for women it means holding your bag in front of your chest. Never wear your backpack on your back, especially in very crowded places, AND have your wallet in it – you are almost guaranteed to lose it, and you won’t even know how and when.
2. Busy Venues
Airports, train stations, hostels and hotel lobbies. These are the second most dangerous places to lose a sight of your bag for even a split moment. Professional robbers “work” their ways around the airports and hotel lobbies, dressed as businessmen and women, and you would never even suspect one of them.
Always keep sight of your bag and never ask a stranger to “keep an eye on it for a moment”, even if that stranger is a trustworthy looking mom holding a baby. What you might not know is that most pickpockets work in a gang, and they ’employ’ all kind of characters. As to the hostels and hotels, always lock away your valuables in a safe storage. I mean, always. Always.
3. Dining in Public
Another mistake, as you already read in my example, is to put your bag behind you or hang it on the back of a chair, while dining in open, crowded places. A a rule of thumb – if you are not touching your bag, or have it where you can see it or feel it, it’s probably already gone.
The best places to keep your bag – is between your back and your chair, so that you are leaning tight against it; directly under your feet, so you can touch it anytime you want to; or directly on the table, if your bag is small enough or if a table is big enough, to accommodate it. Hey, whatever works – safety needs to come first.
4. The ‘Right’ Bag
If you are a woman traveling in Europe, I would highly recommend to wear a cross-shoulder ‘messenger’ bag over your body, and to always keep it in front of you. This is the safest way to carry your belongings. All the other kind of bags can be quickly grabbed from you, whether by a running group of children (yes, this happens) or by a passing motorcyclist.
Also, even the small purses, which some ladies carry under their arms – can be slashed, and the valuables taken. And if you are still not convinced that your bag can be easily snatched from you – my mother’s friend who lives in Spain, had her sunglasses seized… while she was still wearing them on.
5. Credit Cards and Cash
Be aware of crowded places in general and don’t carry all your cash and credits cards on you, leave them in your hotel’s room safe. Take only the modest amount that you will need for the day and no more than one credit card with you. Be also extra alert when a group of people approaches you, even if that group is a small cluster of children.
I will leave you with this small excerpt from the talented Bill Bryson and his amazing and hilarious (nonfiction) book, “Neither Here Nor There”, which describes his travels around Europe.
(This story took place in Florence, Italy):
“The kid was magic. It was a Sunday morning, brilliantly sunny. I had just checked out of the hotel and was heading for the station to catch a train to Milan. As I reached the street opposite the station, three children carrying wrinkled, day-old newspapers approached, trying to sell them to me. I waved them away. One, a jabbering and unwashed girl of about eight, was unusually persistent and pressed the paper on me to such an extent that I stopped and warned her off with a firm voice and a finger in her face and she slunk off, abashed.
I walked on, with the cocksure strut of a guy who knows how to handle himself on the street, and ten feet later knew without even feeling my pockets that something was missing. I looked down and the inside breast pocket of my jacked was unzipped and gaping emptily. In the time it had taken me to give the kid a five-second lecture on street etiquette, she had managed to reach into my jacket, unzip my pocket, dip a hand inside, withdraw two folders of travelers’ checks, and pocket them. I wasn’t angry. I was impressed”. (Perennial, 1992, p. 163).
And finally, the countries with the most pickpocketing activities, where you must be extra-alert are: Italy, Spain, France, Czech Republic, Romania, Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Greece, and Netherlands. So, be vigilant, stay safe, but do not forget to enjoy Europe to the fullest as it is one of the most beautiful continent on Earth!
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Over to you – have you ever been a victim of pickpocketing? Please share your stories in the comments below!