Europe in general is a relatively safe place. In most countries I don’t have to worry about arriving late or walking home alone in the dark. In that sense, Europe is a pretty perfect destination for first time solo travelers.
But there is one security issue that seems more prevalent in major European cities than anywhere else in the world and that is theft, mainly of the pickpocketing variety.
I’ve now been travelling in Europe for almost five months and I’ve heard countless stories about people having their personal items or stolen, or at least attempted to be pickpocketed.
There was my friend who woke up from a big night out minus her phone, another friend who had her phone stolen from the top of bar, and another friend who felt a hand in his pocket as someone tried to grab his wallet.
Luckily there are many ways in which you can minimize your chances of being a victim of theft. So here is a guide to some of the ways I try to avoid theft. So far I’ve managed to not get anything stolen, although I’m a little worried that writing this post will jinx me!
1. Invest in a couple of locks
Before coming to Europe, small padlocks were an essential travel item for me. I personally prefer the ones with three digit codes (a key is just another thing to lose), but any sturdy travel lock will do.
These locks are great for locking your bags when your checking it in for flights (make sure your lock is TSA approved for this, or it may be cut off), locking a locker at a hostel and even looking your day pack when going out for the day.
I also travel with a retractable lock. This is great for attaching my bag to the shelves when travelling on public transport, attaching my bag to something in the hostel room where there isn’t a locker, or even as a third lock to have if I find myself needing one.
2. Be vigilant
In the words of our good old friend Mad-Eye Moody, ‘CONSTANT VIGILANCE!’. The reason a lot of people lose their stuff when drunk is because this is when they let their guard down.
You need to always be aware of your surroundings. The reason pickpockets target tourist hot spots is because you are most likely distracted by your beautiful surroundings.
You don’t have to be absolutely Mad-Eye Moody paranoid, but you should always stop to check who is around you and whether you are putting yourself in a spot where theft might be easy.
3. Know the pickpocket hot spots.
Whilst it pays to always be careful, there are some places where you should be extra careful. In Lisbon it’s the tram to Belem, in Berlin it’s near the Brandenburg Gate, in Pisa it’s near the leaning tower, everywhere it’s the metro London it`s near the London Eye.
There are always places where theft and pickpocketing is more likely to occur. So do your research; ask your friend at the hostel who has just been to that city, or the staff on the desk of your hostel, or even just do a google search.
Almost all of the pickpocketing stories I’ve heard from friends occurred in Barcelona, hence when I was in Barcelona I was extra careful. Few hot spots in Barcelona, Las Ramblas, Plaza Catalunya, Barrio Gotico, Carrer Montcada and much more.
Most of these hot spots have one common theme; they get extremely crowded. It’s much easier to steal when you have the cover of a crowd, especially when you can run out at a metro stop.
You are unlikely to recognise someone bumping into you as a potentially theft situation in a larger crowd.
4. Don’t create an opportunity for pickpockets
how to avoid theft pickpocketing europeIt’s awesome to sit and have dinner in Plaza Mayor in Madrid, but don’t leave your phone on the table! With thousands of clueless tourists to choose from, pickpockets will easily take the easiest opportunities to steal belongings.
By creating an opportunity I mean not putting your phone or wallet on the top of a bar, not putting anything valuable in the back pocket of your pants or jeans, not leaving zips half undone in your bag, not leaving valuable items on restaurant tables (particularly when dining alfresco)and not putting your backpacks on the back of chairs.
By not doing any of these things, you make yourself a harder target for theft.
5. Wear your day pack on your front
It’s definitely not the most attractive way to wear a backpack, but in areas where I know I might be at risk of pickpocketing I always switch my backpack to my front. On metros, in front of tourist spots, anywhere in Barcelona or Paris , anywhere remotely crowded and my backpack is going on my belly.
6. Avoid going out with very valuable items
It still amazes me how many travellers I met that always walk around with their passport. When I’m just leaving the hostel for the day I always keep my passport safely locked away in my locker.
Whilst there might be a minimal chance of theft from my locked locker at the hostel, it’s far smaller than my passport being stolen from my bag whilst out in a busy city.
Whilst my camera is almost always an essential item, I left it behind for big events like New Years Eve in London because it wasn’t worth the risk.
If I’m going out for the night I usually just take a small amount of money and a bank card in my bra stash. But I do always take my phone with me because I’d hate to get lost and I think a phone provides an element of safety and security when you are going out at night.
7. Lock your valuables up at hostels
Whilst theft in hostels isn’t as prevalent as it used to be, it unfortunately still opens, perfectly at bigger hostels. Never leave your valuables like your laptop, camera, wallet and passport in your main bag, even if you are in the room. I’ve heard some stories about people having stuff stolen while they were sleeping.
I always throw all of my valuables into the locker for the night, or when I’m going out without them.
8. When moving, put all of your valuable items in your day pack
Whenever I’m moving from one city to another, I always keep my most valuable items in my day pack rather than my main pack.
This way I can ensure they stay between my feet on a train (rather than up on the rack), with me on a bus rather than being put in the hold below and if I rent a locker for the day I always take my valuables with me.
On overnight trains I always make sure my bag with valuables is pressed between myself and the wall of the train cabin. It’s one of the reasons why I tend to prefer top bunk when travelling on overnight trains!
9, Invest in theft proof gear
Whilst I haven’t felt the need to purchase them, many people feel safest when using specific security gear such as money belts. I think this might be of a particular use for males as they usually don’t carry a handbag or similar and a money belt or neck pouch would be better than your pockets.
You can also find a range of anti-theft bags and backpacks, and also portable travel safes.
I myself do use a travel pouch for keeping my money safe, but I usually only feel the need to use it when I’m in a country known for muggings (rather than pickpocketing) or when I go out at night.
10. Take out travel insurance
Even with constant vigilance you might find yourself a victim of theft while travelling in Europe. Hence it’s always important to have travel insurance than can cover your most valuable items.
I made sure I invested in a travel insurance policy that covered all of my valuables. In this situation it’s always good to read the fine print (i.e. the PDS) as many travel insurance policies have caps on valuable items (they might cap it at $1000 for all your items, or $500 per item). Thus by reading the policy you can ensure it suits your needs.