Travel tips to stay safe in major European cities

Guard against pickpockets and petty thieves or your vacation may go sideways

During our city orientation to Budapest, the tour director spent a lot of time cautioning our group on ways to avoid falling prey to petty thieves and fraudsters. Budapest is no different that other large European cities. They tend to be safe when it comes to major crime, but tourists are targeted for petty theft in Europe as they are elsewhere.

His personal safety tips were so good they’ve become engrained in our travel psyche, along with notes to refresh our memory each time we embark on a new adventure. We’ve sharing these with you in the hope that we can all become more aware. And in doing so, keep our travels focused on the happy moments and not the missteps.

This is not intended to scare you. But if it scares you just a little, that is probably a good thing. We see far too many tourists with bulging wallets, giant rolls of cash, phone sticking out of pockets and purses/backpacks with zippers open. In other words, let’s try not to scream “Hey, y’all. We’re naïve American tourists and our stuff is easy pickings if theft is your gig.” We believe most petty crimes are avoidable by following some simple precautions.

avoid pickpocket thieve europe
Our tips may help you avoid petty crimes that target tourists.

Be aware of your surroundings

Best crime prevention advice for travel or home? Be aware of your surroundings. Travelers are easy prey for petty thieves because in additional to carrying cameras, phones and large sums of cash, the excitement of travel distracts us from our surroundings. Enjoy gawking with wide wonder, but not with your purse open or camera lying on a bench. Text your friends and share your adventure on social media, but don’t focus on the phone so much that you ignore the person going through your backpack.

Don’t stand by the door on buses and subways.

Move away from the door when boarding a bus or subway. The scam here is a stranger will enter the bus or subway door, appear confused and then bolt off the bus or subway. Unknowingly, he or she could have just lifted your wallet or phone and be long gone before you discover it.

Help, I’m lost. Could you point out where I am on this map?

We’ve all asked a stranger for help with directions at some point in our travels. And most of us have been on the receiving end of this question. Our Budapest guide cautioned us to say “no, we’re tourists and don’t know where we are either” and keep going. While you are trying to help the stranger find their way, an accomplice may be stealing your phone, wallet or purse. Leave navigation assistance to the locals.

ATM safety europe
Use ATMs attached to a reputable bank. If a stranger gets too close during your transaction cancel it and walk away.

Should you stop to help a stranger pick up dropped items?

We’re all guilty of violating this security precaution, especially if the dropper is a mom with kids or an elderly person. We are not suggesting you be a jerk and ignore your good manners, but be on high alert if you are in a big city or an area crowded with tourists. That frazzled mom or sweet elderly gent just might have a partner who is stealing your stuff while you are on the ground rendering help. If you feel compelled to assist, secure your belongings before bending down to help.

Use only ATM machines attached to a reputable bank

Using an ATM machine attached to a reputable bank ensures the currency exchange rate will be fair and your cash withdraw is legit. Prior to hearing this advice on using bank-based ATMs, I used a machine inside my Hilton hotel because it was convenient and I felt the machine would be safe to use. Examining my statement post-travels, I discovered the transaction cost me $20 more on a $200 withdrawal than I was charged at a bank for the same amount. Beyond a fair exchange rate and transaction fee, standalone ATM machines are more likely to contain card skimmers or other devices designed to reveal your bankcard information to thieves.

Shield the keypad when entering your password. If someone crowds up closer than you are comfortable during your ATM transaction, cancel it, take your card and try again later.

We’ve spoken to many travelers who had their card “eaten” by an ATM machine when traveling abroad. This can occur simply because you are abroad and the bank flags the transaction as potentially fraudulent. By using a machine attached to a bank branch, you can typically walk in, present identification, explain what happened, and a bank employee can retrieve your card on the spot. Confiscated cards at standalone ATMs are practically impossible to retrieve so the card is gone for the balance of your trip. This brings up our final ATM suggestion: make cash withdrawals during bank hours, avoiding nights and weekends.

Wear backpack or purse on your chest

It might feel dorky, but wearing your backpack or purse on your chest is the most secure place. We rarely follow this advice when traveling in areas where it’s easy to observe what is going on around us. But we switch our bags to the front upon arriving at crowded tourist sites or subway/train stations. We’re also diligent about check each other’s backpack zippers when leaving shops or restaurants.

money belt neck wallet travel security
Use a money belt or neck wallet to keep passports, extra cash and spare credit cards safe.

Put wallet and phone in front pockets. And cover them with your hand in crowded areas.

Carrying your wallet and phone in front pockets is well-known travel security advice. The idea of placing your hand over front pockets in crowded places is a new concept, but one we like and quickly adopted. We often wear travel pants that include a front or leg zipper pocket, eliminating the need for the covering hand.

Avoid flashing big wads of cash

I know it sounds so obvious you are thinking, duh. But every time we travel more than one tourist whips out a giant wad of cash to pay for their ticket, sandwich or souvenir. We understand that sometimes it’s more convenient to travel with large amounts of cash. We do that, too. But we separate our cash and carry it different places (or leave the majority in the hotel safe). My brother-in-law keeps a small amount of cash and one credit card in his front pocket. That serves 90 percent of his needs. Rarely does he dig the wallet from his other pocket.

Beware whom you’re entrusting the phone to for that couples photo

Selfies have largely eliminated the scam where travelers unknowingly hand their camera or phone to a thief who seems genuinely pleased to take your photo on the steps of Westminster Abbey. After watching the guy back up what seems an unusual distance, he suddenly breaks into a run and vanishes. We’re including this tip because our readers are mostly baby boomers and seniors and we sometimes prefer a photo with more background than a selfie allows.

Wear a neck wallet or money belt for passports and extra credit cards/cash

Wearing a neck wallet inside your shirt or money belt under your pants/skirt is as secure as the hotel safe in our experience. Thieves are looking for easy prey and unlikely to confront you with a demand to remove neck wallets or money belts. Remember to keep out enough cash for the day’s expenses and a credit card. It somewhat defeats the purpose if you must partially disrobe to retrieve your neck wallet/money belt every time.

Be mindful of valuables when you dine

Keep your purse, camera bag and backpack safe when dining. That means keeping them in view, or securing the straps around your arm, leg or chair leg. Securing straps is good protocol before napping on a bus or train also.

Leave non-essential valuables in the hotel safe

Leave passports (unless you are advised to carry it), photo copies of your credit/debit cards, extra credit/debit cards and cash in your hotel safe. This one personal safety nugget could make most of this article obsolete.

what to do lose wallet travel europe
Check your surroundings when leaving restaurants and rest stops. You'll lose your wallet, purse or camera through carelessness more often than theft.

Avoiding taxi scams

We love using Uber and Lyft because we get a fare estimate prior to our journey. Traffic delays may cause a fare increase (happened in London), but that’s unavoidable. We find that rideshare drivers stick to the shortest route, and if detours are needed, the driver is quick to explain why (traffic, construction, Google does not know you can’t turn left into your hotel). Technology frees us from the fear of getting ripped off by a crooked taxi driver.

Uber and Lyft are banned in Budapest, however, so we used cabs when there was no good public transit option. Our guide cautioned extensively on avoiding the freelance taxis prevalent in the city. Freelancers drive yellow cabs with a light bar on top just like corporate cabs. The only way to tell freelance versus corporate is by looking for the word freelance on the door. To be sure of a reputable cab, our guide, recommends getting taxis at major hotels.


Closing thoughts for a safe and pleasant journey

Check the hotel safe before leaving

Check the hotel safe before checking out. Hotel check-out mornings are often chaotic and dramatic. You hurriedly check the bathroom, under the bed and in drawers for items left behind and dash out the door with your passport, extra credit cards and cash still in the hotel safe. It happens frequently. A gentleman traveling with us had it happen on our last trip.

Have a contingency plan if things are stolen or misplaced

I had a wakeup call recently after leaving an expensive camera behind at a restaurant. Luckily, I returned to find my camera still there. I’m now much more diligent in checking my surroundings prior to leaving a restaurant. For group travel I ask everyone to look out for each other’s stuff. Excitement about new places and experiences that come with travel make my due diligence to go right out the window. It’s just as likely that we may become separated from our valuables from oversight as from theft. The wisdom here is to plan for travel contingencies so that a theft or loss won’t ruin your trip or tie up valuable travel days recovering.

Backing up photos nightly to my cloud account or a laptop computer ensure that if the camera goes missing, most of my vacation photos are safe. If backup is not possible because we’re without Internet or traveling laptop-free to save weight, I carry 2-3 camera cards and rotate them each day.

Our phones and computers get backed up just before leaving home. If these are lost or stolen there is certainly a financial loss, but the real tragedy is losing thousands of photos and contacts because you don’t have a current backup.

If you need a refresher on the need to make copies of passports and credit/debit cards in case of loss or theft check out these two articles: “Planning for a big trip abroad? Use this checklist to help avoid a travel disaster” and “Top 10 travel tips for safety and security.”

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