Table of contents
- Try theft-proof pants with pockets
- Wear a fanny pack or belt bag
- Carry a hidden money belt
- Never stand on the corner of a street with your phone out
- Keep keys in a different bag from phone and from wallet
- Be extra careful about your phone in your pockets
- Keep valuables in front pockets (not the back ones)
- Use a wallet that blocks RFID
- Avoid areas known for theft
- Beware of common scams where you’re traveling
- Always walk with someone, rather than alone
- Don’t look away from your backpack for even a minute
- If using a backpack, keep your valuables zippered inside
- Use theft-proof locks on zippers
- Have a dummy wallet
- Think twice before walking around texting or on a call
- Avoid having your phone out on a table at a cafe
- Minimize cash that you carry
- Keep your purse on your lap at a restaurant
- Don’t “phantom touch” your phone and wallet
- Keep your hands over your pockets if someone is eyeing you
- Safeguard your valuables in the interior pockets of a blazer or jacket
Over the years, we have both been pretty lucky about not experiencing crime and theft during travel. We’ve been with friends who have been mugged or pickpocketed while traveling, from Mexico to Nicaragua to Spain.
It happens often, and it’s an unfortunate part of travel.
Thieves and pickpockets mostly want phones these days: phones, electronics and maybe your cash or credit cards. It’s pretty simple. Tourists tend to stick out like sore thumbs, from what we wear and how we admire our surroundings, to the fancy tech like laptops and cameras that we bring abroad.
Starting with my trip to Nicaragua in 2013, I was the only one out of my group of five who got away with not having a phone stolen in a course of three days. And on my and Dan’s long weekend to Barcelona, two of our friends had phones stolen out of their hands in 24 hours.
Pickpocketing is rampant around the world, and it’s possible in any big city and in many countries. From more than a decade of traveling around the world, I’ve come up with a bunch of tricks I employ and best practices I engage in, to lower my chances of being pickpocketed.
Check out my helpful tips to avoid pickpocketing on your next trip!
Try theft-proof pants with pockets
If you’re new to “travel pants,” hear me out: travel pants with zippered pockets may be the answer to having your phone stolen versus not.
That’s not all, though: for clothes I’ve tried from travel brands, there’s also Aviator’s new travel dress with hidden zipper pockets, and Bluffworks’ cowl neck top, which has a zipper pocket sewn into the side seam. I consider this one of the best women’s tops for travel.
Wait, could there be more? Just to name something else nifty to take on a trip, Bluffworks makes a theft-proof scarf with a hidden zipper pocket, and I could go on and on about cool clothes with theft-proof features that may protect you on your next vacation!
Wear a fanny pack or belt bag
I recently got back into the world of fanny packs, starting in about 2017 when I realized a waist pack was going to be my best friend on a travel day for stowing away my passport and wallet when I was flying alone. I wrote about the best fanny packs for travel after having tried quite a few!
For me, these types of bags that may even fit something as big as a water bottle (Hello, Canvelle oversized fanny pack!) are a great way to keep the contents of a backpack totally in view if you’re in a crowded metro car or walking down a crowded street.
All fanny packs and belt bags have zippers, some with pretty solid ones, and that’s your first line of defense against pickpockets. The second is keeping the zippered side of the waist bag around your front side during travel days.
Carry a hidden money belt
For some travelers, a money belt is a secret weapon against pickpocketing.
The main tip, though, is to wear the money belt under your clothing, NOT your neck, as thieves could use a scissors to snap it off you from behind. They’re fast!
Money belts are probably the best way of walking around a city or being on a train or bus for a day and having your credit cards, passport, money and keys incognito.
The FlipBelt is a little more tamper-proof because it’s one solid band. The SPIBelt does have a buckle.
Something like this traditional money belt bag will also work great!
Never stand on the corner of a street with your phone out
We learned a lot during our year of travel when we spent four months in Latin American cities. We saw various friends experience pickpocketing and heard even more stories of pickpocketing happen to even experienced travelers.
One thing to avoid doing is to stand on the corner of a street with your phone out, using Google Maps to navigate your next turn. This is a common spot for thieves to simply walk past you (or drive by on a motorcycle), snatch your phone and move on.
It’s also common for people on motorcycles to snatch phones of people waiting for their ride sharing apps (like Uber, Lyft or something else). If you’ve ever noticed, people tend to stand in the street or on the sidewalk with their phones out while not paying attention. It’s really easy for a bike to come by and snatch your phone!
Instead, lean against a wall outside a store and calculate your next several directions, if walking. Then do the same thing in another few minutes to minimize being glued to your phone like a lost tourist. When you’re waiting for your ride, hold your phone with 2 hands or, actually, not at all if you can!
Keep keys in a different bag from phone and from wallet
A winning way to avoid losing everything at once, if you were to get mugged, is separating the essentials.
Sometimes I think about losing literally everything in a heartbeat if a pickpocket were to take my phone, wallet and keys — all the items I need to survive during a trip.
You can split up the big three (phone-wallet-keys): keep your keys in a zippered pocket, wallet in a fanny pack and your phone in another secure place.
Be extra careful about your phone in your pockets
From spending a month in Medellin, Colombia, we learned that pickpockets are smart and they know that tourists make the same mistakes over and over again: they keep their iPhones in their back pockets. Always.
Given this fact, pickpockets take phones from tourists’ pockets. And then they sell them on the black market. Simple.
To combat this common thievery, keep your phone literally anywhere else! This could include keeping your phone in your bra, in a money belt under your shirt, in an inside pocket in your jacket, in a sling bag or in a small pouch like a SPIBelt.
With Dan, I know he’ll often walk around with his hands in his pockets when he’s not wearing pants with zipper pockets.
Keep valuables in front pockets (not the back ones)
If you choose to not use a money belt, sling bag or if you don’t have zippered pockets in your clothes, please, please, please keep your valuables in your front pockets (not your back ones). This will give you at least a bit of visibility, rather than a pickpocket coming up to you from behind (and leaving from behind, too, with your iPhone).
Use a wallet that blocks RFID
If you have any cards that can transmit signal wirelessly, you might be susceptible to having your card info picked up by an RFID scanner.
This means you might be pickpocketed from afar.
Side note, Dan uses the Ridge wallet and loves it.
Avoid areas known for theft
Have you ever heard of La Rambla in Barcelona? It’s the infamous tourist area of the city where tourists tend to get pickpocketed.
We went there because it’s a famous place in Barcelona, and honestly, it was crowded and we didn’t see the point. So, we left.
But others spend time there, seeing live performers, shopping and eating. And pickpockets spend time there, too, eyeing their next victims.
Barcelona was where two of our friends got pickpocketed, one after the other, and both had their phones stolen in seconds.
To lessen your chances of being the victim of theft while traveling, skip the tourist traps and opt for local neighborhoods. It’s one of our favorite ways to take trips!
If you’re not sure where these places are, you can as your hotel, hostel or Airbnb host for places to watch out for pickpockets.
Beware of common scams where you’re traveling
I was scammed in Cartagena, Colombia, and I am not happy about it to this day. A friend and I basically made ourselves targets by going to a local beach where we were unfortunately the only foreigners, and got slapped around by the owners of a seafood shop who charged us $100 for two appetizers and a bottle of liquor. I learned my lesson.
We outlined topics from our travels like how to stay safe in Mexico City and asked our local friends about common scams targeted at tourists and foreigners: we learned a lot just by asking!
One of my biggest tips is to ask locals or friends who’ve traveled to your destination if they know of common pickpocket scams, and chances are, they’ll want to help you out.
Common pickpocket scams all around the world entail being approached by cute children who offer to sell you something while more of their friends approach you from behind and take your bag or phone.
There’s also scams like the “mustard scam” or “bird poop scam” where teams of pickpockets spray you with some sort of liquid, and then while one offers to help you clean up, the other one gets at your back pockets or backpack.
The moral of the story is keep your head up and your eyes wide, as scams on visitors do not discriminate even the most savvy travelers.
Always walk with someone, rather than alone
In Medellin, we saw some friends who walked alone at night and made themselves targets for pickpockets.
One major safety rule for anyone, especially solo travelers, is to walk at night with a buddy or a group. Being alone makes you look considerably more helpless, should a team of pickpockets approach you demanding your wallet.
Don’t look away from your backpack for even a minute
We were once at one of Mexico City’s best cafes with a friend, and as she was paying her bill at the counter after having a coffee, she set her backpack down on the floor.
In a matter of seconds when she had swiped her card and was done, her backpack, which contained her wallet, laptop and AirPods, was gone.
A thief had run over, grabbed her bag and then had slid away, getting back on a motorcycle and leaving. According to how we tracked her backpack through her AirTags, he went straight to the city’s biggest electronics market to resell it all immediately.
The lesson learned is to never let your guard down and to always keep your backpack or bags on your person (and also, get some AirTags for your trip, and hopefully you’ll have better luck!). If you have to set something down, wrap the leg of a chair or table around some straps, or keep your foot on the bag.
If using a backpack, keep your valuables zippered inside
I feel so bad when I see travelers keep their bags open. It’s like, come on! Don’t be a target!
If you have a backpack with valuables zippered inside, there are two easy things you can do to avoid theft. First, keep the zippers zipped, and use a lock if you have a laptop in there.
Second, keep the most valuable things in deeper interior pockets or at the bottom. You never know if a pickpocket will get at your bag and take what’s on top. You could be saving yourself a headache!
I reviewed the best backpacks for women so that you’re all set up for your next big trip. As a note, most of them happen to be unisex and work great for men, too.
Use theft-proof locks on zippers
We mentioned theft-proof locks for zippers, and they really work to ward off theft and pickpocketing. If you’re walking around markets, crowded streets, dodgy neighborhoods or taking forms of mass transit, consider locking up the zippers on your backpack.
We also use these types of zippers on our backpacks when flying or taking night buses, like in South America or Southeast Asia.
Have a dummy wallet
This is one of my favorite theft tips. I learned it from my friend Joe when we were traveling in Nicaragua. Joe is an incredibly experienced traveler who nailed the art of the dummy wallet.
A dummy wallet is a cheap second wallet that you keep in your pocket or wherever, and it only has the equivalent of a few dollars and no cards inside.
If you’re approached by pickpockets and they demand a wallet, you can hand over your dummy wallet as a first line of defense, and hopefully they’ll be happy with it and let you go.
Your real wallet is either secure in your hotel room safe, or in a money belt under your clothes.
Think twice before walking around texting or on a call
When living in Latin America, I got into a great rhythm of being super careful about having my phone out while on the street, especially during our months in Colombia.
And don’t get me wrong — we NEVER experienced crime in Colombia! But I think that’s because both Dan and I did a great job at being street smart.
In this tip, think twice about walking down the street texting or even being on a call. The difference between having your phone one moment and having it taken out of your hand the next is very slim.
Avoid having your phone out on a table at a cafe
Something we all do at home at a cafe or restaurant is we keep our phones on the table. That’s because our phones do everything for us and we obviously check them all the time.
If you’re traveling somewhere where pickpocketing is common, though, this is a dangerous thing to do. Picture yourself sitting at a cafe in South America, or in Europe. You sit down with your coffee and fresh bread, outside at a small table under an umbrella, and place your phone next to the plate.
The next thing you know, you look for your phone and it’s not there. Someone grabbed your phone when you turned around to look at the street or people watch, and now everything on your phone is no more.
Don’t let this happen to you! Get into some good habits about keeping your phone in your safe spot (hip pack, belt bag or front pocket) so that you don’t get fooled.
Minimize cash that you carry
This tip isn’t exactly “how to not get mugged,” but it will help you out if you do happen to be a victim of theft.
Do not — I repeat! — do not walk around any city with all of your cash (or credit cards) in the same spot. Split up your cash, and your credit and debit cards, among your daypack, or belt bag, or money belt, or suitcase, and when you go out for the day, bring only one debit card, one credit card and some cash (not all of it).
This way, if you get pickpocketed on the street, your backup cards and the rest of your cash is still in your hotel room.
The following is an extreme example of this, but when I was in Johannesburg, South Africa, which is known for crime, my friend and I left our hostel with only a credit card each and some local currency… stashed in our bras!
We made out fine that night, and never experienced crime directly in South Africa, but I am confident that is because we played it super safe.
Keep a copy of your passport on paper in the hotel in case your phone gets stolen and you don’t have access to email or your Google Drive (which is where we keep digital copies of our passports!)
Keep your purse on your lap at a restaurant
A lot of us let our guard down over the years, especially if we’ve done a lot of travel and haven’t experienced crime. I fall into this category! Especially as someone who has lived in NYC for many years (and never experienced petty theft!), I forget from time to time that pickpocketing is still on the table for really anyone.
If you’re at a restaurant, or seated at a bar, keep your purse on your lap, or securely attached to the table or chair, when you travel. Better safe than sorry! As per that time in Mexico City when we saw our friend’s bag get stolen right under her nose, it can’t help to be smart.
I talk a lot about NYC in this article, not because it’s a dangerous place, but because I have a lot of experience being there! To learn more, check out my guide for staying safe in NYC as a visitor.
Don’t “phantom touch” your phone and wallet
Pickpockets are trained to be able to tell where you’re keeping your valuables. Remember: pickpockets are really after things of real value, like cash, and iPhones, most of the time.
If you “phantom touch” your pocket (as in, to make sure your phone is still there), pickpockets will sense that you have something of value in that spot.
Keep your hands over your pockets if someone is eyeing you
Dan and I have been on metros and buses in some cities before, and we’ve been the only ones who aren’t locals. We don’t blend in at all, somewhere like Mexico City when we’re on the metro train.
People can’t help but look at us because we aren’t dressed like everyone else, and while we are lucky to have never experienced crime in Mexico City like I mentioned, it could happen at any time (just like at home in NYC).
If someone has their eye on you, remain confident and cover your pockets with your hands, and keep your bag on your front side, to show that you’re aware of your surroundings.
Safeguard your valuables in the interior pockets of a blazer or jacket
If you are traveling in winter or fall and you’re wearing some layers, consider having any of your cards, cash or keys inside interior pockets of your blazer or jacket.
I happen to have a few jackets that have “inside pockets,” and some even have zippers. And I know some of Dan’s blazers from Bluffworks have cool inside pockets as well, and they’re nice for fitting cards.
Interior pockets are safer than exterior ones when it comes to your valuables!
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