What does your invisible sign say about you?
Picture this: A railway station in Milan. A little old lady is walking down the platform, struggling with an overstuffed suitcase in one hand and a bag over her shoulder. In the other hand she has a ticket and her face wears a slightly bemused expression.
What does the invisible neon sign over her head say, do you think? I can tell you: “Attention all bad people. Target below. Help yourself”
A friend of ours, less than a fortnight ago as I write this, was wearing just that sign. She was the little old lady mentioned above. Sure enough, bad people read her sign and three couples – three men and three women – surrounded her at the steps of her carriage. They would not let her board until she gave them her purse. I kid you not.
But wait, there’s more.
She was travelling with another little old lady, my mother-in-law (hereinafter referred to as MIL), who was travelling on a crowded tram in Geneva a few days earlier. Yep, her purse was stolen out of her over-the shoulder bag, too. Both the little old ladies were suddenly without money or credit cards and a week-long panic ensued with late night telephone calls between Australia and Italy and my wife yelling at an Italian in a Travelex office in Florence. MIL was stressed and in tears for days.
She’s a retired real estate agent turned artist. She was visiting her sister in Germany, probably for the last time, and then she wanted to do a tour of the great art capitals of the world. Her organized tour didn’t happen so, being a stubborn old girl, she decided to do it on her own. A friend, the one mentioned above in the Florence railway station issue, would meet up with her here and there.
The drama/theft ruined the first few days of their once-in-in-a-lifetime trip. The whole saga has ended today, just an hour before I sat down to write this article. My wife and I have learned a lot of things, too, that we will put into practice even though we’re experienced travellers. And since we’re not without means, we were able to support them financially during the “repair” stage. They’d have been in a real mess were it not for our ability to send money.
So, dear reader, the rest of this article will help you to avoid this situation. What I’ll set down is what we do, have done and will do from now on. MIL had all her stuff in her wallet inside her shoulder bag. Now, she’s lost the lot, including her Australian health cards. Also, she was planning to come back to Brisbane via Perth, hiring a car to drive around. She can’t do that now, because she doesn’t have an Australian driver’s licence.
See what can happen? So, here’s a bit of information about things we’ve found in years of travel.
First off, go to this site www.pacsafe.com/www/index.php? We absolutely rely on Pacsafe products and their website is full of great travel tips. A Pacsafe lock saved my luggage in Johannesburg last year. More about that in another story. I have a Pacsafe camera strap for my expensive cameras. Too many people have had their straps slashed, camera gone. I also have a “man bag”and Karen has a similar one. Easy to lock around a chair or table leg.
Travelex cash passport cards. These are debit cards. You use your own money. Go to their site for the clerical details. www.cashpassport.com/1/en/au/. What we do is open two accounts, A and B. You get two cards for each account, total four. Then the wife carries an A card and the husband carries a B card. In his suitcase is an A card and the last card, the second B, is in her luggage. This means you can access both your accounts all the time. There’s no name on a cash passport card. You can use it in an ATM (we do this on arrival at an airport, to get local currency) or for purchases at retail outlets. But it is not a credit card. Therefore, no one can “steal your identity”.
My MIL was a bit trusting, in my opinion, and her friend always carries too much luggage. She too is a bit frail and getting on a bit. I can’t say too much because they’ll probably read this story.
One thing we did learn, though, was that if there’s a cash emergency, use Western Union, now linked to Travelex. This is how it works:
- There’s a panic call from a friend or relative saying that he/she has been robbed.
- Go to an office near you. Tell them you want so send $x in the local currency. Euros in our case.
- You pay the money and they give you a ten digit number.
- Communicate the number to your “victim”.
On presentation of a passport, the “victim” can collect the money, in cash, AT ANY WESTERN UNION OFFICE IN THE COUNTRY CONCERNED. In our case, they could collect the funds at any office in Italy. When you visit the Western Union office, the money is available fifteen minutes after the girl completes the transaction. Fifteen minutes.
- Before you go, trawl through your wallet and decide what you need to take and leave the rest at home.
- Photocopy your passport and travel documents such as itineraries and leave with a friend.
- In your wallet carry a note which says in case of emergency contact your friend.
- When you go out sightseeing, take only one credit card between you. Ditto a cash passport. A small amount of cash.
- Don’t take expensive jewellery. My wife has some really expensive stuff and she takes one or two pieces with her for dinner at the Ritz and so on. But during the day she wears simple studs in her ears, no other jewellery except for a simple gold wedding ring.
- I leave my expensive cameras back in the hotel. I take them out to revisit a site where I’ve noticed a great photo. But the little point and shoot cameras these days are so good that I take one of those with me. We bought the MIL a Canon Ixus 115 for $Au230 (or about 160 Euros). And it’s awesome. For anyone interested, I take a Canon G11 which cost four times the price, as my walkaround camera.
- Luggage. The pretty luggage is an invitation to bad people, particularly baggage handlers. The best stuff we’ve discovered is Kathmandu Linehaul. We like the 100 litre size. It has four handles, so you can grab any two and heave it around. Wheels, naturally. We bought them for light aircraft in Africa and now we wouldn’t use anything else
- See the photo and you’ll notice the Pacsafe lock. It has a cable instead of a solid metal hasp, virtually impossible to cut with pliers or similar. Have your luggage wrapped, too, if you’re going to places like Africa.
- This doesn’t have much to do with safety, but a lot to do with comfort. Clothing is Tilley. Have a look at their website, too. Made in Canada and it’s indestructible. Wash at night and it’s ready to go again in the morning. This includes underwear, mix’n’match for women and the awesome Tilley hat.
- Speaking of Tilley, Karen also has a Tilley bag. It’s a soft thing and it has plastic inserts at both ends to stop bad people with razors. The above-mentioned MIL had her bag slashed while she was riding an escalator in Bali. She thought it was secure, under her arm, but when she reached the top of the escalator, her purse was missing, stolen through a slash in the bag while she was wearing it.
- Go to a hiking office and buy some of the wonderful foldup bags that come in so many sizes. They are called “Sea to Summit”. There are other brands, but check the website. I carry several. For camera lenses and so on. But the best use is for liquids like shampoo. These little bags can’t leak and they’ve saves a mess in our cases many a time.
- There’s a wonderful organisation called Credit Card Sentinel. This is the best possible backup. If you do nothing else after you read this story, check out the organisation and what they offer. One phone call and they’ll kill your stolen credit cards, help with passport replacement and get you a cash advance at a Western Union office. Serial numbers of cameras and so on, too. That’s useful if you don’t have a daughter and son-in-law like Karen and me who can send you money quickly.