Travel Security : Don’t Become A Thief’s “Tourist Target”

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7/08/2009 – Travel Security : Don’t Become A Thief’s “Tourist Target”

A significant area of concern that is often overlooked by tourists and travelers in general, when in unfamiliar surroundings is protecting themselves from thieves. The world is a wonderful place to explore, but even it friendly environments there are those who prey on ‘the fish out of water.’

When visiting an unfamiliar location many travelers have a tendency to either have a false sense of security or become hyper-paranoid. Neither of these tendencies are ideal for a travellers personal security, and there are safe and easy ways to both enjoy your travel with effective security procedures without the hassle of becoming hyper-paranoid.

As a photographer I travel often to destinations I am unfamiliar with. Complicating matters is finding myself frequently in locations where I do not speak the language, which automatically makes me a target as soon as I open my mouth.  Through my travels, I learned how to keep myself, and my equipment, protected while shooting a wide variety of assignments. There have been a diverse cross-section of assignments that have taught me the most about my personal security. Some of these assignments have included spending multiple-months walking around one of the worst crime ridden and drug infested housing projects in the United States; photographing a few dozen riots; working in a city after massive natural disaster has devastated the area; working in environments where I have clearly been in the ‘wrong place at the wrong time’ intentionally; and oddly enough travel stories in high density tourist locations where scammers, beggars and pick-pockets range from slight of hand to bold and confrontational.

When I travel, which can be the next city over or halfway around the world, I make sure I protect my security in a few ways. For starters, when I walk, I walk confidently. I make sure my body language does not make me an easy target. Even if I am completely lost (and it happens often enough I have no idea where I am), I exert a sense of confidence and pay close attention to everything around me.

When traveling in an unfamiliar location I never pull out a map, and I rarely if ever read a map on the street. If I need to use a map I step in some place, often into the restroom, to read a map. Pulling out a map is a big red arrow to thieves who prey on travellers. To blend in I often e-mail myself directions and read a Blackberry while walking, or I use step-by-step directions from my iPhone. It is commonplace anywhere in the world to see people reading their Blackberry or iPhone while walking down the street, so using these devices does not draw any attention from thieves. As an added bonus, my directions are clear in text without orienting myself with a map.

An extremely useful skill to learn is to memorize maps when possible. Very often when I am in an unfamiliar area I memorize a map the best I can.  Being familiar with a city you have never been to can allow you to walk clearly through a city’s streets, head up, looking for images and landmarks you’ve pre-determined from your map rather than stopping to read directions.

Bag selection for travelling may seem trivial, but it can reduce your likelihood of being a victim of theft. Choose backpacks that blend in rather than a brand-new and ‘flashy’ bag. I spot photo-backpacks all over the world, especially those specially designed for ‘consumer’ users, all over the world. Not only does using a bag that stands out to a thief  make someone an instant target, many backpacks marketed to tourist travellers have ‘easy access’ compartments. The ‘easy access’ compartments are not only easily accessed by the users, but by thieves as well.

Those who travel with cameras or laptops should explore bags with ‘rear-hatch’ access to either their cameras or computers. Camera backpacks such as the Mountainsmith Parallax and ‘general purpose’ backpacks like 5.11 Tactical’s Rush 24 backpack offer excellent security for your valuable items on the road.

Backpack zippers are extremely important as well, as you need bags with either two zippers, or a zipper and a loop so you can secure your bag using a small combination lock. I suggest combination locks as overall they offer more security than a key-lock. It is easy to lose a key; it is hard to forget your 3-digit combinations (I discuss travel lock selection here: 5/08/2009 – Carry-On Baggage Locks : Why Combination Locks Are The Key To Security)

On the road keeping your documents secure is vital. You cannot afford to lose you passport and you should always have ‘emergency money’ with you for a worst-case scenario. To ensure my Passport, wallet and other items are safe I like to travel with secure clothing that blends in.

While I am a photographer, I avoid wearing a tan photo vest, while I work on my feet and in some odd situations I have avoided owning any tan/green nylon travel pants. I never wear shirts that read “I Love New York,” “Disney World,” “I left my heart in San Francisco,” “London Is For Lovers” (real shirt, no idea who came up with that awful slogan for London).

The clothing I choose to wear blends into everyday street wear all around the world, while offering me hidden internal pockets, interior pockets and pockets generally inaccessible to pickpockets. Companies such as Columbia Sportswear make fantastic travel pants that blend in as casual wear, as well 5.11 Tactical makes shirts and pants aimed at law enforcement that provide excellent traveller security through the use of hidden pockets and ‘under cover’ design. Wearing clothing that is comfortable is acceptable for business and pleasure travel and offers personal security that is vital in many in high-density tourist spots in some less than ideal cities around the world.

Just because you’re caught up in the stunning views of Paris from Montmartre is no reason to let your enjoyment be ruined by the rampant thieves surrounding…

Happy Flying!


  1. Shame the women’s versions of the 5.11 Tactical either don’t exist or get pretty reviews.

    Great idea for clothing…hopefully there are good female versions out there somewhere!

  2. I’m not sure how I’d review womens travel clothing, however I think I’ll start poking around and see what I can find!

    Happy Flying!


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