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Tips for Safe Travel

Michael Perry

TRAVELING TO AND living in foreign countries has been a big part of my adult life. My wife and I are looking forward to even more travel now that we’re no longer working. In fact, we just spent three months in Europe. It’s our second such trip since retiring late last year.

Over the decades, we’ve given a fair amount of thought to how we can stay safe during our travels. Below are 10 suggestions for those venturing beyond our borders. Many of these tips also apply if you’re traveling within the U.S.

1. Safeguard your passport. Sure, this is common sense. But it’s first on the list for a reason. Take it seriously. There are different places to secure your passport—hotel safe, double closure pocket, hidden travel wallet.

Make a photocopy or take a picture of the personal information page with your phone, and keep your actual passport safely tucked away. Many times, when folks ask for your passport, all they really need is the info that’s on it.

But have no doubt: The airline taking you home wants the real thing. Replacing credit cards or a driver’s license would be a hassle. But those pale in comparison with trying to get home without a passport or replacing it while overseas.

2. Separate your credit cards. Replacing credit cards outside your home country isn’t as simple as getting new ones in the mail. If you have more than one—and you should if you travel—keep them separate so they aren’t all lost or stolen at once. For example, my wife and I travel with two joint credit cards. I carry card A in my wallet, and card B is with my passport. My wife carries her card B, and her card A is with her passport. Of course, both A and B have no foreign transaction fees.

When we want to pay for something, one of us pulls out whichever card we want to use. If one of our wallets is lost or stolen, only one account is compromised, and we can use the other. There’s also a card C, which is our main one and waits for us at home. That account is safe even if all our stuff is stolen. Extra tip: Have apps for your cards set up on your phone so you can easily lock the account as soon as you know your card is missing, no matter what time it is at home.

3. Separate your IDs. If some piece of identification gets stolen despite your best efforts, it’s good to have a backup. You should always carry identification, but that doesn’t have to be your passport. You might keep a driver’s license in your wallet and secure your passport somewhere else. I take my retired military identification with me overseas, along with my Global Entry card, but I don’t keep all these together.

4. Get a travel wallet. It might be anywhere on your body, but the key is that it’s hard to see and hard to pick if it is seen. I suggest using it for important items and then continuing to carry a normal wallet so you can pay for stuff or produce ID without revealing you have another wallet hidden. My regular wallet has my driver’s license, a single credit card, a debit card, a health insurance card and some cash.

I don’t always use my hidden travel wallet, but it’s nice to have. I’ve used it when I’m forced to carry a lot of cash, or when I know I’ll need to produce my physical passport but don’t want it in my open pocket all day. I also use it on travel days when passing through high pickpocket areas, such as a train station.

5. Identify your bags. Make sure your suitcase, backpack or purse has your contact details inside. Also, put something on it that makes it quickly and easily identifiable as yours. A distinctive ribbon or piece of tape also helps owners of similar-looking bags realize it’s not theirs.

We’ve never used Apple AirTags, but I’ve read that these and similar coin-sized devices were the only reason lots of travelers got their lost luggage back this summer. They’re small and cheap enough that we’re going to consider using them not only for luggage, but also for our wallets and keys. It’s not unheard of for a thief to remove cash and toss the wallet or purse in the trash. It would be nice to at least get the other stuff back.

6. Pack mindfully. In some situations, you may not be able to keep control of your bags in the way you’d want. Several times in the last few months, we’ve had to stow luggage under a bus. Other people were getting off and taking luggage—out of our sight—while we remained on board. We’ve also had to stow bags on a rack two train cars down from our seats, as well as in other less-than-optimal situations. Make sure that, when you pack, your most important items are in a backpack or purse that’s always under your direct control.

7. Consider hiding valuables. Put things you care about deeper in your backpack, not in the most convenient outer pocket. If you lock belongings in a car trunk, consider putting your most valuable items in an innocuous plastic bag. A thief who breaks in will most likely grab your luggage—but not every little thing in the trunk.

Not everywhere you stay is going to have a safe, so consider hiding things you care about elsewhere in your room. I’m one of those people who might forget he did this until he’s 50 miles away, so I’d have to be pretty concerned to take that extra step. Hello travel wallet.

8. Secure your communications. Continue to observe good internet safety practices. Recognize this may be harder when you’re away from home. Just because your hotel wi-fi requires a password doesn’t mean it’s secure. If your phone comes with a personal hotspot, you can use it to generate a more secure internet connection for your computer.

Speaking of phones, add a PIN code to your SIM card. It’s not inconvenient to you, as the device will generally only ask for it when it’s completely powered off and back on. It will, however, prevent a thief who steals your phone from using your SIM card. If you’re traveling with a computer, secure it with a password, too.

9. Carry some cash. Sometimes, there’s no substitute. On those occasions, it may not matter much what currency it is. U.S. dollars always seem to work in a pinch. Don’t keep all your cash in the same place. (I was going to make a joke about carrying traveler’s checks, but I just learned those are still around, though far less used these days and probably not a good option for most people.)

10. Observe good personal safety practices. Be alert, no matter where you are. Some areas will be more prone to criminal activity, but—as a foreigner—you may not realize you’ve stumbled into a riskier part of town.

Looking for further suggestions? The FBI has published tips for business travelers and students.

Michael Perry is a former career Army officer and external affairs executive for a Fortune 100 company. In addition to personal finance and investing, his interests include reading, traveling, being outdoors, strength training and coaching, and cocktails. Check out his earlier articles.

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