I always thought of myself as a pretty on-top-of-things traveler. I read up on local history and customs, learn at least a few words of the language, and look for opportunities to participate in the real life of the culture. I’ve taken overnight buses with locals in Spain, and been dropped off by water taxi on a private Caribbean beach. I swam with tropical fish off a bombed-out bridge in the South Pacific, and attended the opera in Vienna in full evening dress.
So you can imagine how surprised I was to find myself standing outside the closed American Embassy in Bratislava in the cold light of dawn with a husband who had no passport, no credit cards, an international flight scheduled to leave in 12 hours, and no clear idea about what to do next. (I love Bratislava anyway!)
So – how do you protect yourself from this kind of travel experience? (I refuse to say “disaster”, incidentally. Having your passport buried in rubble from an earthquake is a disaster. Losing it IS a nasty shock, however.)
And how do you deal with the loss if it happens?
I wanted to share 4 things I learned that can help you avoid loss or theft of your passport. And, because no plan is foolproof, the 5th step reviews what to do if it happens. These would have helped us a lot – but the one we did do (#5) really did make our recovery easier.
1. Do not keep your passport, cash and credit cards together.
I thought I was being a wise, careful traveler when I got my husband a shiny new “RFID-blocking” leather passport/wallet combination. No one could steal the data from our chips now. He looked like a spy on a mission, like a traveling diplomat. Everything was together, easy to keep track of.
Huge mistake. Huge. Because when everything’s together, then every time you need to pay for anything, you have to get it all out. And, if you’re dealing with cash, which you will in many countries, you have to lay everything down, organize packages, separate cash and coins, and get it all put away. And at some point, you will lay it down and that will be the end of it all.
Keep your cash separate from your credit cards, and keep your passport separate from everything else.
It turns out, thieves don’t actually want your passport. In fact, most of them don’t even want your credit cards. Credit card theft is easy to trace and the risks are high. And passports are not easy to sell. Police encourage people to look for their stolen passports and credit cards in the nearest dumpster.
What the thief wants is your cash. Carry cash, but only what you need that day, and keep it separate from everything else. If it’s taken, it’s only a little and you can replace it from the stash you left in the hotel safe. But if you discover your passport is missing, the fun stops till it’s replaced. And when you start adding up charges for changing flights, extra hotel days, extra meals, transportation and replacement passport charges…losing your passport is not just a scary hassle, it’s also very expensive.
2. When you can, leave your passport in the safe.
You need your passport at the airport, on trains and when you’re crossing borders. And some countries (like Thailand) require you to carry them with you. But whenever you can, leave it in the hotel safe. You can leave your extra cash and extra credit cards there, too.
It works great while you stay in one place. The problem, of course, comes when you move around. We’ve all left things behind. Which presents a whole new scenario.
You know who you are, and whether the safe is a good idea for you or not. Still, it has to be said—many experienced travelers find the hotel safe to be the smartest, easiest and safest choice for passport protection.
3. When you carry your passport with you, carry it close.
You can wear one of those “inside your clothes” pouches, though for heaven’s sake do wear it inside your clothes, not outside. If you hang it around your neck, possibly with your money as well, you might as well put up a flag that says “Steal this!”
And please, be sure the little tie thingie doesn’t show. It just looks silly.
You can tell I’m not a fan of inside pouches. Probably because I can’t think of any place where I’d really like that kind of a bulge. I wear a small shoulder bag with an inside zip pocket, where my passport goes and never comes out. It’s close to my chest, under my arm, and behind two zippers. And any wandering hands encounter my fake wallet first.
The most important thing is not to put your passport where you have to get it out. Ever. Only when you absolutely need it. Getting it out other times, like when you have to buy something, ups your chances of losing it. (That’s how my husband lost his.)
4. Do not invest in an expensive leather RFID case. For anything.
Get a cheap RFID-blocking paper sleeve, for your passport, or for your credit cards. Office Depot and Staples have them for about $5. Or wrap them all in foil. Both systems block electronic theft, they’re light, they lie flat, and you won’t tempt to flash them because they’re too cool to hide.
And remember—cash doesn’t need electronic protection, and you don’t have to call anyone if it’s lost.
5. Nothing is foolproof, and we’re all fools sometimes.
Before you leave, make two color copies of your passport and your birth certificate. Put one set in your suitcase and one in your carry-on. If you have some extra ID, put that in as well. It all makes getting a new passport much easier. And if the worst happens, file a police report. You can’t go to the Embassy till they open anyway, and filing a report makes you look responsible.
So. Wisdom for smart travelers. Having your passport handy may seem like a cool, “world traveler” kind of thing to do. But having it hidden securely away gives you the freedom you need to have the journey you want.