I always took pride in the way I traveled. I read up on local history and customs before I go, 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 remote 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 shivering in the gray dawn outside the closed American Embassy in Bratislava. My husband had no passport, no credit cards, and our international flight was scheduled to leave in 6 hours.
And I had unwittingly set him up for it!
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?
Here are 4 easy steps I learned from experience which can help you to avoid loss or theft of your passport. And, because no plan is foolproof, the 5th step reviews what to do if it happens.
1. Do not keep your passport, cash and credit cards together.
I thought I was being a wise, careful traveler when I got us the high-tech new “RFID-blocking” passport/wallet combinations. Very cool, very “James Bond on a mission”. 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 your stuff, 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.
Thieves don’t actually want your passport. In fact, most of them don’t even want your credit cards. Credit card theft is easier to trace and the risks are higher. And passports are not easy to sell. Ask the police, and you will discover that passports and credit cards are usually found in a convenient dumpster.
What the thief wants is your cash. So carry cash, but only what you need that day. If you discover it’s missing, it’s only a little and you can withdraw more. 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 get to your hotel, leave your passport in the safe.
You need your passport in the airport. But once you get where you’re going, leave it.
I know, the State Department says to carry it with you. But virtually every hotel or hostel has a safe, and many of my most traveled friends leave their passport there. You can leave your extra cash and extra credit cards there, too. Useful if you get mugged.
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. IF you decide to carry your passport with you at all times, like the State Department says, then carry it close, and in a place you never have to access.
Having my passport on me seems to present some level of protection should things suddenly go bad, so I carry mine. But if you carry it with you, it’s for official emergencies, not for flashing.
You could 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. That’s just tacky.
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. Getting it out defeats the purpose of secreting it away, and ups your chances of losing it.
4. Do not invest in an expensive leather RFID case. For anything.
If you’re worried about your chips, get a cheap RFID-blocking paper sleeve, for your passport, or for your credit cards. Office Depot and Staples have them for less than a buck. They block electronic theft just as effectively as the fancy leather wallets, they’re lighter, they lay flatter, and they won’t tempt you 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. Put one in your suitcase and one in your carry-on. If you have some alternate ID, put that in as well. It all makes getting a new passport much easier. And if the worst happens, file a police report. There’s likely nothing the police will be able to do, but filing a report adds to your credibility when you show up at the embassy. And frankly, it gives you a way to feel more responsible and take back some control.
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 keeps it safe, and gives you the freedom you need to have the journey you want.
And, for the record – I still love Bratislava!