We are careful when we travel. I guard my purse (always worn on front) and my husband guards his wallet (always in his front jeans pocket). I bring a Visa, Mastercard and an American Express with me but leave two of those in my hotel room when I’m out and about. In all the times we’ve traveled, we’ve only been the victims of one attempted pickpocket experience. That was before this trip to Paris/Madrid.
Back in the early 2000s I proudly wore my fanny pack across the front of my pants. We were on the chunnel train from London to Paris. When the train reached Paris and started making stops at the various stations, a man tried to open my fanny pack. I remember screaming and pushing him. I remember other people pointing and calling out, “Pickpocket!” I remember the “bad guy” getting pushed out of the train by the “good guy”, who followed the bad guy off the train. We learned later there had been no “good guy”. These two were partners.
Since then my fanny pack has been retired (but I still own for when it becomes fashionable again) and we haven’t had anymore problems with pickpockets in France or any other European country. I fancied that a result of our knowledge as experienced travelers.
When my three sisters arrived in Paris last week for a visit, we warned them about pickpockets. We told them when to be particularly vigilant and my husband and I tried to stay one of us in front and one in back in areas where we knew pickpockets would be looking for easy prey.
One night we jumped aboard a crowded metro train and a young man started to ask me a question. I didn’t understand his language so I asked him to repeat. He repeated several times when something in my brain clicked. I thought, that is neither French nor English. That is gibberish. At that precise moment I realized my purse, again on the front of my body, was being unzipped, slowly. Oh, so slowly. On reflex I grabbed the hand that was unzipping my purse, that of a young woman. Her female friend was nearby. The train stopped and the girls rapidly exited. My arm was temporarily caught in the train doors as they closed and I held on to the hand of the girl who had tried to rob me. I noticed then the young man who had been addressing me was now quiet and he got off at the next stop. This confirmed what I already suspected. He was in cahoots with the girls. Classic pickpocket scene: Cause a distraction. This time they got nothing.
A few days later when we were in Madrid, we all boarded, again, a crammed metro train car. My sisters did their best to protect their purses. They each had the Longchamp vinyl purses so popular with travelers. Each of them had their purse in front of their bellies as we had instructed them. Several stops later we disembarked only to find Judy’s purse had been slashed from the side. The thief had obviously hoped the contents of the purse would spill or that he/she would be able to reach sideways inside the purse. This time the only thing that happened was Judy’s Longchamp purse was ruined.
By now we were hyper-vigilant and even paranoid. We were back in Paris when our preferred metro line was announced out of service for the immediate future. We decided to switch our plans to ride Line 9. We boarded a ridiculously crowded train this time. It was so crowded that Judy and I almost didn’t get on. She was not carrying a purse. I was carrying a very small over the shoulder leather bag and had my raincoat covering the zipper. My husband had his arms around Dorothy and her vinyl purse. Marsha was turned inward toward the center pole protecting her purse. We thought we were bulletproof and believed we knew all the tricks by now.
When the train started to empty enough that we could move about, my husband noticed his wallet was missing from his front pocket. I realized I had been distracted again by a person speaking to me and although I felt secure knowing my purse was protected by my raincoat, what I now believe happened is the man talking to me was distracting my eyes away from my husband so his accomplice could snatch the wallet. Gads. I fell for it again.
Europe train travel is exceptionally safe if you follow these guidelines:
1. As much as it offends your American optimism, DO NOT speak to anyone on the metro/train. If someone talks to you just say, “No thank you” in your language or theirs.
2. DO NOT get on board an excessively crowded train. Opt to walk or to take a later train. If the train is so crowded that people have to be touching on all sides, this is prime ground for pickpockets.
3. DO NOT carry a vinyl purse or an oversized purse for your valuables. If you need to carry the larger purse for your extra scarves and hats do so but also carry a small money belt or similar device to contain your valuables.
4. Do your research. In all the many months we have been to Paris, we didn’t know Line 9 was a pickpocket target but a quick Google search afterward informed us that is is.
5. When you ride the trains take a seat if available. If not, keep your back against a wall or door and keep your eyes focused on your own self and surroundings.
6. Men, if you insist on carrying a wallet, move it to a zipped jacket pocket or keep your hands in your pants pockets while on the metro/train. Never carry your wallet in your back pocket.
7. Men and women: Bring more than one credit card on your trip but carry only one with you. That way, if you are the target of a theft, you will still have your other credit card safe at your hotel.
8. Carry only the amount of cash you will need for your outing.
There are a few other common theft schemes that you can avoid if you research in advance. Three that come to mind are 1. The bracelet scheme; 2. The found ring scheme; and the 3. Sign my petition scheme. Google search these for details.
Traveling abroad is wonderful and my love of Paris is not diminished. But I am writing this post to ask you to please be vigilant when traveling abroad.
And just as an aside, it seems no one takes American Express anymore! Gads.