Whether it’s someone selling an elaborately crafted counterfeit theme park pass or a group orchestrating a simple suitcase snatching, clever criminals and con artists can quickly turn a dream vacation into a nerve-rattling nightmare. Here, fellow travelers offer cautionary tales and advice on how to thwart thieves and scammers at tourist hot spots.
Clubs and Casinos — Las Vegas
You might be aware of the secret tricks casinos use to get you to spend more money. But there are other ways you can lose cash when visiting a casino.
Author and budget travel specialist Russell Hannon learned it’s a gamble to take your eye off your wallet in Vegas, even for just a few seconds. Hannon, who operates the site Break the Travel Barrier, was ordering a drink at a Vegas nightclub when someone stole his wallet.
"I had my wallet in hand when I placed it on the bar ... I was suddenly distracted and momentarily turned around, lifting my hand from my wallet,” he said. "In just two seconds, it was gone and I could not figure out who stole it.”
Hannon makes a practice of keeping an extra credit card in his luggage. He also stores copies of his identification in protected email. Safety experts also advise never leaving wallets, smartphones or other valuables in view on bars or tables.
Bourbon Street — New Orleans
It's common for thieves to use diversion techniques to get a target’s attention. Bino Chua, who operates the travel blog I Wander, was distracted by a man on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. The man handed Chua a cellphone and asked him to snap his photo during the morning hours, when the popular tourist thoroughfare wasn’t that crowded. Soon, Chua was surrounded by five other men.
“I only noticed after I took the photo and handed back his phone,” Chua said. “They demanded me to hand over my money. I couldn’t resist or get away.”
Authorities advise tourists and others traveling in tight quarters to be wary of distractions, such as someone in front of them dropping change, appearing to be stuck in a door or directing attention to a map while asking for directions. They might be working with partners who use the diversion to snatch a wallet — or worse.
South Beach — Florida
South Beach can be the ultimate beach vacation. But it's still important to take the necessary precautions when visiting.
As a freelance travel content creator who operates the travel blog Been There, Bun That, Christian Lowery has had his fair share of travel experiences — both good and bad.
“The worst of them was when I took a road trip with a few friends from New York City to Miami Beach and was robbed of approximately $5,000 worth of items in South Beach," he said. "We arrived to the beach around 10 a.m., parked our car in a public parking area and went to enjoy the beach for the day. Our hotel check-in was later in the day. When we arrived back to the car around 2 p.m., we noticed that two of the windows had been busted in, and nearly everything from our car had been stolen.”
The experience taught Lowery and his friends a few valuable lessons. First, take your GPS down from the dashboard. It, along with out-of-state plates, makes it a more-obvious target for thieves seeking luggage and other valuables. Next, try to limit what you leave in your car.
Times Square — New York City
Times Square is just one of many free popular attractions in New York City where bustling crowds and heavy pedestrian traffic make visitors easy prey for pickpockets.
For example, recent news reports highlight pickpockets who’ve rung up thousands of dollars in fraudulent charges on credit cards stolen from women’s purses and backpacks in the Times Square area. Another suspect was targeting “Hamilton” fans as they gathered outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre, waiting for autographs from the hit musical's cast.
Among other crime prevention and safety tips, the New York City Police Department recommends against keeping your wallet in your rear pants pocket or the outer compartment of a backpack when riding buses or subways. The same advice applies to other heavily trafficked areas.
Amazon River — Iquitos, Peru
Iquitos, the entryway to the Amazon River, can’t be reached by road. But Zoe Macfarlane found no area is too remote for travel scams. She’d read on-the-street money changers could rip you off, but it was Sunday and she was with others all keeping an eye on the counting. So, they exchanged dollars for Peruvian soles with a savvy scammer.
“Somehow, with a slight of the hand, when I got back to the hotel room, my money was short by about $100," she said. "One of the guys with me fared worse — $260 out. We replayed the transactions in our heads, and we could not fathom how it was achieved.”
Macfarlane, a freelance travel writer for KarryOn, learned from the experience. “It really pays to always change money in a bank, even if the rate is worse," she said. When traveling abroad, use these smart tips to protect your money.
Eiffel Tower — Paris
The iconic monument is just one of the many popular tourist attractions that draw millions of people — and the pickpockets who target them.
For example, the U.S. Embassy recommends visitors be particularly vigilant near museums, monuments, restaurants, hotels, beaches, train stations, airports and subways. At a subway in Paris, travel blogger Natalie Vereen-Davis, her sister and father were forcefully shoved by a man. The man, who also had a partner, got away with her father’s museum pass and some cash at a station near the Eiffel Tower.
“Thankfully, [my father] had most of his money, his passport and driver's license in a money belt under his shirt, so the loss was minimal,” said Vereen-Davis, who operates the travel blog Cosmos Mariners. "I never travel without a money belt or travel scarf now because of this. I also learned not to talk too loudly or draw attention to myself when in crowded places abroad ... I think we were targeted because we were speaking English.”
While on the street or metro, the embassy recommends only carrying around items you're willing to lose to a pickpocket. Stock your wallet with a single credit or ATM card, one piece of identification and no more than 40 or 50 euros. Make copies of the front and back of your passport and everything you have in your wallet. If your belongings get stolen, having copies will make it easier to cancel or replace the items.
Gothic Quarter — Barcelona, Spain
When going abroad, it's important to be smart with your money. But it's also — if not more — important to be smart when it comes to your safety.
Deborah Zanke — who operates the travel blog Tag Along Travel — and her husband were checking out the nightlife in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter when they walked down a quieter street and events took a turn for the worse.
“My husband and I were robbed in Barcelona," she said. "It was by two young, nice-looking guys who engaged us — novice travelers — in a conversation about where we were from. One of them put his arm around my husband and stealthily nipped his wallet from his pocket.”
Zanke’s husband impulsively set out after them, leaving her worried, waiting and without a map in the days before smartphones. She was even unsure of the exact name or location of their hotel. Although she doesn’t recommend pursuing thieves, her husband managed to reclaim most of his belongings before finding his way back to where she was waiting.
Now, the seasoned travelers make a point of being more aware of their surroundings — it turns out Barcelona is known as a pickpocket's paradise — and ensuring that they both have the means to navigate.
Plaza Mayor — Madrid, Spain
Pickpocketing and mugging are also common in Madrid. While visiting, travel blogger Soumya Nambiar was trying to find the way to her hostel after an unhelpful cabbie, who didn’t recognize the exact address, dropped her off at the opposite side of the Plaza Mayor — all without mentioning the square has nine entrances. Worse, Nambiar’s cellphone network was down.
“So, I spent the next 45 minutes to an hour trying to get directions to the hostel. Finally, I got there, only to realize that someone had stolen my wallet,” said Nambiar, who operates the blog Travel, Books and Food. “Don’t ask me how. I was tired, lost and hungry. I was not careful and someone managed to do it."
Charitable hostel workers allowed her to pay what she could with the cash she had stashed elsewhere. Since then, Nambiar always makes a point of stowing a backup credit card in a separate spot within her luggage.
Independence Monument — Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Tourists should be aware that not all thieves travel on foot. Brian Oaster, a writer for translation services provider Day Translations, had his camera snatched by mobile muggers in the center of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.
“Thieves on a motorbike plucked it right out of my hands while I was taking a photo of the Independence Monument,” he said.
The British government cautions that such incidents can happen while tourists are on foot, on their own motorbikes or traveling in tuk-tuks, which are auto rickshaws that often have open sides. To discourage grab-and-go thefts, the government's travel advice site recommends keeping valuables secured in a hotel safe when possible and carrying bags over your shoulder, away from the side facing the street.
Main Railway Station — Prague
Veteran traveler Elizabeth Avery was preparing to board a train around noon one November when she was surrounded by a group she mistook for fellow passengers. And one of them grabbed her from behind.
“When she startled me, one of them rummaged in my purse and stole what they could grab. Fortunately, they missed my wallet and passport," said Avery, who operates the travel deals site Solo Trekker 4 U. “The problem? The train took off, leaving me in a first-class car with no ticket en route through several countries, solo and unable to speak the local languages." At several of the national departures, she had to buy a new ticket for that country with all cash because they didn't accept credit cards on the train.
But Avery had travel insurance, which allowed her to recoup her replacement costs. Still, she recommends being extra vigilant in train stations. Compared with airports, these transit stations typically have less security, and more entrances and exits.
Public Buses — Amsterdam
Michelle Rundbaken, co-founder of the online visual trip-planning tool Tripidee, had a close call with a pickpocket in Amsterdam.
“I was on a crowded bus in Amsterdam when I noticed a man with a coat draped over his arm near me,” she said. “As I looked lower, I saw his hand extending beneath his coat toward my open purse. My hands clenched the purse shut, and his hand shot back into the cover of his coat.”
The confined quarters on crowded buses make an ideal playing field for pickpockets, and the “concealed hand” method that Rundbaken describes is a time-tested technique. She recommends always being aware of your surroundings, studying up on other theft tactics, keeping bags zipped and locked, and using a travel belt for carrying larger sums of cash. And transportation officials advise against taking standing-room buses or subway cars to put some space between your valuables and crafty criminals.
Tannery Tours — Marrakech, Morocco
Tourists are commonly approached by unsolicited guides or assistants in this Moroccan city, where Laurence Norah and his wife met a man who offered to take them to view a cattle market. Instead, they were led to a tannery and handed off to an employee there. Although they weren’t interested in a tour, the couple figured they’d take a look and leave a small tip.
"After the tour, we were quickly taken to a leather shop by yet another person to see goods made from the local leather," said Norah. "We didn't want to buy anything, and seeing our disinterest, the shop owner just indicated we should leave." But after leaving the store, three men — two on motorbikes — chased down and aggressively harassed Norah and his wife. They demanded money for the guide, the tannery tour and for the shop owner’s time.
Ultimately, they gave them a few coins. "But as we were in a very quiet part of town at this point, we felt very unsafe and the experience was quite disturbing,” he said.
It turns out this is a common scam in Morocco, and there are variations of it around the world. Norah, who operates the travel site Finding the Universe, recommends reading up on common scams before visiting an area. Also, research which destinations are too dangerous for travel.
Travel blogger Michele Welker booked her recent vacation to a Cozumel resort through a well-known travel company. So, she was surprised to find she and a friend who rented the same type of jeep through the same vacation provider had been charged different amounts. Both were also charged an additional $100 when they returned the vehicles.
Upon investigation, Welker discovered a dishonest representative for the travel company had arranged the jeep deals through an unauthorized rental company. “We ended up getting the charges removed from our credit card, but not without a fight,” said Welker, who operates the blog Love Laugh Caribbean.
It’s important to know the terms and conditions for travel packages as well as the procedures for requesting a refund if something goes wrong. Many vacation package providers also offer travel protection plans that offer price-match and cancellation-related guarantees for an additional fee.
Discounted theme park tickets are tempting. But buyers should be cautious — sellers might be hawking partially used passes, expired tickets or outright fakes, to name a few scams. Instead of falling for these cheap scams, utilize other strategies to save money at theme parks.
Experts caution against buying theme park tickets on sites like Craigslist or eBay. Instead, opt for purchasing directly from the theme park site. Many parks, including Walt Disney World, have other authorized ticket sellers. For example, Visit Orlando is the official tourism promotion organization for the Orlando area. If you have any questions about purchasing park tickets, contact the theme park.
Here's an airport tip smart travelers know: Once it’s not under your watchful eye, luggage can look like a wrapped gift to thieves. Those can include sticky fingered airline baggage handlers, Transportation Security Administration employees or opportunistic folks waiting at baggage carousels to snag suitcases that don’t belong to them, among others.
Experts recommend storing valuables and other important items in carry-on bags you can keep with you. If you must check suitcases, consider luggage locks or zip ties to secure your belongings or at least make it more obvious that your bag has been opened. It’s worth noting TSA agents are permitted to open locks and snip zip ties to physically inspect items inside, but are required to put a printed notice in your bag if they’ve done so.