Planning a trip soon? Be sure you have the right gear to keep you and your valuables safe.
We were sitting at the street-side patio of a café in Melbourne, Australia, watching commuters rushing by, when I realized that someone was watching us. Did we look like clueless, distracted American tourists who might be likely marks?
Probably. My husband and I both wore foldable sun hats and had shopping bags by our feet. We were pointing out landmarks to each other and comparing notes on a printed itinerary.
In other words, we looked like easy targets for thieves who thought they could snatch my bag or my cellphone, which rested on the corner of the table.
Except that my iPhone 13 Pro was leashed to my cross-body travel bag with a stretchy, unbreakable tether. The bag was attached to my chair because I’d looped one strap through the back slats of the chair I was sitting on, thanks to the latch that connected the strap to the bag.
Sure, endless vigilance could have gotten us through our two-week trip without loss of identification, credit cards, or cash. But a few well-designed pieces of gear protected us in two ways. The gear itself kept our bags and phones safely at hand. And using the gear forced me to change my travel habits for the better, keeping the whereabouts of my stuff top of mind.
Travel safety gear has to reconcile two opposite goals: keeping your things accessible so you can take photos, email, shop, and access identification and hotel key cards easily and quickly — while simultaneously keeping your phone, tablet, and various cards safely hidden away from sneaky fingers.
We tested some gear and did some research to help you take your next trip without a security worry in the world. Let’s start with the bags.
TRAVEL BAGS TO KEEP YOUR VALUABLES SAFE:
I love my Travelon Anti-Theft Boho North/South Crossbody bag, especially the zippered outer pockets that let me keep tickets and my phone close at hand, but quickly secured.
Whether you buy theft-proof gear online or in a store, it’s essential to thoroughly test the design before you rely on it to keep your things safe out in the wild, says Karen Jacobs, an occupational therapist and associate dean at Boston University. Older travelers, especially those with arthritis or other conditions that might complicate the use of safety gear and travel bags, should always test closures before buying. She advises making sure gear is light and easy to get on and off. And as tempting as it is to go for a sleek executive design, she says the focus should be on the sweet spot of security and access.
And that means making sure the outer pockets of your bags can easily accommodate your phone and your plan for keeping it with you — a point I neglected to check before our trip to Australia. The phone leash worked as intended: It wrapped around the corners of my phone like a fitted sheet. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite fit into the pocket of a bag I was testing — a Metrosafe LS 200 from Seattle-based company Pacsafe — which wasn’t quite big enough to accommodate my phone and its tether. Pulling the leashed phone from the outside pocket also pulled the leash off the phone.
The Metrosafe LS 350 from Pacsafe — my go-to travel backpack — has shoulder straps that unclip so the straps can thread around the arm or back of a chair or suitcase handle, keeping the bag close at hand. So far, so good. But the external zippers on the backpack use an all-too-clever system of tabs that slide together to click into a seemingly unpickable unit. Moderate arthritis and the unusual design periodically locked me out of my own backpack. More than once, I’ve resorted to YouTube tutorials to practice (again) how to quickly slide-release the zipper pulls.
I wish I’d practiced my setup at home for a weekend, before embarking on a 17-day global trip. If I had, I would have opted for a slightly bigger cross-body bag that offers a more capacious outer pocket to easily accommodate both the phone and its leash. A good example is the Delsey Paris Chatelet Air 2.0 Cross-body shoulder bag, a larger version of the company’s iconic hand-held cross-body that offers a great combination of outer pockets and zippered security.
Keeping essential cards and identification hidden on your person is another challenge. I sew my own clothes and have found that the hidden front pocket of the Style Falcon “Straight A’s” skirt is the perfect integration of comfort and security, especially for hotel key cards.
For those who don’t sew, new versions of an old standby — the money belt — are a versatile option. The Cocoon USA RFID Secret Waist Wallet offers the convenience of a light, easily concealed, two-pocket zipper case on a belt. It’s a great way to keep cards and IDs securely at hand without advertising what you’re carrying, as is the case with a fanny pack.
Some elements of good design are invisible to users and thieves. Cases in point: cut-proof straps, which are internally reinforced with fibers that thwart knives and are invisible to users and thieves, and radio-frequency ID-lined bags, which help keep the information on digital cards from being swiped.
Some safety experts think that RFID scanning is the least of travelers’ worries, with online scams abounding. Others maintain that it’s impossible for travelers to assess the risk of your card being silently stolen, so why not fend off one problem with RFID protection?
KEEPING YOUR ROOM SAFE
Two simple, low-tech pieces of gear can keep you safe in your room and while you’re out and about. A basic whistle can neutralize a street attack because it immediately calls attention to what’s happening, says David Nance, CEO of SABRE, which makes pepper spray and other personal safety tools. Blow on a whistle (keep it at hand on a lanyard worn around your neck) and people automatically turn to see what’s going on. If you look a little older, passersby will be more likely to assume you need help, he adds.
You can amplify safety at your accommodation with a doorstop alarm that both prevents intruders from opening the door and screeches when they try. The increased use of rentals through services like AirBnB and VRBO means that management and security during a trip can vary, depending on the site and its locale. It’s hard to know who actually has access to your rental besides you. “It’s not the owner you’re concerned about; it’s the maintenance workers, or the cleaning service,” says Nance.
HELPFUL GUIDES FOR SAFETY (Medical insurance, scams & more)
For more traveling safety tips, the U.S. Department of State offers services on its website that are especially helpful to older travelers. The site has information on everything from medical insurance to ways to avoid scams.
The Department of State also offers an online itinerary tool called the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. Here you can archive your travel information and documents at a secure online site that can be accessed by embassies and consulates. You can include your emergency contact information so that loved ones can assist from home if you need help replacing documents.
Of course, it’s always smart to make sure that trusted family or friends hold copies of your itinerary, reservations, passport, credit cards, driver’s license, phone and computer serial numbers, and maybe even backup access codes for your phone and computer. In turn, be sure that you carry printed versions of this contact information — securely stored, of course. This ensures that even if your phone disappears, you still have key email addresses and phone numbers so you can immediately alert your family or friends to put a stop on credit card and digital account access.
And it’s always smart to check for country safety and health alerts with the Centers for Disease Control before any trip abroad.
I did make it back home with my phone, my iPad, my driver’s license, and all my credit cards. And I’m using that phone leash now in other situations that call for extra security. You should see the looks I get when I snap photos at my grandson’s soccer games, using a phone that’s continually attached to my bag, knowing that I won’t lose it among the clutter of a kindergarten sports league.
Main photo: iStockphoto.com/JackF.