Locking Into a Security System for the Road

TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

All through my life, whenever I've moved to a new apartment, my father has come over to make a security check. He climbs onto the fire escape, pokes the smoke alarm, and scrutinizes the windows and doors. As a result, I'm security-conscious, especially when I travel.

According to Annette Zientek, president of an Internet travel gear catalog for women called Christine Columbus, most women are.

"Among all the issues women think about when planning a trip, personal safety rates at the top of the list," she says. Increasingly, travel accessory manufacturers have responded to this concern, filling shops and catalogs with security devices. These range from ordinary locks and money belts to motion detectors for hotel room doors and handy personal "smoke hoods" in case of fire.

Last week I went security device-shopping because I wanted to see whether what's available would make me feel more secure when I'm on the road. I started at Radio Shack, seeking a personal alarm--a little hand-held device ($9.99) with a cord that activates an obnoxious siren when pulled. Radio Shack sells them, but I couldn't find one. So I asked a clerk, who told me that they aren't displayed because they so often are stolen.

At Brookstone in the Beverly Center, the 4-in-1 Security Travel Mate ($25) was right on the rack. It's the size of a cellular phone, with an alarm clock, flashlight, pull-cord-operated personal alarm, and motion detector--so you can hang it from a hotel room door and sleep easy, knowing that it will shriek if someone tries to get in. This was the most comprehensive security gadget I found, though lots of travel accessory companies make devices with several of these features, and a few new ones as well.

For example, Franzus produces a very portable Personal Security Siren and Flashlight (about $16.50). Street Wise has a wedge-shaped, motion-sensitive Super Door Alarm ($14.95) that you put on the floor in front of a door like a rubber doorstop. Eagle Creek's 3-in-1 Security Alarm ($35) is a motion-detecting combination lock with a cable that lets you fasten your luggage to the legs of seats on buses and trains.

Travel gear manufacturers Zelco and Austin House take the low-tech road, with high-pitched key chain whistles and bolts that fit against the metal lock plates on doors. But Zelco's Purse Guard ($15) is my favorite security gizmo of all--a diminutive hook that you place on tables in restaurants, for hanging up your bag. If a thief tries to make a snatch, the Purse Guard sings out like a bird.

To John McManus, the president of Magellan's travel supply catalog, alarms and the like are useful to the degree that they give travelers peace of mind. Of course, you can take these things too far. If all you're thinking about on the Via della Minerva in Rome is whether you can reach the pull-cord on your personal alarm, you might miss the Pantheon. And two of the biggest travel outfitters, Austin House and Lewis N. Clark, recently have discontinued certain security devices because of glitches. For instance, some doorknob motion detectors are so hypersensitive that they go off when you set them or when the morning paper is delivered.

Come to think about it, none of these devices would have helped much during my two scariest travel moments.

The first occurred at a lonely motel on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where I seemed to be the only guest and stupidly accepted a room at the back. At 3 a.m., someone started beating on the door, and kept at it for about 20 minutes, causing the whole room to shake. I didn't answer because I didn't want the intruder to know I was alone, and when I called the front desk, I couldn't get an answer.

So I phoned the highway patrol, packed, and waited tensely until an officer arrived about 30 minutes later. By then the intruder had vanished--and so did I, after making the highway patrolman stand guard as I loaded up the car and hit the road. After that I got smarter about where I stay and, like my father, I now run a security check in hotel rooms, often wedging a chair in front of the door when I go to sleep as a sort of low-tech motion detector.

But in far-flung places, some of the most attractive inns don't have reliable locks and chains. Some don't even have doors, as I found at a charming French bed and breakfast in the town of Fare on the Polynesian island of Huahine. There my sweet chamber in a garden by the beach had only a bead curtain, so I went to sleep with my valuables under my pillow.

Late one night I awoke to see two little feet poking underneath the curtain and a hand feeling through the beads, in search of my money belt. "Go away," I screamed in French, and the intruder fled. In the morning, the owners admitted that they'd had problems with young sneak thieves, and I discovered that my night visitor had snagged the top of my bikini.

Still, I always travel with a good lock and chain for securing luggage to seats on trains and buses, and rarely leave home without wearing a money belt--even though I find them dreadfully uncomfortable. In the belt, I stash my passport, driver's license, credit cards and most of my cash, leaving just enough close at hand in a bag or fanny pack for a day's worth of purchases.

In almost all travel catalogs and shops, you can find strong locks and money belts that go around your waist, neck, shoulder, bra, belt, ankle or calf. "Wherever there's an extremity that works, we've got a money belt for it," Jack Taylor of Austin House says. Many even have watertight seals, solving the problem of what to do with your valuables when you're at the beach.

Most of all though, I pay careful attention to my surroundings, study maps and guidebooks so I don't wander around unfamiliar places looking like a confused tourist and try to trust my deepest instincts about what feels unsafe. After all, something got me up in the dead of the night on Huahine and gave me the aplomb to yell in French.

Distant Lands in Pasadena, telephone (626) 449-3220; Going In Style at Century City Shopping Center, tel. (310) 277-0209, and Fashion Island Shopping Center in Newport Beach, tel. (949) 644-9760; and the One Stop Travel Shop in Beverly Hills, tel. (310) 360-1338, are good places to shop for travel accessories, including security devices.

You can get a Magellan's catalog by calling (800) 962-4943, or a TravelSmith catalog at (800) 950-1600. The Christine Columbus women's travel accessories catalog is on the Internet at http://www.christinecolumbus.com.

This new column about women's travel will appear weekly. Spano, who joined the Travel staff recently, is a seasoned traveler who has freelanced widely. She will also write destination stories for Travel.

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