Foiling Thieves, Stretching Dollars on Tourist Trail

For the first time in 20 years I was successfully pickpocketed. What saved me was a mobile phone, something most travelers, including me, would not usually carry.

It happened on a public bus on Oxford Street in London. It was dark and during rush hour. I jumped aboard and squeezed onto the crowded platform at the back. Having just arrived the night before, I was jet-lagged and not as careful as I should have been. I did what I always tell people not to do: I had my valuables in a day pack on my back.

A very tall fellow kept rubbing up against me. Annoyed, I moved up the bus and took a seat. The woman beside me leaned over and said, "You know, he was going for your bag." I quickly checked, and my money pouch and rented mobile phone were both there, so I thought everything was OK. A few minutes later my phone started to ring. I couldn't figure this out because I hadn't given anyone the number.

What I didn't know was that the pickpocket had managed to get my ticket folder with my airline ticket, passport and a few U.S. dollars. He'd hopped off the bus and gotten on another bus behind mine. He cleaned out my money and left the rest of the folder on a seat, where it was found by another passenger.

The gods were smiling on me that day. The person who found the envelope also had a rental phone, and he found the number for my rented phone with my ticket. So the mystery call I received while I was sitting on that red double-decker bus winding through London was from a man on a bus behind mine to tell me that he had my passport and airline ticket. I didn't even know they were missing. How lucky I was!

The incident showed me that even if you are an experienced traveler, it's easy to slip up and make mistakes when you're tired or preoccupied. The first time you see the Eiffel Tower it's natural to set your bag down, get out your camera and peer through the lens. In the time it takes to blink, your bag can be swiped.

If you are planning the first trip where you'll be touring Europe independently, here are some simple rules to help you get around safely and stretch your dollars.

* When you are out sightseeing, keep valuables in a pouch under your clothing, and keep a little cash in your pocket so you don't have to expose your money pouch every time you want to make a small purchase or pay a fare.

* If you are using the rail system, make sure the car you settle in is actually going to the destination that you want. Some trains split en route, including in the middle of the night. If you pay extra for a berth, pick an upper berth where it's not so easy to disturb or reach you. Keep valuables under your clothing, and lock your luggage to the rack. Women should be aware that cabins with berths, known as couchettes, are not segregated by sex. You can find yourself sharing them with men you don't know.

* Buying food from a market before you board will help you avoid expensive food on board, but don't forget to buy water too. On most trains the tap water in the washrooms isn't safe. Don't accept food or drinks from strangers because the food can be drugged.

If you see a vendor with something appealing to eat at a rail stop, don't get off, even for a moment, without your ticket and passport in hand.

* If you store luggage at the rail station, be careful about setting your purse down while you get your larger luggage organized. Grab-and-run thieves choose such opportunities to prey on easy victims.

* Always have some extra money set aside for a worst-case emergency. Lonely Planet's new "Europe on a Shoestring" suggests you set aside $125 to $165 to get yourself to your embassy, replace your passport, get to the airport to replace your airline ticket, and cover a night's room and meal.

Lucy Izon is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Internet

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