Part personal musings, part photo gallery, and part travel guide, Nerding Abroad is a community for professionals, students, interns, wanderlusts, book lovers, curious wanderers, introverts, global health workers, political science junkies, history addicts, and all those who recognize that the world is infinitely large and wonderful.

Staying Safe While Nerding Abroad: Tips from a Cop

Staying Safe While Nerding Abroad: Tips from a Cop

Nerding abroad and discovering new sights, sounds, and adventures is fun, but unfortunately, touring a new place can be dangerous too. As a police officer in Washington, DC, I police areas dense with tourists who are often victims of crimes. Lucky for you I’m also a fellow world traveler, and below are a few strategies to help you protect yourself and your property while exploring.

“If it’s not in your hand, it’s not yours”

“If it’s not in your hand, it’s not yours”—is a phrase I developed while taking theft reports in downtown Washington, DC. Too often peoples’ property is stolen when they turn their back, even just for a second. You may not realize it, but there are swarms of thieves watching you and waiting for an opportunity to steal your property when you turn your back. Keeping track of your property while out Nerding Abroad is key to ensuring a successful adventure.

The below two tips are most applicable when at a restaurant or bar, but can be applied to most situations.

Keep your phone/wallet in your hand, pocket, bag, or coat. Do not leave your property sitting on the bar or on a table. Do not assume that someone will watch your property while you go to the bathroom. Property tends to “walk away” most often when you look away.

Do not hang your bag/coat on the back your chair or place your property by your feet. This may sound absurd, but in Washington, DC, pickpockets look for eaters who leave their bags slung over the back of their chair or on the ground. Often, a pickpocket will sit in a seat next to you or behind you and stealthily reach into your bag/coat and pilfer your wallet while you enjoy good company and a meal, completely undetected. But, if you keep your bag in your lap, you deny thieves easy access to your valuables.


Less is more

How much do you really need to take with you for your day wondering through the shadows of monuments? How many items in your purse can you leave in your hotel room, or even at home? Below are items you should rethink about taking on your trip.

Keys – My wife and I just completed a trip to California and somehow we ended up losing our house keys and the only key to our car. I think we lost them on a beach in L.A. County. Why did we have our keys to everything we own on the East Coast on a beach in California? That’s a brilliant question I wish I had asked myself before losing my keys. Now, I have to spend money to rekey my car, and it’s not even a nice car that I plan on keeping much longer. Similarly, if your bag/purse is stolen while out Nerding Abroad, do you want to have to pay a dealership $100-$200 for replacement keys? No, you don’t want to do that. The bright side to my misfortune, you might ask? You can learn from my mistake – leave the keys at home or in your hotel.

Extra Credit Cards and Debit Cards – While it is a good idea to carry several forms of payment with you while traveling, do you really need to bring a Victoria’s Secret Credit Card on your vacation? As a police officer, I routinely take stolen wallet/purse reports from victims who report more than 5 credit or debit cards taken. These reports are usually frustrating for myself and for the victim, because I have to keep interrupting their phone call with one of five banks to gather particulars of the incident, and because they have to call five banks to report their cards stolen. I recommend carrying no more than 1 credit card and 1 debit card at any given time – whether traveling aboard or at home. Your pocket will be lighter, and so will the minutes used on your phone in the aftermath of a theft.

Extra Cash – I hate carrying cash, but while traveling, especially while abroad, cash is a necessity.  In graduate school I traveled to Cuba, and I had to carry Canadian currency to exchange for Cuban pesos, because of restrictions on the amount of US currency allowed into Cuba. Due to US banking restrictions against Cuba, banks in Cuba could not conduct what we consider basic electronic banking functions, and I as an American, could not use a credit card or debit card to access funds. So, protecting my Canadian currency from theft or neglect was imperative to my survival in Cuba.

If traveling with cash, you should never carry a large sum in one bag/wallet/purse in case that item is stolen or lost. Leave extra cash that isn’t needed for the days activates in the hotel (most preferably in a safe if your hotel room has one) or divide large sums of cash up between responsible members of your party.

Sensitive Identity Items – How many forms of identification do you need to carry while out exploring? Most likely, one form of ID will suffice. So, why do you have your social security card, birth certificate, expired drivers license, current license, and passport in your pocket/purse/ wallet? Too often people forget about the collection of personally identifiable documents left in their wallets, which on a day-to-day basis, are never used. Unfortunately, when these items come on vacation and are stolen, victims belatedly realize they should not even be carrying their social security card in their wallet. Getting replacement identity documents can be time consuming and frustrating.

In some countries I feel more comfortable carrying several forms of ID and at times, having a foreign passport is an advantage. For example, in Israel I easily passed through check points as a tourist with my Anglican name and US passport. However, carrying several forms of ID is not usually necessary, and if acceptable, I recommend you carry only your driver’s license and a photo copy of your passport. Leave everything else at your hotel or at home. Trim down that wallet and only take what is necessary for your activities.


Know your surroundings

Photographs – Have you ever parked your car and forgot where you left it? Or walked away from your group of friends and lost your bearings? Perhaps you had a few drinks and you memory is impaired and you cannot find your way back to your hotel? As a police officer in tourist-heavy downtown DC, I routinely respond to assist tourists and citizens find their cars, find their way through the city, or to help them find a lost member of their party.

To combat these scenarios, use your cell phone and take pictures of the street signs where you parked your car. I recommend taking pictures of the nearest intersection, because locals may not always be able to direct you to an exact street number, but they can usually point you in the right direction of an intersection. You can always refer to the picture to see where you parked your car, which is helpful if there is a language barrier. For example, if you are in a Spanish speaking country and do not know how to ask for directions, you can always show a picture of a street sign street and most people can work out that you are trying to get to that location without verbal communication. Pictures of the front of your hotel with the name and street number can help in a similar manner. If you get lost, you can always show your taxi driver the picture of your hotel.


These are a few of my pro tips to ensure your next nerding abroad experience is a safe and successful one. For your next adventure domestically or international remember-- if it’s not in your hands, it’s not yours, less is more, and know your surroundings, because the less time spent reporting lost or stolen property means the more time you have to explore and learn. 


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