Bag safety is one of the top travel concerns for many people. If you’re travelling with a backpack or any type of bag for that matter, you probably use it to carry some of your most valuable possessions. And that’s exactly why they are such a hot target for thieves. Somehow.. thieves know our habits, probably because they’re so common for many travelers who they’ve stole from in the past.
In this article I’ll focus mostly on how to secure a backpack or a day bag, and less on large luggage bags you won’t carry around much anyway. Laptops, notebooks, cameras, even money and credit cards are all often carried in a backpack. These items are easy to snatch at a bus station, airport, restaurant.. basically any place where you might drop your bag on the ground for a moment or two, or while you’re walking in a crowded area and not paying attention to your valuables.
So how can you prevent some sneaky gangsta from stealing your stuff and ruining your memories of that awesome tropical destination? Here are 10 valuable bag safety tips for travel you can start using immediately:
1. Get an anti-theft backpack
My apologies for starting this list with a purchase tip, but I feel that it’s really important. Anti theft backpacks are often slash-proof, waterproof and they have hidden zippers and pockets. They also have RFID protected pockets to prevent credit card scanning by hackers.
Since they’re made from slash-proof material, you can secure them to another object and leave them there for a moment or two without having to worry that someone will quickly snatch it. Especially if the backpack has lockable compartments or you’re using a small padlock on the zippers.
There are many excellent anti theft backpacks. If you don’t have one already, I suggest reading my 10 anti theft backpacks recommendations to find a high quality one that fits your requirements.
2. Only carry the essentials
You know that latin phrase: Omnia mea mecum porto. (in translation: All that I have I carry with me). Sounds cool, and I’ve seen many travelers who have this quote etched on a body part and worn as a badge of honor.
But, you don’t have to apply the implied travel philosophy literally. Especially if you have a boatload of gear, because that saying has more to with minimalism then it does with carrying a heavy back bending backpack (well that’s a bender!) 24/7.
Instead of carrying an entire bag full of stuff, adopt a more minimalistic approach. That’s what the quote is supposed to mean! Leave most of your stuff in the apartment, hotel room or a safe locker unless you really have to use it while on the go.
When travelling long distance this isn’t always possible, but it’s definitely possible once you’ve arrived at a destination where you’ll be staying for an extended period of time.
I’ve noticed that many travelers carry their large backpacks around because they don’t have any pockets on their pants, or the pockets are too small. They end up carrying their backpacks, and because they don’t want the backpack to be too empty, they stuff it with things they won’t even need.
Instead, find some middle-ground between carrying nothing and everything. Use a cash belt or a neck wallet which you can hide under your shirt. Both options are much safer than a backpack because they’re concealed and more visible than a backpack which will probably be located on your back, behind your line of vision.
However, since these belts and wallets are much smaller, you could only carry the essentials, like money, credit cards, some important documents and a smaller electronic device like a mobile phone or a small camera.
So I’m not arguing against backpacks, I’m arguing against having the need to carry it everywhere you go, because most of the time it’s because you lack a good alternative. You typically don’t need a backpack if you’re in an urban environment where you can buy food and drinks on every corner. I see many tourists in night clubs with backpacks. It’s just not a cool look! And it just so happens that urban areas are the ones you’ll most likely get robbed in.
So if you think that having an anti-theft wallet or a money belt would be beneficial for safety and convenience, check out the anti-theft travel wallets, pouches and belts that I recommend and why.
3. Be wary of hostels and cheap hotels
Many travelers, especially noobies backpacking across Europe and doing other wild excursions into the unknown have a Disney-like misconception about hostels and hotels. They believe that the staff in cheap hostels and 1-3 star hotels are top professionals who’d never touch your stuff.
In reality however, there is a lot of shady stuff happening in these places, especially in hostels. The staff can at times be packed with broke travelers working part-time shifts, and these broke staffers are often on the lookout for making an easy buck. Even if that means stealing your laptop so that they can finally purchase that one way ticket back to Connecticut. This is especially true during summer, and remember that in some tropical countries summer is basically a year long season.
Use a padlock: If you’re using a locker room in a gym or to store your stuff in a hostel, make sure to always bring your own padlock. I’ve been using this Combination Master Lock from Amazon for years with a 100% success rate. I use it on train lockers, gym lockers, hostels and any other place where I’m leaving my stuff unattended.
Also make sure that you’re the only one who has the key to your storage space. The easiest way to make sure of that is by using a combination padlock like the one I just mentioned.
If anything, don’t leave your stuff in the open and then hope for the best, because many travelers that I’ve talked to have lost laptops, smartphones, cash and even clothes by relying on goddess of fortune too often.
4. Use a train station locker
Many travelers are unaware that you can get your own locker on most train stations for just a few bucks. So why carry all of that heavy stuff while you’re waiting for transportation to arrive and risk getting mugged in the process?
Instead, you can cheaply store it in a locker and put your own combination lock for extra security. You can then wander around, have a cup of coffee or use the WiFi in peace without worrying about your bag getting stolen.
5. Keep your valuables close to you
While actually travelling on the train or on the bus is to leave your stuff unattended, you should have your most precious valuables as close to yourself as you possibly can.
So transfer some stuff from larger luggage into your backpack/day bag and have it with you at all times. If you have to take a leak and don’t feel like taking it inside with you, you can use a security cable to attach it to a leg of the seat or a similar object. This Kryptonite double-loop security cable is small and light enough to carry without feeling encumbered by it.
To use this method successfully however, make sure that you have an anti-theft backpack that is slash proof and has lockable compartments. If it doesn’t have lockable compartments, use a small padlock on the zipper to keep them in place.
6. Use zippered pockets
Wear a jacket or other clothing with zippered and/or hidden pockets. Some jackets have interior pockets also known as a “password pocket” which is often quite roomy and unreachable by others, unless you get in a hot situation.
You might take a nap on the train or the bus, and things can fall out of your pockets or you could get pick pocketed fairly easily. Zippered pockets add that 40% extra security (personal estimate) so that you can keep your money, documents and credit cards on you at all times.
Or you could just use a concealed anti-theft neck wallet/travel pouch, especially if it’s too hot and you only feel comfortable in a basic shirt or a t-shirt. A travel pouch like this one is large enough to also store keys, a passport, smartphone etc.
7. Use packing cubes
Poor organization often results in getting robbed or losing stuff. Either way you’re at a loss. To prevent this from happening, don’t keep stuff attached to your bag and out in the open. Make sure that there are no cables stretching beyond the confines of your backpack.
The best thing I ever did for my travel organizing is get packing cubes. Personal hygiene products, food, clothes, reading material, camera, mobile phone can all be stored more safely and easily by first placing them in packing cubes.
Before I tried packing cubes, I typically stored my stuff in zip-top bags and similar “storage solutions” thinking that it would save space. But that’s not the case. Packing cubes can stretch way more, whereas with zip-top bags you have very limited space and if you try to cram too much stuff they can break easily.
I don’t use anything fancy, just the AmazonBasics packing cube set which is pretty affordable at around $20. It’s large enough for one traveler or maybe two if you’re carrying only the actually important stuff. I’ve had this set for 3 years now and have used in on many trips, including month long trips to Poland, Russia and Chiang Mai in Thailand.
8. Set up a carry routine
My number #1 tip for organization is to have a routine you can follow every time you’re loading and unloading. Even when you’re going out the door in day-to-day life you can save time and improve personal security by knowing where you usually store different items.
So instead of looking for keys in all your pockets, always keep them in the right pocket of your jacket for example. Keep the mobile phone in the right pocket as well, or the right pocket. Keep your wallet in the left pocket of your pants. You get the drill.
The same is true for storing items in a bag. Not only will you improve your bag safety, but you’ll also waste less time and reduce stress.
This is why I like money belts, anti-theft wallets, packing cubes and similar items. They allow you to really separate items but in an organized way.
I find this to be a meditative process and it makes me feel like I’m above others because I know that I’m one of those rare people who are NEAT. Yes, I have a Patrick Bateman dark side, and you can become part of the fun club any time you’re ready to make the leap!
9. Block the doors and windows
Is it safe to keep your valuables in a rented room or apartment? Even if you’re the only one who has the key, you could fall victim to a home invasion just the same.
In fact, you’ll never be the only one with the key, because the renter also has it. But let’s say that you trust them and they would never steal from a guest; break-ins still happen! Just check the statistics and you’ll see that thousands of homes in the US alone are broken into each year, and the numbers are pretty consistent year in, year out.
This is why homeowners are relying on additional security devices more than ever to secure doors and windows. Especially ground floor windows.
If you’re renting the place, you probably won’t be allowed to do any installations by yourself. And it would be foolish to invest money in a place you’ll only be staying in for a short period of time.
So I recommend using small, portable security devices that won’t take much space in your bag, and which you can use to secure any room or apartment.
Wedge Alarm Door Stopper for Home and Travel: This is a very popular portable security alarm that can be used to secure any door quickly, and just as quickly removed when you no longer need it. It’s also really small so you can carry it in a bag.
It works like this: You place the thin part under the door. When the door is pushed the alarm activates and it produces 120 dB of annoying sound that will surely wake up you and your neighbors. There are also three adjustable levels of sensitivity.
By setting the low sensitivity, you can also open and close the door gently without triggering it. But someone who is unaware of the device and decides to put more pressure to open it will trigger it.
It is powered by 1 pcs 9V battery. If there’s no battery inside or you turn the switch off it can be used as a door wedge that just provides some extra security against break in attempts.
Security bar: I highly recommend the Master Lock Security Bar, because it’s strong and very versatile. It can be used to secure a regular door, a sliding window and a sliding door. Note that it needs to be an interior sliding door to work.
This security bar extends to the size you need. When it’s not extended you can carry it in your luggage, and extend it to fit any door or window width when you arrive. It’s also a good self-defense weapon. There’s no reason to get a baseball bat or a pocket knife if you have a tough metal security bar at hand.
Adhesive Sliding Door/Window Lock: This small slider lock is a great alterantive to a security bar. It won’t secure regular doors and windows, but it’s very useful for sliding doors and window. Simply stick it on the surface and it will block any sliding opening movement from the outside.
It’s also useful if you want to unable your toddlers to open the door or window. However, stick it higher so that they can’t reach because it’s easy to figure out the removal even for a toddler if he can grasp it with his hands.
9. Ditch public WiFi hotspots
Sometimes hackers will use public WiFi hotspots to redirect a connection, send malware or get to your personal information. The problem is that it’s unlikely you’ll find the perpetrator of the crime if it happens and any stolen data could be used for a long time before you figure out that something is wrong.
A safer option is to use a USB WiFi stick from a reputable local Internet provider. I’ve recently been to Croatia, and there you can buy a cheap $10 USB stick and pay around $20 for 10 GB or $25 for unlimited monthly use. The speed was also pretty good.
Check the best (usually the most popular) internet provider in the country you’re travelling to and see if this option is available. You’ll be able to get WiFi connection in any urban area and probably some rural areas as well. So it’s both safer AND more convenient than relying on public hotspots.
What does this have to do with bag safety? Well, it has to do with your overall security. A hacker infiltrating your device through an unprotected Internet connection can access your personal information, such as usernames and passwords. This can lead to identity theft, and also to them learning about your current place of residence. In other words, where your stuff is! If they’re working in a team, one thief could follow you to make sure you’re not there while the other thief attempts to steal your stuff from your rented room or apartment.
Perhaps the worst thing about this scenario is that neither you nor the authorities will be able to connect the dots between a cyber breach and a physical break-in in this situation, because you’ll be focused on the “more likely scenarios”. Whereas in reality it’s a completely legit form of theft that has been happening ever since WiFi became a free, publicly accessible commodity.
I’m not saying that this can’t happen if you’re using a WiFi stick, but since the connection is not accessible to everyone, there’s definitely less risk involved.
10. Don’t panic: travel is usually pretty safe!
This article could frighten you to never travel outside of your home town again. I mean, who has the time to worry about pick pocketing, losing bags, or getting hacked in Mumbai and losing your entire savings through online transactions you only find about a week later?
But just as I showed you the dangers, I also want to reassure you that travelling is not THAT dangerous. In other words, we’re speaking of the worst case scenarios here. Can you get mugged, have your laptop stolen or your bags swapped on an airport? Sure, but these are all exceptions to the rule.
Most travelers get on just fine by using common sense precautions that I layed out for you. There’s no reason to hold unto your purse 24/7 like a crazy person, but you should also not leave it in the hallway to see if fortune is on your side or not. Because it’s always a 50:50 raw deal and that’s true for everyone.
The truth is that security habits take time to develop. According to reputable science, it takes about 21 days to develop a habit. Whether you’re on the road at the moment, or you’re at home planning a trip, start small by developing proper organizational skills and acquiring the gear that suits your safety requirements.
I’ve been travelling to different continents and countries for close to 11 years now and I’ve had my share of bad experiences. So I think that these tips from a veteran will be very useful to intermediate travelers and those who are just dipping their toes into the amazing pool of travel adventures.