Avoiding Scams And Thieves While Traveling Abroad

Flickr user Modenadude

My wife and I had just left the Musee D’Orsay when a young woman came running up to us clutching a ring.

The pretty brunette spoke in halting English, saying she saw it drop to the ground as we walked by. After a quick scan of our fingers, we told her we weren’t missing any rings, but she placed the ring in my hand and insisted we take it for friendship. Before my heart could swell with the joy of international love and brotherhood, she then asked for money for a cup of coffee. At that point, I realized it was a scam and handed her back the ring, which she no doubt tried to foist onto another hapless tourist couple.

While our stay in Paris was overall a wonderful experience, criminals threatened to put a damper on our trip. Before our flight out of Charles de Gaulle Airport, we would be accosted by other scam artists several more times, and my wife was pick-pocketed on the Paris Metro. Luckily the hipster shorts I bought in a Parisian boutique were so tight, I could barely get my fingers into my pockets, let alone a common thief do the same.

Unfortunately, theft and scams are all too prevalent in most major metropolitan areas. Staff members at the Louvre actually went on strike for a day earlier this year, protesting the unsafe working conditions caused by thieves and scam artists. Bob Arno, co-author of Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Crime While Traveling, estimates about 70 percent of Barcelona tourists will be approached by a street criminal; of those incidents, about 33 percent result in the loss of valuables.

According to the US government, Paris, Barcelona, London, Rome, Amsterdam and Naples have the highest number of scam artists looking to take advantage of naïve or distracted tourists.

Travel expert Rick Steves recently noted some of the most common international travel scams and ways tourists can avoid them. Other advice to consider:

  • Forgo purses or strapped bags in favor of body wallets or buttoned pockets.
  • Leave fancy jewelry or expensive watches at home. Don’t flash expensive electronic equipment –- particularly iPhones, thieves love them –- around. Have the number for the local police department saved in your phone.
  • Keep your passport and other important documents in the hotel safe, after you’ve scanned or photographed them and saved them in a file-sharing app or program like Evernote or Dropbox.
  • Stay alert. While you might be tempted to buy that second bottle of wine after dinner, realize drunk tourists are easy targets.

What are your tips for staying safe abroad?

Why Ditching Preconceived Notions Can Make For Better Travel

Bora Bora beach
Michael Stout, Flickr

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had heightened expectations or an ill-informed idea of a destination prior to a trip.

Me too. Many things influence our preconceived ideas about a place: daydreams, prejudice (I’m using this word in its traditional sense), and prior experience, as well as literature, the media, television and film. Example: Most of us entertain certain romantic notions when planning a trip to Hawaii or Paris.

Stereotypes exist for a reason, of course. But with every trip, I’m reminded of why preconceived notions are best left at home (unlike your passport). Besides avoiding the inevitable disappointment if your holiday is more “The Hangover” than “The Notebook,” there are other good reasons to approach an upcoming trip – be it business or pleasure – with an open mind. Read on for ways to recalibrate your expectations, and ensure a richer, more rewarding travel experience.

salar de uyuni rainy season
Juan Gatica, Flickr

Lower the bar
When you set unrealistic standards – whether for a hotel room, honeymoon, tourist attraction or country – you may be robbing yourself of fully enjoying the experience. If you’re convinced you’re going to meet your soul mate by parking it at the bar of a tropical resort, you may be bummed out with the outcome. Likewise, don’t assume your business trip to Delhi is going to leave you despairing at all the suffering in the world. Often, the best moments in travel come when we’re not trying too hard.

On a recent trip to Bolivia, I did a four-day tour of the Southwestern Circuit, from the craggy spires of Tupiza to the blinding expanse of the Salar de Uyuni (the world’s largest salt flat). Our small group really clicked, and for three days, it was non-stop laughs. On our final day, when we arrived at the salt flats at sunrise, a young woman in our group was devastated that the weather was dry. She’d spent years dreaming about visiting during the wet season, when mirror-like pools stretch seemingly into infinity.

Never mind that rainy weather means key sections of Uyuni are inaccessible (including the stunning Isla del Pescado, a cacti-covered “island” in the midst of the flats), and that we’d lucked out by missing the last of the season’s storms. This poor girl was inconsolable, and later confided that her trip was ruined. I felt for her, but her dashed dream served as a strong reminder to dial down the expectations. She was so distracted by what wasn’t there that she missed how absolutely captivating the salt flats are when dry.

bungee jump
Peter Bekesi, Flickr

Push past your comfort zone.
While you should always keep your wits about you and listen to your intuition whether you’re traveling or at home, there’s a difference between trying something new, and being foolhardy. On that same trip to Bolivia, I was presented with an on-the-fly opportunity to try rap-jumping - from a 17-story building.

I’m not afraid of heights, but the idea of climbing out the window of La Paz’s tallest hotel and rappelling face-down to the busy streets below had me shaking. But I trusted the company and equipment (full disclosure: I’d already done prior research, and spent time with their guides). Accidents can still happen but I felt I was in good hands. I had a blast.

Be receptive to changes
As a control freak, it can be hard for me to admit defeat in the face of time constraints or other issues that affect my travel itinerary. For the most part, I’ve learned to roll with it. If not for the monsoonal deluge on the day I planned to take a cargo boat on a three-day trip up the Rio Paraguay, I wouldn’t have ended up at a dreamy agriturismo in the nearby countryside.

plane tickets and passport
mroach, Flickr

Reduce anxiety
On a recent business trip to El Paso (which required me to visit several factories near the border), I was pleasantly surprised by everything. Although my hotel was just 10 blocks from the aforementioned border and adjacent to the rail yards, the neighborhood was perfectly safe and I enjoyed several evening strolls around the nearby arts district. I also learned that El Paso is ranked the nation’s safest city of its size. I could have saved myself considerable angst if I hadn’t let media hype about Ciudad Juarez seep into my imagination.

I had a similar experience years ago in Naples. I’d always longed to visit the city but was put off by fearmongering fellow travelers and (ahem) guidebook writers. I was positive I was going to get shanked while in pursuit of the perfect pizza, but my desire to see Naples trumped my fear. As it turns out, I felt very safe as a tourist, even at night in the notorious Forcella (not as dodgy as it used to be, and the home of some of the city’s best pizza, which I’d take a shiv for, any day).

Obviously, my fleeting impressions of these two cities could easily be debunked, but the point is that I let a lot of rampant paranoia do my pre-trip research for me. If you go looking for trouble, you’re sure to find it. But I also believe in the travel adage that you’re just as likely to get hit by a truck while crossing the street at home. In other words, be smart and be safe, but don’t let fear stop you in your tracks. There’s a whole world out there waiting for you.

Dozens Arrested For Baggage Theft In Italy

Having an airline lose a piece of luggage is a relatively common – albeit frustrating – part of travel. But when just a few items repeatedly go missing out of a bags, there is a major call for concern. CNN is reporting that’s just what has allegedly been happening over and over again with baggage handlers working with Italian airline Alitalia, leading to dozens of arrests last Friday.

According to the news outlet, police made 49 arrests at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, plus another 37 at airports in Bari, Bologna, Milan Linate, Naples, Palermo and Verona. The arrests came after an 18-month investigation spurred by reports of missing items at the airport of the Italian city of Lamezia Terme. Police maintain the alleged thefts happened during the loading and unloading of baggage onto aircraft, and that they have surveillance footage of thefts taking place. During the investigation, Alitalia security personnel worked with police to catch the supposed thieves.

Our only advice to you, dear travelers, is to either leave valuables at home or keep them with you in the cabin whenever possible (so long as these items follow security rules, of course). You just never know what could happen.

[Photo credit: Flickr user sun dazed]

British Museum Opens Exhibition On Life And Death In Pompeii And Herculaneum

Pompeii
Today the British Museum in London opens what is sure to be the hit exhibition of the year.

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” examines the daily life of the Roman world, as it was preserved in two cities buried under volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Through fine art and mundane objects, we get to see what life was like for ordinary Romans.

Romans like the baker Terentius Neo and his wife, whose likenesses were preserved in a fresco on the wall of their house. “Baker” is a misleadingly humble term for Terentius, who was obviously well-to-do, and who had a literate wife who is shown as his business partner.

The exhibition is laid out like the House of the Tragic Poet, one of the homes excavated at Pompeii. A video reconstruction prepared by Giunta Regionale della Campania shows what it looked like when it was being used. As you wander through the atrium, bedroom, kitchen and garden, you learn about different aspects of Roman culture.

The ash that buried the cities and killed its inhabitants preserved frescoes and graffiti that show us a snapshot from the time. Slogans from an election held a few months before still adorn public walls, including a painting of a candidate distributing free bread. Other graffiti boasted of sexual conquests or lost love.

A large amount of the exhibition space is devoted to brightly colored frescoes that once decorated interior walls. Some show religious or natural scenes. One room that overlooked a garden had walls painted like a garden, giving the illusion of being outside.

%Gallery-183881%While much of the focus is on the upper classes, several displays show how the more common Romans lived. In the kitchen, for example, we see the workplace of the slaves. Here, there’s a simple altar for them to worship their gods, and a worktable covered in carbonized food. One blackened loaf of bread bears the stamp, “Made by Celer, the slave of Quintus Granius Verus.”

The kitchen also revealed an odd fact about Roman homes – it was where the toilet was usually located. One wonders how many Romans died because of this ignorance of microbiology.

Another oddity of Roman life was how sexual the art was. What we may see as crude today was considered funny or magical to the Romans. A young woman wore a pendent in the shape of a penis to ensure luck and fertility. A phallic wind chime was supposed to bring luck to the household. Then there’s the sculpture of the god Pan porking a goat. Nobody is sure what the Romans were thinking when they made that one.

The final part of the exhibition is dedicated to the sobering casts of the dead. When the citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried by the eruption, they rotted away, leaving their ghostly shapes in the hardened ash. Archaeologists have poured plaster into many of these cavities to reveal men, woman, and children in their death throes. A particularly poignant scene is of a family of four. One child still sits on the mother’s lap, while another, who could have been no more than four, lies nearby, her face so well preserved as to be recognizable.

These bodies will be one of the main draws to the exhibition, but I have to admit to a certain guilt at my voyeuristic fascination with them. What does our obsession with these casts say about ourselves? Cambridge historian Mary Beard has written a thoughtful essay on this and comes up with no easy answers.

This sort of blockbuster exhibition is something the British Museum does well, and this is one of their best yet. From the high art to crude graffiti, from naughty sculptures to a baby’s cradle, the breadth and richness of Roman life are brought to life in an experience no one with an interest in the ancient world will want to miss.

“Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” runs until September 29.

Video: Attempting A U-Turn In Naples, Italy … Bad Idea Or Community Bonding Exercise?




A driver attempting a U-turn on a narrow Naples street got by with a little help from his friends this week. We couldn’t help but laugh at this unintentionally hilarious video that shows what happens when neighbors, police, and even a clergyman join in to help the driver complete his u-turn.

Also, we’re fairly sure that something like this could never, ever happen in America. Unless, of course, you’re Austin Powers.

(h/t @tomvanderbilt)