Any traveler of any kind, even one who just goes to a neighboring city, is at risk of being stranded by losing a single, small item. You guessed it (was it the title of the post that gave it away?) – the wallet. Too often we put all of our most important items in a single place, and then hold it loosely in a bag which can be left or yanked, or put in a pocket where it can either fall out or be picketed. I have done all of the above… I am really good at losing my wallet!
Getting credit cards and ID replaced away from home is a bitch. Banks are not that great at getting replacement cards out to you on the road, no matter what they say. (HSBC is not the “World’s local bank”!) So, let’s talk about how to make it less of a, sorry to say it again, bitch.
Now, the term “wallet” and “purse” can cause some international confusion, as the British and American definitions vary. In this post I am using the American definitions. A wallet is where you put your credit cards, ID, and cash etc. A purse is a bag of some kind where you put your wallet and a tube of lipstick, phone, used tissues, loose change, gum, and a chihuahua.
Here are some of the ways I’ve personally lost wallets.
- Had it in a purse hiding underneath my jacket. Got on a crowded bus, reached up to hang on to the bars, which lifted the jacket and exposed the purse. Someone opened the zipper and took the wallet without my even feeling it. (Argentina, 1990′s)
- Paid for an item, and absent-mindedly walked away. Yep, wallet still on the counter. (Paris, France 2003)
- Had someone run up to me on a busy sidewalk and yank at the purse on my neck, trying to break it off… unsuccessfully, but it kinda hurt. (Valparaiso, Chile 2006)
- Taken from my front pocket while walking with my hands full, didn’t feel a thing. (Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania 2007)
- Fell OUT of my snug back pocket while riding a bicycle with friends. (Phoenix, Arizona 2008)*
- Got distracted while watching, horrified, a car slowly run over a pigeon eating food I’d just given it. At this point I either dropped the wallet or threw it into a bush, I have no idea… never saw it again. Karma? (Fontainebleu, France 2010)
So the first thing to accept is that someday, you will lose your wallet on the road. It’s going to suck no matter where or what, but the thing is to be prepared for it.
Some advice, if I may. Learn from my pain.
Enjoy the market! Keep a small wad of cash in a pouch, separate from your fancy leather wallet with shiny credit cards.
- Keep things separate! Multiple locations. Have backup debit and credit cards which stay in your room, or in your big luggage when you’re on the move.
- NEVER keep your passport with your wallet.
- Stuff cash in a separate pocket, bra, shoe, whatever. Enough to get to your hotel or home… somewhere safe.
- Know your bank details. For Americans, this means know your bank’s routing number. We never really use it at home, but you need it in order to wire yourself money. In a pinch you can call your bank and get it, but it’s easier if you already have it written down somewhere (not in your wallet). It’s also located on your checks, but who uses those anymore? You probably won’t have your checkbook with you in Cambodia. If you do, you’re not traveling light enough. ;)
- Keep two wallets on you when walking around as a tourist. Nothing like pulling out a large, fancy leather wallet full of shiny credit cards and loads of cash sticking out while you’re trying to barter for a stick of incense. I usually get a cheap little zip pouch, put about $20 of local currency in there and maybe one credit card, and that’s it. My ID, debit card, more cash etc is tucked away in a deeper pocket of my daypack or purse. Remember, this doesn’t include the backup cards which are in the room or big bag. The wallet I had pick pocketed in Dar Es Salaam? It was this pouch, without even a credit card. I had been in a crowded local market and was pulling it out to buy spices and trinkets. The thief saw where I put it and got me… but I still had all my important stuff and was down only about 20 bucks.
- Use a money belt when you’re moving around with your big luggage. Yeah, you feel like a dweeb, but at least it adds one more place where you can divide up your stuff, and your passport is always safely against your skin while your hands are full.
- Write down the phone numbers from the backs of your cards so you know who to call immediately, without having to do detective work to figure it all out.
Additionally (not necessarily related to wallets, but while I’m at it)…
- Keep a scanned copy of your passport somewhere, like a secure folder online or with a friend who can email it to you in a pinch. (Best not to leave it in email itself for long, as we all know how secure that can be). There are a lot of companies offering secure online storage nowadays. Search on it and pick whichever suits you best.
- Make sure you have important phone numbers written down somewhere, in case you lose your phone.
- Scan your health insurance cards, keep them online, make sure your emergency contact has a copy.
- Don’t even bother with Traveler’s checks. No one seems to take them anymore and are more of a hassle than they’re worth.
For another example of how these tips can help, let’s look at scenario 6. I was walking along a crowded street, at night, with my big backpack on my back, my smaller backpack on my front (as many backpackers do) and a purse slung across/over my shoulder. The thief ran up to me and yanked it, hard. I couldn’t do much other than yell and waddle as I attempted to kick him.
Little did he know, there was nothing of value in the purse. It was my bus-ride play-time bag, with a chessboard, book, sudoku, and a deck of cards. My wallet was in the backpack on my front, backup cash and credit card were in the rucksack on my back, and my passport and backup debit card were snugly hiding on the small of my back in a money belt. They would have had to have stolen me to get everything… and in that case I would have had much bigger problems to worry about than a wallet!
I don’t want to make everyone reading this suddenly turn into a paranoid freak while walking around. These are all very easy, simple measures and you don’t have to look at everyone as though they are a potential pickpocket, practicing your kung-fu moves for when someone brushes up too closely against you on a bus. What it does is actually allow you to relax. You can enjoy what you are experiencing, knowing that if someone does take advantage of you, it’s lame but not the end of the world.
*A testament to human goodness, in scenario 5 I luckily had my email noted in the wallet, and the guy who found it actually mailed it back to me, cash and all. :)