Getting up to date political and security information can be difficult, but with the internet, it is easier than ever. Thorn Tree (http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/index.jspa) is a travel forum sponsored by Lonely Planet containing a wealth of travel information about remote locations. It is a great site to search for current travel conditions as well as budget lodging and other travel tips. Also worth checking are the US State Department and the British Foreign Office web pages for travel alerts and local information, like scheduled protests or other political events that may disrupt your travel plans. You can register with the US State Department and they will email you announcements by country. In my limited experience, the announcements were largely about disruptions to embassy working hours, not about events country-wide, so I checked the web pages as well.
Passports and visas
Many places the police will be kind, but not very helpful if you lose your passport, and embassies are often very busy. Here are a couple tricks to increase the ease with which you can obtain new travel documents. First, get your passport photo page, visa (if needed), and driver’s license scanned and print a copy. Make sure that you either have the original or the copy within easy reach all times. Keep the other in the hotel safe or some other secure place. Generally, I trust hotel safes, both the room and the front desk safes.
I also email my scanned passport, visa, and driver’s license to myself and to a friend or family member as a backup. You can also put a copy on your thumb drive (memory stick), if you carry one. Simple and elegant, it will be there in an emergency. As a precaution, be certain that when using a public internet café, the box marked “always remember my password on this computer” is not checked when you log into your email account, and that you fully log out of your email account when finished. I often log out, and then go back to the login page to see if my password is still there, or if it auto-fills when I enter my login name. An advantage to using your own laptop is that this is less of a worry, though I always log out of my email account, regardless, and my computer is password protected, just in case.
Luggage and thieves
To date, neither my partner nor I ever had anything stolen from our bags in a room, or from a safe. That said, we don’t leave our luggage open, but zip them closed with most of our belongings inside. Hotel employees are largely honest, hardworking folk with no time to paw through your luggage; I believe closing luggage will keep out the rare, marginally criminal. It also allows them to give your room a better cleaning when your things aren’t scattered about. When perusing the Thorn Tree travel forum to get a feel for what other travelers are saying, it was generally agreed that closed bags and room safes are generally secure. They seemed to feel that it was fellow travelers in shared room situations that were a problem. Personally, I prefer room safes to a closed bag for valuables, but this is probably psychological since obviously someone at the hotel knows how to get into them!
Where I have had things go missing is during international flights out of my checked luggage. After a quick search on line, this seems to be the most common place from which things are stolen. As most of us are aware, the basic rule of airline flights is never to put anything in checked luggage you value, or anything that if lost, would ruin your trip. Do not put your binoculars, camera, electronics, prescription drugs, spare prescriptions, spare eye glasses, identification, expensive gifts, or cash in your luggage. I won’t put my bird book in my luggage just because losing it prior to a trip would be devastating. So, if I adhere to this strategy, what went missing? My pocket knife; something one cannot take on a plane. Sigh.
Not a security issue, but I also make sure to have a complete change of clothes, toothbrush and paste, hair brush, and waterproofs (mine are expensive) with me in case my luggage is delayed. Another trick is to wear your heaviest clothing and shoes on the flight because they will be hardest to replace abroad, particularly in tropical countries. Unfortunately, tripods can’t be carried on, so if it won’t fit in your luggage, think about putting it in a tripod carry bag inside a taped up garbage bag to make it less recognizable and reduce the likelihood of it being damaged.
When searching travel forums online what came up in regards to burgled luggage involved long layovers. It seems that luggage that sits behind the scenes for hours and hours appears to have a higher likelihood of being robbed than luggage in transit. So, if you have a 4 or more hour layover, it may be worth arranging to pick up your luggage and recheck it. I can’t remember the last layover I had that was this long where I didn’t just spend the night, but something to think about.
Airports, like bus and train stations, are places thieves work. They know that travelers are at their most vulnerable; tired, disoriented, and heavily burdened with baggage. For this reason, I chose to go through security sooner than later if checking in. If waiting outside security, I sit with bags under my feet or arm, or on a seat between my partner and me. Unromantic as it is, I don’t recommend sitting adjacent to your partner with your bags to the outside. A common scam (and one that got me!) is a thief causes a distraction to one side while their accomplice steals bags from the other. If your bags are between your partner and you, someone always has them in sight no matter where the distraction.