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Personal Protection and Safety

Updated October 23, 2010

Whenever you travel to a new place, it is easy to miscalculate the risks you may face on your journey. Fear is often the reason that many travelers never leave the US or Canada. There are real risks but when you put them in perspective, you'll understand that the trip to the grocery store can more dangerous than your flight to Europe. Nevertheless, you will be in a foreign land, where you sometimes can't communicate in your native tongue, so having some basic guidelines for keeping safe on your journey can't hurt.

Don't become a Victim

There is little need to fear for your personal safety in the cities of western Europe. Physical crime is much lower in western Europe than it is in the United States. Still, you want to use good judgment when you are out at night or alone and you don't want to make yourself easy prey for thieves or con-artists.

If you have a chance to strike up a conversation with Europeans, they will give you a lot of advice on how to be safe. They will tell you dozens of ways that experienced pickpockets will distract you as they put their hands on your wallet or into your purse. The few people I've talked to who have had their pockets picked are amazed at how skillful the culprit was and, when they've caught the culprit in the act, they are surprised at how young the thief was.

If you visit Poland, the Czech Republic or the nations that formerly made up Yugoslavia, crime is a more significant issue. Because of this, some car rental agencies do not allow you to drive your car into these countries or limit the types of car you can take into those countries. Use care when you park a rental car and note that some of the rental car agreements indicate you must park the car in secured (not on the street) parking.

The best advice is to leave valuable jewelry and unessential items at home. There are many ways that you may lose them from--either inadvertently forgetting something important or getting them stolen. Keep things simple by carrying only a few versatile pieces of cheap jewelry. If you aren't traveling on business, leave the laptop at home. There are plenty of places offering internet access and the prices are generally reasonable so spare your back and be "unplugged" during your time in Europe. Similarly, if you are traveling with an Ipad or Smartphone, be certain to keep it secure; it will be a temptation to pickpockets.

Check with your cellphone company to see if your phone will work with the European standards. Typically only the high-end phones can be used in Europe. Next, find out what fees you will be charged to connect in Europe. We found the prices to be extremely high. Still, on our first trip to Europe, we had our sons at home house-sitting and appreciated the peace of mind that came with giving them a number where we could be reached as we traveled from town to town. The price tag for that peace of mind and a few brief phone calls home was about $200.00.

The second time, we relied on email to stay in contact with them. We gave them phone numbers of the hotels and campgrounds where we had reservations but on the other days, they could only reach us by email. We checked in every few days and placed occasional calls to them using a European calling card (which you can find at the airport or tobacco shops). It worked fine.

We were often warned about having our cameras out, especially on the subways. We were pretty cautious with the more costly digital camera but also had a $80 point-and-shoot camera that we were more casual with. One of the ways to avoid having things stolen is to have nothing anyone would want....when the cover of the battery case came off, we used tape to hold it in place. That made the cheap camera virtually theft-proof. So in that regard, remember to keep valuable photographic equipment securely stowed when it is not in use. The typical small cases with shoulder straps used to hold tiny cameras offer very little protection against a skilled thief. Better to have a small camera that is pocket-sized and keep it in an inside pocket. When using the camera, keep your hand in the hand strap or secure it some other way so that it isn't easily taken from you. We also read about people who would steal your camera by simply offering to take your picture. Our solution was to hand the volunteer the cheaper camera for such shots....we'd like to believe it wasn't stolen because everyone we encountered was honest and may have been that the time or two that we might have been vulnerable the thief realized that there wasn't much value in our little Samsung camera.

There are numerous stories indicating that sophisticated thieves have knives they use to cut straps off shoulder bags or the bottoms out of fanny packs. So if you carry a bag or wear a fanny pack, put it in a position where you are watching it. And again, carry as little as you can. Also, I tied both my wallet and digital camera to the bag so that if we did encounter a very determined thief, there would still be one more level of protection.

I used a fanny pack, which unfortunately says "TOURIST" very loud and clear, to carry my film and cameras but to make it more secure, put the fanny pack belt through the loops of my pants when possible. I carried just enough money in my purse or fanny pack to deal with the day's transactions and had only one credit card in my wallet. The remaining cash and other credit cards were in my passport wallet around my neck. On hot summer days, the passport wallet was uncomfortable but it did give us added security. Also, my husband and I divided up credit cards before we left home. We only had one card for each account with us (and left the others securely stowed away at home), and that way, if he lost his wallet, I still had some usable credit cards or vice-versa.

While we were in Rome, we met an American family. Dad carried all the family's cash and credit cards in the wallet he put in an outside cargo pocket on his shorts. When they got off the subway near the Roman Coliseum, the wallet was gone. We lent them $50 to help them out of their predicament but needless to say, some advanced planning would have made the incident less troublesome. Though they were planning to leave Rome the next day, their lack of cash or credit forced them to spend three additional days in Rome.

Don't think of your car trunk or glove compartment as an alternative to a hotel safe. Just as there are professional pickpockets there are others who make their livings by grabbing things from tourists' cars. So take passports and cash with you whenever possible or put them under the watchful eye of a traveling companion.

Look at StudentJetPacks.Com for gear that can help you secure your valuables on your travels.

All of this talk about safety and pickpockets shouldn't affect your decision to travel to Europe. Statistics generally reflect that you are safer in one of the major cities in Europe than you would be in a large city in the U.S. But if you are aware that theft and pickpocketing are crimes, you can take a few steps to reduce your vulnerability. To stress, the best way to avoid losing something valuable is to leave it securely stored at home. Still, you need your passport and you'll want to take pictures and videos, so you'll have to take some steps to secure these items. Only carry limited amounts of cash to limit your potential lost. Finally, if you are traveling with your spouse, don't bring both credit or debit cards for the same account: bring one for each Mastercard, VISA or American Express account, and leave the second card for that account somewhere secure at home.


European super highways are safe and modern, as good or better than what we find on this side of the Atlantic. Speeds can be a bit faster but generally highways are less congested, making those who are comfortable on American roads equally comfortable on the main roads of Europe.

It is the minor, one-lane each way, roads that require more caution. They are often narrow and curvy, so if you head out into the country, take more care. But don't be intimidated. We traveled over two mountain highways, the Grossglocknerstrasse in Austria and the highway through the Triglav National Park in Slovenia. They rapidly climbed up to alpine passes using steep grades and sharp switchbacks but were not the terrifying experience the guide books had suggested. Using reasonable speed and safe driving practices, those two particular mountain roads seemed much safer than some of the highways we drove in Southern Oregon.

If you don't drive often and aren't familiar with mountain driving, you should remember that the worst thing you can do is brake frequently to slow your descent. Heading down steep grades, you can let the car do some of your braking for you by shifting into a lower gear. Drive slow on the downhills and avoid acceleration if the grades are generally steep. Don't let cars approaching from behind make you drive faster than you feel safe driving. Just find a safe pull-out to let them pass.

Cable Cars, Mountain Railways and Telepheriques

I'm one of those people with hundreds of innate phobias and I have to admit that the first time I was in Austria, I made sure we didn't get near a cable car. I looked at the looming mountains and thought that riding a cable car up to the top on a sunny day was just too dangerous.

Two years later we took the cable car across the glacier from Mt Blanc to Italy. It was a sunny day and the views were spectacular. I was more prepared for the ride after a coworker described how amazing the ride from Aguille du Midi to Italy would be. That trip, across the longest unsupported stretch of cable in the world, helped me put things in perspective: don't go up in a blizzard or if there's an imminent risk of a lightning storm. But recognize that the standards of safety are pretty high in Europe. I can only think of a few significant cable car caused by a helicopter and one caused by American fighter planes about a decade ago. Weather and avalanches can cause problems, so pay attention to those conditions, but don't let irrational phobias keep you from some amazing experiences.

If you truly are uncomfortable with vehicles suspended from cables, you can get to some pretty amazing mountain vistas via cogwheel railways. These trains have special "toothed" wheels that allow them to grip steeper climbs on alpine rails. They are slow, secure and wonderful.

But many of the most fantastic places are reached by cable cars. So try to put fears into perspective....cable cars are safer than cars on the road, trains, and airplanes.

Do, however, pay attention to the Signs of Altitude Sickness. While the highest peaks in Europe are not as high as those found in the American Rockies and Sierras or the famed climbing mountains in the Himalayan and Andes ranges and, therefore, less likely to cause the condition, they can pose a problem for travelers whose systems do not adjust to the rapid rise in altitude you achieve with a cable car or cogwheel railway. If a partner is having difficulting breathing because of the altitude, do your best to help them cope with the problem until they are back to lower altitudes and continue to monitor their condition until they have had a few more days to adjust.