Keeping your gear safe when travelling

Did you know up to one third of travel insurance claims are for petty theft? It is vital that all travellers take precautions to keep their gear safe on their next trip to substantially increase the odds of arriving at your destination with your bags intact.

Keep your luggage safe when travelling by bus or train

Your gear is at risk when travelling by bus or train, but there are some simple precautions you can take to keep your luggage safe.

  • Lock your bags to the overhead luggage rack or the luggage racks located near the end of each carriage using a cable lock or a bag with built-in secure strap. Most luggage racks have grid or mesh shelving that makes it easy to secure your bags.
  • Never leave luggage on the luggage racks near the end of the carriage if you can’t lock it to the rack. The best place to keep your bags is locked to the overhead luggage rack across the aisle from you. This way your bags are locked securely and you can always keep an eye on them. If your bags are locked down, thieves will usually leave your bags and take an easier target.
  • Keep your eyes on your bags when the train is about to stop at a station.
  • Regardless of where you keep your luggage on board a train, remember that it will take you time to unlock your bag and pack away your cable lock. Do this 10 minutes or so before you arrive at your destination to allow plenty of time to be ready to get off the train. Most trains only stop at the station for a couple of minutes, so don’t waste your time or hold up other travellers.
  • Be extra careful on overnight trains. If you’re travelling with someone else, take turns sleeping so at least someone in your group is able to keep an eye on your bags.
  • If you’re sleeping in a couchette, the top bunk is usually the safest. If you have a private compartment, then lock the door.
  • When travelling by coach where you are required to keep your bags in the luggage compartment, if possible get off at intermediate stops en route to keep an eye on the bags that other travellers take.
  • Smaller bags such as daypacks, handbags or messenger bags are a bigger target for thieves. They’re easier to steal and are usually more likely to contain valuables such as cameras, phones, iPads and laptop computers. Wherever possible, make sure that you lock your bag closed and also lock it to a secure fixture.
  • The safest option is to travel with an anti-theft bag from Pacsafe that has built in security features. Even when not locked, these bags are more difficult for thieves to open. The security features usually include built-in slashproof cables so you can easily lock your bag to a secure fixture.

Most theft on board trains happens on overnight trains or on longer journeys where you are more likely to fall asleep. High-speed trains are safer as there are fewer stops where someone can quickly make off with your bags. Also shorter regional train services are less attractive to thieves as there are fewer passengers with a lot of luggage.

Avoiding theft of checked luggage

Every time you check your luggage when taking a flight you are putting your trust in the hands of baggage handlers as well as security and customs officials. There have been cases of valuables being stolen from bags by baggage handlers and security officials at airports throughout the world including several high-profile cases at JFK and Newark Airports in the New York City area.

You have less control over what happens to your bags when they’re out of sight, but there are several things you can do to minimise your risk and at the very least you are aware if your bags have been opened.

  • Whenever possible, the best option is to only travel with carry-on bags. Travelling light has a lot of benefits and it is a big advantage being less exposed to luggage theft.
  • Keep your valuables with you and only pack easily replaceable items – like clothing – in your checked luggage.
  • Make sure that the contents of your luggage can easily be identified by looking at an x-ray machine. Security officers cannot open every bag so they will x-ray your bag first and if it looks legitimate they will move onto the next bag. Don’t put anything dense (like thick books) in your checked baggage; the x-ray machine will not be able to see through this so your bags will need to be opened for closer inspection.
  • Lock your bags. Most airport security officers are authorised to damage locks to gain access to your bags, however they have keys to open TSA-approved locks meaning they can check your bags without breaking your lock. It is a good idea to buy one of the TSA-approved locks feature an indicator showing if it has been opened. This way you know if your bags have been opened when you pick them up at the luggage carousel and are able to check for theft immediately.
  • You can also use a tamper-evident security seal such as the TamperTell seal. These work like a cable tie, but they are uniquely numbered meaning that they cannot be replaced by airport security officers if they cut them off to gain access to your bag.
  • Another option is to wrap your bag with cling film. This would be cut to access your bag so you will know if your bag has been opened. There are luggage wrapping services at most major airports around the world. This service costs $10–15.
  • Try to take direct flights wherever possible. The fewer airports you pass through, the less chance you have of having your gear pilfered.
  • Be alert when waiting at the carousel for your bags. If your bag is easily identifiable you will know if someone is trying to make off with it.

Keeping your luggage safe at your hostel or hotel

Many hostels have lockers, but often there are not enough lockers to go around. The security-conscious backpacker should check hostel review website hostelcritic.com, which has a locker icon for hostels that provide a locker for each dormitory bed. In most cases you need to supply your own lock when staying in a hostel. A heavy-duty lock that is stronger than what you would normally lock your bags with is best and use a lock that is not TSA-approved as all TSA locks can be opened with a set of master keys that can be 3D printed by any resourceful thief.

If you’re staying in a nice hotel with an in-room safe you should use it to deter opportunistic theft.

If you’re staying in an apartment rental (such as Airbnb) or in a motel or cheaper hotel then you may not have an in-room safe. The best solution in this case is to bring your own safe. A Pacsafe Travelsafe portable travel safe (available in different sizes), will solve this problem and you also have the option of using a secure bag with an eXomesh locking system. In either case you need to lock it to a secure fixture (such as a pipe).

For the most part, international travel is a safe and rewarding experience and while petty theft does occur it is easy to reduce your risk by following the above tips.