Think Like A Thief: How to Avoid Theft While Travelling

by Brenna Holeman


Reflections of Backpackers, Bucharest, Romania

Two weeks ago, I was in Berlin. I had met a group of backpackers at the hostel and we went out for burgers at Burgermeister in Kreuzberg (if you get the chance, you should go). We got our food and sat at one of the tables near the street. One of the girls had put her purse on the table, right next to the road. Picture a high table, with a barricade blocking the street, but no sidewalk; that meant, if someone on, for example, a bike or a motorcycle wanted to reach over the barricade and grab something off of our table, he or she very well could.


“You should take your bag off the table,” I cautioned. We were in a safe neighbourhood in one of the safest cities in Europe, but still I couldn’t help but think that her purse looked awfully vulnerable sitting there.

“I know, I know, I always forget to do these things!” She laughed. “Maybe this is why I’m always getting things stolen from me.”


That sums it up nicely, don’t you think? I am not one of those travellers who wears a money belt 24/7, or who instantly distrusts every stranger. I can confidently say, however, that in over 7 years of travel through 75+ countries, I have never had anything stolen from me. Not a camera, a wallet, a bag, nothing. OK, there was that one time a ladyboy stole my bikini in Thailand, but that was a very isolated incident (and a story for another day). And for the most part, the world is a safe and trustworthy place. I do not want to put anyone off travelling or imply that travelling = you’re gonna get robbed. Muggings and theft really do not happen as often as the media and naysayers would like you to believe, but it’s important to be safe, no matter where you go. 


 Everything I Owned For All of 2011, Koh Tao, Thailand

I do not in any way blame people who have been pick-pocketed or had something stolen from them – it is an atrocious thing to happen to anyone and I’m fully aware that I could walk out the door and be mugged in my neighbourhood in London. I am not here to focus on situations where the victim could not have prevented the theft in any way, nor am I tsk-tsking the victims who perhaps didn’t take proper precaution. I just wanted to create a guide of what I do to prevent theft, and to outline some of the robberies I have heard about in my travels in order to hopefully prevent them from happening to you.

My motto is this: think like a thief. It may sound kind of strange to say so, but I am constantly thinking of how someone could steal something from me. Because of this, I am hyper-aware in situations like crowds, train stations, and night buses. I never want to become paranoid, or completely distrusting, but, when everything I own is contained in one bag, I’m going to do everything I can to protect that bag. Often, that means thinking preemptively.


1. Lock up your stuff. It’s sad to say, but a lot of the thefts I’ve heard about happen in hostels. It’s a terrible thing to do to another traveller and I hope that karma comes back to haunt the thief in a BIG way (I’m thinking Delhi Belly + lost bag + stolen passport all on the same day, you?). Unfortunately, not every single backpacker or hostel staff member is going to be someone of high moral character. Almost all hostels now have lockers, so utilize them; always carry a few padlocks in your bag. I even travel with a small chain so that, if I’m feeling particularly paranoid, I can chain my bag to something in the room. Someone could easily cut the straps, but if he sees a locked back or a bag just lying there, which one will he take? Similarly, I never leave anything out in the hostel room. Seriously, not even my toiletries. The closest I will get is leaving my pyjamas under the pillow, but everything else I either lock up or keep locked in my backpack. And don’t even get me started on people who leave their phones charging while they sightsee for the day.

This could have helped: the girl I met in Manila who had had half of her clothing and all of her toiletries stolen from her. Some girls in the room thought they’d help themselves when she had left her things spread out on her bed. Not the worst things to be taken, but very, very annoying. Another young man I met in Costa Rica had had his passport stolen out of his bag by a local man; he had it in his day pack, which was lying on the floor next to his head while he was sleeping. You may or may not wake up if someone goes through your stuff, so better to be on the safe side and lock it all away. Another girl I met in Colombia had had her iPad stolen from her from under her pillow while she slept.

2. Similarly, lock up your bag. This one is kind of a no-brainer, but it still needs to be said. Every time you leave your bag alone (especially if you are putting it in a luggage hold on a bus or train), make sure it is locked. I have heard stories of buses where someone goes into the luggage hold and rifles through all the bags, zipping them up again so people don’t know that anything is gone until it’s too late. The smartest thing to do, of course, is to not have anything valuable in a bag that you can’t keep an eye on at all times, but sometimes that’s not possible. Make sure you get a good, sturdy lock; combination locks are great as you don’t have to worry about keys and they tend to be harder to pick. Remember that chain I told you about? You can use that to lock your bag to a luggage rack in a train (a must in India), or to lock bags together.

This could have helped: The backpackers I met who had had their bags ransacked while they were on an overnight bus in Thailand, or the guy I met on a train in Rajasthan who woke up to see a man crawling along the train rack, opening bags and suitcases.


Night Train in India

3. Watch your daypack at all times, especially when you are using any form of transportation. Every time I’ve heard that someone has had their daypack stolen or pick-pocketed, he or she says, “It happened so quickly.” If you wear a backpack, wear it on the front if you’re on a crowded bus or train (I was standing directly beside a girl in Lisbon on a tram when she had her wallet stolen out of her backpack, and I didn’t see a thing). In general, don’t put anything valuable in the front pockets of a backpack, or in the back pocket of your trousers. Never, for any reason, put your daypack on the luggage rack above you, and if you put it at your feet, make sure it is looped around your legs and protected from the person in front or behind you. Personally, I travel with a larger daypack that has my laptop, guidebook, makeup, etc inside, but a smaller purse inside that that holds my passport, camera, hard drive, and money. If I sleep on a bus, for example, I loop my purse around my body and cover that with a scarf like a blanket. I then wind the straps of my backpack around my legs. No, I don’t sleep well, but I’ve also never had anything stolen from me.

This could have helped: My friends who put their daypack on the luggage rack above them on a bus in Bolivia, only to have it gone in the morning. And yes, they even hung one of the straps down so that they could keep an eye on it. The thieves actually swapped their bag with a decoy bag. They’re that good.


Night Bus in Turkey

4. Be responsible for your own stuff. If you leave your bag with anyone for any reason, know that that person may not be as mindful of it as you would be. I’ve so often seen one lone backpacker sitting with four or five bags at a train station. If someone ran by and grabbed one, what would he do? Run after the thief, therefore leaving the other bags? Too easy. This is where that chain comes in handy again – if you simply must leave your belongings with someone else, chain your bags together so that they would be near impossible to run off with.

This could have helped: The girl I met in Thailand who left her backpack with a guy she had just met, only to return to find no bag and a guy who hadn’t even noticed her bag was gone because he was so absorbed in his book.

 5. Be mindful of distractions. One of the ways a magician fools his audience is misdirection. The same applies to thieves. The classic story is the woman who throws her “baby” at you; while you’re busy, you know, catching what you think is a baby, she grabs your bag (though I am pretty sure this story is an urban backpacker legend). A pack of kids runs up to you laughing and singing? Join along, sure, but keep a hand on your pocket. A bird poops on you/a drink is spilled on you? Be wary of the person who runs up to you to help (this is especially common in South America, where someone squirts something on you when you’re not looking. You take off your bag to clean up, and while the friendly stranger is helping you, her accomplice makes off with your stuff). If something feels strange, it probably is.

This could have helped: The poor girl who had every single thing of value stolen from her in Uyuni, Bolivia. While she was at an internet cafe, a man dropped a bunch of coins beside her. She stooped down to help. While she was turned toward him, his accomplice grabbed her daypack, which was at her feet, making off with her passport, credit cards, camera, iPad, iPhone, $500 USD, and her hard drive with 9 months of photos. Yes, this is my absolute nightmare. Once again, no matter where you are or how safe you feel, wrap your bag’s straps around your legs. I even do this in London and Toronto.


Everything I Owned For All of 2012, Bocas del Toro, Panama

6. Don’t take anything out at night. If you’re in a city known for pickpocketing or muggings, take as little as possible out with you at night, when muggings are more likely to happen. Through Southeast Asia and South America, for example, I only carried a bit of cash and my cheap party camera out with me. That’s it. No phone, or credit card, or passport (bring a copy and another form of government ID, but leave the passport at home unless in a country that requires you have it on you at all times). I also do this because if I have a few drinks, frankly, I’m not as responsible with my stuff.

This could have helped: The guys who got mugged outside my hostel in Medellin at 3am. They were robbed of their iPhones and wallets.

7. Trust your intuition. I’ve said this a lot on this blog, but I really do believe in trusting your gut instinct. There have been times when I have gotten that familiar pang in my stomach that tells me something isn’t right, and I try my hardest to listen to it. I want to be a trusting person, but when I travel, my whole life is in my bag, and I treat it accordingly.

This could have helped: The girls who, although they thought the man seemed sketchy, still left their backpacks with a taxi driver while they went into a museum. They emerged, and surprise! No taxi, no driver, and certainly no backpacks.

I have always been really careful with my stuff, and I will continue to be. Inevitably, though, things happen that are out of our control. I’ve heard terrible stories of muggings in broad daylight, machete-waving thieves, and even a frightening tale of a hostel that was taken hostage by gunpoint while all the locks on the lockers were cut. We cannot prevent these things, but we can do our best to keep everything safe.

Five years ago, when I was in Lisbon, I was sitting at an outdoor cafe in the main square. I was sitting with my back to the wall, and tables of other cafe-goers were in front of me and to my left. To my right, dozens of chairs were stacked. There was no way that anybody could approach me without me seeing him or her. I had just arrived, and, unable to check into my hostel yet, had my bags with me; my daypack contained my passport, wallet, phone, camera, and hard drive containing all of my photos from a week in Paris. I was happily enjoying the sunshine and my coffee when I felt the slightest movement at my feet. I looked down, and, horrified, saw a hook dragging my bag from between my legs. A man had crawled on his stomach underneath the stacked chairs to my right and was manoeuvring the hook just so. I gasped, grabbed my bag, and, for what felt like an eternity, stared at the man in the face. I vowed to never again be so negligent. I heard later that a Norwegian girl had had her camera bag stolen in the exact same fashion.


The Last Photo I Would Have Taken With My Camera, Lisbon, Portugal

Bottom line: be cautious, be responsible, and, always, think like a thief.

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Briana September 29, 2013 - 11:05 am

YIKES! So many horror stories, but there is also a bit of hope here as well. Like you said, we can’t always prevent these things, but we can try our darnedest. I am lucky to have never had anything stolen, but I am always leery. Growing up around the world, I have was brought up to be very aware of my surroundings. I am constantly looking around me, observing people and the situation. That won’t always keep you safe, but it is important to be tuned into to what is occurring around you. It is so easy to zone out today with technology, but that is when you are truly the most vulnerable!

Amazing tips and ones that I will definitely implement as I travel!

Brenna September 30, 2013 - 2:02 am

It sounds like you really know what you are doing, and are safe wherever you go. I’m glad that you liked the post!

Adventurous Andrea September 29, 2013 - 2:16 pm

Thank you SO much for posting this! As a newbie solo-traveler, I genuinely found all of this information valuable.

Brenna September 30, 2013 - 2:02 am

Great, I’m glad it could be of some help!

Claire September 29, 2013 - 5:14 pm

One of the things I love about your blog is that you are smart about traveling without letting it ruin your travels (by being overly paranoid). These are some really awesome tips to remember!

Brenna September 30, 2013 - 2:00 am

Aw, thank you!

BakoymaTravels September 29, 2013 - 5:51 pm

This is such a great post, thanks for sharing this, Brenna. I’m forwarding this to my travelling friends. We are all mindful, but it helps to be reminded!

On another note, how did you finance 8 years of travel? Did you work, come home for periods or was it all savings?

Brenna September 30, 2013 - 2:00 am

Thank you, I’m glad that you liked the post!

As for my finances, it really was a combination of all three. I have written a few posts about this in the past but it’s high time I write an updated one.

The Irie Explorer September 30, 2013 - 6:07 am

When I was in Barcelona I was travelling with a small cross-body purse that buckled shut and held my camera and some petty cash inside. My friend and I were walking through the train station when I stopped to take a picture of something. Afterwards, I put my camera back in my bag (while climbing some stairs) and buckled it shut. A moment later, at the top of the stairs, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around to find a young man speaking to me in Spanish and holding out his hand to me, to which contained my camera! At first I didn’t register that it was MY camera (how could he have it? I just put it back inside my bag a mere moment ago). It took my friend saying, “Uh, Liane… He has your camera.” For me to actually reach out and grab it from him while mumbling a very confused, “Thank you”.
My friend and I concluded that my camera must have been pick-pocketed and fumbled, and the young man saw the thief drop it, so he returned it to me. I’m positive I didn’t drop it (nor did I hear it drop on the floor), so how else could it have gotten out of my bag? It also wasn’t a distraction tactic because nothing else was stolen/missing from either of our bags.
Either way, I was very lucky.

PS – I really rather enjoy reading your blogs. Your great advice/stories and your excellent writing skills have me coming back almost daily for updates and new posts 🙂

Brenna September 30, 2013 - 10:43 am

Oh wow, that is so crazy. What’s confusing is that you definitely remember putting it back in your bag and closing it – it just goes to show that thieves are much quicker than us, and have much more experience. I try to always wear my bag on my front, and, in places I know have a lot of pickpockets, keep my hand over it. Thankfully this all worked out for you in the end!

I’m so glad that you are enjoying my blog – now that I am settled in a bit more in London, I will try to post more often! Thank you for your comment.

Edna October 10, 2013 - 12:19 pm

I love this line: ‘No, I don’t sleep well, but I’ve also never had anything stolen from me.’ — I do the same and it’s so worth it.

Brenna October 10, 2013 - 1:13 pm

Thanks, Edna! It’s one of the main reasons I never take sleeping pills on the bus or the train – I like to be able to wake up in an instant if needed.

Flora October 14, 2013 - 1:13 am

Awesome post Brenna – I can’t believe you watched a guy slyly hook your bag?! I’ve run into so many travellers in South America so far who’ve been just a bit too careless and lost so much.

I used to be an advocate of the “lock your daypack and then it’ll be safe” method until I met a Kiwi girl who’d had her entire locked daypack snatched from her hostel bed — money, iPhone, computer, camera, and a passport with a fresh year-long work visa for the UK. She had to spend at least a month in the same city sorting out new visas and spending a ton of cash – and now I absolutely always lock everything in a locker as soon as I get into the room. It’s often tedious but it’s worth it for knowing you’ve done as much as you can to keep your stuff safe!

Brenna October 14, 2013 - 1:33 pm

I think that’s what it comes down to a lot – just being a bit careless. We all do it from time to time, of course, but carelessness mixed with bad luck can wreak havoc.

That poor girl! I’ve unfortunately heard a lot of similar stories. I was shocked to find that my hostel in Dublin last week didn’t have lockers in the rooms – I hate leaving my stuff unlocked. We put so much trust in other travellers, and it is so disheartening when one of them lets us down! Thankfully I think most of us are pretty trustworthy.

Expatkerri October 16, 2013 - 12:03 am

This post is like the “dangers and annoyances” section of the Lonely Planet guides, but with way more personality! I’ve never forgotten the terrifying story of the guy using a hook to try to grab your bag from under your chair – no bags ever left on the ground!!!!

Brenna October 16, 2013 - 1:08 am

Hah, thanks Kerrilyn. No bags left on the ground…ever!

Steve Biggs October 16, 2013 - 7:43 am

Thanks 🙂

1, When away I even have my daypack locked up with a small combination lock.

2, And when carrying a big backpack have one of those waterproof covers on it so people can’t easily unzip pockets.

Brenna October 16, 2013 - 12:33 pm

Great tips! I’ve never used one of those waterproof covers as my bag itself is fairly waterproof, but I think it’s an awesome idea to also use it as a preventative measure against theft.

Jacquelyn March 13, 2014 - 5:40 am

Such a great idea to use the cover, thanks!

Raymond Mettler October 17, 2013 - 3:10 am

What can I say is that you nailed all the pointers that needs to be remembered. You are a tourists, you should be responsible of your own safety. Always trust your intuition for it never gets your harmed.

Carrie October 23, 2013 - 5:57 pm

This is SUCH a fantastic post with so many great tips and many quite alarming stories. Bottom line – travel SMART but still enjoy the world! :o)

Brenna Holeman October 24, 2013 - 10:20 am

Thanks Carrie! I’m glad that you liked it. And that is totally the bottom line.

Alana - Paper Planes October 24, 2013 - 6:24 am

If I put my bag on the ground I wrap the handle or strap around the chair or table leg…

Brenna Holeman October 24, 2013 - 10:18 am

Yes – that’s a great idea!

The 10 Unavoidable Truths of Travel - This Battered Suitcase February 11, 2014 - 2:43 am

[…] there will probably be yet another scam developed by people hellbent upon ripping tourists off. Thieves are always evolving, and people will think of the most clever ways to get your money or your belongings. The best thing […]

Jacquelyn March 13, 2014 - 6:02 am

Hi Brenna, I found this through your 10 truths of travel post, and it’s really great! I’ve been travelling for years, often alone, and am typically pretty careful and aware (though not as much as you). I wanted to share a story of my sort of inevitable first theft recently in Thailand-a guy on a motorbike came from behind and ripped my small purse right off me. Of course I heard after that it apparently happens often there, and with good reason-very little you can do. Like many others say, it happened so fast, and I felt so stupid. Not only was I distracted by being lost (thanks to a huge inaccuracy by Google maps) and looking at a map picture on my phone, I was out in the street looking up at the signs, didn’t have my purse cross-body like usual, and forgot to take my wallet and other things out that I normally would at night-the 1 time it mattered. After being in Thailand for 6 weeks and only walking a few minutes (I thought) to meet friends, I was feeling a little too comfortable as well.

Bottom line: don’t get too comfortable, don’t let your guard down when lost, always wear your purse cross-body and AWAY from the street (I would normally have my hand on it also), only carry minimal essentials-esp at night. Love the cheap party camera idea. Minimalist tip: bras make great “wallets” for stashing money, day or night.

Brenna Holeman March 16, 2014 - 10:11 pm

Oh wow – I’m sorry to hear that! Thank you for sharing your story here, I hope that it helps somebody else.

Mandrew June 2, 2014 - 11:15 pm

Great tips! We’ve been diligent/lucky so far on our 10+ months in Central & South America. A friend of ours, though, recently had his bag stolen from the luggage compartment of an overnight bus to Santiago. Could happen to anyone! He had his passport, camera, laptop, hard-drive, EVERYTHING on it. That was definitely a mistake – don’t put all your eggs in one basket!

Brenna Holeman June 3, 2014 - 3:09 pm

I agree, NEVER put all your valuables in one place and always keep the most valuable stuff on your person. Thanks for adding the story!

Elayne March 19, 2015 - 1:18 pm

in over thirty years of travelling I have only been robbed once. My husband I were walking down from a volcano in Nicaragua at 4pm on a road with a few houses on it and several other people although we were at a distance from each other when five youths surrounded us and armed with a gun and two large knives robbed us (we. Didn’t bother putting up a fight!lol!). But as seasoned travellers they got very little other than my camera, we had been up the volcano after all and photos are always nice, and worst of all my beloved hat! Great article with a lot of top tips!

Katie Featherstone March 19, 2015 - 4:03 pm

Great advice Brenna. I was thrilled to return from South America with all my important stuff (- a broken camera) and I think it was down to advice just like this. It’s mostly about just being aware of what’s going on around you and knowing where everything is. To be fair some people are just very unlucky and I hear some stories that could have easily happened to me, but there are definitely ways to significantly cut down the risks.

Kathie September 16, 2015 - 8:26 am

Brenna has theft prevention pretty well covered, but there are also things you can do to minimise the impact if it does happen, both before and after the event – as we discovered from our experience of being burgled in Bali!

Lien December 2, 2015 - 5:51 am

Great tip, sir! I had the same situation when I traveled in Thailand and lost any things if I can read this useful tips earlier and take care all my belongs. Hope all expats will not face the same way like me when traveling to other countries. Thanks for sharing!

Rajiv July 11, 2016 - 3:05 pm

And all this while I thought this wrapping the backpack straps around the leg, keeping the strap hanging, being overtly cautious were things only I do!!

I can so relate to almost everything you have mentioned.


Brenna Holeman July 11, 2016 - 3:44 pm

Thanks, Rajiv! Happy travels.

Ross July 31, 2016 - 6:45 am

I have seen far to many posts on the Australia backpacker pages regarding missing cameras and GoPros. People don’t tend to care about the devices, they just want to get all their photos back.

Insurance can replace valuables but it can’t replace photos.

I wrote a guide about backing up photos while travelling, am I allowed to post the link here?

Steve July 25, 2019 - 9:09 pm

Hi Brenna,

Thanks for the great tips. I would also add watching for vendors invading your personal space, pretending to pull something out their pocket for you. I just had my sunglasses pulled off the front of my shirt by shifty vendor who had already tried to sell to my wife and kids. Luckily he didn’t grab my phone from my hands. All he made off with were $3 sunglasses, Getting into a fight might have escalated it, perhaps he might have been traveling with friends. Next time I will keep a better eye when people are badgering me to buy their goods.


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