The Risk and Reward of Traveling with Valuables

Lake Como, Italy - Keep your kids close, and your electronics closer.

Lake Como, Italy – Keep your kids close, and your electronics closer.

Here’s a tip: Keep your eyes on your valuables when going through airport security.

Traveling with valuables is not unlike traveling with children. I might never know the latter – though my opinion on babies has transitioned, alarmingly, into one of approval and happiness – I definitely know the panic of a young mother, trying to keep her babies safe.

In my case, my babies are my bevy of electronics, over $3,000 worth of computer, camera, phone, and music gadgets. My backpack itself cost around $300, and then replacing my original pack cost another $220. (As it was stolen on my birthday [from my Berkeley room, scarily close to my laptop] my dad immediately replaced it. Thanks, Nanna!) The rest of my belongings probably cost, cumulatively, only a third to a sixth of the cost of my electronics, so I guarded my tech-bag like a goblin at Gringotts.

I took a few precautions, obviously – In the first three months of travel, I carried my valuables in what I called my “gypsy purse,” a giant blue hobo bag that disguised its contents. This really messed with my shoulders, though, as a computer and DSLR alone are quite heavy! In the second half, I carried my valuables in a specified camera backpack, then stuffed that gold brick inside a lockable duffel bag when traveling through Asia. (My dad had offered me the rolling duffel as a way to displace some weight from my back, as I had been experiencing pretty serious muscle spasms in my back and chest after the first leg of the trip. My doctor strongly advised me to take a rolling suitcase instead, but I compromised by dividing my pack into two bags.) Within the duffel, I would cover the backpack with random clothes or towels, though I usually locked it during travel anyway. The backpack itself had dedicated compartments for a laptop and a DSLR, and the zippers could usually be concealed. The duffel ended up being a bit cumbersome, and I abandoned it in London (if anyone is coming from London to California, by the way, or knows anyone who is, please let me know!!). Carrying the pack openly for the last two months required a bit more trust, but luckily I returned home with absolutely nothing stolen!

Bergen-Oslo Train, Norway

Bergen-Oslo Train, Norway

So with that said, here are some tips on traveling safe with valuables.

  • Consider travel insurance. I didn’t buy travel insurance, and I was fine, but I was lucky. Some might say that I was actually quite stupid, because losing $3,000 worth of electronics – not to mention all of my photos and work from the last year – probably would have given me a heart attack. I know far too many people who have not had the same luck; my friend Gabe had his iPod and speakers stolen from his hostel room, forgot his iPhone in his pocket when he jumped into the sea at Soundwave (luckily, rice seems to have done the trick), and left his laptop on an end table that ended up doused in water when another friend accidentally knocked a glass over in his sleep. Losing things, or having things stolen, is not a unique story amongst travelers, so travel insurance can be extremely valuable.
  • Stay with friends. I didn’t have to worry for much of the trip because I usually stayed with family, friends, friends of friends, or Couchsurfers. While the last option might seem a bit more suspicious, consider the fact that their house is also open to you – if they trust you to not bolt with their belongings, it’s fair to assume that they won’t do the same to you.
  • Bury the lead. Don’t leave your things in plain view when you’re stepping out of your hotel, hostel, or private bungalow. Though you have to engage a degree of trust, otherwise you would never leave your valuables alone, it’s wise to discourage theft by making your things a little bit harder to find. I generally maintain that people can be incredibly kind and trusting (how I was able to operate on credit when I lost my ATM card), but it’s important to factor in the very natural effects of the imbalance of wealth or even plain narcolepsy. I usually separated my laptop from the rest of my tech-bag and hid it under clothes and toiletries in my larger pack. I would cover locked bags with towels or more clothes to distract from the need to lock in the first place. Obviously, in places with lockers, I would stash my valuables, and oftentimes in such a way that the laptop flap was faced down. People might steal things anyway, but at least this way they have to work for it.
Portland, Oregon - Phase 1 Electronics

Portland, Oregon – Phase 1 Electronics

  • Remember where you put it. Sometimes it’s not thieves you have to worry about – it’s yourself. This oftentimes is the case with travel adapters, chargers, and other things you plug into your wall or another device. If you’ve lent out your camera cord, or your flashdrive, or your iPod, make sure to make a mental note so you can recover it before you move on. Try to keep your things together, particularly if you’re constantly on the move; it’ll make for less stress down the line. Don’t take your phone swimming, or crush your laptop when you forget you’ve put it on the bottom of your bag.
  • Bunch your zippers. This might be something you can do only with certain types of backpacks, but if you can, bring all of your zippers to one side, and then either lock them together or keep that side against your leg or back. I usually cover the zippers by slinging a sweater or a scarf over, then tying them around the handle. It doesn’t look conspicuous, and it will allow you more visibility if someone is nudging or going under your “security measures.”
  • Use your bed. In hostels without lockers, I usually sleep with my valuables in bed with me, right next to my head and the wall. When traveling in trains or buses, this is obviously a good idea – you don’t want to wake up to find your bags missing and absolutely no way to find out where they went. In more suspicious hostels, I would intentionally leave my bed messily unmade so that I could hide my backpack next to the pillow, under tossed sheets. It’s not foolproof, of course, but it works in circumstances when no one sees you leave the room and you don’t want to take your things with you.
  • Keep an eye on your things through transit. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to bring your huge pack on board a bus or a plane, so don’t place anything valuable or breakable in there. While some unscrupulous bus operators – notably those leaving from Khao San Road in Bangkok – might raid your things during various multi-hour trips, your most important items (passport, wallet, electronics, etc) should be on board with you. Even when you travel through airport security, be cautious of your things – keep an eye on your bags going through the conveyer belt, and when they ask you to have a look inside, make sure to remove your items in such a way that things aren’t spread out or easy to lose. I almost always get my small backpack checked, because basically 70% of it is electronic, and it’s a bit nerve-wracking to expose every valuable on grand display.
Copenhagen-Stockholm Train, Denmark / Sweden

Copenhagen-Stockholm Train, Denmark / Sweden

  • If you’ve got it, don’t flaunt it. Obviously. As per my last point, it’s not always easy to do, but it’s something many people forget. In most trustworthy locations, like any of the hostels I’ve listed here, you’re likely to be entering into a community in which you can be more or less sure that your fellow hostel-mates aren’t going to be stealing your stuff, if for no other reason than they’ve got their own laptops and cameras and valuables that they wouldn’t want you to snatch. But there are tricksters everywhere, and unfortunately thefts in hostels do occur not infrequently. If you scope a place out and feel more or less confident that you can be safe there, then feel free to pull your laptop out; you probably won’t end up using it that often if you’re really amongst friends. But aside from the necessary evils – there’s no easy way to disguise a DSLR with a zoom lens – you don’t need to make it known that you would be a thief’s wet dream. They’re thieves. They’re already looking out for signs.
  • Don’t bring as much stuff. Despite saying this, I know that if I had to do this trip over, I would still bring my 15″ MacBook Pro (13″ MacBook for the first three months), my Canon 600D (Canon Rebel XT for the first month; yes, it is possible to get decent photos on a Rebel, surprisingly!), my 28-135mm zoom lens and 50mm fixed lens (the latter of which I didn’t use as often, though it’s absolutely a necessary feature of any amateur travel photographer’s kit), my Samsung Galaxy S (old smartphone, I know, but it’s served me well: it has a keyboard and wifi, and I see no reason to contribute to society’s obsessed contribution to planned obsolescence), my circa-2007 iPod (R.I.P, my old friend!), and my travel adapters and travel phone and chargers and various related doodads. I think the only thing I wouldn’t bring is a Kindle, since I didn’t use it very often – though considering the enormous size of the highly recommended traveler’s favorite Shantaram, I wouldn’t say that a Kindle is without its perks.
    However, either due to different travel goals or the shorter length of their trips, most people won’t need all of these things. For me, photographing and blogging about the things I did and saw was a major motivation for my trip. iPads and MacBook Airs don’t have the space to store 20,000 photos (my year’s total) or the capacity to run Lightroom; I would end up lugging around an external hard-drive for storage with no ability to edit. Netbooks would be a better alternative, but are also limited in several ways. While I considered these alternatives, the comparable weight, the existing convenience, and the cost of a new laptop and a new HD all convinced me to stick with what I had. But others could save themselves a ton of space, backache, and headache, by simply choosing not to bring a full-sized laptop and a DSLR.
Koh Tao, Thailand

Koh Tao, Thailand

At the end of the day, what you pack is completely your choice. I didn’t go camping, so I didn’t need heavy and space-consuming equipment, and I’m small and low-maintenance enough to not need a ton of room for clothes, toiletries, make-up, and accessories. I decided to go tech-heavy, and considering how frequently I used my laptop and camera, I would say that the stress of carrying them paid off.

But of course, even if you followed every piece of advice I outlined above, shit happens – robbery, loss, or damage can still occur. The most important thing to consider when traveling with electronics is whether you can stand to lose anything you brought. Make sure to back up everything before you go, use cloud computing or some other online storage to save your photos and documents, and put passwords on all of your devices to protect them from prying eyes. After that, it’s just a matter of luck and vigilance!