How to Travel Safely in Europe

Basic Rules: Be Aware and Protect Valuables

Catalonians Face An Uncertain Future After Independence Vote
Tourists on Barcelona's famous La Rambla street. Chris McGrath / Getty Images

The last thing you want to happen on a European trip of a lifetime is to be injured, have something stolen or just encounter a monumental hassle. Here's how you can minimize the possibility of something bad happening while you are on your trip.

Be Aware of Terrorism and Take Precautions

After the 2015 thorough 2017 terrorist attacks in Europe, many English-speaking countries issued travel advisories asking their citizens to exercise extreme caution and vigilance.

 While you can consider a rural vacation or head for the smaller cities and towns, most travelers to Europe want to visit the famous cities. Awareness of advisories issued by the State Department is important. 

The United States issues two types of advisories: the "Travel Warning" and the "Travel Alert." The "Travel Warning" is the more serious of the two and tends to be put in place when a country is so unstable that travel may be actively dangerous.

There is a general "Worldwide Caution" in effect as of July 2018. When a Worldwide Caution is put in place, the advice from the State Department is "U.S. citizens are strongly encouraged to maintain a high level of vigilance and practice good situational awareness."

The less-serious "Travel Alert" is usually issued in response to a particular event or condition such as a storm, planned protests, potentially contentious elections, even sporting events with a history of generating violent outbursts among fans.

There are ways to increase your safety when you travel. The U.S. Department of State urges citizens to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to which helps the embassy alert you in times of trouble. STEP is a free service allowing U.S. citizens and nationals traveling and living abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.

The program also assists family members in contacting you during your travels should there be an emergency. 

Avoid Violence

You are far less likely to be the victim of a violent crime in Europe than you are in the U.S. But even in the U.S., avoiding fights involving alcohol eliminates more than half the possibilities of violent crime being committed against you. You don't need to avoid bars and pubs in Europe, which are great places to socialize and get a feel for the country. Just walk away from any confrontations or leave when you see an altercation starting.

Some European cities are prone to strikes and protest marches. By keeping abreast of any planned protests or strikes via the local media, visitors can stay away from areas where there may be unrest. 

Dodge Hazards on the Street

There are many ways a thief can separate a tourist from their money—and Europe has a large share of talented thieves and pickpockets. Whatever story you hear, you can bet that the victim reports not feeling a thing while they were pickpocketed. Here are the most common threats:

  • Pickpockets: In major tourist destinations like Rome, Florence, and Barcelona, you will likely see or hear about travelers having their pockets picked or their purses snatched. There are ways to minimize the threat. Everyone should carry their valuables close to them. Carry valuables (money, passport, credit cards) in a sturdy, below-the-belt security wallet. Men should never carry a wallet in a back pocket. If you must wear a pouch above the belt, make sure it's hidden.
  • Thieves on Vespas: The little scooters can actually hold a team of snatchers. Watch out for them weaving through areas heavy with foot traffic. If you are carrying a bag, clutch it tightly and move away from the street.
  • Cardboard-Carrying Kids: If you are approached by a group of kids carrying a piece of cardboard with something written on it, walk away. The cardboard is used to distract you while they pick your pockets.

Street Smarts: Minimize the Possibility of Loss

  • Scan Your Surroundings: Know about and study your surroundings for things that make you uncomfortable. Back off if things don't feel right. Don't walk blindly into a noisy crowd.
  • Blend In: Wear similar clothing to what the locals wear. Don't wear clothing with your country's flag, hometown brands or political statements. Wear minimal jewelry. Learn a few words of the language, especially the "polite" words and learn some social customs.
  • Don't Keep Money and Valuables in One Place: Spread them out so that if one stash is found you don't lose everything. If you're going out, hand your valuables to the clerk in a sealed or locked bag to be put in your hotel's safe and watch it being done. If you have an in-room safe, use it.
  • Pay Attention at the ATM: As in the U.S., don't let people behind you see you enter your PIN number. Don't let anyone "help" you. While Europeans are generally helpful, it's unusual for them to offer their help when it isn't asked for—so be aware that someone offering you unsolicited help might be running a scam. One such scam is to put a sleeve in the ATM card slot that blocks your card from being read. The thieves stand behind as you enter and re-enter your PIN. Then you walk away thinking the machine has eaten your card and voila! the thieves retrieve your card and use it with the PIN you've provided them. 
  • ID Please—Ask to see identification if you are approached by a stranger in an unrecognized uniform. Beware especially if he asks to "count" your cash. Police don't usually do that.