How to Travel Safely in Europe

Basic Rules: Be Aware and Protect Valuables

It was a beautiful evening
••• Kirstin Mckee / Getty Images

The last thing you want to happen on a European trip of a lifetime is an event that crosses the safety line and causes hurt, injury, loss or even just monumental hassle. Here's how you can minimize their possibility.

Violent Hurt or Injury

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 bar fights 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.

Terrorism

As endless war, religion and politics collide, there are increasing incidents of terrorism in Europe, and it's really off-putting for many Americans.  

Since 2004, Europe has suffered terrorist attacks that took the lives of hundreds in the Madrid and London train bombings, the Norway attacks, the multiple attacks on Paris, the Brussels bombings and attacks in Berlin, Munich and Nice, and the London Parliament attack. The attacks on Paris (January and November 2015), Brussels, Berlin, Nice and Munich and on the London Parliament all took place between January 2015 and March 2017, indicating a ramping up by terrorists.

So what can a person do to plan a relatively safe vacation in Europe? For now, cities carry the brunt of the terrorist attacks, so you might consider a rural vacation or head for the smaller cities and towns.

If one of the world's greatest cities is your destination, keep your guard up, as you would in any large city in the U.S. Check out the terrorism alert situation, check in with the U.S. Department of State before you go and know where the U.S. embassy is located in the city you are visiting.

Hazards on the Street

Yes, there are many ways a thief can separate a tourist from his money -- and Europe has a large share of talented thieves and pickpockets.

Whatever story you hear, you can bet that "I didn't feel a thing" is part of it. 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 picked or snatched. Women should abandon the whole idea of purses. Men should not carry a wallet in a back pocket. All should carry valuables (money, passport, credit cards) in a sturdy, below-the-belt security wallet. There have been reports of under-the-shirt "security" pouches being razored off of tourists caught in crowds. Remember, it's not liable to be that clean of a surgical procedure if it happens to you. If you must wear a pouch above the belt, make sure it's hidden and doesn't bulge out with your pecs under a tight T-shirt.
  • Bugged by Vespas -- The little scooters, whose exhaust pipes are lacerated by youths wanting them to sound even more annoying than they were designed to sound, can hold a team of snatchers. Watch out for them weaving through areas heavy with foot traffic -- they can be eying that camera bag of yours. Clutch your bag tightly (you should never just let it hang) and be prepared to kick the bike away -- if it's not going too fast. Don't forget to let go if they've managed to grab on. Whatever is in there isn't worth losing an arm over.
  • Cardboard-Carrying Kids -- If you see a group of unwashed kids coming toward you carrying a piece of cardboard with gibberish written on it, you'd better batten down the hatches -- the cardboard is to distract you while they pick you clean. It's OK to gently push them away.
  • Women With Over-Swaddled Babies in the Summer -- If you're on a crowded subway next to an overdressed woman holding an equally over-dressed toddler, it's likely that all that excess cloth is hiding her wandering hands. Don't be distracted by the cute, sweating kid. Move.

Street Smarts: Minimize the Possibility of Loss

  • Don't Just Look, See -- Know and study your surroundings for things that make you uncomfortable. Back off if it doesn't feel right. Don't walk blindly into a noisy crowd.
  • Blend In -- Wear clothing like the locals. Don't broadcast your wealth or use your clothing to advertise your radical U.S. political opinions. Wear minimal jewelry. Relax and look like you belong there. Learn a few words of the language, especially the "polite" words.
  • Don't Keep Money and Valuables in the Same Place  -- Spread them out so that if one stash is found you don't lose everything. Always leave yourself an out. 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 that he does 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 of these scams is to put a sleeve in the ATM card socket 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 you card and voila! the thieves retrieve your card and use it with the PIN you've provided them. If your card doesn't seem to work, run your finger over the slot before you give up on it. The thieves will have to have left a tab so that they can retrieve your card when you walk away.
  • 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.
  • Don't Grab for That Wallet -- It's human nature to read a sign saying "watch for pickpockets" and then grab to see if your wallet is still there. This is the wrong thing to do, of course, since it allows a pickpocket to zero in on your valuables.