How to keep your money safe while traveling in Europe

Traveling to Europe this summer? Here I share my experience and tips on how to travel safely without getting your valuables stolen in Europe (13 min read)

How to keep your money safe while traveling in Europe

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Especially in Europe.

We started planning for our much awaited family trip to Europe in January. Flight tickets, 2 out of 3 intercity tickets and Airbnb all booked, all we needed to focus on was the places to visit and things to do.

When I asked well-traveled friends to help me, apart from the usual what to see and what to do, I was suitably warned about Paris. I was told not to carry too much cash while walking around or in the Metro, not to use certain deserted Metro stations after evening hours, not to loaf around the streets once dark etc. I take well meaning advice quite seriously, so I did have all their words at the back of my mind, when we set out on our travel.

We flew from Mumbai to Amsterdam. When the connecting Thalys train from Schiphol brought us to Gare du Nord (the main station in Paris) at 9.30pm, my mind was all alert. We got out of the train, walked onto a deserted station platform. The Uniconnect card we had got for any emergency data use / calls promptly failed to work when we needed it the most to book an Uber cab. There we were, 3 of us, with our haversacks (which we wore on the front), 2 suitcases, with TOURIST written all over our face. With a station not providing any free wifi, and data card not working, I was feeling nervous. We needed to get a cab ASAP to reach our apartment. One random guy came running towards my husband from behind and did something behind his back and ran away. My husband told me, "it feels like someone has stuck something on my back". I turned him around and saw that the guy had squeezed half a bottle of mustard sauce over the back of his jacket. We were shocked at this nonsense and were quite shaken up. The station was almost empty now and a couple of police patrolling the place completely unconcerned, with a 'you better take care of yourself' attitude. Another guy quickly came around us to tell us, "See, there is bird shit on your jacket". In preparation for this trip, I had read about tips to stay safe in Paris and this was one of the modus operandi used by muggers and pickpockets- distract you with something and suddenly your bags are all gone. I quickly told off this guy in a loud voice, saying, “We know what it is, do not bother about it. Go away!"

We knew it was time to scoot from this highly dubious looking station we were stranded at. One old cabbie outside the station quoted €25 for dropping us off at a street 5 mins away, but it was not the time to be penny wise pound foolish, so we quickly loaded our luggage into this cab. I called the lady waiting for us at our Airbnb and spoke to her in a loud voice to expect us in 10 minutes so that the cabbie clearly understood that a local was waiting for us there. We reached our apartment in the next 10 minutes and climbed up the 4 floors lugging our bags. My heart was pounding hard and I could not wait to sleep the night and calm my nerves. We were quite horrified at this experience to put it mildly.

Next morning, we prepared our strategy well. No touristy bags, very little cash to be carried and certainly no passports on us while we walk around the city. We stuck to our plan for the next 4 days and nothing untoward happened.

On day 5, we took a cab to Gare du Nord, once again. In the peak hours of Monday morning, it did look quite different, and less intimidating. Subconsciously, we lowered our guard. We were an hour early for our Thalys train to Brussels. Now, all the cash we had was kept in a long wallet inside the middle compartment of our haversack along with the passports. The train compartment was quite empty, with some 10-12 other people. Since this is a point-to-point luxury train with no stops in between, we kept the haversack in the overhead compartment. It was an 80 minute journey and all of us were very much awake and talking, ironically, patting ourselves on the back for having gone through Paris with just a mustard splash. Just before Brussels station arrived, the husband pulled down his haversack, and opened the middle compartment. The wallet was gone, which had all the cash, credit and debit cards. We didn't know what struck us. We searched all our bags frantically and then resigned to our fate that we had indeed been robbed of a large sum of money, our spending money for the rest of the trip (10 more days).

Shocked, angry and sad, we walked around all of Brussels Midi looking for a police or an official to lodge a complaint. It was a Monday morning and no policeman in the entire station while we looked around for 45 minutes and the police station inside Brussels Midi was closed. We completely gave up at this point. Using some of the change and small cash we had on hand, we caught another local train and managed to reach our Airbnb apartment in a really sorry state of mind.

Thanks to my anguished tweets, some kind person from Twitter came over to where we were staying in Brussels and lent us some cash to get through the next few days. We had some money in a Forex card that was thankfully saved because it was in another wallet. Both put together, we somehow managed over the next 10 days. It was seriously tough to move on from such a big loss and a setback that turned our trip from luxury to shoe string. I tried to see the positive in all this, when hundreds of people messaged me on Twitter and sent me their good wishes, and so many others who offered to help us out. Of course, there were others who called me an idiot for carrying so much money and that I deserved it. Some others mocked us on how we had helped revive the Greek economy. The less I think of these people now, the better.

The next couple of days, my mind kept replaying the events on loop and I kept thinking on how we could have been more careful, on how we could have avoided this heartache of a situation.

It felt like all our fun spirit of the holidays was robbed. But we bounced back, buying local beers from the supermarkets, cooking dinners in the apartment, eating fries for lunch etc. and spending only on entry fees, which cannot be cut down in anyway. And what’s the point in traveling all the way if we come back without seeing all the places we had set out to see. We survived.

How to keep your money safe while traveling in Europe
Sign outside an eatery in Amsterdam that does not accept cash at all, only cards

So here's what I have learnt on how to keep your money safe in Europe. If my post saves even a single holiday from turning into a disaster because of a robbery, my job is done here.

How much money to carry for your trip in Europe

If your hotel / accommodation is already paid for, and so are your intercity trains, then €100 per person per day is good. I'm not taking into account dining at Michelin starred restaurants here. For regular eateries + public transport + must see sights in the city, this is a good benchmark.

Cash or card?

In Paris, even a €1 candy is paid for by card by the locals. There's a learning here. In a city rife with pickpockets, no one wants to carry any cash. Our Forex Card from India worked in most places here. The card even works at ticket vending machines in most stations. In Amsterdam, some supermarkets did not accept the Forex cash card, because they accepted only Maestro cards (not Master or Visa). So research the individual cities you are visiting to know of the acceptance of cards there. Otherwise, it is safe to say, carry 90% in a PIN enabled card and just 10% as cash. If there are two adults traveling, divide the card amount between two cards. That way you have already halved your risk and if one person wants to go someplace on their own, they have their own card to use.

Carrying the cash safely

Divide your money up. Do not ever keep it in a single place, like we did. This is granny wisdom and I'm sure everyone knows this. Even we did. But in the hassle of packing, checking in and airport panic, one tends to forget the basics. Divide up your cash into 4, between inside pockets and hidden money pouches, all to be carried on your person. If you have kept the cash in a pouch in your handbag, make sure that is placed on the side closer to your body and not facing outside. Please DO NOT carry open tote bags anywhere in Europe. They may look stylish but they are an open invitation to getting robbed. Always carry your haversack on the front of you. It's better to look stupid and/or pregnant than getting robbed. Never leave your cash in any bag that is not on your person, like a haversack in the overhead compartment, like we did.

What about passports?

Losing passports is literally hell unleashed on your vacation. When I tweeted about my incident on the Thalys, I got hundreds of mentions as to how people lost entire bags from the overhead compartments, which had cash, passports plus everything else of any consequence. So remember this rule - passports always on your person, inside secret jacket pockets or in a bag that you can hold close to your body. Never ever in an overhead back or open totes or any other pocket / bag that's easily pickpocketed. If you have a secure room or apartment, I suggest locking them inside during your daily trips in the city. Keep photos of the first and last pages and the visa on your phone, so that in case someone asks you, you have a valid ID to show. The last thing you want to be doing on your holiday is spending 3 days running to the Indian embassy or pleading with Ms. Sushma Swaraj on Twitter. A LOT of people consoled me that I was better off losing my cash to losing my passports. Even though it was a fairly large sum of money, I am in agreement with this.

Traveling on the intercity trains

We took 3 of these on our trip in Europe. 2 Thalys and 1 intercity from Brussels to Amsterdam. We appreciated that the latter had announcements every 5 minutes that there ARE pickpocketers on board, so take care of your money and belongings. Such announcements really help in keeping us alert. The Thalys had no such announcements, go figure. We also expect that a high end train with higher fares such as the Thalys wont have instances of theft, but we were robbed here. So do not let your guard down anywhere. The Thalys has overhead compartments to keep your hand baggage. Unless you have a locked bag with a chain (a la Indian Railways) to harness it to the overhead, do not keep anything here. Despite the discomfort to you / others, keep it on your lap or under your foot, with the strap of the bag going around your foot, so no one with sleight of hand (or foot) can steal it while you are busy admiring the scenery. The larger luggage will be expected to be kept at the entry of the compartment. Again, carry our Indian rail travel chain and lock to secure your suitcase here, otherwise be prepared to stand guard.

Do you need a money pouch or not?

Rick Steves says the only time he is uncomfortable is when he does not have a money pouch on him. Please do not mistake this for the over the belt fanny pack that tourists carry. That is a strict no-no. This money pouch goes over your underwear inside your pant / jeans/skirt. It is not to store your daily expenses, but more like a safe that carries your bigger money and your important docs like a passport that you simply cannot afford to lose. The smaller notes and a card for basic purchases will be in another place like a jeans pocket in the front or a pouch inside your handbag.

Behave like a local

We tourists are easy targets. Vulnerable, carrying more cash than necessary and its no surprise that the local thieves love to target us. Do not carry big haversacks for your local city tours. Leave that in your room. Carry a light weight crossbody bag with zips that you can carry close to you. It is best if you do not carry a map and look lost like a babe in the woods. Use an application called Download the city map you are visiting in advance. Mark out the routes you will be taking before leaving your hotel / apartment (you may need internet/wifi for this). And then looking all cool and casual, with phone in hand, like everyone else, you can be guided to your destinations. Once you have downloaded the maps, you don't need internet to use this to guide you on the road. Use forex card everywhere (wherever it works) so that no bystander suspects you of having any cash on you. If you plan to visit a certain locality, research it well. A search online will tell you how safe it is, after what hours it is not good to be walking around there, etc.

Be smart

Don't wear any showy watches or jewellery on you, that scream "I am loaded". In fact, I prefer wearing no jewellery during my travels, even taking off my ring most of the times. A inconspicuous black Fitbit keeps track of my walking and shows me the time. That's all I need.

While traveling in Europe, there are more chances that your stuff will get stolen than not. So always be super alert and take note of all the points I have mentioned. This summer, if Europe is your destination, then I hope you stay steps ahead of all the crooks and enjoy your holiday to the hilt.

Good luck!

Read about my Airbnb experience in Paris here:

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