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A column on the art of traveling well
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Conned, Robbed & Victimized
The Scary World of Hostelling (HA!)
Paul Otteson

Scary? Is not the whole of the hostelling world comprised of decent, caring, fun-loving folks like me who wouldn’t hurt a fly? Almost, but not quite. Oh, it’s true that a lot of the stories you hear about travel troubles are tired anecdotes that have been working their way around the globe for months. Some have achieved the status of legend — like the gems about whole train cars getting gassed with a sleeping drug in southern Italy, or volcano climbers being shot by armed thugs in Guatemala. I’m sure these stories originated in real incidents, and that they may still serve as valid cautionary tales, but the truth of them is a bit overblown.

Other tales, however, are all too current and represent categories of risk that are perennially genuine. Like the one about the guy who befriended a hosteller in New York then crossed the country with her to San Francisco. The would-be friendship grew, drawing in a third person, and the three decided to get an apartment together. They looked at places for awhile, finally selecting one that they all liked. That’s when our con man completed his scam. Claiming that the landlord would only accept a cashiers check for a deposit, he offered to take care of it through his bank and got his two marks to give him cash—$1000 each (yeah, rentals are pricey in SF). After supposedly taking care of business, our friend skipped town, saying that he had to say so long to a girlfriend in Chicago and he’d be back in a week. That was several months ago.

We hostellers are such good-natured people that we’re like deer in the headlights sometimes — though, admittedly, that scam might even have taken in savvy, jaded travelers. But is it really very likely that you’ll lose a thousand bucks to some con artist? No, it’s not very likely at all. That tale is real, but exceptional. It’s worth telling, however, to remind us all to be very very careful about handing over large sums of cash to people we don’t know all that well.

The risks much more likely to affect us are those that the police would describe as "petty" or label as "misdemeanors", yet that don’t seem small at all to the budget traveler. Here and there, once in awhile, hostellers get scammed, robbed, or otherwise victimized. Fortunately, all three are relatively easy to prevent or recover from. Even more fortunately, hostellers truly are a better breed, and such occurrences are rare. …Still, it pays to install a couple of general notions of safety and security in your brain before you head out.


Ah, the con artist — the scammer — what a foul blemish on humanity he or she is. There are people all over the planet who make at least part of their living by fooling people into parting with things of value. The example I described above is a big example in the budget travel realm. Most stories are smaller. Often, someone just befriends you for an hour or two, maybe at the bar or in the common room, then asks for a favor. "Shit, my mom was supposed to wire me some money but it didn’t get here yet, and now the office is closed until tomorrow at 9. Can you loan me $20 so I can pay for the hostel for tonight? I’ll have that $20 back to you no later than quarter after 9 tomorrow." Blah, blah, blah.

And you say, "Well, uh, you see–"

"Oh, forget it. No worries. I understand, I mean, you barely know me…"

"No, that’s okay. $20? Sure. But, I mean, I need it back because–"

"No sweat! The bank is only 4 blocks from here. We can meet for breakfast at 8, then walk over, and I’ll hand it right to you."

So it goes, and you’re $20 poorer.

The key thing to remember about con artists is that they only succeed if they have a scam that you won’t suspect. They are always trying to get you to trust them just enough, and then to get you to give away some money by appealing to you with some story, plan, request for a favor, call for human kindness, desperate plea, or something. They suck. Not only do they rip you off, they also predispose you to suspect the genuine and honest interchanges that are far more common.

If you’ve never been conned before, you are a prime target. That’s why con artists prey on the young and the very old. Young people are often inclined to be trusting, because they may never have been burned before. Old folks may simply have lost their ability to detect a scam in progress.

The answer? Be very reluctant to part with money or valuables under any circumstances, period. The more you’re being asked for, the more reluctant you should be. If, for any reason, people you don’t really know want to have your money and then be out of your sight for awhile, forget it. Offer to accompany the person to the ticket office or bank, or wherever. Offer to pay for the meal or the hostel night directly. Remember that con artists may have accomplices who seem to legitimize stories by their actions — some cons are truly elaborate. Harden your resolve so you can’t be bullied or seduced or shamed into losing a chunk of your travel budget..

Just don’t part with your cash and valuables unless you are dead certain you know what you’re doing.


I like to distinguish between two types of theft risk that the traveler faces. The first involves leaving things somewhere and having them stolen when they’re out of sight. The second is having things taken from right under your nose. Both happen on rare occasions in hostels, as well as to travelers in general. The risk of either occurring can be substantially minimized with a little care.

"I thought it would be safe!"

On the road, you often have to leave some of your gear somewhere while you’re off doing something. Maybe your pack is on the bus roof while you ride within. Perhaps your jacket is in the train compartment and you’re in the bar car. You might leave your camera bag on the café table while you dash to the toilet, or your pack on the hostel bunk when you’re out at the pubs, or your wallet in the bungalow as you bask on the beach. If a thief is working the area, all are at risk.

But what can you do? After all, no one wants to cart all of their stuff around everywhere, including me. Here are five useful sort-of-rules:

1. Keep the really valuable stuff with you always, no matter what, unless it can be absolutely secured—like in hostel or hotel behind-the-counter safe deposits.

2. Discourage theft of the rest by hiding, attaching, locking, or otherwise diminishing convenience to the thief. After all, these bozos are sneaky little chicken shit opportunists who go after the easy stuff first.

3. Protect your finances. Carry only as much cash as you need and/or feel comfortable with. Keep your travelers checks receipt separate from the checks so if you lose one, you won’t lose the other. Understand how you’re protected, if at all, if someone else uses your ATM or credit card.

4. Don’t take valuable, flashy stuff with you when you travel. Leave the shiny gizmos and fancy gadgets at home. Assume a generally drab, worn, low budget look and reality.

5. Lighten up! Don’t let the risk of theft worry you. It’s easy to get overly dependent and sentimental regarding your stuff because it’s your concrete link to the safety and security of home. …And, of course, because it has a lot to do with your real safety and security. But imagine discovering it’s gone! Run the scenarios of losing stuff or money, and then responding to the challenge. Get comfortable with the possible bumps in the road so that, if you hit one, it doesn’t ruin you travel attitude.

"But it was right here!"

Pickpockets and cutpurses — two precisely apt labels — are minor enemies in the battle to stay solvent on the road. The former look for pockets in loose clothing or openable packs and bags, then slip your valuables stealthily out of your possession and into theirs. The latter use razors to slice into packs and bags, or to cut the straps of travel wallets and fanny packs, then expertly lighten the load. Both depend upon distraction and anonymity to succeed, thus are found where crowds are thick and minds are on other things than security. They are defeated when there’s nothing to steal, or when your taking good care of all goodies.

To avoid making the day of a pickpocket or cutpurse, try the following when you’re exploring in cities or towns where people are concentrated:

* Keep valuables more or less in front of you, within the range of your peripheral vision. Don’t keep anything valuable in your daypack or fanny-mount belt pack (aka, fanny pack).

* Use a travel wallet or money belt, and use it as it should be used — under your clothing with straps hidden.

* If you carry a camera bag or wear a front-mount belt pack, hold onto it whenever your in a crowd, watching something going on, getting on and off urban transit, or anywhere else where people jostle about.

* If a distraction suddenly occurs near you — like an argument, or someone bumping into you or dropping something, or a swarm of kids, or anything at all — be alert and put your hands on your valuables. Hold that bag close, feel for your travel wallet, whatever.

* If trouble is brewing, get out. If it happens, make a scene. Definitely tell the police if you get robbed.

Another classic under-your-nose theft tactic is to catch you when you’re asleep, or might as well be. When you sleep in stations, on the grass in the park, at the beach, in trains and buses — in hostel dorms — or anywhere with public access, someone may creep up, look through your stuff, and take something away.

Let's face it, as budget travelers, we're likely to find ourselves in situations where we depend upon the integrity of strangers. About all you can do is to secure your valuables to the best extent possible, and make it very inconvenient for anyone to take your stuff. Consider the following options:

* Use lockers or behind-the-counter hostel safe deposit for anything of great value.

* Keep your moneybelt on you when you sleep, well covered by sheetsack or sleeping bag.

* Hide anything important—perhaps under your pillow, under you or your matress, tucked in a corner or against the wall, or anywhere else that make it hard to spot and awkward to steal.

* Lock, strap, or tie your pack to the bedframe, train baggage rack, station bench leg, etc., to make it challenging to take.

* Keep your goods out of sight and reach of open or openable windows and doors.

* Watch carefully as your baggage is handled, or as the goods come on and off the bus roof at stops.


The wise traveler is self-protecting, limiting risky activities and placing trust and confidence with care. But how can you prepare fully for the situations you'll meet on the road? Quite simply, you can't. Here are some excerpts from The World Awaits:

"Here's the big thing: There is a difference between preparing prudently and responding prudently. The former is a matter of taking advice and utilizing oft published conventional travel wisdom. Getting shots, buying insurance, using a money belt, etc., all fit this category. And yet, in my experience—though not in everyone's—prudent preparation is the lesser part of self-protection. Two of the three prudent preparation items I just listed as examples, I don't use anymore (I do get shots).

"...I believe that prudent response is the essence of self-protection for the traveler. Preparation is simply a kind of insurance that serves to keep doors of escape and amelioration open for you. Wise response is what allows you to deal with hassles for which you can't be insured, and to find alternative solutions to insurable problems for which you opt not to cover yourself.

"...How would you respond if your pack disappeared from the bus somewhere between Sao Paulo and Brasilia? What if you were hiking alone in Kenya, far from help, and you wrecked your ankle in a fall? How would you react if three drunk Moroccans accosted you at night in a dark lane of the medina (North African old city), showing about as much respect for your womanhood as you had for their abusive sexism?

"...Your voice is your friend. There's nothing like a berserk tirade to spook someone who's causing you a problem. Which would send you packing? "No, don't, please," or "AAAGH@#FU!$@NOOO!!!"

"...When in doubt, run away. If something's going on that smells risky, put your tail between your legs and skedaddle.


"The sad truth is that in much if not all of the world, women are treated as second class citizens. Their minds are ignored while their work is demanded. American women who are beginning to reap the benefits of a liberation that's only a few decades old will enter a world where it's still just a rumor. Even the reverence that men show women in a few cultures is a masked form of repression.

"On the other hand, applying western standards to the cultures of the developing world is idealistic at best. The reality of the histories which have led to the present moment is easily a match for high-mindedness. Idealism is made of goals and air. Though it provides fuel and direction for progress, it offers little but passion to the women traveler who absolutely must, in several parts of the planet, be careful.

"In the specific regions of the world where it's called for, women should follow these guidelines:

1 - Hitchhike with great caution. An unfortunate number of thoroughly self-justified men will see you as a potential sexual conquest.

2 - Dress conservatively. In some areas, showing belly, shoulder, leg and or arm skin is seen as offensive. In others, it is seen as an invitation to solicitation. In still others, women can be arrested for non-conservative dress.

3 - Avoid isolating yourself. Stay where the people are, with your travel partners, or alone in a safe place. The confidence of an accoster is boosted when there's no one else around.

"In Morocco one year, my friends Kristen and Lisa got caught up in a complicated scam in which they were taken to a "carpet weaving school", ostensibly to have a look. When there, they were served drugged tea. They kept just enough of there wits about them to make a scene and escape, thus avoiding rape. That's the plain truth. Others are not so lucky. Take care—but go!

"Prime yourself to respond prudently when confronted with the various, unpredictable challenges you might face. Run scenarios in your mind; imagine yourself sick, injured, lost, endangered or victimized. Prepare yourself to avoid panic, think quickly and respond effectively—and ready yourself to deal with disappointment, damage or defeat. ...Research your travel areas, learn about the likely hazards, prepare and insure to meet your personal need for security and confidence, prep your responsiveness, and go. The odds that you'll be badly damaged along the way are minuscule."

Happy Travels!

Paul Otteson
The World Awaits: How to Travel Far & Well
Managing Editor / Hostels.com