FARGO – I thought Paris would be all macarons, art and wine.
And then I met my first pickpocket, and my iPhone was gone. Traveling abroad for the first time is exciting and scary.
1. Prep properly.
• Make sure you have your passport book. It’s required to travel overseas and re-enter the U.S.
And don’t confuse a passport book with a passport card. The latter is only good for travel by land or sea, not by airplane.
Visit http://travel.state.gov for more passport information.
• Photocopy your passport. Keep a copy for yourself and give one to someone who’s staying in the U.S.
• Check to see if your health insurance carries over abroad. If not, you can purchase short-term travel insurance at a site like http://insuremytrip.com.
• Learn at least a few phrases in the language of the country you’re visiting.
People appreciate when you try, and knowing a few phrases can make everyday things like ordering food easier.
A useful app for learning basic words and phrases is Duolingo. The free app has courses in six languages and users speak into their phone to ensure correct pronunciation.
2. Pack smartly.
• Pack anything of importance (medications, eyeglasses, valuable jewelry, etc.) in a carry-on bag (also, make sure that carry-on isn’t too big. Check with your airline so you won’t end up paying to check it.)
• Research the street style of the city or country you’re visiting so you get a feel for how to dress.
You’ll be more comfortable blending in with the locals and less likely to be targeted by pickpockets (see No. 5).
• If you’re bringing prescriptions, carry them in their original labeled containers.
3. Don’t forget the power converter.
Outlets and voltage are different in each country. In Europe, for example, the voltage is twice that of America’s.
If you’re planning to charge your cellphone, dry your hair or use other electronics, you need a power converter so you don’t fry your expensive devices.
Big-box stores sell power converters for about $40.
4. Money matters.
• Find a credit card with no foreign transaction fees.
Most credit cards charge a 3 percent fee for every foreign transaction, and it all adds up.
Check out http://nerdwallet.com for helpful tips and credit card recommendations.
• Withdrawing money usually has a fee, too.
I was charged 5 percent for any cash I withdrew abroad, but I had to have it on hand at all times.
Some foreign merchants (and Metro ticket dispensers, for example) don’t accept American credit cards, so cash (and coins) are essential.
5. Protect yourself from pickpockets.
European cities topped Trip Advisor’s list of the Global Pickpocket Top 10 in 2010. Paris was No. 3.
I learned this lesson the hard way and had my iPhone stolen from my jacket pocket as I chatted with the seemingly friendly pickpocket.
A few things to note about pickpockets and what to do if someone steals from you:
• Pickpockets can be children or adults, and they usually work in groups. They’re especially prevalent in tourist spots (think the Eiffel Tower or Champs Elysees in Paris) and busy areas like trains.
My pickpockets were women walking on the Champs Elysees carrying sheets of paper asking people to “support the blind and deaf.”
• If you stop to look at their paper (I did!), they use the opportunity to scope out your goods and swipe whatever’s in your pockets or open handbag/backpack.
• Another common way of pickpocketing is to try to wrap bracelets on unsuspecting wrists. The people (usually men) claim it’s a tradition in their home country. They really just want a few euros or whatever they can grab from your pockets.
• People standing with a giant map between their hands screams “tourist.” Travel websites recommend carrying a small map and always look like you know where you’re going, even if you don’t.
• Avoid anyone who looks suspicious or tries to distract you with items like a gold ring they “found” on the sidewalk, papers they want you to sign, etc.
• Don’t be afraid to ask a police officer for help. The U.S. Embassy recommends yelling for the police immediately if you know you’ve been pickpocketed.
• If something is stolen from you, file a complaint with the nearest police office so at least there’s a better chance of catching the perpetrator. You may also need the paperwork to file an insurance claim.
The chances of getting your stolen goods back are slim though (my iPhone is likely taking the selfies of someone in Europe).
• Don’t chase down the person who stole from you. Even if you catch them, they might not have your item, and then you’re the one in trouble.
• The bottom line: Don’t keep anything in your pockets. Guard your bags. Use a bag that zips. Don’t carry valuables or an excessive amount of money.