Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Europe, crime and kindness of strangers

Last November, my bag was stolen in London while I was having lunch at the British Museum. I had placed the bag between my feet on the floor, but didn't have it wrapped around my leg. When I rose to leave, the bag was gone ... along with my credit cards, cash, cell phone, camera and keys to the flat where I was staying.

I've just returned from another London visit ... with similar results. I was so paranoid about a replay of last year's loss that I took only the credit cards I needed out with me, in a money belt beneath my shirt. My camera and cell phone went in purse under my coat. And off I rushed to dinner, only to arrive at the Underground to find my money belt missing.

Seems the clip had come loose. Standing there, I could even remember the moment when it fell off. I was in such a hurry I didn't realize that the clank along the back of my foot was actually my money belt.

It wouldn't have been so bad, except that in my hurry I'd forsaken one of my own cardinal rules about valuables: Don't carry your passport unless you need it. So along with 75 pounds and two credit cards, I had lost my passport ... with a brand new, unused $163 visa for Cameroon inside.

NOT good.

My husband and I returned to the flat where we were staying, looking along the way for the belt. No luck.

Having learned from last year, I had brought copies of my cards and my passport. So I immediately cancelled the credit cards. And then I set out for the local police station -- familiar from my debacle last year -- to report the passport as lost. I'd take that report to the U.S. Embassy the next day.

"Hi. I need to report my passport as lost,'' I said glumly.

"What's your name?'' the officer asked.

Seems a miracle had occurred: Some kind soul had actually found the money belt and turned it in, cash, cards and passport intact. A happy Thanksgiving after all!

Though I had good fortune, many visitors to Europe are finding that crime is up. A man tried to snag my husband's wallet on the Underground. Fellow Miamian Carter Parsley had her purse stolen on a train in Geneva.

A colleague, Philip Brooker, reports someone recently tried to steel his wallet on the Paris Metro. He grabbed the would-be thief, who ran off. But he got lucky; French friends warned him that often, when you fight back, the thieves will stab you with a knitting needle.

How do you keep from being a target? The U.S. State Department (202-647-4000) advises travelers to dress conservatively and leave valuables at home.

More tips from the roadwise:

When you go out for the day, take only what you need for your excursion. Leave valuables in the hotel safe.

Keep your bag close to your body; never put it on the floor. Be
sure to keep your arm through a strap.

Take an extra credit card or ATM card as a backup.

Don't keep all your cash and cards in one place.

Consider a money belt or wallet, but wear them under your

Never put valuables, cash or credit cards in your checked bag.

Take only as much cash as you need. ATM machines are plentiful in most cities. An emergency travelers' check is a good idea.

Carry a copy of your passport. Alternatively, scan your passport
and e-mail it to yourself so you can download and print it in case of

Take along an extra set of passport photos.

E-mail your credit card companies' emergency phone numbers
to yourself, or carry a copy of them.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Hot tip: Get your passport ASAP

Been putting off getting that passport? Now is the time to get yourself in gear.

Beginning Jan. 8, 2007, all travelers except cruise ship passengers returning to the United States from the Caribbean, the Bahamas, Canada, Central America, Mexico and Bermuda must have a passport. Previously, only a birth certificate and photo I.D. were required.

If you're cruising, you've got until 2008 to get your passport. But it's smart to act now: In an emergency, you might need to fly home … and for that you'll need a passport.

Apply in person at many U.S. Post Offices. You'll need the application form, proof of citizenship (U.S. birth certificate or naturalization certificate), two color passport photos and valid photo ID. Children under 14 require consent of both parents or legal guardians. For info and forms, see the U.S. State Department website.

Processing time currently runs up to six weeks. Cost: $97 ages 16 and up, $82 for under 16.

If your existing passport is expiring, note that most foreign governments require at least six months remaining on your documents. If you have a valid passport, you can renew by mail. Cost: $67.

If you have to leave the country within the next two weeks, you can contact the Miami Passport Agency, 877-487-2778. You must make an appointment.

No Caribbean plans? Get your passport anyway. You never know when someone will invite you to breakfast … in Buenos Aires.