Travel Guide to Portugal

Important Tips for Avoiding Petty Theft in Spain and Portugal

By Gabriella Opaz

pickpocketsIt’ a gorgeous summer day in Barcelona, as I saunter mindlessly into the pharmacy with my aged Peruvian wallet in hand. Requesting 500mg of Ibuprofen, the pharmacist pushes her long chestnut hair behind her ears, gently wraps the box in a thick brown paper and tallies up my bill. “That’s two euros fifty,” she smiles through hot pink lipstick.

Unzipping my wallet, I feel a slight breeze over my shoulder before my wallet is swiped out my hand. In the flash of a second, a small child – no more than six – tears back through the glass doors and down the medieval cobbled streets. Shocked, I scream a half dozen explicatives before I take off in hot pursuit. “STOP!” I yell.”Someone get that kid!” But my pathetic cries evaporate in the steamy summer air. On some windy sidestreet of the Gotica, I’m left with a broken stiletto, no wallet and a half dozen grandmothers lecturing me on what an abusive mother I am.

Moral of the story, don’t be me! I’ve been robbed 3 times in Iberia, because I’m the perfect storm of small, nonthreatening and foreign looking – not to mention, trusting. If there was a poster child for prey, my face would be plastered across the cityscape. Now, this is not to say that Iberia is violent or rampant with crime. It’s the opposite! Spain and Portugal happen to be two of the safest countries I’ve ever lived – filled with loving, kind and incredibly generous people, but like the majority of the world, petty theft exists. So allow us to offer a few helpful tips to ensure your next trip to Iberia is a treasured one. (photo by Nils -Erik Larsson)

Rule #1: Gentleman, Keep It in the Front

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone with a ginormous billfold in their back pocket. Unless you’re packing heat, or moonlight as a drug dealer, slim down that bad-boy to the size of a pamphlet by using the hotel safe. It not only saves you the headache of spending the weekend canceling two dozen credit cards, but it may also thwart a future appointment with a chiropractor due to the massive lump on your backside.

Takeaway: Keep your wallet and mobile in your front pocket where wandering hands have a more difficult time reaching for it without requesting a date.

Rule #2: Ladies, Cinch It!

This may hamper your style, but don’t take this suggestion lightly. Find a cinch bag with hefty straps and shift it to the front. My last robbery happened on the metro where I was carrying a variety of beachwear in a single-button bag draped casually over my shoulder. But with summer, comes tourism, creating momentary gridlocks of chaos. Instead of watching my bag, I sought the exit sign in a desperate attempt to reach the waves. It wasn’t until I saddled up to a cozy beach bar along the Mediterranean that I realized my afternoon would consist of dishwashing to pay for my grilled sardines and half bottle of rose Cava.

Takeaway: Unless you’re 10 feet tall and built like a Marine, keep your valuables to a minimum and always in front of you. If you prefer a purse, just make sure it zips and can held easily at your waist. Never ever put it down on the ground when you sit, nor on the chair behind you. It’s your baby, so keep it close.

PickpocketRule #3: The Dark Side of Collaboration

I’ll be the first one to support collaboration on any level; however, teamwork can also work against you. Years ago, while walking home in the wee hours of the night, I watched  a couple exit an airport shuttle and break open a city map in the center Plaça Catalunya – considered a major hub of the city. Casually glancing around the cityscape, a man in his thirties walked up to the husband informally asking for the time. But in some super devious way, he didn’t just ask for the hour, he lured the husband away from their bags while the wife drew closer in curious anticipation. Not 10 seconds later, one of their bags vanished into thin air. Neither I, nor anyone else at the bus station, saw it happen. I’ve often wondered if magicians moonlight as thieves.

Takeaway: Keep cognizant of anyone drawing your attention away from your possessions at all times! Not that you shouldn’t help someone, or that someone shouldn’t help you, but just be aware of your valuables and your surroundings. 

Rule #4: Keep Cash and Transport Tickets Separate!

If it hasn’t become apparent yet, underground trains are a haven for petty theft. Dark, crowded and chaotic, you really can’t ask for a better setup. Case in point, metro stalls. On a busy Monday morning, as I was entering the metal stall to scan my car, while someone on the exiting side whisked my wallet out of my hand and darted out the door. I, unfortunately, was trapped on the opposing side of the stall sans wallet, nor any way of catching the dude on his way to spend my 20 euros on what may have been a cool glass of sangria.

Takeaway: Spread the wealth! Create a system where your cards, money and transport cards are secreted away in different pockets. There’s no reason to keep your entire existence in one area. If you’re a couple, divvy up the loot among you both! 

Rule #5: Reinventing the “Art” of Prostitution

For anyone who has walked the Ramblas, or the Raval at night, you are well aware of the posse of prostitutes roaming the narrow city streets. And as much as they might be tempting for some, allow me to warn you, the game has just gotten more interesting. Instead of just saddling up beside you to garner your attention, their new primary goal is to grab your keys and follow you back to your abode. Upon arriving to your hotel room / apartment/ etc, they’ll wait quietly until you decide to seek help elsewhere for your “misplaced” keys before cleaning out your place. Crafty, no?

Takeaway: If you see a scantily clad woman wanting to get personal, keep your distance! 

Rule #6: Focus Young Grasshopper

SmartSo you’re in the middle of Lisbon, with absolutely no baring as to where you are. All you see are stairs heading every which direction, and all you know is that you’re hotel is located on some side street in the Chiado. You’re wearing a NYC Giants t-shirt, while staring desperately at your smartphone set to Google maps. If you want to tempt fate, you’ve just written the user’s guide.

Takeaway: Even if you’ve sampled a few too many glasses of Vintage port, look focused and in route to a set location. If you need to look at a physical map, or GPS, be conscious of your possessions and who’s around you. In a pinch, dip into a hotel where they can typically guide you to your desired location. (photo by Christian Hornick)

Rule #7: Mobile Security

Nowadays, there’s nothing worst than having your phone stolen. For many of us, it’s your oracle, housing everything from your bank information to your hopes and dreams. So make sure you have security and anti-theft software installed to prevent someone from getting into it. You can also find a cover that makes it look like a calculator, book or old notepad – a cheap investment for a longterm gain.

Takeway: Beyond the basics of mobile security, ask yourself…do I really need to bring it with me? If you can avoid it, do it. When puttering around high traffic areas to take in the sites, you can always go to your friendly neighborhood hotel to use their phone.  


If the unlikely situation occurs that your wallet, phone or camera is stolen, hightail it to the police and file a report. If you’re a bit sketchy on where it is, or don’t trust your language skills (or theirs), then head to a hotel – higher end preferably. They can not only guide your through the filing process, but offer a phone to cancel your cards. If we’ve done our job right, that will only take you a few moments, because the bulk of the cards/IDs are safely stored away in your hotel safe.

Ever heard of Lastpass? If not, sign up! Lastpass is an online password manager that is not only safe, but incredibly convenient when you need to cancel your credit cards, find passport info or need essential number when stranded without a phone or wallet. Again, head to a hotel, sign in and start dialing.

Finally, remember that you’re never alone. Spain and Portugal is filled with amazing people willing to lend a hand and protect your wallet at anytime! That said, if you should have additional suggestions to keep yourself safe while visiting, share away!


Gabriella Opaz

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