While traveling, it is amazing how often you learn something by making a mistake. One minute of error can cost you. But that is no reason to worry.
In travel, as in all of life, there are losses that will occur and they go with the territory. The key is to understand how they occur so you can minimize them and then to know what to do when they inevitably do occur.
And bag snatching is one of the main concerns of tourists to any big city.
My husband and I have firsthand knowledge of this because when we first arrived in Rome recently, we decided to save a few bucks and take the train to the hotel. Having taken a night flight (not recommended unless you can sleep on a plane) we had been up all day and all night. Add to that the sudden transition from English into Italian and train schedules that are printed so tiny that you can barely see them, we became confused.
Knowing as we do that there are “pickpockets” in Rome and many other big European cities (“pickpockets” is a misnomer as they do not limit themselves to the contents of your pockets.) we are normally pretty careful. In this instance, we were targeted.
The scam goes like this. A man comes up to you and sprays something on you then points out that you have shit on you. “Sheet! Sheet!” He yells while pointing. (It wasn’t shit but some substance) then he generously gives you a tissues to wipe it off. While you do so, another person steals your bags.
In this case, we never set our bags down at that point but they apparently followed us and when my husband put down his bags to put on his glasses to read the insanely small print on the train schedule, the thieves made off with his camera equipment and back pack containing his computer and his passport.
It was so fast that we hardly realized what had happened. These thieves obviously drill this and work in teams. They are pretty slick even though they are giant assholes.
In any case the question became, “What do I do when my passport gets lost or stolen in Rome?”
The answer is pretty simple. You have to go to the American Consulate if you are American. The consulate is on the Via Veneto in Rome and right next door to the embassy.
This is accessible on the metro if you take the red line and get off at the Piazza Barberini. From there head uphill on the Via Veneto and you will see the embassy first and the consulate right next to it. If you are a citizen of another country, you have to go either to your embassy or your consulate. Normally your hotel can give you good advice on this because losing your passport is a surprisingly common occurrence in Rome.
Our consulate was extremely quick about getting my husband’s passport replaced. We were there probably an hour total. According to the folks there, people come in every day having lost their passports. Bring some coins and money because it cost 5 Euros to use the coin operated photo machine and I think it cost about 120 Euros to replace the passport.
My advice is this, when travelling, if you need a copy of your passport to prove that you are American in order to take advantage of discounts which occasionally occur, targeting certain groups of tourists, make several copies of each passport, and keep your passport either in a locked suitcase in your room or in the hotel safe. Take the copies with you out and about and if you lose them, no bigs.
Now, if you have had your bags taken, you probably need a police report for insurance purposes. There is no other reason really to go to the police about a bag theft because you really don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting your stuff back unless the thieves suddenly find Jesus and turn themselves in. I am still waiting for news that this has ever occurred. ( i.e. never gonna happen.)
The police station is very close to the consulate. You can ask the consulate folks where the nearest one is and they will point the way. We found the station and headed upstairs.
the police station we went to did not look like any of our police stations in the US. There were no cells, only about three guys making conversation in the office and helping people make out reports. Well, one was helping people with reports, the other two were more or less there for moral support I guess.
There were two people ahead of us so I took the opportunity to catch a few Z’s with my mouth hanging open in the super comfy police chairs. The police office was in an old building. The windows were open catching the breeze. I could hear the sing song conversation of the person ahead of us explaining and acting out in detail exactly what occurred, accompanied by the shaking head and the tsk, tsk, tsk of the sympathetic officer.
When you combine that with jet lag, it lulls you into a soothing slumber where images of Italian trains and flight schedules run through your dreams accompanied by the smell of cafe and black tobacco.
When our turn arrived, I unfolded myself from the comfy police chair and went in. The officer loudly finished his conversation with his cohort about family matters that were on his mind and then turned his attention to us.
We related our unfortunate experience to him while he wagged his head from side to side expressing deepest disappointment in his fellow countrymen.
This was followed by an educational rundown of all possible ways a thief can distract your attention and slip away with your bags while you are in the Eternal City.
“One could be having coffee” he says, while sipping an imaginary cafe and expressing surprise and disgust when an imaginary thief makes off with his imaginary briefcase. “Or perhaps seeing a monument…” He opens his eyes in wide eyed amazement and sets down his imaginary bag to take a photo with his ghostly camera while the same phantom thief steals up and grabs it.
Once he completed our criminology course for the morning, he settled down to assist us in filling out the police report and allowed us to take photos of it to email to our insurance carrier. He then shook our hands wishing us a nice stay while extracting promises from us that we will be more careful next time.
Our job complete, we made our way out to the Via Veneto and a sidewalk cafe where we split a magnificent plate of pasta and a giant gelato sundae while watching the impeccably dressed Italian business men and women hurry by.
By mid afternoon, our chores were complete, Police report filed, my husband had new passport in hand and I had tons of information for a new blog post of what to do when this happens to you.
My take away on this is threefold:
1) When you arrive from a long trip and you know you are tired, take a taxi to the hotel.
Yes, they can be a bit pricey but when you look at the fact that we lost about $1,500 worth of camera gear, computers and other important items (no cash, thankfully) $60, is very cheap insurance.
2) When you are in a big European city, if anyone tries to distract you for any reason, be suspicious, especially if they are adamantly trying to get your attention.
There are all manner of scams out there. Most of them involve distracting you.
In my experience, Italians normally won’t care if you have shit on you, or your fly is open or you have toilet paper on your shoe. If they do, they are too polite to mention it.
3) Carry your belongings for the day in a small cross the body handbag.
Take only what you need and use a small handbag with a long strap that you can put across your body. This makes it a lot harder to steal.
Also BTW, if you are at a train station and a man in a blue shirt comes up and guides you to your cabin and then tries to carry your bags, be aware, these people do not work for the station, They are scammers who then advise you that you owe them 25 Euros for carrying your bags.
There are as many scams as there are thieves. Don’t be intimidated if someone does something for you without asking you, then demands money. You do not have to pay them.
The same goes for the gladiators you see at the Coliseum or in the piazzas. They are not sanctioned guides and they charge you money to take their photo. I have heard of people being threatened or having their cameras forcibly taken by these guys because they have taken a photo with one of them in it. My advice? Stay away from them.
The tour guides in Rome who work for the tour companies, have to have a degree in Art History and must be licensed. They are well regulated to ensure that you have a great experience and get correct information.
If you are looking for a great tour guide in Rome, I recommend Through Eternity Tours. Their guides are wonderful and you get correct information about the wonders that you are seeing.
All in all Rome is a wonderful city, in fact it is one of my favorite cities on planet earth. Everywhere you look, there are treasures put there for your wonder and enjoyment.
Unfortunately, anything that draws people and attention also draws the underbelly of the population looking to rip off and make a quick buck. Be aware, take precautions and if something happens, don’t panic! There is a work around for everything.
(Photo credits Pete Sobolev and Karen Murphy)