How to Keep Your Money Safe While Traveling

One big treat that Sarah and I enjoy is an annual family vacation. We usually travel somewhere within the United States or Canada as a family, sometimes camping and sometimes staying in hotels. Sometimes we visit state and national parks, while other years involve visits to cities. I’ve been to most of the states in the U.S. at this point, as well as several other countries. (This summer, our family vacation involves camping in the northern woods in Wisconsin, as well as a multi-day stop in the Door County area.)

A major concern I always have when we’re traveling is the security of our money. The last thing I want to be doing on a family vacation is canceling a bunch of credit cards, taking identity theft prevention steps, and trying to figure out how to come up with enough cash to get home. That’s a nightmare scenario for me. I want vacations to be relaxing and fun for our whole family, and that means not stressful.

In fact, such an event happened to me when I was traveling alone. My pocket was picked in San Diego once. Thankfully, the only stuff in my wallet at the time was my driver’s license, one credit card that was already basically maxed out, and about $20 in cash, so I was easily able to replace all of those items. Still, it gave me great cause for concern for the future. What if I had been carrying more items in that wallet? It could have been a real disaster for me.

In order to prevent this kind of horrible scenario from happening, I’ve begun using a handful of tactics for each of our summer trips to improve our financial security. These tactics are, for the most part, independent from each other, so you may find that some tactics really don’t work for you while others make sense. I don’t use all of these tactics every time I travel myself. Instead, I pick and choose among them based on the situation. Some work well if you’re staying in a hotel. Others make more sense if you’re camping. Some work well in a city, while others work well in rural areas.

So what should you do? Pick and choose! Each one will improve your chances of maintaining the security of your money, credit cards, and identification materials while traveling.

Minimize your wallet before you leave. Don’t take a big, thick wallet with you. You won’t need the vast majority of those cards or other items, so clean out your wallet and leave the excess at home. That way, if something does happen to your wallet, you have far fewer things to worry about replacing.

Take at least two credit/debit cards with you and never keep them both in the same place. The reason here is obvious – and very valuable. Let’s say you’re out and about and your credit card gets misplaced or stolen. Sure, that’s a bad situation, but it’s not a disaster because you can simply go back to the hotel or campsite and retrieve the other card. It turns a disaster into a hiccup.

Leave photocopies of your documents at home where someone you trust can retrieve them. You’ll probably want to cancel a stolen card or recover stolen documents as quickly as possible, so leave a copy of your documents at home with someone you trust. That way, if you’re in a pinch, you can call that person to retrieve your card number and other information so that you can then call the customer service line and cancel the card before there’s any impact on your accounts.

Alert your credit card companies of your travel so they won’t decline charges and can properly identify instances of identity theft. This has happened to me in the past where I tried to use a credit card on vacation and it was declined due to suspicion of identity theft (I had suddenly traveled to a new part of the country). If you contact them in advance, they’ll change the settings on your account so that new charges in your destination area don’t trigger an identity theft decline.

Use a money belt. A money belt is simply a pouch with a strap that goes around your waist. This pouch is kept under your clothing so that it’s unexposed and thus essentially impossible for pickpockets to access. You can easily access it by stepping into a bathroom and accessing it in a stall. It’s a great place to keep your credit cards and such; I usually keep my credit cards in there and just have a tiny amount of cash in an easy-to-access pocket. That cash is exposed to a bit more risk than the cash and cards in my money belt, but then it’s really convenient when I’m walking around a marketplace or strolling through a park.

Use an ATM locator to avoid bogus locations. Criminals will set up “fake” ATMs in order to scrape credit card and debit card numbers. They look just like real ATMs but simply won’t work once you’ve swiped your card and enter your PIN. That’s because the criminals already have your info, so there’s no reason to give you cash. How can you avoid that? Use the ATM locator program on your bank’s website to identify legitimate ATMs near you and stick with just those ATMs.

Only use ATMs inside of bank locations instead of sitting out in the open. Occasionally, criminals are able to modify ATMs and add “skimming” devices that allow the criminals to take your credit card or debit card number and PIN. This is much more likely to happen with standalone ATMs and much less likely inside of bank locations. So, if you’re in a new area, make the effort to use an ATM inside of a bank location if you need to withdraw cash.

Keep at least some of your money and one credit card in your hotel room safe. If you’re staying at a hotel, take advantage of the hotel room safe. Put most of your cash and at least one of your credit cards in there and set a password that only you’ll know. This keeps your valuable items safe while you’re out and about and minimizes the losses if you lose the items you’re carrying or they’re stolen.

If the hotel room safe doesn’t seem secure or isn’t available, ask the hotel front desk about a hotel safe. Many hotels offer a safe in which you can keep your belongings, so simply ask at the front desk about it. I’ve kept belongings in hotel safes many times without an issue.

Use a secure phone password and don’t store website passwords or credit card information on there. This is good advice anywhere, but it’s great advice when traveling. A smart criminal can figure out your password by studying the marks on the screen, so make your password as complex as reasonably possible while traveling. That way, they can’t get in quite as easily. More important than that, though, don’t keep important passwords or credit card information on your phone. If someone can buy stuff on your phone by just using the stored passwords, you’re begging for a problem if your phone is stolen.

Leave expensive gadgets at home unless absolutely necessary. You probably don’t need your laptop while traveling, so why take it? Will you really use that SLR camera, or will you likely just leave it in the hotel room each day? If you’re not going to use it, don’t take it. It just becomes another thing to keep track of and another thing that can potentially get stolen. Use minimal gadgets. I use just my smartphone when traveling for everything – no need to take a SLR for family vacation pictures!

Keep cash and belongings spread out across multiple pockets. If you get struck by a pickpocket while out wandering around, it’s a bad move to have all of your stuff in one place. Wear clothing with multiple pockets and spread your stuff out among the pockets. That way, if you’re struck by a pickpocket, it won’t prove to be a disastrous end to your travels, but instead just a minor setback.

Carry a dummy wallet. Pick up a cheap wallet, then put some of the “fake” credit cards that banks often mail you along with a few loose bills in there and keep it with you. It can prove to be a lifesaver when getting mugged, as you can pull out the fake wallet and hand it over to the mugger. It can also be a good pickpocket deterrent as they may just grab the fake wallet and leave you alone.

Be smart on vacation. Take a few steps before you go and be mindful when you’re there. Keeping your money and your identity safe is always useful.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.