Travel Misadventures: What to Do (and Not Do) to Avoid Them
Advice for what to do and not do to avoid near disaster — stolen passport, phone, wallet with credit cards, money and driver’s license — on your next journey abroad. Photo: LightFieldStudios/Getty Images
This is a story about a trip to Tuscany, but it is not a travel story.
It is a cautionary tale.
Take heed and read to the end, where you will find advice for what to do and not do to avoid near disaster — stolen passport, phone, wallet with credit cards, money and driver’s license — on your next journey abroad.
We begin on a fine autumn Monday at 30 Via Zara in one of Rome’s upscale neighbourhoods, where seven of us were waiting anxiously for the Canadian Embassy to open: three older couples and a young woman. We came as penitents, from Florence, from Venice, from San Gimignano, pleading not for forgiveness but for passports.
Shamefacedly, we had to confess that, despite all the warnings and knowing better, we were nevertheless either careless tourists or victims of talented thieves. Or both.
Our passports had been stolen over the weekend and, in some cases, wallets and phones and purses, too. We were there early on Monday morning because the embassy was closed over the weekend and only the embassy (and not the Canadian Consulate in Milan) could replace them quickly.
Just how quickly was the overriding concern.
Without a passport, it was impossible to check into a hotel, board a plane, travel outside the EU or go home to Canada. Could the embassy staff possibly get all of us temporary passports before closing at 4:30 p.m.?
There were no promises. Typically, we were told, it takes two days to replace a lost or stolen passport. Information and documents need to be transferred back and forth between Rome and Ottawa, and it was 3 a.m. in Ottawa.
For all of us, it was a nerve-wracking day of pacing and nail biting. Would the Canadian bureaucracy come through?
Here’s why one couple came to the embassy:
They were in a restaurant. She left her purse with her passport and wallet on her chair beside her husband who could keep an eye on it while she went to the washroom. Some young women came into the restaurant and went to the bar, where they made a commotion, while the husband, and everyone else in the restaurant, looked on. Which meant, of course, he was no longer keeping an eye on the purse.
The gang of young women left the restaurant after only a few minutes, without ordering. His wife returned from the washroom and, lo and behold, there was no purse on the chair. The distraction, the couple concluded, was a setup so that her purse, and other valuables in the restaurant, could be snatched while no one was paying attention.
Now they were missing their flight home to Calgary but hoping to have her new passport in hand before the end of the day to make a flight on Tuesday.
Couple No. 2 were victims of an “own goal” and unscrupulous hotel staff.
She didn’t want to bring her passport with her while walking around Venice, so hid it under the pillow in the hotel room. When they moved to a different room, she forgot to take the hidden passport with her. Once she realized what had happened, she went back to the former hotel room, which had since been cleaned but had not yet been occupied. There was no passport under the pillow, or anywhere else. Hotel personnel denied that any passport had been found in the room.
The young woman who joined us at the embassy had been on a train and put her purse on the empty seat beside her. The train went dark as it traversed a short tunnel and by the time it emerged from the tunnel her purse was gone.
And now we come to couple No. 3: Us.
Friday was our first full day in Florence, after arriving the previous afternoon on a flight from Toronto, connecting in Munich. The first order of business was getting an Italian SIM card for our cell phones. The centre of Florence, where we were staying, was a madhouse, infested with tourists, mostly clumped in bus-size tour groups. Crowds swarmed the pedestrian walkways leading to the Piazza del Duomo and the Uffizi Gallery.
At the Windtre phone store, we had to show our passports, leave our phone for several hours and pay ahead, with my partner opening his wallet to take out a credit card, displaying to the young fellow at the counter his wallet ripe with credit cards and Euro, Canadian and American money we’d brought for the trip.
After picking up our phones with the Italian SIM cards installed, we stopped at a small café. I took out my phone, but my partner’s new, top-of-the-line phone was missing from the zippered hip pouch he wore slung over his shoulder. He paid the café bill with a credit card from his wallet, and we raced back to the phone shop. No, he hadn’t left it there. But it was gone.
And while he was searching again in the hip pouch for the phone, he realized that now his wallet with his driver’s license and both our passports were gone from the pouch, too.
We guessed that the clerk at the phone store was working with confederates on the street. Panic ensued.
At the police station where we reported the theft, the indifferent officer gave us forms to fill out, stamped them and gave us a copy.
Fortunately, I still had my wallet with credit cards and license and my phone. After frantic calls and emails to the Global Affairs Canada emergency assistance, it was clear that nothing could be done until Monday. We had to stay in the hotel we were already in because we couldn’t check in to another one until we had a passport. That meant cancelling plans to leave Florence over the weekend and start our Tuscany road trip.
As we couldn’t leave our Florence hotel until we had passports, we spent Sunday exploring and enjoying more of Florence as best we could, under the circumstances. We tried to avoid the most crowded tourist areas, observing how people were carrying, carefully or carelessly, their hip pouches, purses and backpacks. Sunday morning, we visited the surprisingly uncrowded Medici Chapels at the Church of San Lorenzo, where Michelangelo sculptures recline magnificently. Later, we ventured across the Arne to the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens and watched the sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo.
At the nearby San Lorenzo market, with its food court-style restaurant upstairs, we spoke to a local woman who told us that thievery and pickpocketing had increased exponentially because at last, after the lean pandemic years, the tourists were back in full force. The thieves, like shopkeepers and restaurateurs, had to make up for lost income. This was doubly so in late fall, she added, because the thieves were mostly immigrants who wanted to send money home for Christmas.
I felt a little better after that conversation, thinking that instead of our stolen valuables supporting a drug habit or high life, the proceeds were going towards making Christmas more cheerful for an impoverished family. At least, that’s what I wanted to think.
On Monday morning, at 6:30 a.m., we walked through empty streets and alleyways to the Florence Santa Maria Novella train station, downed a few espressos and boarded a 7:30 a.m. train to Rome, an hour-and-40-minute trip.
And that brings us to the Canadian Embassy.
After listening to my partner fuming at Global Affairs for not offering assistance over the weekend — “do emergencies happen only Monday to Friday?” he complained while I gently pointed out that it wasn’t as if we ‘d been thrown into a North Korean prison — we were greeted kindly and compassionately by embassy staff. They assured us that stolen passports and other valuables in Italy are a big problem, not just our problem.
(In fiscal year 2021-2022 — a very lean time for tourists — the Canadian Embassy in Rome issued 72 replacement passports due to the original passports being lost or stolen, a spokesperson for Global Affairs later informed me.)
The fortunate among us, including my partner, had copies of their passports which expedited the process. Foolishly, I didn’t. I had only my Ontario driver’s license and health card to prove my identity.
After filling out forms and supplying the names and contact information of two friends (not family members) who’d known us for several years, we were sent down the street to a photographer for new passport pictures. She knew exactly the dimensions and style required for replacement Canadian passports, explaining that she does them all the time.
With photos delivered, we found a small corner trattoria for lunch. Da Emilio was unpretentious, patronized by neighbourhood businessmen and families, and served superb spaghetti alla carbonara. The courtly older gentleman who stopped by our table was Emilio himself.
By the time we returned to the embassy, it was after 2 p.m. By 3:30 p.m,, we all were starting to panic. In the next hour, the young woman and both other couples were called to the desk and given their new temporary, white passports.
At that point, we were sure we’d be told to come back tomorrow because the embassy was closing.
Fortunately, generously, the staffers on our case remained at their posts, beyond quitting time, beyond the call of duty. At 4:50 p.m., we were handed our temporary, white passports, still warm from the printer. The white passport of shame is how I referred to it for the rest of the trip.
Here is advice for avoiding what happened to us:
Make copies of your passport and keep them separate from the originals as well as a copy back home with someone who can be reached easily. Along with the passport copy, keep a record of credit card numbers and phone numbers to call if they’re stolen.
Do not, for a moment, put a purse, pouch, backpack or phone down anywhere or hang it from a chair. Do not leave it even if someone is watching it for you or you think you’ll keep an eye on it every moment — because you won’t.
Do not connect a phone to a public charging station unless the phone is also safely tucked under your clothing or clutched in your hand. Montreal Gazette columnist Josh Freed recently wrote about his phone being stolen while he was sleepy and charging it at an Italian airport at 4 a.m.
Do not let yourself become distracted by someone approaching you or pretending to need help or by a commotion. Thieves work with partners and while someone or something is distracting you, a partner in crime takes the opportunity to rob you.
Ideally, keep your passport, money and credit cards in a money belt or pouch under your clothing. Keep what needs to be easily accessed in an ID-type wallet on a lanyard around your neck.
If you’re wearing a backpack, pouch or crossbody, make sure it’s positioned in front of you, not hanging at your side or slung over your shoulder or towards the back.
If you’re wearing a big backpack and must wear it on your back, make sure that all the zippers are completely closed. Back up against a wall if you stop to check your phone or tie your shoe. If there are two of you, only one should wear a backpack and the other person should walk close behind, and stand close behind if the backpack wearer stops rather than standing side by side, especially in crowded areas.
Don’t let anyone see the contents of your wallet. Take out the cash or credit card you need without exposing the wallet. Keep small amounts of cash and a credit card in a lanyard wallet.
Don’t rely on having important information available only on your phone or in one place.
Phones can be lost while travelling and even if they’re not stolen, you may not have phone numbers, reservation confirmations or addresses available unless you can access them another way.
If belongings are stolen, go to a police station and file a report as requested. This may be important for insurance purposes or for unauthorized credit card charges. Keep the copy of the report safe.
Report a stolen passport immediately as Canadian passports are valuable on the black market.
Global Affairs advises visiting their webpage on lost or stolen belongings abroad for more information on what to do if your passport is lost or stolen while you are outside of Canada. The Canadian Consular Services Charter webpage explains more about the services they provide to Canadians abroad.
One last piece of advice: Don’t let lost or stolen belongings spoil a trip abroad. Stay flexible and enjoy.