First of all, Italy is generally a safe country to travel in. However the unwary can end up with problems. The biggest of these problems are those of petty theft and the cloning of ATM and credit cards.
To be honest and as correctly pointed out by Italian Italy Chronicles reader Marco in a comment below, the problems travellers may face in Italy are very similar to the kinds of problems facing tourists in London, Washington and any other major tourist destinations. If anything, Italy is safer than many other countries around the world. The chances, for example, of inadvertently wandering into gang land in Italy are virtually zero.
Murder and rape are uncommon crimes in Italy, and Italy comes 47th in the world in terms of murders per 1000 people – this is a third of the murder rate in the USA. And don’t worry about getting caught up in the middle of a mafia war!
As the holiday season is just about upon us, here are some travel safety tips to help ensure your trip to Italy remains as pleasant as you expect and that unexpected surprises are kept to a minimum.
While these travel safety tips apply to Italy, they may well help anyone travelling in any unfamiliar land – not just Italy.
That old adage, “better safe than sorry”, really does count. And prevention is always better than cure, to coin another cliché. Call it “risk management”, if you will.
Especially valuable items like top of the range digital SLR cameras and equipment may require separate insurance.
While not exactly travel safety, you will also find some information on high fines which tourists in Italy can receive if they do innocent seeming little things like wearing bikinis, building sandcastles and buying handbags from the friendly, if annoying, beach-roaming salesmen.
Women are more susceptible to theft than men owing to the fact that many carry handbags.
Women’s handbags are amazing things. Some are a large a sacks and the contents can be extremely diverse! The weight of these portable life-containers can be such that it’s surprising that their carriers do not walk with a lurch.
Anyway, handbags are a favourite target of thieves in Italy. Unsavoury types will either rifle through a handbag while you are distracted, or will simply take the whole bag.
Choose Your Bag Wisely
Right ladies, I’m about to give you a great excuse for going out and shopping for a new handbag for your trip to Italy!
The choice of handbag can make a difference. Aside from shoulder straps – which are a must-have, try to take a bag with inner compartments which have zips – and keep money, documents and other vacation essentials like mobile phones and cameras zipped in these inner pockets.
Bags with zippers are a better idea for travellers than handbags with clasp fastening systems as unzipping a bag is more difficult than undoing one of those convenient (for thieves!) magnetic clasps. Yes, a difficult to open bag may be a pain to use, but it will also be a pain in the neck for thieves too, who will pick on some other lady – probably someone with a clasp-closed bag. Thieves are very well informed on such things and may be tempted to change target if they realise that the bag in question is not going to be easy to open.
Of course, keep all bags closed at all times – make a habit of closing your bag immediately after opening it – ladies who leave their bags open are easy meat for dishonest types.
Ladies should have bags with shoulder straps, and should make sure they do not walk with their bags facing the street side. And keep your hand over your bag, like Italian ladies do, for added security.
In the enticing, narrow and atmospheric side streets of Naples and Palermo, scooter mounted thieves will ride by (even in Italy’s northern cities, scooter thieves prowl), and may cut the shoulder-strap with a knife before whizzing off into the distance.
If possible, carry credit cards, money and other documents on your person, so if you do become ‘separated’ from your handbag, you’ll still be able to get by.
Men usually keep them in their pockets, which, of course, is common knowledge to the world’s pickpockets.
In crowded areas – read most of Italy’s tourist honey pots – wallets carried in back pockets make an attractive target for thieves.
To reduce the risk, don’t carry a wallet, or if you do, carry it in a marsupial type bag which should be mounted under your tummy.
Alternatively, carry cash in your front trouser pockets (banknote clips are a good idea) and keep credit cards in one of those slim transparent plastic cases in the same place. Just watch out you don’t dislodge those banknotes when you pull out your hanky to mop that sweaty brow!
These tips should help you avoid unnecessary loses.
Markets in Italy are attractive locations for tourists, and thieves who expect easy pickings in terms of purses, wallets, and mobile phones, plus, if they get lucky, documents like passports which can be sold on.
Look like a Local
Avoid opulence. This shouts: “I have money, rob me.”. Dress conservatively and try to blend in with the locals in cities.
If you tend to travel with a troop of bodyguards, you can wear what you like!
In beach side towns you can just about wear what you like – although some towns in Italy fine people for wearing beachwear on the streets.
While on the subject of beaches – beware when you are there. Leaving bags or other items like mobile phones and cameras unattended is a no no.
Holiday Mood Busting Fines
It’s very tempting to sit at one of Italy’s many alluring street side bars and cafes and watch the world go round. Watch out though, all that relaxation can lull you into a false sense of security.
Stop reading, start speaking
Stop translating in your head and start speaking Italian for real with the only audio course that prompt you to speak.
When sitting at street bars, try to pick inner tables which cannot be reached from the street – otherwise someone might lean over and pinch your camera or bag while you are not looking. If you cannot sit where you want, keep bags and other items out of easy reach. Put you leg through the strap of a bag so some thieving kid cannot reach through and take it.
Camera bags should not look like camera bags.
The easiest thing to do is to place that well padded (and expensive) camera bag with its expensive lenses inside another bag, a cheap ruck sack or such like, to disguise it.
When out taking fabulous night shots, watch out for people who take a lot of interest in what you are doing – if possible, go take night photographs in pairs or small groups.
No Valuables in Cars
You’ve probably already read this on numerous travel web sites, but I’m going to repeat it all the same. Do not leave valuables in your car – even if they are out of sight, and even if you leave your car only for a few minutes.
Some thieves keep an eye on tourist areas and recognise foreigners when they arrive, then they will wait until the coast is clear, and ‘examine’ your car more closely. Bye, bye everything of value – probably everything, full stop.
You’ll attract less attention if you have an anonymous looking hire/rental car too.
Whereas in the USA unsuspecting tourists can end up in the middle of gang land territory without being aware of it, those travelling in Italy should not have such problems. Only Naples, Palermo and Rome have no-go areas – but scruffy looking high-rise apartment buildings should help you understand you’ve ended up in the wrong place.
As a rule though, Italy’s no-go areas are so tiny that by the time (and if) you realise you are there, you will probably be driving out of the dodgy area.
Watch out for the Scampia area of Naples – but many tourists will never end up in this downtrodden area of Naples.
Even if their battery life is not fabulous – I know, I have an iPhone 4, they are handy things. They act as portable maps, GPS systems, guidebooks, Tweeting and blogging platforms and can even help your camera find the right exposure settings, amongst many other things.
These amazing devices are also instantly recognisable too – that distinctive Apple logo which can been seen on ‘naked’ iPhones, or iPhones with transparent cases acts as a magnet for thieves. And while you are using the things, you are distracted and so you might not notice someone who is walking to one side of you ready to pounce and literally grab the iPhone from your sweaty little hands.
Don’t, whatever you do, leave an iPhone on a cafe table unattended for even a few moments if you treasure your portable bag of tricks.
My Italian other half has had her ATM card cloned again. That’s twice now. If such a thing happens on holiday, you can face major hassles.
The easiest way to avoid cloning is to pay cash – but keep an eye on ATM machines for something which looks out of place. Cash machines in tourist areas must be very attractive for the card cloning gangs who will no doubt take advantage of the high season to ‘fix’ ATM machines.
Credit cards are a little safer – but nobody bothers checking signatures in Italy and credit cards can be cloned too and very easily. You might not know until you arrive home and receive a credit card bill made to make your eyes water, or a call from your bank.
How can you avoid problems? Well, one way is to use the text messaging system which some banks operate. These handy systems – and I use one – send a message to your mobile phone every time a transaction is made. If your bank can do this while you are in Italy – then arrange for it to be done – sometimes credit card companies can do this too. It might even be worth getting a credit card which comes with this service, even if only for the holiday period.
As soon as you see an unauthorised charge, call the credit card company and have the card blocked. Sometimes text messages are instantaneous, while other times there can be a delay. Think carefully before you query a credit card payment and stop that card as it is not always clear which company is taking money. In Italy, the registered names of shops may well be different from the actual shop name. However, if you see a transaction which happened in Spain while you are in Italy – your card has most probably been cloned – block it there and then.
Do not delay that call to the credit card company and, to be on the safe side, report the incident to the police in Italy – this will help with insurance claims too.
Check your Change, and Banknotes
For two reasons – check your change immediately after making a purchase.
Firstly, ensure the change is correct. An old trick is to mix up the similar looking one and two Euro coins or to craftily slip in an worthless 500 lire or, rarely nowadays, a 1000 lire coin, both of which look very similar to a one Euro coin.
Here is a 1000 lire coin:
And this is the current one Euro coin:
Secondly, keep an eye open for forged banknotes – and I’ve been caught out by this.
At the very least, make sure the banknote has a metallic strip running though it. Forged banknotes can be very difficult to spot, but as a rough guide, if they feel thinner and the print does not have an embossed feel, be wary.
You’ll probably only discover you’ve been had when you try to pay for something else and the seller rejects the banknote – which is what happened to me.
If Something Does Happen
Report it to the police and ensure you get a copy of the theft report – otherwise your travel insurer will not pay up.
Keep your wits about you, and you won’t end up being fleeced in Italy like two poor Japanese tourists who ended up paying well over the odds for meal in a Rome restaurant.
Those who want to feel better safe than sorry should take out good travel insurance.
White handbag image by David Shankbone