Travel Tips for the Sophisticated Woman



by Laura Vestanen

Good habits, common sense, information, and awareness of your environment can keep you happy and safe.  Safe behaviors are easy to adopt and you will be surprised at how little effort it takes.

Passports and Visas

These documents can take months to get, so apply for them right away.  The main post office in your town can probably help you apply for a passport.  Ask your travel agent to arrange for your visa applications. Visit my  companion Website,, for a direct link to companies that handle applications for passports and other documents.  Ask your travel agent if the countries you will be visiting will require documentation of being free of the HIV virus.  If yes, ask her to arrange the documents you will need or tell you how to get them. Researching the Center for Disease Controlís Web site can be helpful.

If the picture on your passport does not show you at your best, be glad.  After ten or sixteen hours on a plane, I am certainly not at my most glamorous.  I am relieved that Passport Control will see a picture of me that easily relates to the tired face they see rather than seeing a gorgeous photo and thinking I am drunk or worse.


Carrying valuables

Donít put valuables in your purse. Wear a security pouch/wallet.  If you are sleeping in quarters shared with people you donít know well (such as the sleeping compartment of a train), wear your security wallet when you are sleeping.  If you take a dress, a waist security belt may be impractical.  In that case, take a half-slip with a zippered security pocket sewn into the front panel.

Your purse is still useful for carrying camera, maps, lipstick, comb, sunglasses, toilet seat cover, Handiwipes, Kleenex, sunscreen, and a small amount of cash.  Keep coins or small bills in your pocket for subways, buses and tipping so you donít have to open your purse.  If your purse has a long shoulder strap, drape it over your head so that the strap crosses your torso diagonally.  This makes it more difficult for thieves to grab.  Wide straps are safer and more comfortable than thin ones.  Straps of chain are even more secure, but less comfortable.  Wear your purse so that the flap is against your body, not facing out.  Donít carry a purse that has a top zipper or snap opening.

Carry your camera in your purse or a tote, not a camera bag.  Camera bags attract thieves like a flame draws moths.  Donít wear your camera as you stroll around.  Take it out only when you snap pictures.  If you choose not to carry your camera in your purse, thread a thin wire through the camera strap.  Thieves carry blades to slice the strap and run off with the camera.  A wire will prevent your strap from being sliced.  You can purchase straps with an internal cable or you can add wire to a strap you already own.  I worked a visible copper wire through a black strap so it would be obvious to others that the strap could not be cut.  While dining, put your purse and camera on your lap.  Never put the strap over the back of your chair.  Sew a hook inside your purse.  When you put your camera in your purse, secure it against pickpockets by connecting the hook and the strap.  Always use the hook when using public transportation.

Your purse and security wallet should each contain your name and who to contact in case of a medical emergency.  Also list any allergies you have (such as "allergic to penicillin

When traveling, always keep your purse with you: even at 30,000 feet.  If you wish to sleep, put your purse on your lap, under the blanket.  Donít ever put your purse on the floor: pickpockets have been known to reach forward and take out the wallets.  The best precaution is to use your under-garment security wallet for cash, credit cards, and paper valuables, like airline tickets.  Use your purse to hold your glasses, book, hand lotion, pen, and so forth.  If you get a window seat, you can put your purse between the wall and your knee.


When going through passport and security checks

When going through passport, customs, or security checks, be on your best, most serious behavior.  Even if you are in a long line and in a hurry, be polite, quiet, and follow all instructions carefully.  Answer all questions from the agent clearly and briefly.  Never make humorous comments.  There is usually a line painted on the floor to indicate where you must stand while you wait for you turn at the agentís counter.  Look for this line and donít cross it.  If you are traveling with a companion, approach the counter one at a time.  Officials can send you to a holding and questioning area for the slightest reason.  It is their job to take all comments and jokes seriously to help ensure your safety.

On a trip to Los Angeles last summer to see Sylvie Guillem dance in Giselle (she was magnificent), I was sad to see how inattentive people were to the security of their belongings.  The two most common mistakes were stepping away from their luggage and not being watchful of their belongings as they pass through the X-ray machine.  People would place their bags on the conveyor belt and then wait in line to walk through the security arch.  The guardsí eyes were trained on the travelers, the arch, and the X-ray monitor: no one was watching items waiting to be picked up.  Wait for the person to clear the arch (and complete any individual hand-held scans by the guards) then put your belongings on the belt just before you step into the arch.  If someone behind you is in a hurry, let them go ahead through the arch.  If the guard stops you for a scan, keep your eyes on the conveyer belt.  Thieves work in pairs and use distraction techniques at the end of the belt.  Donít take your eyes off your bags.  If someone demands your attention, grab your bag and then look.

Laptop computers are the most attractive item to thieves at airport security check points.  Many thieves work in pairs ó one to distract you and the other to take the laptop.  Donít take a laptop in a laptop case: they are too easy to identify.  Instead, pack your laptop on top of everything inside your suitcase.  The laptop counts against your carry-on maximum allowable measurement, so you might as well put it in your suitcase and spare yourself the bother of carrying an extra bag.  Leave it inside your suitcase as you check in at the airport and go through security checkpoints so that it isnít stolen. Once you reach your departure gate, take out your laptop so it is handy for work both before boarding and during the flight.

In the restroom, take all your belongings Ė including your suitcase - with you into the stall.  If the coat hook is on the door, donít hang anything on it: thieves reach over to steal purses.  If there is no other place to put your purse, wrap the strap around the hook three times to make it impossible to remove quickly.  Donít put your things on the floor in front of you: thieves reach under doors, too.

On the plane, stow your luggage in the overhead compartment across the aisle from your seat so you can keep an eye on it.  Keep everything locked.  If you take a tote bag, get one with a zipper to which you can attach a lock.


Stay alert in busy environments

When you are at the airport, train station or other travel hub, you are at your most vulnerable to pickpockets.  You will be tired, disoriented, as you handle cash, tickets and passport.  Remind yourself to take extra care and not to rush.


Conversations with new acquaintances

Meeting new people can be part of the fun of traveling.  Regardless of how secure you feel about the person you are talking to, never reveal your itinerary, your hotelís name, or plans for the day.  Burglars seek out this information for the best times and places to ply their trade.  The best burglars are good at seeming to be the nicest people.  When people ask me where I am from, I always say Vancouver, though I live near San Francisco.  California Girls have an undeserved bad image abroad.  When you answer your hotel phone, never identify yourself.  If someone is calling you, they already know your name.  If they ask for your name, hang up.

The favorite current pick up line among Parisian men is to ask for directions.  One French man asked me to direct him to the Eiffel Tower when we standing at a stop light, facing the Seine, with the Eiffel Tower one-quarter to the right.  Another Frenchman asked me to show him the way to the Orangerie at the palace of Versailles (it is clearly marked on all the maps, adjacent to the Palace wall).  Being over forty, I enjoyed the flattery of each attempt.  In the United States, I would have felt threatened ó anticipating possible violence.  But in the daytime in crowded Paris, it was clear that these men were only interested in willing women.  Walking away without speaking was all that was needed.  Even faux wedding rings do not deter the optimistic French!


Shoulder Surfers

When you are keying in your numbers for your ATM, credit card, or telephone card, someone may be looking over your shoulder to get the numbers.  Be wary, even if no one is near you, as some thieves shoulder-surf with binoculars.  Look at the keypad to locate your PIN numbers, then use one hand to shield the keyboard while you press the keys with the other hand.  If you have a long series of numbers, do them in batches of four digits.  Tuck your card away as soon as you can.  Donít leave it on the phone or machine while you talk or handle other things.


Use your business address

Tuck a business card in the pocket of your overcoat and jacket.  This will help in case you leave them in a restaurant or on a train.  Put your hotel name and telephone number on the cards.  Take business cards (with no hotel information) and give these to people you may want to have contact with later.  Donít give them your home address.

Use a business card on your luggage label; never put your home address.  Add your hotel name and address on the tag on your trip out; use your business card only on your trip back.  If you donít have a business card, use your workplace or travel agentís address instead of your home address.



Tuck a business card from your hotel in your bag when you set out for the day.  If you get lost, you can show the card to a taxi driver to get you home.  When you sign the hotel register, write your first initial only (not name) and last name.  Never write a title, like Dr., which could make you look attractive to thieves.  Donít leave the key inside the lock when you are in your home away from home.  Clever thieves slide a newspaper under the door, push the key through, and retrieve the key to let themselves in.  If the door requires that the key be left in it to secure it properly, attach something big to the key so it cannot be pulled under the door.  Donít use the breakfast menu that is left on the doorknob.  This announces that you expect a stranger to come to your door in the morning.

If your hotel room has an electronic safe to which you choose and set the combination, try working it empty before you insert your belongings.  I love them.

If you have trouble opening your room door, do not accept help from another traveler.  Go down to the hotel desk and request assistance.  If you are given a plastic card instead of a key and you are not used to them, ask the bellhop to accompany to your room to teach you how to use the card.  Donít forget to give him a tip.

If you are using a shared bath, take your room key with you into the shower.  Keep it dry in a Ziplock bag.

Parking your car at the airport

If you park at a lot that requires your car key, be careful to give them the car key only, not your house or office keys.  Donít make your car registration (with your home address) easy to find in the car.


Dress modestly

You will be traveling to destinations that may have very different customs of dress.  Donít wear fitted clothes: wear loose ones.  You donít want to send any signals of which you might not be aware.  If you see lots of women wearing skimpy clothing while traveling, donít think you can wear them without problems.  How many of these women are over 25?  Young girls can be foolish.  (I shudder to think what I wore during the time of my post-adolescent-stress-disorder.)  Local women also know more about what is acceptable and what is not.  They also know how to speak the local language and depress advances.  Play it safe and dress modestly.

When wearing evening clothes

If storing your hotel and/or safe key in your security wallet causes an unattractive bulge in your clothes, secure them to the inside your coat pocket with a safety pin.  Evening clothes should fit your body loosely.  Even "form fitting" styles are considered immodest in many places and can bring you unwanted attention.  Being safe is more important than looking "hot".


Protect your luggage

Secure the strap to your luggage while waiting in terminals or stations to prevent your bag from being grabbed.  Put the strap around the leg of your chair, around your leg, or sit on it.  If you are sitting for a length of time, attach your luggage to your chair with a retractable cable lock.  On the train, use your cable lock to fasten your suitcase to the overhead luggage rack.


Hide a large bill

Tuck a fifty- or twenty-dollar bill inside a wrapped Kotex pad or inside a tampon tube.  Reseal the wrapper.  If someone rifles through your luggage, you will have something set aside to pay for phone calls and a taxi or metro ride to get you going again.  Use an American bill because they are the easiest to change in Europe.


Display some small bills

Put a wad of one- and five-dollar bills (or the equivalent) in the drawer containing your underwear.  A thief will think he has found your stash, take it, and move on.  Use these low-denomination bills at the end of your visit as tips for the maid and concierge.


Dog decoy

If you are staying at an apartment or home where you do not have the security of a desk clerk keeping an eye on visitors, put a large dogís choke collar or worn leather collar on the floor just outside the entrance.  Thieves will think you have a large dog and avoid your place.  A bowl with a bit of water furthers the illusion.  If you have a friend with a large dog, she probably has an old collar to spare and a few expired tags.  A wide leather collar takes up less room in your carry on bag than a choke chain.  A dear friend of mine heads the literacy program at a San Francisco Bay Area county jail system.  (She used to be an evening producer at an international news television station but she finds the people in jails much nicer to work with.)  She related to me that thieves say they look for two things when considering breaking into a home: evidence of a dog, and evidence of a teenage boy.  Evidence of a dog are easier to pack.


Cable lock

Locks that have a long retractable wire cable are handy for train and bus travel.  You can lock your bag to a rack and feel secure when you visit the ladies' room or walk around the train.

Multiple destinations

Get a luggage tag that says "Itinerary Inside" in several languages.  You write your itinerary, complete with dates, hotel addresses and phone numbers, and place it inside the tag.  If your bags go astray, the tag instructs the agent (in multiple languages) to open the tag and view the itinerary to see where to have your bags delivered.



Donít take anything of great sentimental or monetary value. Take faux jewels or inexpensive real ones.  When you wash your hands in a public place, donít put your ring on the counter: put it in your pocket.  Take two matching pairs of earrings so that if you lose one, you still have a pair.  Pearl stud earrings are inexpensive and easy to match.  You may wish to wear a faux wedding ring ó I always do.


Be ready for a hotel fire

In case of fire and quick evacuation during the night, pack your valuables in your purse and keep it near the bed with a flashlight.  Keep shoes and an overcoat handy also.  One night I was staying in the lovely Chateau Frontenac in Quebec when the fire alarm sounded.  They evacuated all the hotel guests to the streets.  I was in a room near the top of that elegant old wooden hotel and was glad I could quickly pick up my valuables and put on clothing suitable for outdoors.  Thankfully, it was a false alarm, but the fashion show of goofy menís pajamas made the inconvenience worth the trouble.  We women were without mercy as we laughed at normally elegantly clad men wearing Tweety Bird and Spiderman pjís.  



Have your hotel summon a taxi for you rather than pick one up on the street.  On your return, have the restaurant or theatre personnel summon your taxi.  Much safer.  This can be much cheaper too if you are staying in a town where taxi drivers tend to inflate the prices, as in Prague.


Extra passport photos

Bring at least three extra.  If you lose your passport, these photos will help you get a replacement quickly.  You may also need them for certain tourist or transportation discount cards that require a photo.



Bring photocopies of your passport, visa, driverís license, vaccination certificate, transportation tickets, and hotel vouchers.  These copies will help you get replacements if you need them.


Those small, charming European hotels

These inns will give you a key to your room with an elaborate fob attached.  The management wants you to turn in your key to the front desk each time you leave the hotel.  In a large hotel, this would be a security problem.  But in a small one, the desk clerks quickly get to know you and all the other residents.  If a stranger asks for your key, the clerk will not release it.  If by accident he gives out your key to someone else, it will be missing from its numbered berth.  Have the clerk retrieve the key and then accompany you to your room.


Give a friend your trip information

Give a trusted friend your hotel addresses, telephone numbers, fax numbers, air flight numbers, flight dates, credit card numbers, phone numbers to cancel credit cards, health insurance information, copy of passport and health card, and immunization card.  Memorize your friendís day and evening phone numbers.  If you lose important papers, your friend can help you replace them.

Some travelers put this information on their computer and e-mail it to themselves.  But thieves regularly scan e-mail for this kind of information so I donít recommend it.  I take a list of my credit card, passport, and other important numbers.  But I e-mail myself coded information about credit card expiration dates that I can access at a CyberCafe if necessary.  


Before you go

Put valuable jewelry in your safety deposit box.  Cancel your newspapers.  Ask a neighbor to take in your mail and any newspapers or advertisements.  I have not found the post office very reliable in stopping and starting mail so I always have a friend pick it up for me. Program timers on lamps around the house.  Ask a neighbor to park in your driveway occasionally.  Take small valuables to the safety deposit box at the bank or to the repair shop for a thorough cleaning.  Pay bills in advance, especially utility bills and rent/mortgage payments.  If you car has an alarm, give a neighbor the remote control in the event the alarm goes off accidentally.  (We all know how terribly annoying an unattended car alarm can be.)  Or switch off the alarm and attach a Club to your steering wheel while you are gone.  Paying a teenage neighbor to get my mail and water the plants has worked well for me.  I know her parents will make certain she does the job and she gets to learn about responsibility.


Russia, Rome, and Vienna

If you are traveling solo to Rome, Moscow, or St. Petersburg, do not leave your hotel after 6pm.  Russia is not safe and Romans consider women alone at night to be "looking for a good time".

Choose a hotel with interior access to a good restaurant or cafe and have dinner there.  If there is a bellhop stationed outside the front door, it is safe to visit a restaurant next door to the hotel that is accessible only from the street.  Be gracious to the bellhop so he keeps an eye on you.  A tip would be a good idea.  Staying indoors at night is not as constricting as it may seem.  After walking and standing on cement museum floors all day, reading while sitting with my feet elevated is all I wish to do.  Yes, it is misogynistic that women must be subject to this restriction, but obeying local customs is part of traveling, however unfair those rules might be.

There are specific places in Vienna where drug use is legal.  Ask your hotel concierge where these places are.  The areas are usually in a plaza or other small space and are easily avoided.


From Travel Tips for the Sophisticated Woman by Laura Vestanen. Copyright © 2001 by Laura Vestanen. Excerpted by arrangement with Laura Vestanen. $22.99. Available in local bookstores or call toll-free 888-7XLIBRIS or click here.