GENERAL TRAVEL SAFETY: In recent years, Spain has begun to be considered a somewhat unsafe destination for tourists. This is only partly justified. The risk of a terrorist attack is not necessarily higher in Spain than in other places – the Basque group ETA has not made an indiscriminate attack in over 15 years and fundamentalist Islamist groups are under close investigation by Spanish police.
If this issue concerns you deeply, you should look at the US State Department Travel Advisories. But please also note that most expat locals here in Spain, at least in my immediate circles, do not feel at risk in Spain. Keeping safe without obsessing, prudence without neurosis, that may seem a difficult balance in today’s world. For some personal reflections on travel safety and terrorism, click HERE.
CITY SMARTS – URBAN SAFETY The other issue that often worries travelers is theft. Both Madrid and Barcelona have rather tarnished reputations for street safety. This concern is somewhat more justified, as there are groups of pickpockets who sometimes target foreigners as easy marks who will probably be carrying lots of good stuff – cash, cameras, passports or whatever.
But don’t let that spoil your trip. Knowing what to expect before you go can minimize the risks of being a target and minimize possible loss if you do get hit. For the record, these thefts are not usually associated with violence, much less with guns or knives. Usually you won’t even realize what happened. As a visitor from New York (robbed on the subway) said “I didn’t feel a thing. I thought I knew everything, but these guys are REALLY good”.
Most of this information is common sense, applicable to any big city, so if you live in a city or have traveled a lot, you can probably skip most of the first part and see the end for specific techniques thieves use in Spain. If you are from a smaller city or town, or if you haven’t traveled much, it might be a good idea to at least skim all of this.
BE ESPECIALLY CAREFUL AROUND PLAZA DE SOL – PLAZA MAYOR – ROYAL PALACE – GRAN VIA, extensible to the Prado-Thyssen museum area. The last few years have brought an upswing of non-violent pickpocketing around these areas – police admit to this and claim even locals are getting hit, not just tourists. Don’t avoid the area but do be alert. City Hall is “working on this”, with increased police presence (the ones you see and the plainclothes ones you don’t see!) but it’s a tough problem – do your part by not being a good target.
Try to fit in as much as possible. You will probably be easily identified as a traveler but you can take some basic steps to lower your profile. Some things you could do: Avoid wearing attention-grabbing clothes. Avoid speaking in loud voices, especially in languages other than Spanish. Try to camouflage some of your more “touristy” items: brown-paper wrap your guidebook (extra writing space, too), carry a daypack or similar to hide souvenirs, etc. (yes, many people in Spain carry daypacks, at least in urban areas, though for over-forties it is somewhat less frequent).
Keep your most valuable possesions inaccessible. When you are in urban or touristy areas, your most valuable, can’t-do-without possessions (passport, air ticket, travellers checks or cash) should be in the hotel safe whenever possible. If you are in transit or need to use these things during the day, they should be UNDER your clothes. Best is a money belt, shoulder or ankle holster. Last choice is a neck pouch as it is more visible and less tightly connected to your person, a potential grab-and-run target. Fanny packs are NOT safe for these possessions in urban situations, though they work for kleenex, sunglasses, change purse with small amount of money.
Have photocopies of everything. Take photocopies with you of all your important documents: passport, airline ticket, credit cards, travellers checks (not recommended anyway, ATM card much better), driver’s license, other things. It sounds like overkill, but 2-3 copies are best: one copy with a family member at home, one copy one place in your luggage (NOT with the originals) and the other copy elsewhere in your luggage, or better yet, in your companion’s luggage.
Separate your stash. Have some money for your daily needs in an easily accessible coin purse or wallet in your fanny pack, pocket or purse. Keep this SEPARATE from the rest of your valuables (credit cards, larger amount of cash you might need). This minimizes the possibility of thieves observing you and the amount of money or credit cards in your wallet, maybe making a grab-and-run or marking you for later attention. This works as a dummy wallet that can be handed over or have stolen without too much grief, because the important things are elsewhere.
People traveling together should consider a similar tactic: it is risky for one person to be in charge of everything (unless the other people are very absent-minded). Separating your stash may mean that you need to figure out a personal system of where everything is kept, but once you have your system you can use it on all your trips.
Never, ever, ever let yourself be separated from your purse, fanny pack or wherever you have your stuff. This even means putting your purse on the front seat of a car while your load the trunk or the back seat, or putting your bag down a minute to look for something. See below for tips on how to manage security scanners.
Be alert. One of the joys of traveling is standing goggle-eyed in front of some amazing sight, but try to keep at least part of your mind on what is going on around you. If you are traveling in a group, maybe you can trade off this duty.
When moving around, try to look like you know where you’re going: mapreading is better done in a café or park than on a streetcorner. Take some notes (maybe on the outside of that brown-papered guidebook?) and consult the notes at tricky places instead of whipping out a map.
Be especially alert in crowds. Make sure your valuables are in a very safe place. This is where most pickpockets do their thing. They’re good, you probably won’t feel a thing. Watch out for narrow aisles of trains and on city buses or subway – trickiest time on bus and subway is when you are getting on or off with a crush of people. Pickpockets often stand in the crowd right by the door so they can hop off as soon as they make a hit.
The Ramblas in Barcelona and the Rastro flea market in Madrid are both dangerous spots – don’t avoid them but do be extra careful. You should never carry money in a purse or backpack in either place, and in the Rastro it might be best to visit around 11-11.30AM before the main crowds get there – later it is wall-to-wall flesh that keeps you from even getting near some of the stands.
Be especially alert if it’s raining and / or you have shopping bags: A pickpocket gave this tip in a recent interview: if you have shopping bags or if you have an umbrella, put your wallet inside your coat / jacket and zip up. If it’s in your purse, backpack or an outside pocket it’s gone.
Make it as tough as possible. Don’t invite a theft. At ATM machines, one person should watch while another takes out money. If you are traveling alone, it might be wise to use the ATM machines INSIDE banks (check banking hours as they are a bit odd) instead of in the street – even locals sometimes get hit at ATM’s.
When sitting on a park bench, at a terrace for a coffee or even inside a restaurant NEVER leave your camera, purse, shoulderbag or backpack next to you, on a chairback or on the table. It is best to keep those things on your lap or on the ground BUT with a strap wrapped around your leg or the chairleg. Don’t use big tote bags with open, unzipped top. Best is something with a flap over a zipped compartment – use the zippers and if you think you may be in especially tricky places, your might want to secure all zipper pulls on purses, fannypacks and backpacks with keychain carabiners or even small combination padlocks if you have to transit through a crowded city with a pack. Daypacks should be worn to the front in crowded situations. If you have space and inclination, a few full-sized carabiners and a tape sling could be used to keep your things somewhat more secure from a possible grab and run scenario.
When at airports or other places with security scanners, be careful! Consolidate your valuables and DO NOT take your eyes off them! If you are traveling with other people, send someone through immediately to pick up the important things (purses, fanny packs), letting the other stuff pile up until the valuables are secured. If you are traveling alone, unstrap your valuables last and send them through LAST, go through fast and grab them the second they come out of the scan. This shouldn’t be a danger spot with all the security people around, but they are scanning and frisking, not watching for thieves, so you must pay close attention to your valuables when they are not attached to you in some way. Some experts suggest travelling with a brightly colored bag that is easy to spot if someone does grab your bag in an airport or train station. It may be difficult for some people to travel with a lime green or fucshia bag, but maybe a big bright scarf tied firmly through a strap would do the trick.
Know the tricks. Most pickpockets will try to distract you so they can get at your wallet, camera or documents. Some (but probably not all) the tricks you should watch for: Someone offering to clean something off your back (often mustard) that they have previously applied. Someone (usually two people) spreading a map in front of your face, between your eyes and your gear. Someone trying to sell you lottery, flowers or similar, often including arm-tugging and unusual proximity. Someone dropping or throwing coins on the ground – don’t help pick them up!
Another technique, used at airports or bus stations, is to create a disturbance, lots of noise or argument that distracts your attention. In that brief moment, another member of the theft team removes a bag or two. If you are traveling in a group, you can avoid this tactic by putting all the bags together in one place and standing in a circle around them (the “wagon train” technique). This is easiest if you can find a place out of the traffic flow, next to a column or wall. If you are alone or with few people, this wall technique is very useful.
In urban areas, all above scenarios should put up your antenna, and your hand should move your hand to your valuables to keep things secure.
If you do get hit: In spite of everything, they got you. You really should go the the police station to make a report: every neighborhood has one, and the stations in tourist areas should have English speaking policemen. Lots of travelers don’t take this step; it may not be a a lot of fun, but chalk it up as a cultural experience. Anyway, the police report is necessary to replace some things, especially if you need to make an insurance claim (you did check your coverage before you came?) or replace some documents. Additionally, making a report keeps this issue up front and hopefully will contribute to improving street safety.
Things have improved a lot since I was robbed in 1998, in a nice area on my way to work in the morning. Plainclothes forces now patrol Madrid’s Gran Via, which is a huge step in the right direction. But more could be done. Following the suggestions above should help keep your valuables safe. But if you do get hit, do help fight against street theft by making your police report.