What to Do When You’re Robbed While Traveling

I hesitated before placing my backpack in the rack above my seat, brushing off the idea that it might not be safe. It’s not like I was alone; between the two of us we could keep an eye on it. 

When we arrived at the terminal, I reached up and my heart plummeted into my stomach. It had only taken five minutes. Both of us had drifted off and someone had grabbed my pack and hopped off the bus. 

As I stared at the empty rack in utter horror, I realized I would never see my pack or anything in it ever again. 

Being robbed while traveling is a harrowing and very violating experience. But what do you do if it happens to you? How do you recover and continue enjoying the rest of your trip?

Based on my personal experience, here are some practical tips and coping mechanisms I used to deal with this situation, as well as things I wish someone had told me before. 

Amber Parle with two large backpacks ready for a trip
The author ready to head out on her trip | Photo courtesy of Amber Parle

Just Breathe 

Even a non-violent robbery is a traumatizing and overwhelming experience. The blood rushes to your face. The world around you starts ringing at a high-pitched frequency. You may even feel like you’re going to vomit or faint. 

The first thing you need to do is breathe. Take a nice deep breath and let it out. Your brain can’t function properly without oxygen, and you’ll need your wits about you to deal with the situation. 

Normal breathing is fine but you can also reduce your anxiety even more by employing different breathing techniques. 

Get Somewhere Safe

Safe is a relative term. It could be the inside of the nearest cafe, your hotel room, or a police station. Your adrenaline is probably going to be high, making you feel vulnerable and exposed. Pick someplace nearby, ideally where you can establish a base of operations to take care of logistical details. 

Cancel Your Credit Cards 

I was extremely lucky. When my backpack was stolen, I had my purse in my lap with my passport, cellphone, and credit cards in it. This isn’t always the case. Once you are physically safe, the first thing you do is cancel any stolen bank cards. 

This will prevent the person who took them from spending all your money. Most banks allow you to contest charges that you didn’t make. However, the longer you wait to report the card stolen the more likely you are to be liable for some or all of the money lost. 

When you’re staying somewhere long-term you might be able to have a replacement card sent to you. Be aware that there is some risk of it getting lost when shipping internationally. Another option is to wire money to yourself. 

Although you can often do this directly through your bank, it’s a lot more cost-effective to use an international money transfer company, such as Western Union, WorldRemit, or Wise.  

Change Your Passwords

Most of us have passwords saved on our electronic devices. If your laptop, tablet, or phone gets stolen, your next order of business is to change any compromised passwords. 

Accessing your email might not be your attacker’s biggest priority, but it could cause problems for you in the future. Avoid having to deal with identity theft by changing passwords to any accounts linked to payment methods and credit cards. 

If you’re not sure whether an account is vulnerable, change it anyways. It will give you peace of mind and you’ll avoid the risk of future stress and anxiety. 

Contact Your Embassy 

If your passport was stolen, you’ll have to replace it before you leave the country. This can be done by contacting the nearest embassy or consulate. They will instruct you on the process of obtaining new travel documents. They might even be able to provide financial or accommodation assistance, depending on your circumstances. 

Moving Forward

Logistical details are only half the battle. Next comes the difficult bit: picking up the pieces and moving on.  

A sunset over the water in Panama
Don’t forget all the beauty the world has to offer | Photo courtesy of Amber Parle

Eat Something 

I am 100% serious about this one. Chances are you will be so caught up in the aftermath of being robbed that food will be the last thing on your mind. 

When I arrived at my hostel after being robbed, I looked at the receptionist and said, “Donde puedo comprar cervezas?” 

Translation: Where can I buy beer? 

I do not recommend this approach. An adrenaline hangover is bad enough, but throw alcohol into the mix and it’s just no bueno

Get some real food. Eat a healthy meal and then grab a bar of dark chocolate to reduce your stress levels. Follow that up with a cup of chamomile or caffeine-free green tea before heading to bed. 

A large palm tree growing at the edge of a tropical sandy beach with a gentle surf | San Blas Islands
Visiting the beautiful San Blas Islands, later on the trip | Photo courtesy of Amber Parle

Understand That It’s Not Your Fault

Let me be very clear about this: Being robbed is NOT your fault. The sooner you come to accept this, the easier it will be to bounce back. Be wary of falling prey to other people’s opinions and comments like, “You should have been more careful.” 

Maybe you could have been more careful. Maybe you could have taken a different route back to your hostel or used one of those highly fashionable security belt purses. 

But maybe you were doing everything right. Maybe you were more careful than you’ve ever been in your entire life and you still got robbed. 

The bottom line is, if someone really wants to rob you, they are going to do it. It doesn’t matter how careful or aware you are. You are the victim and you should not be blaming yourself for someone else’s bad behavior.   

Take a Shower

Cultures around the world use water for cleansing and purification. It is a common element in religious ceremonies, traditions, rituals, and healing practices. Water also works wonders after being robbed while traveling. 

For sustainability purposes, don’t stand under the showerhead for hours, but do take a little time to imagine the water washing away all the pain and negativity from the day. Feel yourself becoming clean emotionally and mentally. 

Let yourself cry. Crying is very cathartic and helps with releasing tension and emotions held in the body.  

Amazing graffiti of a face on the wall of an abandoned house in Costa Rica
Crying is Good (Abandoned House in Jaco, Costa Rica) | Photo courtesy of Amber Parle

Put It in the Backseat

Recovering from the emotional, mental, and possibly physical trauma of being robbed won’t happen overnight. Emotional aftershocks sometimes show up years later. The important thing to remember is the world isn’t out to get you.

When you wake up the next day, take a deep breath. Release and shake your whole body to rid yourself of any lingering negativity. You might have to do this a few times or throughout the day when your anxious thoughts come bubbling to the surface. 

Make a conscious commitment to enjoy the rest of your trip. It was important for me to get right back on that proverbial travel saddle and it might be just what you need, too. The trip might look different. Instead of exploring by yourself, you might join a tour group because it feels safer. 

However, always do what makes you feel safe. If that means catching the next flight home to process with loved ones, then that’s absolutely okay.

A narrow waterfall hits a small pond with mist rising up from below
Visiting a beautiful waterfall the day after the robbery | Photo courtesy of Amber Parle

Proactive Measures 

You don’t have control over when a robbery takes place, but there are a few things you can do to make sure you’re prepared if it should happen. 

Memorize emergency numbers: Find out who to call in an emergency. Not every country has the same emergency number. Few of us take the time to learn them until we need them. 

Know the address of your accommodation: It’s easy to rely on GPS to get us back to your hostel or Airbnb, but it will do you no good if your phone gets stolen. Knowing the address of your accommodation allows you to ask people for directions. If you don’t trust your memory, write the address on a piece of paper and slip it in your bra or a pocket. 

A woman overlooks the Piedra de Penol in Colombia from a patio vantage point high above various lakes and mountains on the horizon
Marveling at Piedra de Penol in Colombia (later on the trip) | Photo courtesy of Amber Parle

Make copies of important documents: Keep a copy of your passport and any other important documents, such as your immunization card, in a safe location. I also like to have an electronic copy that I store in Google Docs or Dropbox. 

Invest in a security purse or wallet: Consider investing in some type of pickpocket-proof wallet or purse. RFID blocking wallets help mitigate the ability of scanners to steal your bank card information.   

Listen to your instincts: If something, someone, or someplace doesn’t feel right, it’s probably because it’s not. Don’t doubt your instincts, they are there to help keep you safe. 

Take a self-defense class: This won’t help when it comes to stealth robberies, like when you’re taking a snooze on a bus. But it will come in handy during an active robbery or assault. Knowing how to defend yourself gives you another level of confidence that others will notice, making you a more intimidating target.  

If You’re Robbed While Traveling

No one likes to think about being robbed while traveling, but it does happen. I hope that you never have to use any of this advice. But if you are ever in the unpleasant situation of being robbed, please remember this: 

  • You are not alone 
  • It is not your fault 
  • You are going to be OK

Repeat those three things like a mantra as often as needed. Then, I hope you’ll be able to dust yourself off and get back out there to explore all the beauty the world has to offer and all the wonderful people in it.   

Safe travels! 

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