Before I went to Barcelona, I’ve been warned many times about pickpockets on the streets. I’m sharing some stories I’ve heard and one I’ve lived through, hoping this can help you protect yourself. And not just Barcelona, keep these tips in mind when travelling.
Pedestrians: How To Avoid Pickpockets
Pickpockets will find many reasons to approach you. Here are some stories I’ve heard:
- They want to take pictures with you. They pretend to be a tourist and think you/your outfit looks great and want a picture with you. They’ll be super friendly, hug you for the photos and by the time you’ve said goodbye, you’ll realize they’ve stolen what was in your pocket or backpack.
- They need your help with directions. Another story I’ve heard from an unsuspecting tourist is that an old man approached him for directions. Thinking the old man is harmless and wanting to be nice, he was distracted with giving directions while other pickpockets stole his wallet.
Here are some of my tips to avoid pickpockets while walking around Barcelona:
#1: Keep your distance, don’t let a group of people swarm you. No matter the story pickpockets tell you, their aim is to get close so they can reach for your pockets or backpack. They’ll be even more successful when in a group because many will distract you while the others steal. So if they’re in your personal space, step back, push them away if you must.
#2: Jacket with lots pockets AND closures. My favourite pocket is hidden on the inner chest of my jacket. You can’t access this pocket unless I unzip my jacket and even then, it’s barely visible. If the chest pocket on your jacket has the zipper on the outside, avoid putting valuables there. In Paris, for example, a group of pickpockets approached my brother, attempting to unzip that pocket and steal right in front of him while pretending to make small talks. The inner pocket doesn’t have to be big: the biggest object I can fit in it was my passport but it was enough for me. And talking about passports…
#3: Leave your passport at your hotel or Airbnb. Chances of you having to show an ID is very low. So you only need to carry a photocopy of your passport. If you want to enter a bar or club and need to show an ID, carry a driver’s license or something you know won’t be a hassle to replace (like an health card).
#4: Simplify your wallet. Before each trip, I would prep my travel wallet, only taking the cards I would need with me and putting them in a wallet I’ve designated for travels. I don’t even bring my bank cards with me on my trips, only credit cards, one photo ID and travel insurance information. All your gift cards, points cards and membership cards can stay at home. In fact, if you want to travel even lighter…
#5: Don’t carry a wallet. I was paying everything on credit cards and had them in my hidden pocket. Most restaurants and shops in Europe accept credit cards, anyway. If you want to carry cash, don’t have over 50 euros at a time in your change wallet and pay the rest on cards. Worried about the fluctuating conversion rate? Get a prepaid credit card with a fixed conversion rate for your travels. If you lose it, you can cancel it.
#6: When in crowds, secure your personal items or have visuals on them. If you are at a busy event or on the subway during rush hour, zip up your pockets, turn your backpack around and have it in front of you so you can see if anyone attempts to steal. Don’t use back pockets for important things like your phone.
Renting A Car? Beware of Scams
I thought once I drove out of Barcelona, I was safe from scams and pickpockets. Boy, was I wrong! The car rental associate warned me when I picked up the car near Sants train station but I didn’t think it would happen to me.
To get out of the city and drive to Peniscola, I had to go down towards Plaça Espanya and go through the roundabout to get on the highway.
Five minutes after merging onto the highway, a motorcyclist on my left started honking and trying to get my attention. Thinking it was some reckless kid on a motorcycle, I ignored him. But he switched to my right and kept honking while pointing at the back right tire of my car. He then motioned for me to take the next exit and follow him. Doubting myself and worried something might be wrong with the car, I switched to the right lane. By this time, thinking I was following him, the motorcyclist sped up and led the way. But at the last minute, remembering the warning by the rental associate that these can be scams, I switched back to the left lane and continued on the highway.
Five minutes after ditching him, I started noticing that the car made a weird noise, and it kept getting louder. I immediately had my brother look up the closest gas station and changed Google Maps instructions to guide us there. We parked, got out of the car to see a huge hole in the back right tire.
We went inside the gas station, asked to borrow a phone and called the company’s emergency road assistance. They instructed me to wait for a tow truck and a cab to come pick me up. Forty-five minutes later, a cab driver arrived and the tow truck followed 10 minutes after that. After explaining in my broken Spanish what happened, they towed the car away and the cab driver took us to the airport to get a new car.
I learned from the cab driver that these incidents happen often in Barcelona, especially in the summer, and usually, it would end up with the tourist being robbed.
Learning from this experience, here are a few things I would recommend for those looking to rent a car in Barcelona and go on a road-trip:
#1: Remain calm and don’t worry about the car. If something’s wrong with your tire, the car is still functional. I was driving with a completely flat tire on the highway for a few hundred metres before I reached the gas station.
#2: Don’t follow anyone. You’re in a new country and don’t know your way around. Thieves will take advantage of this and lead you to a remote area where they can rob you. Just stay on your course and ignore when they try to get your attention.
#3: Don’t stop until you’re in a safe location. If you’re on the highway, make sure you’ve exited and stopped at a safe place like a well-lit gas station or a crowded store. If you’re in the city, continue driving to a local police station or back to the car rental office if you’re not far. If you can’t drive further and need to stop, lock the doors and DO NOT get out of the car. The crook might still be following you and once you get out, that’s their chance to approach, pretend to help you and steal.
#4: Have a GPS or a local sim card with data. This was essential for me because I use Google Maps extensively. But in an emergency like this, being able to change course and quickly look up a safe pit-stop, whether a gas station or a police office, is life-saving.
If you need to call the police on your roaming phone, dial +34 90 210 2112. They speak English.
If the sim card you’ve purchased has a local phone number or even just wifi calling, dial 092 (equivalent of 911 in Spain).
#5: Accept help only from someone you asked. Don’t accept when offered. This might sound weird, but after some research, I learned that often, the thieves have accomplices who might be following you. Their partner punctured your tire, you managed to ditch them but had to pull over. The accomplices who’ve followed you will then approach to “offer help”. In my case, they’ve followed me from the moment I picked up the car at Sants station.
#6: When stopping at red lights or stop signs, check your mirrors. This was a habit I learned while living in South Africa. While waiting at a red light near Plaça Espanya, I saw in the right side mirror, a motorcyclist reach down to the back tire. I didn’t see a knife so didn’t think much of it then but no surprise later, this was the punctured tire.
This was a bad experience, but I’m proud I handled it well and dodged the worst-case scenario. And surprisingly, it only set my schedule back by 2 hours and I still made it to Peniscola by the late afternoon in a new car.