Q: After years of planning, I’m finally taking my parents on a European vacation. What can I do to make sure we aren’t walking targets for pickpockets?

The sight of Julie Andrews twirling on an Austrian hillside in “The Sound of Music” so enchanted Ann Lombardi that she was determined to visit that and other iconic spots around the globe. As co-owner of The Trip Chicks, this travel expert has logged countless miles trekking across Europe by bicycle, boat and train.

Fresh from a trip to Vienna, Austria, Lombardi knows that a happy and safe vacation begins well before you set foot on foreign soil. Here are a few travel tips:

Do your homework
Familiarize yourself with cities you plan to visit. That includes routes from airport to hotel, as well as restaurants and attractions. This allows you to focus on the scenery rather than rely on maps and guidebooks. There is nothing wrong with asking for directions (and repeat that phrase to your dad daily before the trip). Just avoid drawing too much attention.

“I am amazed with people who stand in the middle of traffic with cameras or maps hanging out,” Lombardi says. “If you don’t know where you’re going, move to a less congested area or step into the lobby of a hotel. If you are discreet about it, no one will say anything.”

Packing light also will help your family blend in with the crowd. Whether you are traveling during hot or cold months, a simple carry-on bag can get the job done if you pack strategically. Track the weather a few weeks before your vacation so that you focus on the necessities. MNN advice columnist Matt Hickman also offers great tips on finding eco-friendly luggage.

While crowds and pickpockets may pose the biggest challenge in Europe, Lombardi also suggests tracking travel warnings on the U.S. State Department website. Most countries make the list if there is an unstable government. If the U.S. consulate or embassy has closed, severely limiting your access to government support overseas, the country also will be posted.

“We can’t stay home and be held captive,” Lombardi says. “It’s one of the realistic things we have to deal with in the travel environment.”

It also pays to familiarize yourself with the local currency and exchange rates before you start haggling for must-have souvenirs abroad.

“Many people don’t know what a 1-euro piece looks like,” she says. “If you stick a handful of cash out to a vendor, even the most honest person might take a tad more than he or she is due.”

Blend in with the crowd
Lombardi says it’s important to avoid sticking out like a sore thumb. “Blend in with local country,” she says. “That means leaving the fanny pack, the Hawaiian shirts and the white tennis shoes behind. White tennis shoes are not worn by older travelers worldwide because they label you as an American.” That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make you an easy target for pickpockets. Swap out those white sneakers with comfy loafers or dark-colored lace-ups, and replace windbreakers with scarves or blazers. For more fashion tips, bookmark The Sartorialist blog for an artful glimpse at stylish men and women around the globe.

The most important fashion accessory may be the one that carries your money and passport. Lombardi uses a Rick Steves money belt — it’s essentially a zippered fabric pouch that can be fastened across your waist or chest. A basic version costs less than $15 and can be purchased at REI locations or travel stores. Use it to hold essentials such as your passport, airline tickets and other items that would be costly to replace.

“The point is having essential goods close to your body,” she says. “If somebody tries to swipe your money, it’s a cross-cultural adventure.”

Lombardi also warns against another travel faux pas: flashing cash. “By all means, don’t flash money anywhere in the world,” she says. Instead, carry small bills and only use banks with indoor ATM machines.

“Put everything in your wallet or money belt before you leave the premises,” she says. “Don’t flash money or count your money in the street or in the heart of the city.”

Use good judgment overseas, just as you do in the United States. Lombardi says to avoid dark alleys and remain alert, particularly in crowded areas. Avoid identity theft by writing down the 800-numbers for your credit cards, and make copies of your passport. Leave one set in your luggage and one set with a trusted friend in the States, just in case your passport is stolen.

“A person without a country can be problematic when you attempt to cross borders,” she says. “If the worst happens, call the U.S. embassy and report your passport stolen, and request another one on the spot.”

Hopefully, these tips will help ensure that your family has a safe and memorable trip to Europe. Enjoy!

— Morieka Johnson 

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