Friday, April 26, 2013

Protecting Against Loss During Long Term Travel (and What Travel Insurance to buy)

I wrote about getting robbed in Calama, Chile here and here. A recent comment from a reader reminded me to write this post about how to protect yourself from theft.

In a nutshell, its nearly impossible to make your travel 100% theft-proof. But you can plan so that its nothing more than an unfortunate inconvenience.


I may be the most careful, paranoid person in the world, but someone out there is smarter and is making a living out of stealing. That guy is hard to beat, unfortunately. Swami and I went through a period of retrospection during those countless bus rides immediately after the theft, where we'd keep telling each other "Never again will I do this...." or "Next time, lets not forget to scan that document...". I wanted to compile some of those lessons learned here, for when you need them, you really really need them.


Here are some tips to ensure that if a theft does occur, you get back on track quickly.

Buy Travel Insurance

Like I said before, we are incredibly glad we got trip insurance. There are plenty of companies and plans out there to choose from, but we purchased ours from worldnomads. They ended up being great to deal with and covered our losses up to the limits specified in the policy, just as they promised. The insurance we bought covered the following:

  • Things we lost - laptop, DSLR camera, lenses, tablet, other electronic accessories
  • Trip interruption - food and hotel costs for the days it to took to recover our travel documents, eg. passport, green card etc.
  • Airfare - one of us had to reschedule our flights, so the insurance covered some part of the cancelled fare/new fare.
  • Documents - passport application fees and Transportation letter fees
Keep policy number and phone number very handy!

Keep online copies of all important documents

When you lose a passport or green card, embassies will require a lot of documentation to replace them. Its best to have them handy on portable hard drives and/or online storage. Here are things to have VERY handy:
  • Passport - copy of ALL pages. Not just front or back page. We had only the front and back page and could not prove to the US embassy on what date we left the country last. We also had to prove to the Chilean police when we entered the country. We also lost all our visa stamps!
  • Other ID's - drivers license, voter ID, student ID etc. Secondary IDs are sometimes asked.
  • Financial documents - bank and credit card statements. Easy to get online, but you may not have a fast internet connection to accomplish all your online needs. I was planning to use my credit card statement to show I was at LA airport on a given date to prove my residence in the US, as supporting documentation.
  • Visas of resident country - In our case scanned copy of US green card. We had green cards, but we also had all our green card application documents on online storage. Very useful.
  • Entry/Exit stamps - When traveling abroad, whenever your passport is stamped, please take a picture with your smartphone/tablet/camera and email to yourself. You will thank yourself later. We wish we did this with our Colombia entry stamps as the US embassy asked for this.
  • Other travel and identification documents - vaccinations, yellow fever certificate (required for Bolivia), copies of tickets, important receipts etc. Marriage certificate if you are married.
  • BOARDING PASS - most important! Boarding pass stubs are very important documents to store until you are done with your trip. Just a clear picture with a smartphone will do. The US embassy wanted either this or our entry/exit stamps. We had neither and had to frantically figure out other ways to prove our exit dates.

Portable hard drives in different bags

Swami did a very clever thing by getting us each a portable hard drive and backing them up regularly. By doing this, we only lost about a week's worth of pictures on our DSLR, as our laptop was lost too. Thankfully our compact camera preserved our memories from Torres Del Paine. I highly recommend carrying portable hard drives and/or pen drives placed in different bags with some backup data.

Keep a handy list of information in your travel notebook

Dont have a travel notebook? Its better to start one and keep things like 
  • frequent flyer numbers, 
  • membership numbers and 
  • coded passport numbers etc. 
  • Numbers to your credit card and debit card institution. Our stolen backpack had a bunch of cards that had to be cancelled and we didnt have access to these numbers.
  • Insurance policy number and their phone number

Cheaper and fewer gadgets

We love technology and went overboard on the expensive toys we carried. A macbook pro, a very good Nikon DSLR and a wide angle lens, a tablet, a compact camera...the list goes on. Next time I travel, I will exclusively be using a netbook or a used old laptop just for this purpose. The MBP was meant for storing large amounts of data and video/photo editing which doesnt happen as often as one would like. Infact, I am still updating the blog a year after we completed, so the MBP was not mandatory at all! I am no travel blogger or full time writer. My blog and picture editing can wait until I return from the trip. 

Protecting in layers

Some things are very painful to lose. Passports and documents like green cards. Our passport was really easy to get, but the green card process is much much more complex. And its just a card which we could have protected easily. We have a hidden wallet, but we did not use it at that time. Having fewer critical things to protect is easier than watching a heavy backpack with gadgets. I didnt lose my hand bag and I could have kept the passports in it! You dont need one of those weird wallets, but just make sure that what needs maximum protection is lightweight and close to the body.

Carry less

A lot of what we lost was unnecessary for the purpose of travel. We simply got carried away. If we had lighter, fewer packs (one big pack, one small pack, etc), caring is much easier. You lose less, cant really refute that!

If you have had a similar experience, I'd be really eager to hear about your lessons learned.

Protect your data

  • Password protect all devices. 
  • Encode all important documentation in a folder preferably. 
  • Change all email passwords and bank passwords immediately
  • Sign up for a service that tracks devices/automatically purges information (or just bring a chromebook!)