For travelers abroad: tips on pickpockets, traveler's checks, currency, taxes

December 22, 1991|By Nancy Konesko | Nancy Konesko,Knight-Ridder News Service

If you're traveling abroad, a few special cautions are in order regarding money, pickpockets and clothing.

We felt safer from pickpockets and purse-snatchers in Great Britain than we did in Italy. It didn't help to read news stories about thieves using sleeping gas to knock out passengers on a train bound for Florence. In a news story, one British couple said it was bad enough losing their money, but they couldn't get their children fully awake for two days.

London's Underground system has signs posted everywhere warning about pickpockets. The day we visited Hampton Court, stories were circulating about purse-snatchers operating there. In Edinburgh, Scotland, a taxi driver said pickpockets tended to be a problem there only during major festivals.

Before going abroad, we purchased cloth money belts to wear inside our clothing. We used them to carry our passports, driver's licenses, credit cards and extra money or traveler's checks. Whenever possible, we left unneeded documents or money in the hotel safe.

Each day we put in our billfolds only the amount of cash necessary for the day. If we needed more, we retrieved it from the hidden pouches around our waists. We were warned to stay alert and to hold handbags or camera bags close to our bodies rather than carelessly slung over one shoulder. My husband carried his billfold inside his jacket or in a front pants pocket. Bold pickpockets will slice off back pockets, grab the wallet as it falls and run away before one has time to realize what happened.

If the money belts turned out to be our best investment, a large hard-side suitcase was the worst. Leaping on and off planes, trains and automobiles became almost a nightmare with the suitcase we began calling "the steamer trunk." On the way to Italy we paid to store the suitcase along with excess clothing.

Here's what we found would be plenty of clothing for our three-week trip: one raincoat with zip-out lining for warmth, hat and gloves, one sweater, one suit, three pairs of pants, three blouses or shirts, a minimum of drip-dry underclothing and socks, one comfortable pair of walking shoes and one pair of comfortable dress shoes suitable for walking on cobblestones.

Before leaving home, we called local banks about traveler's checks and foreign money, and were told they were readily available. What we were not told, and found out too late, is that one must apply well ahead of time for foreign bills in large denominations, and traveler's checks in foreign currency. As a result, we had to carry a wad of small British bills instead of the few large ones we planned on. A week was too short a time to get traveler's checks in British pounds sterling.

Many British hotels and bed-and- breakfast establishments would not take our American traveler's checks. A couple of hotels would not accept our Visa credit card. If you don't know that in advance, you can find yourself short of cash at checkout time.

Prices are very high in Great Britain and Italy, and to make things worse for us, the American dollar kept falling throughout our visit. Add to that the 17.5 percent British value added tax (VAT). Advised to avoid the VAT by shipping purchases home, we went that route with some things, then regretted it. The package arrived weeks later in poor condition from having gone through U.S. customs. We owed $24 in duties on a few pieces of costume jewelry and a child's breakfast set.

A better system in Great Britain is to shop in stores that advertise they participate in a plan whereby they document the amount of VAT you paid. At the airport, just before you fly home, British customs officers will refund the total of all documented VAT.

Another option we liked was British Airways' airborne duty-free "gift shop." Passengers can view the merchandise via catalog or carts brought around by cabin attendants who then fill the orders.

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