Some years ago I arrived in Beijing with a brand new passport. Back then I had no idea what a travel money belt was.
In my ignorance I stored my passport (and my money) in my daypack, which I confidently slung across my back.
As I entered a pastry shop I noticed my daypack was wide open - and empty! I had been robbed - probably by a small group of Russian-speaking young men who had been walking behind me for several blocks. I didn't notice a thing.
Never again. From that day onward (and after a stern scolding from my embassy), my papers would go straight into my travel money belt.
Moral of the story: pay attention - not just to what's in front of you but also what's happening behind you.
Photo Dan Cunningham via Flickr CC
The best advice I can give you about your valuables on the road is this: don't take any with you!
That's right. The road is no place for anything you aren't prepared to lose. You should be prepared to have everything stolen - though it probably won't happen.
So how do you protect your documents?
In my more than three years of backpacking across several continents, the single most important item I owned was my money belt, also known as a money pouch. It isn't really a belt at all (although these do exist, usually for men, in leather and with a zipper) but rather, a slim envelope-like pouch worn around your waist.
It's actually a hidden money belt, worn under your clothes, where no one but yourself can see it.
Velcro money belt: this one uses velcro rather than a zipper. An advantage is that anyone opening the velcro will alert you because of the noise.
Nylon money belt: these are lightweight, dry quickly, but in the heat they can chafe and make you sweaty.
Silk money belt: this is a more upmarket version of the homemade money belt - just use silk rather than cotton or polyester for a smoother, more luxurious feel.
Waterproof money belt: most of these are regular money belts with an inside waterproof pocket. A few are fully waterproof and made of plastic - you can even take them into the shower.
Waist bag (or bum bag worn facing forward): this isn't really a money belt - it's more of a small bag worn around the waist, a bit bulky and visible and not exactly discreet.
There are two more money belts worth a mention - but in my opinion, not worth a buy.
The first is a traditional or leather money belt, mostly used by men, an actual belt with a zipper on the inside. If you usually wear belts you can try it but I don't recommend it because it's tighter than the traditional versions, thicker, and in hot climates you may regret it - and it won't take a passport. However, if you want to divide up your money into several hiding places, it can be useful. Be aware that you'll have to fold your money and believe it or not, some countries will not accept anything other than crisp, flat new bills. You'll need belt loops, and it doesn't work with skirts and many shorts. It might chafe if your backpack's hip belt rubs against it. I'd leave this one to the guys...
The second is the high-fashion designer money belt, the one I would recommend the least. It screams 'I'm rich, mug me!' and is designed to be seen, not hidden under your clothes. That defeats the purpose.
You can always fall back on the venerable safety pin!
That's right - just pin a little cloth pouch on the inside of your clothes. I don't like this because I've been stabbed by a pin and it's painful. But if your pins are better behaved you might find this useful.
It is a lightweight cotton and synthetic mix, with a moisture-proof back (if you can't find one, just wrap all your valuables into a ziplock bag before putting them inside your belt). Some of the newest models have an anti-microbial back to prevent the growth of bacteria that cause odor or mildew.
A waist money belt breathes because of the cotton, and dries quickly because of the nylon. It has a wide elastic waistband, which I consider most important for comfort. It has a few flat zippers, the heads of which may be covered with velcro. There is a main pouch for your passport and cards, and one or two smaller pouches for other cards and papers.
It is relatively easy to access and usually large enough to hold a passport and other valuables. As long as you wear it low, it should be easy to disguise the fact that you're wearing it. Halfway up your midriff means it will show.
There are some down sides: it can be hot, sweaty and annoying, especially if you are (as I am) someone who could afford to lose a few pounds. It's also hard to access when you're wearing a backpack with your hip strap on. But it beats getting robbed.
And a piece of advice - don't buy a flimsy one with poor buckles and zippers - it's not the kind of thing you can pick up that easily unless you're at an airport and once it's broken, it's gone.
If you don't like anything around your waist, there are other options such as the ankle or leg wallet, the neck wallet, and the bra purse. And there are new things coming out on the market like underwear with built-in pockets called Clever Travel Companion and a lightweight fitted waistband called Dovetail Travel in Peace, both of which can also carry your papers and money but neither of which I've tried.
Going out at night? My latest must-have is a stylish money pouch by Sholdit. Have a look at those if you want fashion plus safety.
None of this works for you? Can't stand the thought of any kind of travel money belt or pouch?
Here's the grandaddy of them all: the photographer's vest; I wear this one. With all its pockets, it would take a thief an hour to find anything of value (it might take you that long too). Just don't take it off and leave it on the back of a chair... Yes, Penny, I'm talking to you!
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