The Fine Art of Losing Things Without Losing Your Mind

How to lose things—passports, credit cards, and other important items—while traveling and not have it ruin your vacation

Dad's gonna kill me but:

I'd say, of everything I know about travel, I learned one third from my parents, another third from my scout troop, and the final third I found out, painfully, all by my lonesome. Most of the fundamentals, those came from my parents.

It was my dad who told me to keep my wallet in a front pocket rather than the back so you can keep one hand on it while riding the bus in Rome.

It was my dad who first forced me to strap on a moneybelt, the world's most annoying necessary travel accessory.

It was my dad who taught me to empty the rental car every night, and never to put something in a car trunk and then walk away; you never know what shady character might have seen you do it.

And it was my dad who, several years ago, had his pocket picked on his very first day in Spain, riding the Metro from the airport into Madrid.

Luckily, it was my dad. That means he had planned well and Mom had half the bankcards and credit cards with her, so they weren’t out of luck after all. He had tucked away all his truly important stuff (passport, plane tickets, and whatnot) in his own moneybelt, which meant a few quick phone calls to cancel his half the cards, and my folks were off and running on what turned out to be one of their best two-week vacations ever.

Just goes to show that, even when you take all the precautions and have all travel smarts, the professional pickpocket can see your jet lag coming a kilometer away, and he can still catch you by surprise.

Then there's the other "losing stuff" situation, and this one calls for an embarrassing story about me (which is only fair, right Dad?). Sometimes, you just get so caught up with the excitement of travel you leave your purse on an outdoor cafe table and blithely walk away.

I once left my wallet at the gift shop of the cathedral in Krakow, Poland. When I returned half an hour later, huffing and puffing from the run back (the thing's up on top of a hill) and looking around wildly, the gift shop was already closed. But as I walked away from the locked doors in dismay after pounding at them for a minute or so to no avail, two Russian students came striding across the square toward me. They were holding out the wallet, and one asked “You lose?”

I got exceedingly lucky. Usually, if your wallet goes missing—and it wasn’t left in a restaurant or hotel, where a staffer is likely to have found it—it’s gone for good.

If you heeded my advice (well, OK, my dad's advice) and kept all your important stuff (including the bulk of your cash) in your moneybelt, all you’ve lost is a day’s spending money. Plus one wallet. Heck, that just means its time for a trip to Florence's leather market to replace it!

What to do if you lose your passport

If you lose your passport, go immediately to the nearest consulate of your home country. Do not cross an international border, do not collect €200. Without a passport, you are a nonentity. You need a replacement posthaste.

Bring along a photocopy of the information pages of your missing passport (that would be the two pages facing each other with your picture and vital information; don’t bother photocopying the cover), those passport-size photos you packed, and any other form of identification you still have with you.

It will take time to process it all and issue you a new passport, so get ready to shack up in town and wait.

What to do if you lose your your credit cards & traveler’s checks

On your Backup Info Sheet, you should have the US phone numbers to report stolen or lost cards for all your credit cards and bank cards, as well as the numbers of each of your traveler’s checks. Since you were careful to keep this list separate from the cards and checks themselves, you are in pretty good shape.

Should your cards or traveler's checks get lost or stolen, contact the issuing bank(s) immediately. As you probably know, all credit cards, ATM cards, and such have printed on them a standard toll-free number (800, 888, or 877) you can call for customer service. This number will be useless to you when traveling in Italy—or anywhere outside the U.S. and Canada, for that matter—because you can't call an 800-number from aboard.

However, most cards will also have a non toll-free number with some local area code that you can call collect from abroad. If it's not written on the back of the card or somewhere on the card issuer's web site, call the toll-free number that is on there, navigate the annoying "push 1 for..." system until you get a live person, and ask her. Be sure this is the number you jot down on your backup info sheet. (More on dialing the U.S. from Italy.)

In case you forgot to write down the emergency numbers, here’s a cheat sheet (though double-check these numbers first):

  • Citicorp Visa’s emergency number is 800/645-6556 (you can call collect from Europe).
  • For American Express credit cards or traveler’s checks, call collect 801/864-6665.
  • MasterCard holders can call collect 314/542-7111 (or call in the U.S. 800/307-7309 to get their local toll-free numbers in the countries you'll be visiting).

Of course, reporting cards as stolen means that if they turn up two hours later at the bottom of your bag, there’s not much you can do about reactivating your accounts until after you get home.

Although in the case of genuine credit card theft, every second counts in reporting the loss in order to cut the thief off at the pass. It might be prudent to find a phone and quickly contact the last hotel, restaurant, or other place you may have left your wallet or purse. If this doesn't produce a lucky break, hang up, call the credit card company, and get ready to play Creative Vacation Financing as you continue your trip without the aid of plastic.

Most credit card issuers delete your old account number and create a new one to transfer your account into, which means you need to get new cards. Cards you can only pick up, of course, once you're back at home.

This is the time when, as American Express commercials have been trumpeting for years, carrying good old-fashioned traveler’s checks can save the entire vacation. If you lose the traveler’s checks you can get them rather speedily replaced in any big European city.

Remember: write down the identification number of each traveler’s check as you cash or use it. When you’re in your hotel room each night, take out your Backup Info Sheet with its master list of numbers and cross off the used ones. If the balance of checks gets stolen at some point, you need to be able to report exactly which ones are gone if you want them replaced. The check issuer will tell you where to pick up the new stash.

In the end, if you're left destitute, you can also have a friend wire you money.

What to do if you lose your anything else

Everything above deals with losing your monetary means and important documents. That’s because these are the only things to be concerned about. The loss of any other item (clothing, toiletries, whatever) will be annoying, but not insurmountable.

Even if you lost something incredibly valuable, like the heirloom jewelry you inherited from Great Aunt...

Wait a minute. That’s right. You never, ever, pack pointless valuables to take on vacation. Never. That way, there's no way you can lose them. Case solved.

Look at it this way: If you lose all your luggage, you’ll just have to come home looking like a European, having refit your wardrobe at flea markets and department stores. Or, look at this as the perfect excuse to hit the high-fashion outlets of Rome, like Chevy Chase and family did in European Vacation.

Or, more to the point, like my family did back when I was 11 years old.

We had just moved to Rome, and the container containing all our household goods for the next two years was left sitting on a Brooklyn dock for months due to a longshoreman strike. All we had to see us through the next five months were the clothes on our backs.

We would have had the clothes in our suitcases as well, but for some reason he is still trying to explain satisfactorily, my dad—thought you were in the clear by now, eh Dad?—had packed a five-gallon jug of some rare, expensive (in Europe), and oil-based art supply in the suitcase that contained all the clothes for all three of us. The thing leaked. Our clothes were ruined.

Which reminds me of another of my dad's (newer) travel tips: when packing, divide up everybody's stuff among all the suitcases you have so that you are each carrying a bit of everybody's clothes, toiletries, guidebooks, etc. That way, if one bag gets lost or (ahem) somehow ruined, you still have something left for everyone.

* Note: Turns out there's a great used clothing market just north of Rome's cathedral; get off at the San Giovanni Metro stop. And watch your wallet.


  • The classic waist-style moneybeltUse your moneybelt properly - Keep your passport, traveler's checks, credit cards, ATM cards, plane tickets, and all but a day's spending cash in your moneybelt. Now make sure you wear it as is is meant to be worn: tucked under your clothes (around your neck but down your shirt if you have the kind that looks like a teensy purse; atop your shirttails and down the front of your pants if you have the waistbelt style). If I see you in Italy wearing your money belt incorrectly—strapped outside your clothes like fanny pack, or bouncing on your belly like a teensy purse—I will approach you and scold you. You think I'm kidding, but I'm not. » more
  • Have a backup info sheet - Make a photocopy collage of your important documents (passport, driver's license, numbers to call for credit cards). Now make enough copies for everyone in your traveling party plus two. Everyone gets a copy of each other person's sheet, one copy gets well-hidden in your suitcase (inside the lining or something), and the last copy gets left back home with someone you trust (so you can call them if all else fails) . » more
  • Keep track of your traveler's checks - When you first get them, write down the number of each check (on your backup info sheet). As you cash each check, jot its number down on a slip of paper and keep that separate from your remaining checks. When you get back to your lodgings each night, use this slip of paper as a reference to cross the numbers of those used checks of your master list. This way, if you lose the remaining checks, you'll know exactly which ones need to be refunded. » more
  • Divide and conquer - Don't let one person carry all the cash, credit cards, traveler's checks, and anything else important. You take some of his cards; he should carry some of yours. That way, if one person gets pickpocketed or otherwise loses them, you'll still have a few cards each to use. I'm not just making this stuff up. This technique once saved my parents' trip to Spain after Dad got pickpocketed on the train from the Madrid airport. (By the way, employ the same technique when it comes to packing your clothes and other essentials: divide everyone's stuff between the bags; that way, if somehow one bag gets lost en route, at least everyone will have something to wear until the airline finds the missing suitcase.) Also, anything you can copy—itinerary, e-ticket info, car rental forms, hotel booking confirmations, etc.—go ahead and make copies so that each person has a set in their bag.

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