Lost Passport

Yes, it happened to me. After months of careful planning Regina and I landed in Rome with three teenagers (well, one was 22) and my wife’s sister in tow. “Mister Organized Traveller” guided the group through Rome’s light rail system, toured the Coliseum and Forum, and had a great Italian dinner at a nice “touristy” restaurant just off Piazza Venezia. Then I reached for the wallet.

Passport, cards, cash – gone. Pickpocket? Carelessness? Who knows. Suddenly, the Emergency Plan was in action.

Fortunately I had left most of the cash and plastic in the safe at our rental apartment. But now I had no form of photo ID (my US Driver’s License was in that wallet too) and the Christmas holiday was just four days away. In the meantime my son had managed to misplace his passport as well, so now we were both Overseas Without Papers.

The first step was to cancel the credit cards and order replacements. On the plus side, I had an overseas calling plan on my iPhone, and all of my card accounts were accessible online, so canceling was easy. The problem? Replacement cards could only be sent to the address on file – in Kentucky. So those cards were lost to me for the duration. But no other charges had appeared, so if some enterprising thief got my cards, they did him or her no good.

Replacing the passport required a trip to the American Embassy in Rome, so my son and I took off the next afternoon in a cab. We had an initial interview with a greeting officer, watched by stern Italian and American military personnel with impressive looking and (I presume) loaded automatic weapons. After cooling our heels outside for a few minutes were were ushered in, and directed to what can only be described as a diplomatic version of the DMV. Luckily I had scanned photos of my passports on Google Drive accessible on my phone, and completing the replacement paperwork was straightforward. A trip downstairs to the Passport Photo Machine set me back €6 for each of us, and two passport fees of $135 were assessed (in dollars). After about two hours, just as the Embassy staff was closing up for the day, we walked out with two new US Passports. These, however, were only good for 1 year and would need to be replaced stateside before the year was out. Fair enough.

Finally, a call to the customer service line of my US bank resulted in a short-term increase in the amount of cash that could be withdrawn daily from my account. With the euro running at about $1.25, this meant that I could tap my account for enough money daily to keep the trip afloat without maxing the credit cards. Since much of the trip expenses like day tours and lodging had already been paid for, this meant we could relax and enjoy Rome again.

Lessons learned:

  1. Google Drive or other services like Dropbox or Apple’s iCloud can be lifesavers. To store my backups, I  created a new Google Drive folder shared with my brother, who would be my US emergency contact. I scanned the ID pages of all family passports and uploaded them to this folder, together with copies of my airline and hotel reservation confirmation emails, the PDF copy of my travel insurance document, and a file giving vital stats that my brother could access in case the unthinkable happened. As it turned out, being able to access the scans of our passports made replacing them much easier. Scans of my driver’s license and credit cards might have helped too.
  2. Other options for keeping track of important travel documents include putting paper copies in everybody’s luggage, or scanned and copied documents stored on an encrypted USB drive and kept in the hotel safe.
  3. Be sure to set the security level on your Google Drive (or other service) so that only you as the owner can see the information in your travel document folder. You can also “share” this folder with another Google user so that they can access the information if you can’t. Whenever possible, access these files over over a password-protected WiFi network (like your hotel). Avoid using public or “free” WiFi to access these files, since these networks are more easily spied upon.
  4. I find neck pouches and money belts awkward, but in this case they might have saved a lot of trouble. I have adopted other options since this incident: wearing clothing designed for travel with additional zippered pockets that secure valuables on your person (such as this one and this one from Travelsmith), and a small soft-sided travel wallet that I can attach to my belt with a carrying strap. If you prefer the traditional methods, as Regina does, here are some options: a neck pouch , and a money pouch that hides in your belt line .
  5. Always use the safe in your hotel room or apartment to secure your cash, cards, and valuables. If no safe is available where you are staying, consider investing in a lightweight portable safe that can be secured in your hotel, like this one.
  6. When out and about, take only one credit card for the day, and just enough cash for your needs. Spread it around your pockets or among different members of your party, so that if one of you is victimized, at least you can pay for dinner and get back to the hotel.
  7. If you carry a day bag or purse, use a strap that falls across your chest so that it can’t be pulled off easily. A small day pack with straps over both shoulders would also work, but the main compartment should be closed with a small travel lock so that is can’t be reached into from behind. Pickpockets and purse snatchers go for easy targets like dangling shoulder bags or bulging back-pocket wallets, so if you make it harder for them, they will probably move on to an easier victim.
  8. Most travel experts recommend that you report a stolen passport or credit cards to the local police. I did not do that this time, and the American Embassy did not demand a police report in order to replace my passport, but it might have been safer and more correct to file a report anyway. Once again, having a scanned image or paper copy of the passport’s identity page would make this process much easier.

Travelers are, unfortunately, frequent targets for petty theft and small cons. Keep your important papers, cards, and cash safe with a few simple techniques. And if it happens to you, at least you have another Interesting Travel Story to tell.