Editor’s Note: This article has been updated since its original publication in 2009. Here’s the back story: After hearing my friend’s horrific story about being mugged in Barcelona, I asked her to write an article about her experience, since I know the city is a hotbed for pickpockets. Don’t get me wrong: I love Barcelona and I’ve been multiple times and have never had a problem. But I do know countless people who weren’t so lucky. So, the more you’re aware and keep your guard up, hopefully the fewer problems you’ll encounter. Below is the story from contributor Cynthia Cunniff. RELATED: Rick Steves Got Pickpocketed in Paris – Here’s How to Prevent it From Happening to You
Recently, I had an experience in Barcelona, Spain that I think is worth sharing. My husband and I had put together an amazing three-city tour – Amsterdam, Paris and Barcelona. After a terrific 10 days of travel, we were headed home to Los Angeles. We left our rented apartment in the Gothic area of Barcelona in the wee hours, 4:30am. Like many of the very old buildings in that area, the main entryway had an enormous iron gate for safety. I woke up, peered into the darkness and felt quite vulnerable at the thought of trekking, with all our belongings, a good five blocks to the cab area. I’d lived in Europe for a good portion of my life and have always been a traveler, and believe that following instincts never makes you stupid – I know it’s due to this belief that I have never before had an incident like I’m about to describe.
My husband had taken the time to case the alleyways we were about to take before we left and hadn’t seen a soul out, so felt confident we should have no problem getting to the cab. I made a huge mistake at this point and put all of my travel belongings in my purse – namely my passport and all the lovely tech gadgets we Americans can’t live without. I usually use a teardrop body bag, but had wanted to have something more compact, so was using a small box-shaped purse.
As soon as we came through the large iron gates of the apartment complex, I spotted a young guy on a mountain bike at one end of the alley. Synapses flaring, I told my husband, “If we see him again, we might be in a bit of trouble.” We did see him again as he brushed passed us on the second alley we turned down – he’d come up from the other direction.
Other alarms went off when we passed a guy talking on his cell phone, and I quickened my pace. As we turned into the huge main walk street, we could see the cabs waiting just ahead and then there he was again, on his bike flanking my right side. I quickly put my arm over my purse and cut across to the left thinking this would deter him. It did not.
He kept coming at me, cut the back strap of the purse off of me creating a fumbling between him and me for the main part of the purse. In my haste, I had inadvertently put myself a good 10 feet in front of my husband – yet another mistake. The punk got the purse; I chased him and so did my husband. When I realized my husband had dropped his backpack and that we had abandoned our luggage, I ran back – my only good move of that morning. A girl was trying to haul my husband’s huge suitcase and made it about 100 yards and dropped it, realizing there was no way she could quickly get away with it in tow. I had already snatched up my husband’s backpack with all of our money, tickets and his passport, as well as my luggage.
And there was “Paul” a “well-meaning” guy out on his bike with his dog just trying to “help” some poor tourists out. He retrieved my husband’s suitcase and brought it to me -he mysteriously knew its exact location and started plying me with, “Are you OKs'” all in English. He wouldn’t shut up, rambling on about how this always happens when his friends visit, and did I need a place to stay, or we could meet for coffee the next day if I needed help, blah, blah, blah … To me, he was clearly trying to confuse the situation more. He was in on it. He even bent over to read my husband’s luggage tag to get his name.
My husband came back from the labyrinth of the Barcelona back streets as a cab hopped the curb to come help us and, with the incessant chatterbox still mouthing away, we got into the cab and started calling the credit card companies, our bank and my cell phone carrier to cancel everything of mine (this was key).
We got to the airport and had about a half-hour to figure out what my husband should leave with me and what next steps I would need him to take during the flight’s layover in London. I stayed at the airport, reported to the police onsite and got the appropriate paperwork, which I would have to have for reissue of tickets and passport. I did not leave the airport, where I felt it was safest (no way was I going back into the city!) and waited for the tourist information booth to open. While I waited, I made a list of everything that I had to accomplish to GET MYSELF HOME. I presented the list to the tour information staffer, who was very helpful. He gave me a directory of hotels that included the miles from the airport for each.
I chose the Renaissance Barcelona Airport Hotel, which is only a mile away and had a free shuttle to the city and the airport – I also figured it would have a solid business center. I had scanned my passport and sent it to my e-mail account before I left on the trip, and I advise everyone to do so – it helped in every capacity. I had to have proof of passport to stay at the hotel, and I obtained it easily in their business center. By some holy intervention, my husband had been carrying both his personal and business phones and left me one of them. I sent him a text to fax his credit card with a letter stating I was his wife and could use it for whatever purposes I needed at the hotel – which he did immediately on arriving in London – and this was another saving grace, as I knew I could possibly need all the cash I had on me for numerous other things over the next few days.
All this took place on a Sunday, meaning everything would be closed until the next day. I used that time to organize and took two trips on the free shuttle back out to the airport to find out the situation with my ticket. We’d flown business class and my husband informed me that all seats, including mine were filled all the way through to Los Angeles. British Airways uses Iberia as a conduit for ticket sales in Spain – good luck dealing with those folks. The best thing I can say is stay calm and appreciative – you can give them the evil eye, or the finger, or whatever you choose AFTER they have given you what you need. In the end, I had to have my husband call British Airways in the States and pay the $500 fee to change my ticket. How British Airways can feel okay with profiting from something so horrible is beyond me. They made $500 off of my misery, with no apologies. Having to deal with the dolts that run the counter at Iberia was almost as painful.
The people at Renaissance were outstanding and helped me at every turn. They were also used to American business travelers, as they are located in a major business park – which I gleefully found to be far, far away from the tumult of Barcelona city.
THE AMERICAN CONSULATE IN BARCELONA
First thing Monday morning I was in a cab headed to the American Consulate, where I was greeted by a crowd of Americans with countless stories that were varied, but with the same end-result as mine. I have to say it infuriated me to think that the numb-nuts who are doing this are the 17- to 23-year-old kids that find it a big game. It used to be the gypsies you had to keep an eye out for – they still frequent the mass transit areas, but that scene has diminished over the years.
The American Consulate rocked! They turned and burned a replacement passport for me in an hour! There was even a passport photo booth on the compound, so no one had to leave. I do believe that the copy of my passport and the fact I had the police report sped things along for me, but I felt very well taken care of despite that.
I shared a cab from the consulate with a lovely lady and her 14-year-old from Irvine, CA (the thieves had taken a backpack from the daughter while the mother was in a bathroom at a Dominoes in downtown Barcelona). I faced the scowling Iberia ticket team, tried to get on an afternoon flight to London (where I used to live and have many friends), but they refused to let me go – even in the coach section. Apparently, they didn’t want to have me separate the legs of my travel …? So, I had to wait out the rest of the day until the next morning to leave.
Spain is an amazing country, but to err on the side of caution is key. I knew better and made huge mistakes. Despite having no choice as to when we had to leave, we should have made sure a cab could get down our alley right to the security gate.
1. Instincts are right.
2. If it’s dark, get to safety or don’t leave it.
3. Your passport should always be in a passport belt under your clothes.
4. Stay as closely together as possible if you’re in a vulnerable position.
5. Have your passport scanned and emailed to your e-mail account (other ID and tickets are helpful as well).
6. Alert credit card companies, banks, cell phone carriers immediately if cards or valuable information are stolen.
7. Have a trusted contact at home who has all your travel and credit card/bank info, etc. If you have been robbed of everything, this will give you the ability to have to make only one call home to get things sorted.
8. If possible, find a hotel that is a well-known international chain that will work with you.
9. Organize yourself as soon as you can. Do not take the time to fall apart until you’re safe.
10. Know where your consulate is in all of the countries in which you are traveling – I lucked out with a very helpful tourist information person.
11. Stash some cash separately from your purse or wallet.
12. Remain calm and polite – this isn’t your country, and they know it. Your frustration can be delivered in the form of a letter from your home computer upon your return!
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