The things that come to mind when you say, "I'm going to Amsterdam!", are epic highs at coffee shops and crazy all-nighters barhopping in the red light district. My tale is much more tame since I was tagging along on a colleague's work trip. Although the Dutch are very forgiving of debauchery and the resulting shenanigans, corporate employers generally frown upon such behavior on business trips.
This is our story of a stolen wallet, what we did wrong, and how you can avoid it.
Amsterdam in February
I was asked to tag along on a business trip with a colleague in February for a long weekend in Amsterdam. Even though February is far from ideal, who am I to pass on a free hotel! It was cold, windy, rainy, some sleet, but we had sunshine as well.
If you've never been to Amsterdam, it's just as unique as the pictures. The colorful, slightly leaning gable houses along the canals are witness to 1000s of bicyclers criss-crossing the town bundled up, carrying umbrellas in the blustery winter weather. Listen for their bells - it's hard to successfully avoid clueless tourists on wet pavement on a bike. Get there very early if you want to see the Anne Frank museum, lines were around the block in freezing rain. Be warned that brightly lit red windows are also outside the Red Light District displaying bored ladies in lingerie staring at their phones awaiting a customer. You can only buy Holland flower bulbs to take back to the US at certain times of the year and only those that are certified (February is not one of those months). Eat some Gouda (yes - it really is that good-ah). And, yes, weed shops really are every where.
Our weekend ended fast, I was to accompany my friend to Amersfoort where her meeting was taking place, about an hour outside of Amsterdam. We decided to prove how worldly we were and take a train like everyone else in Europe, rather than a corporate sponsored taxi ride. Such cost-conscious employees we were!
To say Amsterdam's Centraal station is busy is a crazy understatement. It's the hub for both commuter and local trains and the main station for trams, buses, taxis, water taxis, and ferries. It also seems to be a never-ending construction zone. We thought we'd save time and buy our tickets on our phones using the hotel WiFi. Ticket bar-codes on our screens, we set out. I tried to keep my friend in front of me since she had a backpack, to keep an eye on it.
The place was a mad house. Trying to navigate with a suitcase was not easy, made worse by confusing signage due to the construction. Police are everywhere (should have been our first clue to take extra care). Asking for help to find our train platform, we were told the tickets on our phones wouldn't work, we needed paper tickets. He escorted us to a ticket office, explained our issue and received paper tickets. Getting directions, we joined in the throng on our quest to the platform. The train was overfull, but a conductor helped us with our bags over the large gap and the 3 narrow steps up to the train. No seats available, we stood trying to balance ourselves and our bags in the space between train cars. Finally the ordeal was done... except, "Lauren! My wallet is gone!"
What we did wrong
Guide books, blogs, magazines all have great advice on successfully making it home with all your stuff. I've survived the infamous wallet-snatchers of the Rome subway system unscathed. Thwarted the scammers lurking around tourist attractions in Paris untouched. However, we met our match at the Amsterdam Centraal station. It's known as a hotbed of petty theft. The backpack was the first mistake. Second mistake was that all her credit cards and money were kept in the same wallet. Third strike was not being aware of our surroundings at all times (it really was a mad house in our defense).
I don't follow all the advice that's out there (how exactly do you get your money out of a money belt easily when you need it?). However, I follow these basic rules:
- Passport is always kept separate (thankfully she followed this rule - she didn't lose it, too)
- Take color photocopies of your passport or keep a picture of it on your phone
- Keep a 2nd credit card separate from your wallet
- Keep some cash separate from your wallet
- Wallet kept in an inside zipped pocket in an externally zipped bag (preferably a cross-body bag)
- NO BACKPACKS - not even carried in front of your body, because that just looks crazy
- Men, wallets in front pockets or chest pockets or consider a man-purse (there are manly messenger bags)
- Use the hotel safe when you are going around town to keep your extra card/cash/passport (Most countries require you carry your passport; however, I carry a color copy of the picture page and my driver's license. So far, I haven't found out the consequence of not having the actual passport on my person.)
- Have the phone numbers of all your cards with you in case you do have to cancel them
So what if the dreaded happens?
The Dutch transit staff were very helpful. A manager called the ticket counter employee, then off-duty, at home. She didn't remember seeing a wallet maybe left on her desk. We were escorted to Lost and Found and then the police station upstairs by the train platforms to file a report. With nothing much else we could do, we made our way back onto a later train, told to explain if approached by a conductor why our ticket was for a previous train, and arrived in Amersfoort very late. We ate at the hotel, toasting our bad fortune with vodka shots.
If this does happen to you, call and cancel your cards as soon as possible. Many credit card companies have emergency policies for getting a replacement card to you. The best American Express could do was a couple days. I funded the trip until her card arrived. If you are alone, you can have money wired to you from home through Western Union. If you lost your passport, you'd need to get to your Embassy to take care of that.
Have you had the misfortune of being pick-pocketed? Do you have any other defensive tips?