Losing things without losing your mind

A 1930s poster about London's public transit lost property office (Photo © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection)
A 1930s poster from London's public transit lost property office

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

Don't let a pickpocket, lost luggage, or a misplaced bag ruin your vacation.

There are two steps to dealing with losing things on the road, and the first step is proactive:

  1. Minimize the chance of losing things, and any effects if you do. So first we'll deal with tips on avoiding losses in the first place, then move on to:
  2. What to do if you do lose anything.

How not to lose (important) things

  • Don't take what you don't want to lose. Seriously. Pack light in general, but especially avoid taking that family heirloom jewelry or expensive watch or dress. If jewelry is a crucial part of your look, just pack one or two items of cheap (tasteful) costume jewelry (remember: only your traveling companion will know you're wearing the same bling every day). 
  • Pack in a carry-on. The airline can't lose your checked luggage if you don't check any bags. Trust me. I travel out of a carry-on-sized bag for up to five months at a time. It's just a matter of packing properly. » more
  • Lock your luggage. No, those teensy TSA-approved zipper locks are not going to stop a determined thief, but they will keep an opportunistic browser from pawing through your stuff.
  • 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 you still have a little something left for everyone. (Note: Not so effective if you are traveling alone.)
  • Use these pickpocket-foiling techniques. The page on pickpockets is filled with the little tricks you can use to keep your stuff safe from those light-fingered thieves who prey on tourists (but I'll repeat the first one below, since it is the most crucial). » more 
  • Carry all important documents and cards in a moneybelt. In your wallet, you should have only a day's spending money. Keep the rest of your cash, passport, credit cards, ATM cards, ID, railpasses, plane tickets, and any other crucial items in this flat pouch worn under your clothes. » more

What to do if you do lose things on vacation

What 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) 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 if you lose your credit cards or ATM cards?

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

Should your cards or checks get lost or stolen, contact the issuing bank(s) immediately. In case you forgot to write down the emergency numbers, here’s a cheat sheet of some biggies (though double-check these numbers first): 

  • Citicorp Visa: 800-645-6556 (you can call collect from outside the U.S.).
  • American Express: call collect 801-864-6665.
  • MasterCard: 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 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.

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

Losing Everything 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.


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, like Chevy Chase and family did in European Vacation.