#SPYHACK: Traveling With Money

Andrew Bustamante | August 15, 2019

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Greetings Everyday Spy,

Welcome to your newest #SpyHACK!

I found myself on a sleeper train in Vietnam a few years ago, on my way from Hanoi to Hue.

My wife and I were celebrating our first year of marriage. 

Our ideal trip is planned more than it is spontaneous, but still well short of a group tour. We error toward budget-friendly and try to embrace local living as much as possible. 

Most horror stories about travel happen at the extremes; extremely cheap or extremely expensive. So we try to travel somewhere in the middle, balancing common sense and a few creature comforts.

The train was a local favorite that was easy on the budget. That meant we were sure to avoid tourist traps and cross paths with like-minded foreigners and Vietnamese nationals.

Our sleeper car had opposing bunk beds on two sides of the rail-car. It carried 4 travelers total, each on their own small bed.

My wife and I took the two beds on one side. A pair of traveling professors had booked the opposite beds.

The teachers were both men in their early 50’s. The men had been friends for many years. One was an English teacher from the UK. The second was a biology teacher from Ireland.

Their beards and skin told the story of many years spent traveling the world.

More than 250,000 native English speakers work in foreign schools and live abroad. 

And the number is increasing.

100,000 English language teaching positions open every year.

If English is your first language, you have a $63 billion industry available only to you.

More than 1.7 billion foreign students are studying at least one subject in English language worldwide. Every country in the world is fighting for native English speaking teachers.

But despite overwhelming demand, less than 50% of English speaking teachers continue teaching abroad after the first year.

Life in a non-English speaking community can be lonely and difficult. Everyone recognizes you on sight, but you don’t know anyone. And when communities get small enough, everyone shares the same family name and the same family looks.

For others, teaching was meant to be temporary. It was a means to fill a gap year, or gain a bit of overseas experience before seeking a long-term career at home.

But for the professors sharing our sleeper car, travel-teaching had become a permanent lifestyle.

When foreign travel becomes a lifestyle, money becomes a very important commodity.

My wife and I knew the challenges of traveling with money – in true name and alias.

The professors we were traveling with had many stories about a pickpocket or mugger ruining a tourist or new teacher’s foreign experience. 

So we split a baguette, cheese, and a few dried fruits while we compared best practices.

Here is how experienced world-travelers keep their money safe:


  • Divide your cash to carry it.

Every carbon-copy travel blog agrees that money is safest when it is divided. Muggers and pocket thieves thrive on short, fast criminal acts. They are the best at what they do, but the most they can steal depends on what you are carrying and where.

Divide your cash and carry it in at least three different locations. 

The more you can spread your cash, the safer it is.

You can use regular pockets (front, rear, chest, etc.) or take the time to sew a few hidden pockets into your clothes, jacket, and bags. This is extremely effective against pickpockets and beggar-crowds (like crowds of begging children in India and Southeast Asia)

Avoid commercial money safety equipment – they are more of a target than anything else. 

Muggers know to look for money-belts, leg pouches and decoy wallets. They are a clear sign of a rookie foreigner carrying cash. 

These devices create an unnatural bulge and get exposed when you adjust them because of sweat, irritation, or weight. When you are spotted, muggers will demand you at knife/gun point to strip down and turn over everything. Even worse, they will gang-up on you and strip you down themselves.

Amazon reviews don’t tell you that. But travelers will. 

Instead, use home-made money carrying methods. They are difficult to predict and easy for criminals to overlook.

    • Pin large bills (even better, large foreign currency bills) into hats, caps, and sleeves. It’s easy to hide a few hundred Euro’s with one safety pin in a baseball cap.
    • Tape bills under the insole inserts of your shoes. Two men’s shoes can conceal US $400 in comfort and secrecy.
    • Folded bills fit well into small cases for glasses, make-up, and toiletries – places nobody wants to search.


  • Prepaid credit cards are the only plastic you want

Exchange rate debates are a red-herring. They are an argument designed to make you worry about pennies when the actual risk you face is losing hundreds of dollars.

For example, you will read dozens of articles that say not to exchange money at airports. They say it is better to carry foreign currency to a commercial exchange rather than a bank exchange. They say you should use cash instead of credit cards. 

The average pickpocket steals 400% more in one theft than the money lost from bad currency exchange rates.

It is an unnecessary financial risk, not to mention a total waste of your mental time and effort, to carry currency around looking for the best exchange rate. 

Instead, buy five $100 prepaid credit cards and carry one around at a time. Have photocopies of each one so that you can redeem them if they get lost, stolen, or go unused. For a $3 fee, these cards give you total anonymity and complete financial security.


  • Appearance is everything

Petty criminals are simple criminals. They do not use fancy technology to target high-value targets. They don’t associate wealth with skin color. They are equal-opportunity bad guys.

Thieves make every decision on the spot, based on what they want to see in potential targets.

    • They look for people carrying expensive luggage or handbags, or wearing expensive jackets and sunglasses.
    • They look for overwhelmed travelers yelling at their kids, arguing among themselves, or hyper-focused on a phone or map.
    • They look for new/obvious anti-theft bags, bulky money-belts, and uncomfortable leg wallets.

If you don’t appear interesting, you don’t make their target list. It’s that simple.

To help make sure you don’t look like a viable target, do the following: 

    • Plan in advance so you use only one pocket for all purchases. Avoid reaching for multiple pockets or into a backpack for extra cash. Once you do, bad guys know you are hiding money.
    • Lock as much as possible away in your hotel room or hostel locker before you go out. Extra gear means extra opportunity for thieves. Hidden pockets are invaluable to travelers – for everything from cash to passports.
    • Go indoors anytime you want to research something. Don’t pour over a map on a street corner or google-search on the sidewalk. Go into a cafe, a hotel lobby, a bank, anywhere other than out in the open.

The goal is to look as unattractive as possible to people with crime on the mind. Don’t worry, there are plenty of gaudy travelers that will suck up all the attention. And that is a good thing.


  • Prepare for crime to enjoy freedom

Never let the fear of crime hold you back from travel.

It’s easy to be fooled into thinking that the world is an unsafe place, full of terrible things that happen to good people. But that is not true.

1.4 billion people participate in foreign travel each year.

99.98% of travelers report safe, enjoyable travel.

Every region has different risks; 

    • Europe leads the world in muggings and pick-pocketing
    • South Asia leads the world in sexual violence
    • South America leads the world in kidnappings and violent crime

The one thing you have in common everywhere you go is you: your decisions, your choices, your training.

Travelers that do not prepare for crime become victims to crime. They are distracted, unorganized, and confused. They are everything a criminal looks for in a target.

You are not.

You are prepared.

Godspeed, #EverydaySpy

Author: Andrew Bustamante, Founder of www.EverydaySpy.com. Andrew is a former covert CIA Intelligence officer, decorated US Air Force Combat Veteran, and respected Fortune 500 senior advisor. Learn more from Andrew on his Podcast (The Everyday Espionage Podcast) and by following @EverydaySpy on your favorite social media platform.

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