Should you bring a purse on your travels? If so, what kind?
This is a question that I’m asked often. It’s no surprise — people always want to know how best to protect their belongings when they’re exploring a new destination.
And my answer is a resounding YES. I use a purse at home — always. For that reason, I use it the vast majority of my travels. I even took it on safari in South Africa and it rests on my lap when I motorbike through Southeast Asia.
But what if someone steals it? Or slashes it? Or pickpockets you?
Yeah. That can happen. I myself had my wallet stolen lifted out of my purse in Buenos Aires. But that’s because I was using the worst purse imaginable — a giant, oversized purse that didn’t even close.
I first learned the importance of a purse the hard way during my semester abroad in Florence. For some reason I assumed I’d just use a sky-blue messenger bag for a purse, since it had a lot of pockets and was, well, “good for travel.”
This was the worst idea ever.
Not only was it impractical, it was ugly, and I happened to be in the single most chic country on the planet. Within a few days, I had gone to the market and bought a new purse that wouldn’t get me dagger eyes from the impossibly stylish Italians.
It’s easy to think that you need to buy special gear for traveling. But not all travel is so radically different from your lifestyle at home that you need to change everything you own.
Moneybelts get a lot of talk, but I don’t think they’re necessary most of the time. Whether walking down the street in London or hanging out on an island in Thailand, I wouldn’t dream of wearing a moneybelt, reaching down into my underwear when I want to buy a coffee.
There are a few exceptions, of course: I’d be wary of using a purse in high-crime areas (see more below), and I wouldn’t use one at all on outdoor expeditions like camping and hardcore hiking. But the rest of the time, my purse has been on me.
What Kind of Purse Should You Get?
You’ll see lots of “anti-theft” purses on the market, like this one by Pacsafe, complete with anti-slash mesh and super-secret pockets. If you really want to get a bag like this, go ahead. But it’s not necessary to spend $85 on a “special” purse like this.
Instead, get a regular purse that fits the following criteria:
Crossbody strap. You should be able to put the strap over one shoulder and let it hang over the opposite side. This makes it more difficult for a would-be mugger to grab it off your arm.
A manageable size. You want to be able to block access to your bag with just your hand.
Tough fabric that can’t easily be slashed. Leather or mock leather is a good choice. While it technically can be slashed, a thick leather strap is much more of a challenge than a bit of thin fabric.
Zippers. Forget snaps or partially closing bags. Zippers are crucial, as they prevent wandering hands from easily slipping into your bag.
Your purse doesn’t need to be expensive, but it should be of reasonably good quality.
The Purse I Chose
While in Busan, South Korea, I found the perfect purse: a cute black mock leather Alexander McQueen knockoff covered with studs and metal skulls. The purse is a crossbody and measures about 12 inches by five. I got it for about $30.
And after some heavy wear and tear on the road, one of the straps fell off — but I promptly took it to a Bangkok seamstress who repaired it and reinforced both of the straps. It’s been in good condition ever since.
The Worst Purse Possible
In cities, beach towns, and touristy areas throughout the world, you see a certain kind of bag for sale on every corner: a large bohemian sack made out of thin fabric, like the one pictured above. It’s large, it’s light, and it’s a cute souvenir.
For the love of God, don’t use this for a purse.
A bag like this can easily be pulled off your shoulder, it can be slashed or cut without much effort, and it couldn’t be easier for someone to stick his or her hand in it and pull out your wallet.
If you buy one of these bags, use it as a shopping bag or beach bag — put your towels and sunscreen in it and leave the important stuff locked up at home.
Traveling with a Purse
Protecting my belongings is always at the forefront of my mind — both when I travel and when I’m at home.
My goal is to keep anyone from accessing my bag, so I always keep it hanging diagonally across my body, either on my hip or in front of me, and I have it at a height where I can rest my hand on it at all times. The zippers are always closed.
When I go to restaurants or the movies, it either stays in my lap or between my feet with the strap wrapped around my leg. I never, ever leave it unattended.
If I go through a crowded place, like the subway during rush hour, I am extra vigilant, sometimes holding it close to my chest until the crowds dissipate.
If I were to visit a city with an exceptionally high reputation for pickpocketing — like Quito, Ecuador, where more than one of my conscientious friends has been robbed — I might not use a purse at all, opting instead to carry my phone and a little bit of cash in a moneybelt or an infinity scarf with a hidden zipped pocket.