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Where's Cynthia? ...                 Mugged In Barcelona



Mugged in Barcelona
Tips to help you travel safe.
By Cynthia Cunniff White

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.

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!

*Please tell us what you think of this story!


Thanks again for this wonderful account of your trip in BA Club World, as well as the very heads-up tale of a mugging in Barcelona. I intend to scan my passport in an email to myself before my next trip. I do always carry two photocopies of my passport--one in my money belt; the other in my carry-on luggage. Best regards, Edna G - Seattle, WA

  • Excellent advice! Katrina M - Alaska

  • Excellant advice from the author. I am so sorry this happened to Cynthia and her husband. Having recently visited Barcelona we felt fortunate to come home with none of these horror stories. Nancy M - Rochester, NY

  • Thank you for this excellent cautionary tale. Although I usually take a photo copy of our passports with us, I had never thought about the even safer method of scanning them and accessing them, and other cards and documents, via email. Because this tourist made the effort to describe her bad experience and what she learned from it, we will be more cautious and safer whenever we travel. We appreciate this newsletter and the good people who make it so useful and successful. Anita L - Plymouth, Michigan

  • Excellent advice!! I'm a seasoned traveler and this is a good reminder and wake up. Next week we're leaving on a trip and I've have printed the article for myself and my travel buddies. Gretchen O - Columbus, Mississippi

  • Thanks for the info. I am sooo sorry that this happened to you. If it can happen to you it could happen to anybody. This is a very informative story with info that I will use. This is another example of learning to trust your instincts. Remember it is all just stuff that could be replaced what is most important is that you survived and learned. Thanks again for letting me learn from this experience. Harris L - Philadelphia PA

  • So sorry to hear about your incident in Barcelona. I will be going in December and your story is a sober reminder to be aware of our surroundings and be prepared if something happens. Your tip on making a copy of your passport and sending it to yourself is GREAT!! I am going to do that this weekend thanks to you. Appreciate your article and have passed it on to colleagues. All the best, Sherrie C- Los Angeles, CA

  • This is a very sad story and I am so sorry to read about it. However it certainly does give us the inofrmation we need should we be in the same situation. It was very well written and easy to understand. Thank you Cynthia for taking the time to write this, and thank you Johnny jet for sharing it with us. Terry M-

  • Wow, this is great advice! I have traveled all my life, been to Europe at least a dozen times and so far have only scared in London and Bangkok but nothing worse than a scare. There are several suggestions here I have never thought of and will surely implement. I'm going to copy the list and email it to all my clients and friends. Cotty L - Minneapolis

  • Although Spain, esp. Barcelona, is beautiful, this seems to be a very common story. I studied abroad in Madrid for 5 months and got mugged at 7 pm in a well-lit residential area. People should be cautious and the article gives very useful information! Monica M - Gainesville, FL

  • We too were in Barcelona this year, fortunately having nothing adverse happening to us. But I made sure to take along my over-the- shoulder-and-head purse with the multiple zippered pockets AND two steel cables running through the strap to make thieves' cutting it difficult or impossible (though the strap might well get mutilated). I got mine at Magellan's some years ago, but I think it (and later models) is still available. M.Q. - Chestertown, Maryland

  • This was an EXTREMELY helpful story for I am about to travel to Barcelona at the end of September, by myself. I knew that pick pocketing was an issue in Barcelona but your tips will definitely be adhered by me...before I go. This is my first time traveling abroad, by myself, so every precaution is always appreciated. I am actually going to print this article to save with my reservations so I don't forget before I go. Stacey G- San Diego, CA

  • Excellent article- Cynthia described her situation in great detail as well as tips to avoid this type of calamity!! Thank you for all the time it took to write this- it may save others from harm!! Kristy P - Austin, TX

  • Reading Cynthia's story gave me chilling memories of past muggings (Rome and Rio) my wife and I have endured. The incident in Rome was gypsy girls and ended with my retrieving my wallet (extremely skillful pickpockets) with the help of a passing tourist but the Rio incident was fraught with bad endings. However, like Cynthia, my wife and I have learned a thing or two and would not now not even venture out in the dark alone. I empathize with Cynthia and hope that neither she, nor her readers, have to experience such frustration and madness again. Think twice - act once. Burt S - New Jersey

  • I like the simple idea of scanning your passport and sending it to your email account. Brilliant. I might try to do the same with my credit cards too. I never remember what I have. Of course, that all works if you have access to a computer. Sorry to hear about your problem in Barcelona. Steve R-Upper Montclair, NJ

  • Outstanding story with great hints. Sorry for your misfortune, but your loss was definitely our gain. Great list, I've printed it and put it in my travel folder. Nicki P - San Francisco, ca

  • This was a great article! Very informative. It's too bad this happened to her, but she had some really great insights and tips to share. Yuki H - Hamilton On

  • Wonderful write up. Thank you for sharing C.F.- Stilwell, Kansas

  • Hi: Same story for me except that it was Cordoba and a on foot sneaking up behind me and another on a moped around the corner. Even before the slashing of the shoulder strap the moped was ripping towards me. Terrific was cut-and-jump onto the moped and away in seconds with me yelling "no dinero" to no avail. I always keep my daily money in my pants side pocket. And usually passport, travelers checks, bigger money, etc. in a concealed money belt. But this one time my passport was in the shoulder bag. The consul in Seville joked that my wife had this big chance for separation....since I had not taken all the identity backup duplication steps you did, she could refuse to identify me....ergo no new passport and no leaving Spain....for a while at least. By the way, I found the police very accommodating………….have a good day………….Leo F - San Diego, CA

  • I am so sorry to hear that you were the victim of one of Barcelona's many petty thieves. It is the biggest thing that we warn our clients and friends about when they are visiting this beautiful city, but many still end up getting pick-pocketed or mugged. Although Barcelona is not a place known for violent crime, the thieves are plentiful and they are VERY good at what they do. The most dangerous time of day to be out and about is between about 4-8am, as there aren't many others out and the thieves prey on travelers headed out for early flights (like yourselves) or people coming home late (and drunk) from discotheques. The one comment that I wanted to make was that the thieves (that they are typically young and between the ages of 17-23, like you said), are not Spanish. They are mostly Algerian and Moroccan immigrants and they have found, unfortunately, that they can make a lot more money by stealing than they can by trying to get a work permit and doing something legitimate. I realize that you did not say that they are Spanish, but I didn't want those that haven't been here to think that the locals would be trying to take advantage of visitors in that way. The thieves are as much a detriment and a threat to locals as they are to visiting travelers, and they are an embarrassment to us all. Sorry, again, that your visit ended so terribly. Tracy Harris-Inman - Spanish Trails Day Tours & Events

  • I just finished reading your "mugged in Barcelona" article - wow! I've been in the Gothic Quarter in Barcelona, and I could SEE what you were describing. That area is cool and affordable and hip, but can leave one feeling vulnerable - not so much at night when there are lots of people, but that 4am airport departure? I felt it as I read your words! I am a travel professional, and I am always frank with my clients about Spain, Barcelona in particular. And even though the "Barrie Gotic" is always listed as the hippest place to stay, it's certainly not the spot for everyone. I'm writing for two reasons:
    1. thank you for a wonderful retelling of your tale. I will be sending a link to your story out to all 90+ in our agency, and I will be linking it to our facebook and twitter accounts. No, not to scare people, but to help to educate people. I've had clients, and even fellow travel agents, laugh at me for suggesting that an under-clothing travel wallet or pouch is key. And I always suggest that my clients copy their passports and credit cards and email it to me, just in case. But hearing your story, knowing that you're a seasoned traveler and how it happened to you...well, this is a teaching moment.
    2. How come you don't mention travel insurance in your article? The right travel insurance company would have had a 24/7 representative available by phone to handle everything, from re-accommodating you on your flights, picking up the tab on your hotel and cab fare and airline change fees, even wiring you some cash to use while you got things straightened out. In face, they probably would have had someone on the ground in Spain come to personally help you. Again, you're a seasoned traveler and you were able to keep your head about you as you took care of business. But a novice traveler would not have known what do to at the airport, or who to contact. I think it would be very responsible of you to mention the value of travel insurance, especially in case like yours. Again, thanks for the great retelling. I'm sorry you had to experience this, but I'm grateful that you've put pen to paper so that we can all learn from your experience! Christy J - California


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