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How to avoid getting pickpocketed and/or accosted by undesirable people in Milan and elsewhere

Hello,

One of my stumbling blocks in going the Best of Italy tour is that I am practically agoraphobic, especially in unfamiliar large cities or their airports, department stores, etc.

Even in the U.S., I have had trouble dealing with aggressive strangers, on the street, etc., although generally I have been able to walk quickly past by panhandlers, etc. for the most part.

From what I have read, the Milan train station is big and crowded and there are pickpockets, including gypies as well as people dressed as tourists who accost "real" tourists, even aggressively following them, in groups or in pairs.

I have this scenario in my mind of being pickpocketed or "losing" something (have someone walk off with something). I know the notion of having a money belt to wear inside one's clothing, but one still has pockets and one does need cash.

Just the idea of having to exchange money, find the right ticket office window and then get to the right platform seems daunting to me. Or is it just my imagination?

I would be traveling alone, and am short, Asian-American, and under such circumstances has an anxious/nervous look--I haven't traveled outside of the U.S. in almost 25 years. I don't know a word of Italian, either.

I assume that the airport-to-train station in Milan would be relatively easy and safe. Just the MIlan-to-Varenna would be "a little" stressful.

So any tips on avoiding aggressive strangers and/or pickpockets would be greatly appreciated.

Posted by
1994 posts

Have you thought about traveling with a group? You could either do a fully guided tour, or one of the RS My Way tours. That might be a way to deal with your fears on an initial trip. If you want to do it on your own, I would suggest getting and carefully reading the relevant RS guidebooks – their strengths are logistics, as well as avoiding hassles.

Posted by
311 posts

Oh, yes, that's exactly what I was thinking of doing--the RS Best of Italy tour. It's just getting to the initial point where the group of RS travelers meet (Varenna).

Posted by
16852 posts

If you can navigate an airport, then you can navigate through Milan train station to reach Varenna, especially with the info at the end of Rick's Milan chapter and the info the Tour department will send you for reaching your first hotel. For peace of mind, please re-read all the tips at http://www.ricksteves.com/travel-tips/theft-scams and at http://www.ricksteves.com/travel-tips/trip-planning/tips-for-solo-women-travelers.

Do keep most valuables in a money belt or similar device, well hidden under your clothes, and don't access it in any on-street or crowded areas. Getting out your passport in the lobby of your hotel is no problem. You can carry perhaps €50 for the day or half-day, and one credit card if you know you'll need it, in a more accessible wallet. I keep that wallet in a small cross-body day bag, similar to a purse, which my hand is always on. If you lose that €50, you'll be glad it wasn't more.

Do your best to look confident and in control, not lost and floundering. Pack light so you can control your gear. Wear sunglasses if you want to avoid eye contact. Step into a shop or quiet corner if you need to check your map. Never leave your bags out of your site or control in a restaurant, train station, metro, or crowd. Don't feel that you have to be polite to people who try to distract you - you don't have to answer their questions, or slow your walk, or put up with anyone bothering you.

Posted by
4522 posts

Never worry about being rude in public by ignoring people or waving them off. There is a small risk that someone is being polite to warn you that you just dropped something, but for the most part you will recognize the beggers and scammers. No one is likely to physically assault you, so just keep walking if someone starts pestering you.

The stories you hear are almost always more than you will actually encounter. But it is good to be prepared.

PS - You shouldn't be needing to "exchange money." Buy some euro from you bank or AAA before you go (about $100-200 worth). That will give you some cash to start. Then just go to an ATM just like normal when you need more cash. That is the cheapest way to get local currency. Notify your banks and credit cards of your trip.

Posted by
12269 posts

Hi,

First of all, don't be stressed, tell yourself it doesn't exist, at least it does not pertain to you. Be aware of the surroundings. It can be just your imagination. I travel solo most of the time; certain advantages come with traveling solo as there are disadvantages, ie, a trade off. It all depends upon what you can put up with or what you tell yourself what you can put up with.

Strangers approaching you for no reason, tell them off, bark at them, or just walk away. Act dumb if need be, as long as it works for you get away, don't be afraid to be (very) rude to scammers with "NO!"

No, I have not been to Milan but have seen all what you list (aggressive panhandlers, scammers of all types, etc) in Paris. They'll back off if they perceive you to be confrontational.

Posted by
12144 posts

We went through the Milan train station four times on our last trip to Italy and never saw anything amiss, nor did anyone accost or even approach us. The station is actually very easy to navigate, with all tracks on one level and lined up in logical order. Just look like you know where you are going and do not make eye contact with people, but at the same time be aware of what is going on around you. I say this as a very petite "older woman" who walked around the station alone, with no trouble whatsoever.

Buy your ticket to Varenna at the airport train station, and also get euros from an ATM there. You will feel safer than at the train station.

Posted by
311 posts

Thanks for all these great suggestions and encouragement on top of it.

I have to be honest about both my strengths and weaknesses. And do my "homework" of course (being well informed about what things to expect or be aware of, by reading the RS Italy guidebook, posting particular concerns on this forum).

I get flustered at ANY airport--even SeaTac, which I've been through many many times. I have a poor sense of direction, am forgetful, etc. In Seattle, I'll just throw my bag in the chair next to or across from me in a coffeehouse, etc.

So I have to find ways to cope...and your suggestions in that regard are greatly appreciated.

Posted by
977 posts

Adopt the "Don't Even Think About It" persona and appropriate body language. Do some online research before you leave e.g. which platform does the train from Milan to Varenna depart from/times etc.. This will avoid wandering around looking 'like a lost sheep'. Be sensible, not paranoid about your possessions money etc. Can't be too hard to ensure your bag is between your feet or in your immediate possession. Slinging your bag across the aisle and well out your reach I would suggest is somewhat risky. I agree international airports/train stations can be a bit overwhelming. Stop, take a deep breath, hang on to your bag and read the signs. Also there are also plenty of helpful airport staff to assist you. Stay calm and enjoy.

Posted by
31272 posts

chuiz,

A few thoughts and suggestions after reading your post.....

As you've navigated SeaTac many times, you shouldn't have any issues at Malpensa as it's much the same as any airport, and there are English signs.

Milano Centrale IS a large and busy station, and it's possible you may be approached by a few people with their hand out looking for a "donation". However, I've never found them to be aggressive and usually a firm "NO" will get rid of them. I'd be a bit skeptical about things that you've read, as they may be somewhat dated or not reflect the situation accurately. On the past few trips, I've noticed a higher police presence in Italian stations so the scammers seem to be less prevalent.

I wouldn't suggest using currency exchanges at airports or whatever, as their rates are usually terrible. Use an ATM card to obtain local currency, as that provides the most favourable exchange rates. I'd suggest taking two cards on different accounts if possible in case one card malfunctions (I've had that happen). At least one credit card is also a good idea. BE SURE to notify your financial institutions that you'll be travelling abroad, so they don't freeze your cards when they detect transactions in Europe. As someone else mentioned, it would be a good idea to obtain €100 or so from your local bank for travel funds.

I have no idea what instructions were provided in the tour package for getting to your first hotel, but those will provide the information you need. This is the method I'd use...

  1. Once you've collected your luggage, go to the MXP train station and buy your tickets to Milano Centrale and Varenna-Esino, either using a ticket kiosk or at a staffed ticket window. Both trains you'll be using will be Regionale, which means you MUST validate (time & date stamp) the tickets in the small machines prior to boarding the train on the day of travel. Failure to do so may result in hefty fines, which will be collected on the spot! You'll be taking the Malpensa Express from the airport to Milan, and that train has two routes, one going to Milano Centrale and one to Milano Cadorna. BE SURE to board the correct train.
  2. When you arrive at Milano Centrale, check the electronic "Partenze" (departure) boards to find the "Binario" (Track No.) of your train to Varenna. The information may not be shown until about half an hour prior to departure. You may have a short layover before the train to Varenna departs, so be sure to watch your luggage. One other point to mention is that the washrooms (WC's) there are "pay-per-use" so you'll need to have a few Euro coins for that. In order to get change, buy a coffee or whatever at the Burger King or other food outlets in the station using your travel funds.
  3. There should be a Conductor on the platform near the train to Varenna at some point, so you can confirm that you're boarding the correct train. Even if he/she doesn't speak much English, just pointing to the train and saying "Varenna" usually works.
  4. The trip to Varenna is about an hour. Be prepared to disembark promptly, as the train only stops for a short time. Be sure to note the method for releasing the door. This is often a red pushbutton, but may be a lever also. That's one of the few stations where you can walk across the tracks so be careful when doing that (depending on which track you arrive on.
  5. You should be able to walk to your hotel from the station, especially if you're using wheeled luggage. The first step is to go through the station and then turn left, go down the stairs to the road and then turn right. Which hotel are you staying at?

I'm sure you'll have a fantastic time on that tour!

Posted by
1068 posts

I have been through the Milan train station and it isn't bad at all. A couple of thoughts (mainly reiterating what is stated above.) Yes, a money belt etc. is great and you do require some cash.....but distribute your "spending money"--a few Euros in a shirt pocket, a few more in a pants pocket..... etc. Most pickpockets are not aggressive in that they will not follow you and hunt you down. People who are trying to scam you are more aggressive than pickpockets who simply don't want to be noticed. So, protect yourself from pickpockets with a money belt and good money distribution. Protect yourself from scammers by not making eye contact, ignoring them and not talking to them no matter what. Within a few days of my first trip with lots of scammers I learned to ignore them and they will pretty much leave you alone. In Milan, lots of people in the "tourist trade/sites/stations" speak English....so getting a ticket, finding an ATM etc. shouldn't be a big problem. I have taken tours, traveled solo and gone with friends. Before I go I try to learn words like hello, please, thank you, and perhaps phrases like "I don't speak Italian" or "Can you help me" in the native language.... but sometimes I just stick with hello, please and thank you. Frankly, I think the train from Milan to Varenna would be pretty doable. If you go...and I wouldn't worry about the train ride from Milan if it were me....have a great trip.

Posted by
12144 posts

After re-reading, I am going to revise my suggestion about using the airport ATM to get euros. Since you are joining a tour, you will not need much cash. You can minimize arrival stress by buying 100 euros in advance. Yes, it will cost a bit more than using the ATM, but will be much safer than visiting an ATM when you are tired and stressed from the journey. If you need more after the first days, get someone from the tour to go with you to the ATM and "watch your back."

Here in Seattle I have purchased euros from the Thomas Cook Bureau in Westlake Center ( expensive but easy) and from Chase Bank ( no extra fee but you must be a customer of the bank). I assume other banks offer this service, as well as AAA and American Express.

Posted by
2 posts

One thing I like to do before traveling to unfamiliar places is go to google maps, satelite view, zoom way in, and put the little yellow guy down to get street view. I feel a little more comfortable with what things will actually look like. Now there's a lot of "street view" inside buildings like the train stations (but probably not airports). For example, you can "walk" from the train station to your hotel via google. Or walk around the building in case you accidently exit a wrong door... at least you'll feel a little familiar -- look for signs or buildings to use as landmarks (granted google maps isn't real time, so advertisement signs change, but usually not businesses.)

Posted by
6565 posts

When you go on most European tours, you will find that the tour driver is a true professional, and he will carefully watch over the individuals on the tour. He most often will not allow anyone to take advantage of you--whether it's a pickpocket or a street vendor or even a store clerk.

When traveling, I do not carry anything but my passport and a couple of credit cards. Everything is hidden under my clothes--not in a pocket. I seldom carry any amount of cash--at home or abroad.

Most pickpockets operate in pairs, and they will attempt to get to you in a crowded place like the subway--or the foot of a escalator. They might drop to the floor in front of you--trying to get you to trip over them while their partner gets you from the rear. I do not follow anyone on an escalator closely. My wife is always following me closely.

If someone gets in my space, I am not like most Americans. I am totally on defense--and completely disagreeable. But there again, most street people don't mess with me @ 6'3" and 240 lbs.

Go ahead and enjoy yourself. Just don't give anyone a chance to mess with you.

Posted by
311 posts

Wow! These suggestions and shared experiences are really great. I like to know what to expect in advance so I am not overwhelmed by a big place.

Is the train to Varenna then not part of the subway system? I assume it is not and will not be crowded and as unsafe as the municipal urban subway. I won't be spending any time in Milan, which is almost a precaution for me, as I think will want to just get to the first meeting place and decompress...

I was going to go in October but changed for mind for a variety of reasons, one of which was simply the logistics, which for other people might not be daunting, for knowing that honestly, I do freak out in places like airports (even familiar ones like S.F., Seattle, or Boston) and train stations.

So I will have to go in April. I am going to print out or somehow get the information people have shared here into my tablet.

Posted by
65 posts

I can't speak for Milan, but I was in Rome Termini in September 2013 as a solo female Asian-American traveler and I never felt threatened by anyone. I was only approached by one person asking if I needed help using the ticket machines (I promptly waved her off - I was only looking at the machines to get used to them for my return ticket from Termini to FCO). I was not exactly paranoid, but I kept my wits about me and was always on the lookout for people around me (using the reflective glass of shop windows and whatnot was also very helpful - I work in a not so friendly part of So California and I guess I'm just used to being on the lookout). I would say that confidence is also key - if you act like you know what you're doing, people for the most part won't try and bother you. I used a neck wallet during my Italian trip, which for me worked wonders, but I know a lot of people also love money wallets.

Hope this helps and have fun on your trip! I'm still trying to decide on where to go for my first ever RS tour.

Posted by
1266 posts

once you are on the train to Varenna and the train has left the Milan station, you are home free! it is an "old" regional train (not subway), with stops at lots of small towns, and yes, tourists, but also blue collar folk who work in Milan and live in various towns along the way. yes, get some euros from your bank before you leave, my bank charged me $10 to convert $300 us to euros.....best 10 bucks I spent. when I was in Milan train station in july I saw police, a few pan handlers, and one aggressive 25 yr old woman who wanted to carry my luggage (to god knows where, and I can manage my own dang luggage, thank you very much) she just got a firm NO from me.

all of the suggestions above will help you get from your airplane to the Varenna train....wear the sunglasses someone suggested above... you CAN do this!!!!! the locals in Varenna are quiet and laid back......you could ask anyone for directions to your hotel.....but locals will probably not approach you....but they do appreciate their tourists

Posted by
16852 posts

To reiterate a point covered by others, the most "navigation" necessary at Milano Centrale station is when you arrive from the street and have to go up a few floors by escalator. When you arrive by train from the airport, you are already in the right spot, since the track area is just one big room, where you can see all the trains at once. If you bought your connecting ticket at the airport, you won't need to leave this area.

Posted by
7884 posts

My tip is to use Google Street view to get a good idea of where you need to walk. Really use it, rotate it 360°, get a good feel for the street and the neighborhood, check out the landmarks. When you get there in person, it will feel familiar and you won't be walking around like a deer caught in the headlights. Use YouTube the same way. There are films of trains, train stations, every city you can imagine, and these can all help you to familiarize yourself with this new location.

Stride with purpose in your step, like you belong there. Buy a local paper and carry it under your arm.

Posted by
110 posts

When I flew solo I used Youtube find vidoes about the airports and train stations. The odds are good that someone at sometime has filmed the airports and train stations you will be using. I found the videos a good way to see my arrival airport/train station before leaving the US. It also cut down on the nerves of flying solo.

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I would also search for blogs or pictures for the train stations and airports. Since instagram and facebook are so prevalent you should be able to get a good idea of what the inside of the buildings look like.
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I would also search for the offical tourist website to see if they have pictures of the places your are traveling through so you could get an offical statement about the facilities you will be using.
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Yes navagating new situations can be nerve wracking but take it a step at a time.
J

Posted by
311 posts

Janet, Mrs. Jo, and Laura,

Yes! It is easy to find photos to familiarize oneself with the Milan Train Station, which goes a long ways towards decreasing feelings of anxiety about what one will expect to find "on the other side" once you get out that airport doorway and enter a country one is very unfamiliar with.

I remember how 34 years ago when I made my second trip outside the U.S., to Taiwan, I was overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, smells of that country. Nothing I had read could have prepared me for what I saw. Luckily, today we have more tools.

Actually, looking at the videos on Youtube of Milan Central Station and MIlan Airport do relieve a certain fear I have of crowds and large (or vast) open spaces that seem to stretch on forever and corridors that go in every which direction.

It seems as though the most important thing might be to keep one's distance from people who might have an agenda, as it seems as though pickpocketing happens so fast that one has barely the time to register any awareness of it before it's already happened.

Posted by
311 posts

Once you've collected your luggage, go to the MXP train station and buy your tickets to Milano Centrale and Varenna-Esino, either using a ticket kiosk or at a staffed ticket window. Both trains you'll be using will be Regionale, which means you MUST validate (time & date stamp) the tickets in the small machines prior to boarding the train on the day of travel. Failure to do so may result in hefty fines, which will be collected on the spot! You'll be taking the Malpensa Express from the airport to Milan, and that train has two routes, one going to Milano Centrale and one to Milano Cadorna. BE SURE to board the correct train.

What Ken says above sounds pretty crucial, especially validating the ticket with date and time prior to boarding the train the Malpensa Express and NOT to get on the train going to Milano Cadorna. I got to remind myself to keep a cool head (which I often lose even when I go in and out of SeaTac airport, for really no good reason except that I get anxious/nervous and sometimes irritated at the seemingly numerous little hoops one has to jump through--O.K., I'll admit I'm not a happy camper when it comes to air travel). Is the MXP train station easy to find in the Milan Airport...or just keep asking around or until I find a sign that says "train to Milan."

Posted by
25594 posts

as it seems as though pickpocketing happens so fast that one has
barely the time to register any awareness of it before it's already
happened.

Yes.... but.....

They can't pickpocket ANYTHING that they can't get to. So do what it said way up at the top. Wear and USE correctly a proper money belt and a pickpocket won't get your money or cards or passport. Then put whatever walking around money you need for a couple of hours somewhere else safe, maybe a neck pouch or deep inside a cross-body bag and put your hand on the bag and they can't get that either.

Use the other hand to zip your luggage around, and they can't get that.

So don't worry. If everything you have is safe you can laugh all the way and have a great time with no worries.

So follow the advice in the above posts and be safe and un-stressed.

Posted by
311 posts

At the very top of my list is most definitely the (inner) money belt.

maybe a neck pouch or deep inside a cross-body bag and put your hand on the bag .

I keep hearing about a neck pouch but am still not sure what it is. Will google it for sure, as well as a cross-body bag. I'm still not sure whether simply 20 euros in the front pocket of my pants would be O.K. Someone, I realize, could still reach into the pocket on a crowded subway where you don't have the possibility of moving away, something which happened to a French friend of mine in Paris on the subway last year. It happened very fast and the young persons did it hopped off the subway pretty soon after.

Posted by
507 posts

Chiu,

Take a deep breath & let it out slowly. Do this when you begin to feel anxious to help you relax. Pickpockets exist. If you stay aware of your surroundings, follow the suggestions given, you will be fine. My husband is a short Asian-American & has never encountered a problem during his travels in Europe.

I wear a neck wallet in which I keep my passport, my credit card, & my debit card. This wallet falls under my shirt into my chest area. I may even keep my money in bills there. I
am 5'4" & 62 yrs young & have no encountered no problems during 5 trips.

Relax & have fun on your trip! I hope you can get your agoraphobia under control.

My 2-cents worth.