TSA Security Lines at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport

TSA Security Lines at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Services

I’m not really sure where or how it happened that hot day in Florence.

Our passports were securely in my purse but that evening, the leather envelope I carried them in was gone.

Did I drop them at the Uffizi Gallery when we went through security? (The envelope wasn’t turned in or stuck in the X-ray machine, as I’d hoped.) Did I leave them at the jewelry store on the Ponte Vecchio when I used my passport to complete the form entitling me to a tax refund on the gifts I’d just bought? (They weren’t there either.)

Most likely, the envelope had been stolen in what many warn is prime pick-pocketing territory. Luckily, we didn’t lose any credit cards or cash — just the passports and some itinerary information I’d stashed with them.

“These pickpockets are very, very skilled,” a U.S. Consulate official said while trying to console me in Florence. “They offer to hoist your bag on the train and then take off with the bag, just as the train is pulling out. They ask you to help with their baby and then, while you’re preoccupied with the child, they quickly grab your bag (even snipping the shoulder strap with a scissor). They sidle up to you in a crowd and reach in to an open purse. They will even snatch your purse from your restaurant chair while you’re sitting there talking. “Even people who know better, are victims in Florence,” the official said.

And that included me.

These days, especially, it’s important to know what to do if your passport gets lost or stolen or if you need a passport in a hurry (say for a family emergency abroad or last-minute business trip that you can bring a child along). Have you looked at your passport lately? If it expires within six months, you won’t be allowed to board flights to many countries. That’s happened to people I know. They had to go get new passports, delaying their trip by a few days — all at their expense.

This blog can help demystify (and destress) the process, if you’ve never applied for your kids’ passports or you need to renew yours in a hurry.

Typically, if you have 12 weeks, you can apply through an authorized passport agency (like a U.S. Post Office); You can get expedited service for an additional $60 (through an appointment at a Passport Agency, if you are traveling within two or three weeks, or if you’ve got less than six weeks, by paying the extra fee when you apply). Many companies also offer expedited service.

Should your passport get lost (maybe you are planning a trip and simply can’t find it) or stolen, The U.S. State Department recommends you report it immediately to prevent identity theft. You can do that online, by calling or heading to a U.S. Consulate in the city you’re visiting abroad. The Website, www.travel.state.gov, provides links to consulates and embassies worldwide.  Check out this free passport photo app from Walgreens.

Allianz Global Assistance says in a useful article when you are overseas and need a replacement passport quickly that the more information you can provide, the faster the process will go — documentation of your upcoming flights or train tickets, photo ID and a copy of your missing passport (keep one in your phone). You may be able to get an expedited, limited passport if you are traveling immediately, which you will need to replace when you return home.

Daniel Durazo, a spokesman for Allianz Global Assistance USA, notes that travel insurance policies that cover travel delay coverage can pay for extra expenses incurred while waiting to obtain new travel documents. (The company’s new Travel Smart app has a lot of useful information, from local emergency numbers to translating the names of medications abroad.)

TSA airport screening

TSA airport screening

Comparison site InsureMyTrip is forecasting an increase in demand for travel insurance because of travelers’ growing concerns about terrorism. They publish a comprehensive directory of current travel alerts and warnings. As I learned firsthand, travel insurance is also a good bet for families because it will cover out-of-pocket expenses when someone gets injured or ill away from home or you have to cancel the trip.

Wherever you are going, be mindful of what’s happening around you! If I’d been, I wouldn’t have gotten my passport lifted. People let down their guard on vacation at exactly the time they shouldn’t — me included!

Don’t carry all of your cards and cash with you. Don’t carry all of the passports together either. And most important, be mindful of what is going on around you.

Enroll in the State Department’s free STEP program, an app that not only pushes notifications to you of travel safety at your destination but stores your contact information in case of emergency.

Don’t disregard warnings — that’s one reason more families are opting for trips outside major European cities, suggests Greg Witt, the CEO of Alpenwild, which offers tours in the Alps and has seen an increase in family travel.

You can read country specific information pages, travel warnings and travel alerts on travel.state.gov, the Canadian Travel Advice and Advisories and the U.K.’s Foreign Travel Advice pages. It’s easy enough to shift your plans when the State Department urges caution.

On May 1, the State Department issued a Europe Travel Alert noting “… Extremists continue to focus on tourist locations, transportation hubs, markets/shopping malls, and local government facilities as viable targets. In addition, hotels, clubs, restaurants, places of worship, parks, high-profile events, educational institutions, airports, and other soft targets remain priority locations for possible attacks.”

With the U.S. dollar so strong, many Americans — including my family — are planning trips to Europe. We’re just more aware than we might have been in the past — about pickpockets, too.